Yeah, I started a new book, just because trying to hold together the three I’ve got going already wasn’t filling up enough of my life. So here I am, following Pablo Neruda as he sleeps his way around the world in his Memoirs. Were I to leave it at that, said summary would be grossly unfair; so far, we’ve gotten loving descriptions of the places he’s been and lived, from small-town Chile to the backwoods of Southeast Asia, as well as thoughts on and glimpses into colonialism, different nations’ literary scenes and personalities, and some childhood magic thrown in to boot.
But what’s really hitting home, as such things didn’t when I was a teenager, is how much of a boys’ club bubble this autobiography describes. So far, women really haven’t come into the text unless they’ve fallen into and out of Pablo’s bed, sometimes by choice, sometimes, as in a notorious tryst the author admits was reprehensible, because power dynamics removed choice from the woman’s horizon entirely. (1) That’s understandable (if not excusable), given the early-twentieth-century setting, and the fact that the literary life, and even profession, as well as the freedom and ability to travel on one’s own, were largely things taken up by men at that time. Hence, Neruda’s doing nothing more than going along with the way things were; I’m not going to call him out as some sort of woman-hating reactionary.
But what comes along with distance spanned by change and a more complex understanding of humanity is some dulling of the shine in Neruda’s brand of romanticism. Take his description, for example, of Valparaíso’s slums: “The wash hanging out to dry decks each house with flags and the swarm of bare feet constantly multiplying betrays unquenchable love.” (2) Maybe– but to this reader, those constantly multiplying feet speak of poverty, limited options, lack of access to birth control, and the fact that yes, people have sex (frequently not by choice, and not always meaning it’s a sign of “love”), and children often follow in its wake. To equate that all with “unquenchable love” makes adorable simpletons out of the happy poor, and we can then go on our way and not worry about them or the conditions in which they live, because, hey, it’s one big love-fest up there. (3)
Again, I don’t mean for this post to be a tirade against an amazing poet, who in addition to writing verses, was committed to The People and sometimes paid the price for his involvement in communist and socialist politics. Maybe, though, these thoughts constitute a late-blooming awareness that even especially gifted and well-meaning human beings, even those who wield powerfully critical minds, have very little chance of escaping the dominant attitudes and conventions of their day. Or in other words, true-blue heroes are rare, and looking to them as god-like exemplars will only lead to disappointment. (4) The best we can do, then? Maybe appreciate the gifts they are able to give us and, without failing to hold anyone, including ourselves, accountable to any number of foibles or crimes, let that be enough.
(1) The encounter in question was between Neruda and the low-caste servant who carried out the human waste from the house every morning in Colombo. After ignoring the presents he puts in her path, as well as his attempts to communicate with her, here’s what happens:
One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon 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. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.
Pablo Neruda, Memoirs, transl. Hardie St. Martin (New York: Penguin), 1978: 100.
(2) Ibid., 58.
(3) For a cinematic adaptation of this sort of thing, and among other romanticizations of Brazilian favela life in particular, check out the original version of Black Orpheus.
(4) One of the secondary sources I used for an exam on Václav Havel seems to have been written by a guy who, thanks to his extensive study of his hero, suffered a crashing blow when he realized the freedom fighter had been such a womanizer. The tone of the book that resulted seemed to be saying, “If I can’t have my hero intact, neither can you”– which for a variety of reasons, made for a sad read.