Pablo Neruda in British Ceylon: Literary and Sexual Flowerings in Wellawatte and Beyond

  Jamie James, initially presented in Literary Hub, 3 June 2019, with this title “Pablo Neruda’s Life as a Struggling Poet in Sri Lanka: A Young Poet’s Adventures in the Foreign Service”

At 22, Pablo Neruda was an international literary celebrity—and desperately poor. His second book, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, had been a sensational success and would eventually become one of the bestselling books of poetry in the 20th century (more than 20 million copies to date), but he was paid almost nothing for it. He was a student at the Universidad de Santiago in Chile, and hunger was an issue; he wore a billowing cape to conceal his emaciated physique and a wide-brimmed hat that hoped for an air of mystery.

The path usually pursued by poor young poets was to turn up in Paris and scrounge off older, established writers until they made their mark, or gave up and came home. Yet, destitute as he was, Neruda was determined to avoid becoming another starveling poet in Montmartre, so he sought an overseas diplomatic post.

In Latin America, a literary reputation commanded respect from power. An aristocratic classmate at the university introduced Neruda to the foreign minister, who had read his poetry. He offered Neruda a post on the spot, and rattled off a list of foreign cities that awaited the services of a representative of Chile. He had never heard of any of them, and he caught only one name. When the minister asked him where he wanted to go, he replied confidently, “Rangoon.” He had no idea where it was.

Thus, in 1927, Neruda sailed for Burma, a remote place utterly alien to everything he knew. His Asian sojourn would last five years: two years in Rangoon were followed by consular posts in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and Java.

The most reliable source for Neruda’s state of mind in Asia is a series of letters he wrote to Héctor Eandi, an Argentinean critic who had praised the Twenty Love Poems. It was a bold stroke for Neruda to undertake exile in a faraway land; he was scarcely an adult. The experience was more shocking than he cared to admit to his family and friends. An epistolary relationship with a sympathetic older colleague in Buenos Aires was a safe outlet for his emotional bafflement. His first letter to Eandi was far from bold:

Occasionally, for long periods of time, I am so empty, with no power to express anything or verify anything within myself, and a violent poetic disposition that has not ceased to exist in me gives me an increasingly inaccessible path, with the result that a great part of my struggle is accomplished with suffering, because of the need to occupy a rather remote domain with a strength that is surely too weak.

The main cause of Neruda’s alienation was the narrow-minded colonial establishment, which disgusted him. Foreign diplomats were sternly warned against mixing with the local people. When a British official hinted to Neruda that he should not be seen at a popular Persian café because it was frequented by “natives”—in other words, the people in whose country he was a guest—he kicked against such bigotry and chose isolation instead.

With few official duties, the young consul devoted much of his time to reading: masses of Spanish and French poetry, in particular Quevedo and Rimbaud, and Proust’s novel entire, four times. And writing, of course; Neruda never had a prolonged period of inactivity. He was prolific in Asia, but his intellectual solitude weighed heavily on him, and the process of composition exacted a painful toll. This work, collected in the first two volumes of Residence on Earth, took a radical departure in tone from the earthy, mystical lyricism of the Twenty Love Poems.

When a British official hinted to Neruda that he should not be seen at a popular Persian café because it was frequented by “natives,” he kicked against such bigotry. These laments of alienation, expressed in hallucinatory, sometimes bizarrely disjunctive metaphors, adumbrated the modernist modes that dominated the poetry of his era, but they arose directly from his isolation. This work is often, inaccurately, described as surrealistic: Neruda had no contact with the incipient movement in Europe, and the parallels are a case of literary convergence. If there is a direct influence on these poems, it is Rimbaud.Some passages seem to anticipate Bob Dylan’s nightmare ballads, like “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” passages that coursed with dark emotional currents but were not guided by any coherent theory (as Surrealism was by Freudian psychology). “Nocturnal Collection” begins:

I have conquered the angel of dream, the doom allegorical,
persistent in his efforts, his heavy tread comes
wrapped in snails and cicadas,
maritime, perfumed with sharp fruits.

Neruda was isolated and lonesome in Rangoon, perhaps, but he was not alone. He took as his lover a Burmese woman who had adopted the English name Josie Bliss. She worked as a typist and wore English clothes to work. She may have given him financial support to eke out his pitifully small salary; at any rate, he moved in with her. When the colonial authorities found out, they barred him from their clubs. Neruda would later say that the ostracism “couldn’t have pleased me more.” Apart from his vehement dissent from their policies, these petty bureaucrats bored him.

Josie Bliss was at once obsessively devoted to him and possessed by an overwhelming jealousy. In his memoir, completed shortly before his death, in 1973, Neruda wrote that “[s]ometimes, a light would wake me, a ghost moving on the other side of the mosquito net. It was Josie, flimsily dressed in white, brandishing her long, sharp knife. It was she, walking round and round my bed, for hours at a time, without quite making up her mind to kill me. When you die, she used to say to me, my fears will end.”

Just as Josie Bliss’s jealousy was growing more threatening, Neruda received a cable from Santiago informing him of his immediate transfer to Ceylon. He absconded by night to escape his implacable Fury, and wrote a valedictory poem to her on his voyage to Ceylon. “The Widower’s Tango” is the best-known poem from the first volume of Residence on Earth, a plainspoken expression of the anguish of loss intensified by necessity. The poet conjectures his abandoned lover’s chagrin:

Oh Maligna, by now you will have found the letter, by now you will have wept
with rage,
and you will have insulted my mother’s memory,
calling her a rotten bitch and mother of dogs,
by now you will have drunk alone, all by yourself, your twilight tea,
looking at my old shoes, now empty forever. . .

Ceylon suited Neruda better than Burma had done. Or, perhaps, his experience there had made him more resilient; a second case of culture shock is usually less severe. He established a conventional bachelor’s household based on rational principles. He leased a trim bungalow on the beach in Wellawatte, a suburb on the southern edge of Colombo, and hired a taciturn domestic servant named Brampy to take care of him. For company he had a dog and a mongoose named Kiria, which slept in his bed and ate at his table.

In Wellawatte, Neruda immersed himself in the life of the sea, a natural world as magical to him as the forests in Chile’s Antarctic south, where he had grown up riding horses. “Each morning I was overpowered by the miracle of newly cleansed nature,” he wrote. He rose before dawn with the fishermen and watched them spread their nets on the beach, filled with fishes in violent colors, “fish like jungle-birds, red, tricolored, phosphorescent deep blues like living intensities of velvet.” His walks took him ever farther and deeper into the countryside, where he found an elephants’ bathing hole.

The British were as irksome to Neruda in Ceylon as they had been in Burma.The British were as irksome to him in Ceylon as they had been in Burma. On his way to a gala dinner one night, he heard music, the voice of a woman or boy, and stopped to listen. It was “vibrating and sobbing, soaring to unspeakable heights, suddenly ceasing altogether, dwindling into the shadows, clinging to the odor of frangipani, braiding itself into arabesques.” He stayed for a long time, seated on a mat in a ramshackle house, ravished by the song, unable to move from the place, as if bewitched. When he arrived at his gala, quite late, he apologized to the party, British residents dressed in formal black and white, saying that he had been detained by music. Elegantly, they feigned astonishment: “What music? You mean the natives are musicians?” They never suspected that such a thing existed.

In Ceylon, Neruda found the intellectual companionship he had lacked in Burma. He became attached to a circle of Eurasian modernists led by Lionel Wendt, a pianist and photographer who specialized in lyrical studies of the adolescent male figure, and his partner, the artist George Keyt, who painted village subjects in a quasi-Cubist style. The Colombo ’43 Group, as they came to be known, remains almost unknown outside Sri Lanka but has exerted a potent influence on the artistic life of the country until the present day.

Neruda became an intimate associate of the group. When the indefatigable Wendt organized a painting exhibition, Neruda wrote a review for a newspaper in Colombo, a very rare case of the poet as an art critic. It is a remarkably sophisticated piece of criticism for a writer who had never been exposed to modern art, apart from what he might have seen in Santiago when he was a student. He praises Keyt’s treatment of Sinhalese subjects for their “strange expressive grandeur,” all of which “radiate an aura of intensely profound feeling,” and he notes “the moderation of maturity” in the work of the 28-year-old painter. European critics dismissed Keyt (when they took any notice of him at all) as an exotic, second-rate imitator of Picasso, missing the pervasive Sinhalese feeling of the work, which was immediately apparent to the Chilean.

Wendt owned a large library and received the latest books from England. Every week he sent a servant to Neruda’s bungalow by bicycle, bringing a sackful of books. It was Neruda’s first exposure to modernist literature, notably Conrad, Joyce, Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence.

Inevitably, he became aware of the legacy of another foreign diplomat in Ceylon: Leonard Woolf, who had served in the colonial administration for seven years until he resigned in 1911 rather than carry out an order to burn the house of a farmer, whose land was being expropriated. Neruda extravagantly praised Woolf’s first book, The Village in the Jungle, a gloomy, naturalistic novel, but Lawrence made the deepest impression, at least initially. His frank eroticism excited Neruda. Still, when he read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he was put off by its didacticism: “Lawrence sets up a course in sexual education that has almost nothing to do with what we learn spontaneously from love and life.”

In Colombo, Neruda continued to complain to Héctor Eandi about his loneliness, but the laments took on a literary, self-conscious edge, perhaps under the influence of Rimbaud’s letters home from Africa, which he may have been reading. Neruda’s memoir reveals that he was too busy with the Wendt circle and a succession of lovers to have had much time left over to feel lonely. A woman named Patsy visited him frequently with her friends, “dusky and golden, girls of Boer, English, Dravidian blood. They went to bed with me sportingly, asking for nothing in turn.”

Lionel Wendt

Neruda’s memoir is the only account of the assault, which has dominated recent critical commentary on the poet.Neruda’s memoir is sometimes criticized for being self-serving, yet despite a few mealy-mouthed passages of self-effacement, his candor can be astonishing. He describes one sexual encounter in Wellawatte that has tarnished his posthumous reputation. He was infatuated with a Tamil woman of the pariah caste who collected the waste from the privies on his street, the most beautiful woman he had seen in Ceylon. He left her little gifts of fruit or silk on the path leading to the outhouse, but she took no notice of them. One day he gripped her by the wrist and stared into her eyes:

“Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and soon was naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. … She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.”

Neruda’s memoir is the only account of the assault, which has dominated recent critical commentary on the poet.

For all its intellectual stimulation and sexual excitement, Neruda’s life in Colombo was stable and secure. It turned topsy-turvy one morning, when “the torrential Josie Bliss” knocked on his door. Somehow she had made her way to Colombo and found his bungalow by the sea. She brought a bag of rice on her shoulders and the Paul Robeson records they had listened to in Rangoon.

It was a catastrophe. When Neruda refused to let her stay in his house, she threatened to burn it down, and pitched camp on the street. When a “mild-mannered English lady” paid a call on Neruda, Josie attacked her with a knife. The police told Neruda that if he didn’t take her in she would be deported. It was a desperate situation, which was resolved by Neruda’s neighbor, a kindly man named Fernando, who took her in. He persuaded her that her position was hopeless, and that she should leave Ceylon of her own volition.

Neruda escorted Josie Bliss to board her ship to Rangoon. When he parted from her, she wept violently, all the while covering him in kisses. As if performing a ritual, she kissed his face, his arms, his suit, and before he could stop her she knelt at his feet and kissed his shoes. When she stood up again, her teary face was smeared with the white chalk of his shoe polish. “That anguish, that turbulence, those terrible tears rolling down her chalky face,” he wrote, “I shall never forget.”

Neruda’s tempestuous affair with Josie Bliss mirrors his ambiguous emotional response to Asia. He wrote in his memoir, “I went so deep into the soul and life of the people that I lost my heart to a native girl.” However, such a liaison was common, indeed almost expected of expatriate bachelors. The way Neruda describes Josie Bliss, with her English name and English dress, casts her in an intermediate position between the soul of the people and colonialism. The son of a rural railway worker in a former Spanish colony, Neruda instinctively sympathized with the Burmese and Sinhalese rather than their haughty foreign overlords. Yet though he could never have felt at ease with the white-supremacist snobs playing big fish in these colonial ponds, his Creole education in Chile held him back from any serious engagement with Asian cultures. Like his father, Neruda was an atheist, and he felt an intuitive aversion to the mystical religions of Asia, which was later confirmed by his embrace of Communism, with its doctrinaire rejection of all religion.

On more than one occasion, Neruda claimed that his sojourn in Asia had no influence his poetry. Poets are rarely good judges of the influences on their work, and in this case the most important impact of his experience must have been invisible to him. However painful his isolation may have been, it sheltered him from the artistic trends competing in Europe at that time. In Ceylon, Neruda found his friends and intellectual comfort zone among the Eurasian community, on the farthest frontier of modernism: Colombo was almost as far from Paris as Santiago.

When he tried to publish Residence on Earth in Spain, the manuscript was roundly rejected. However, he managed to place a few poems in The Criterion, the journal edited by T. S. Eliot, which launched his international career as a South American poet, unburdened by an association with a European literary movement. Neruda’s penchant for the doubtful, intermediate terrain continued in his final posting, in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). When he sailed for Java, he brought his servant Brampy and Kiria the mongoose with him. There, he met a Javanese woman of Dutch-Eurasian extraction at the foreign residents’ tennis club and married her. She was the mother of the poet’s only child.

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ALSO NOTE

 

About Ceylon: Arthur C. Clarke, Pablo Neruda & Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

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