Wednesday, 29 September 2004  
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Pablo Neruda and his stay in Sri Lanka

by Andrew Scott

Pablo Neruda: thrilled by elephants

Pablo Neruda's 100th birth anniversary fell on July 12 this year and it is appropriate that we think about this poet of the people and his indelible experiences and impressions during his stay in Sri Lanka which dates back to 1929.

Pablo Neruda is the pseudonym of Neftali Richardo Reyes Basoalto, a Chilean poet who infused new life and thoughts on the Latin American literary and political consciousness. He was a universally accepted poet who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, just two years before is death in 1973 at the age of 69 years.

He died of leukaemia on 23 September 1973. He was born in Chile in 1904 and his mother died shortly after his birth. As a result from his very young days he grew up under the influence of his father, a railway worker.

This major poet of the 20th century based his work particularly on themes of love, passion and beauty and he also wrote against the oppression of the poor and the down-trodden. He began to write poetry in his teens and his life's ambition was to become a teacher.

His first book, 'Twilight' (1923) was privately published and his 'Twenty Love Poems' and 'A Song of Despair' (1969) made him one of Latin America's most famous and sensitive young poets.

Primarily in recognition of his exemplary literary contributions Pablo Neruda was appointed to the Chilean Consular Service in which he held coveted posts in Asia (including Sri Lanka), Latin America and Spain from 1927 to 1944. He worked in Spain during the Spanish civil war and he supported the Spanish Republicans. Returning to Chile in 1937 he became a political radical and was an active member of the Chilean Communist Party.


He served in the Chilean Senate for three years (1945-1948). In 1948 he opted to be exiled from Chile due to his political activities and returned to Chile in 1952. He was the Chilean ambassador to France from 1970 to 1972 and died leaving a legacy of interesting literary works which are greatly appreciated by intellectuals even today.

In his best literary works he showed himself as a symbolist but later he became a realist and wrote simple poems that had a great appeal to even the averagely educated readers. Gradually he matured from early erotic poetry directed to his own private passions to poetry that expressed his complicated political points of view. Most of his poems explored the struggles the South Americans faced in their fight for freedom from poverty and oppression.

Sketches to his early work were drawn by two well-known Mexican painters, Diego Rivera and David Siqueirosa. On perusing Pablo Neruda's poetry over the years we see a gradual transition of his poetry from private matters to more public ones. His numerous works include 'Residence on Earth and Other Poems' (1946), the 'Elementary Odes' (1961) and a volume of love poetry (1959). He also wrote an autobiography in poems titled 'Memorial de Isla Negra'.

Selected poems of Pablo Neruda (1961) contains a representative collection of poems in the original Spanish with English translations.

It is interesting to record that almost all of his works were translated into English and it is through the medium of the English language that they became known throughout the world.

Though his physical body is no longer with us his poems continue to inspire us even today and he has become immortal through his poetry which is read and admired throughout the literary world.

Diplomatic post

It is interesting to record that Pablo Neruda spent some time in Sri Lanka when he held a diplomatic post here. In his writings he gives a vivid description of men and matters of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in the late 1920s and writing about this island he says: "In 1929, Ceylon, the most beautiful of the world's large islands, had the same colonial structure as Burma and India....... Caught between the Englishmen dressed every evening in dinner jackets.....I had only solitude open to me and so that time was the loneliest in my life."

He mentions that at that time Wellawatta where he lived was not densely populated.

He says: "I went to live in a small bungalow recently built in the suburb of Wellawatte, near the sea.

It was a sparsely populated area, with the surf breaking on the reefs nearby. The music of the sea swelled into the evening."

He states that at that time even in Colombo there were many working elephants and says: "Strolling up the shore, I would come to the elephants' bathing hole. With my dog alongside I couldn't get lost.....No other country in the world had or has even now, as many elephants doing work on its road. They were an amazing sight, far from any circus or the bars of any zoo, trudging up and down with their loads of timber, like hard-working giant journeymen."

Being a very lonely man he had cared for two pets, a mongoose and a dog about which he says: "My dog and my mongoose were my sole companions. Fresh from the jungle the latter grew up at my side, slept on my bed and ate at my table; No one can imagine the affectionate nature of a mongoose.

My little pet was familiar with every minute of my day-to-day life. She trampled all over my papers and raced after me all day long. She curled up between my shoulder and my head at siesta time and slept there the fitful electric sleep of wild animals. My tame mongoose became famous in the neighbourhood."

This mongoose is reported to have accompanied Neruda even in his long walks and it is also mentioned that it was made use of by others to chase away and to kill snakes invading their compounds.

Regarding this he says: "The fame of my mongoose who accompanied me everyday in my long walks by the seashore brought all the neighbours' kids to my house....An enormous snake had appeared in the streets and they had come to ask for Kiriya, my celebrated mongoose, whose sure victory they "were ready to cheer on."


During his sojourn here he wrote some of his best known poems and did the finishing touches to some of his literary works. He says: "The other day my sister brought me a note-book containing my earliest poems written in 1918 and 1919.

Reading them over I had to smile at their childish and adolescent melancholy that literary sense of solitude had given off by all my youthful work. The young writer cannot write without that shudder of loneliness, even when it is only imaginary."

He had felt very lonely during his stay in Sri Lanka about which he said: "I learned what true loneliness was in those days and years in Wellawatte.

During all that time I slept on a field cot like a soldier, an explorer. All I had for company were a table and two chairs, my work, my dog, my mongoose and the boy who did the housework and returned to his village at night."

He had got about in a rickshaw, a popular mode of transport then but an outdated form in modern Sri Lanka with all the high speed vehicles that have taken to the road. He mentions that particularly at that time many places in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were excavated and the Englishmen even exported freely some of the ancient artefacts and ruins that were discovered then.

He says: "Excavations had brought to light two magnificent cities that the jungle had swallowed up - Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Pillars and corridors gleamed once again in the brilliant Sinhalese sun. Naturally everything that could be shipped was carefully packed and went on its way to the British Museum in London."

About his main literary activities at Wellawatte he said: "I wrote a large part of my work in Wellawatte." He had also been fond of local music and dancing and says: "I stayed there a long while, caught in the magic spell of drums and fascinated by the voice and then I went on my way, drunk with the enigma of an emotion I can't describe, of a rhythm whose mystery issued from the whole earth. An earth filled with music and wrapped in fragrance and shadows."

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