Bart: I know that’s funny but I’m just not laughing.

Lisa: Hmm. Pablo Neruda said, ‘Laughter is the language of the soul.’

Bart: I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.

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I’ve got a lovely edition of The Heights of Macchu Picchu in book form. The English translation by Nathaniel Tarn was out of print and jolly difficult to get hold of, but John King, my Lit professor at Warwick, persuaded Farrar, Straus and Giroux to print off a few more specially for our class.

The used copies on Amazon are probably the ones bought by my old classmates and sold on. The fact that the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought’ section is basically the reading list for our ‘Literature of the Americas’ module would support this theory.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu

Anyway, this edition of The Heights of Macchu Picchu is fab. It’s slender, about 80 pages, with one of those matt eggshell sort of covers that feels lush to hold.

The poem is set with the Spanish on the left page and the English translation on the right. (I wish I could replicate this within the confines of WordPress.) I’m no Spanish speaker but I like its sound.

‘Macchu’ is the preferred spelling by the way. ‘Macchu Picchu’ is the Quechua for ‘Old Mountain’.

The poet

Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973) was one of Latin America’s great 20th century poets and Alturas de Macchu Picchu is his best. He was awarded the World Peace Prize in 1950, the Stalin Peace Prize (what an oxymoron that seems now) in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

He always wrote in green ink because it was the colour of Esperanza –hope. If you’ve seen Michael Radford’s 1995 film Il Postino (The Postman) you’ll remember it’s a made-up story about Neruda’s friendship with a postman in Italy.

The original, Antonio Skármeta’s 1985 book and film Ardiente Paciencia, is set around Neruda’s home in Isla Negra in Chile.

Santiago, Chile

The poem

Alturas is written in a seemingly chaotic disintegration of images, much like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. The narrative is as hard to discern as creeper-covered ruins. The voice begins wandering through the world, seeking a permanence for life and man amid the mundane struggles of deathly urban existence.

From there, the voice at once retreats back in time and ascends into the Andes towards the lost civilisation of the Incas, to find a meaning for the story of Latin America.

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Hoy el aire vacío ya no llora,

ya no conoce vuestros pies de arcilla,

ya olvidó vuestros cántaros que filtraban el cielo

cuando lo derramaban los cuchillos del rayo,

y el árbol poderoso fué comido

por la niebla, y cortado por la racha.

Él sostuvo una mano que cayó de repente

desde la altura hasta el final del tiempo.

Ya no sois, manos de araña, débiles

hebras, tela enmarañada:

cuanto fuistes cayó: costumbres, sílabras

raídas, máscaras de luz deslumbradora.

.

Pero una permanencia de piedra y de palabra:

la ciudad como un vaso se levantó en las manos

de todos, vivos, muertos, callados, sostenidos

de tanta muerte, un muro, de tanta vida un golpe

de pétalos de piedra: la rosa permanente, la morada:

este arrecife andino de colonias glaciales.

.

Cuando la mano de color de arcilla

se convirtió en arcilla, y cuando los pequeños párpados se cerraron

llenos de ásperos muros, poblados de castillos,

y cuando todo el hombre se enredó en su agujero,

quedó la exactitud enarbolada:

el alto sitio de la aurora humana:

la más alta vasija que contuvo el silencio:

una vida de piedra después de tantas vidas.

Alturas de Macchu Picchu, VII.

.

Today the vacant air no longer mourns

nor knows your shardlike feet,

forgets your pitchers that filtered the sky

when the knifes of the lightning ripped it open

and the powerful tree was devoured

by mist and felled by the wind.

It sustained a hand that suddenly pitched

from the heights to the depths of time.

You no longer exist: spider fingers, frail

threads, tangled cloth-everything you were

dropped away: customs and tattered

syllables, the dazzling masks of light.

.

And yet a permanence of stone and language

upheld the city raised like a chalice

in all those hands: live, dead and stilled,

aloft with so much death, a wall, with so much life,

struck with flint petals: the everlasting rose, our home,

this reef on Andes, its glacial territories.

.

On the day the clay-colored hand

was utterly changed into clay, and when dwarf eyelids closed

upon bruised walls and hosts of battlements,

when all of man in us cringed back into its burrow-

there remained a precision unfurled

on the high places of the human dawn,

the tallest crucible that ever held our silence,

a life of stone after so many lives.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu, VII.

.

Pablo Neruda

The man

Neruda’s original name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. His dad José was a crew foreman on the Chilean railways. His mum Rosa Basoalto died of TB when he was two months old.

He took his pen name from Jan Neruda, a Czech writer, to avoid the embarrassment of his family seeing his name in print. He legally adopted it in 1946.

At 23 and already a famed poet, he was appointed honorary consul to Rangoon, followed by diplomatic jobs in Colombo, Jakarta, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Mexico City.

He disliked his time in Asia and found city life empty. During this time he had a Dutch and an Argentinian wife, and a sickly daughter with the former that he didn’t seem to care much for. She died when she was eight.

Macchu Picchu

He was caught up in and politicised by the Spanish Civil War. He admired Stalin for defeating Hitler and was thereafter an ardent Communist.

In Paris he was given ‘the noblest mission I have ever undertaken’, transporting 2000 Spanish refugees to Chile. He visited Peru in 1943 and went to Macchu Picchu, the trip which inspired Alturas de Macchu Picchu. Back in Chile he was elected Senator and joined the Communist Party of Chile in 1945.

The exile

Soon Chilean President Gabriel González Videla, for whom Senator Neruda had campaigned, banned the Communist Party. Neruda went underground, and in 1949 fled on horseback to Argentina then Paris. In exile he travelled widely to India, China, Sri Lanka and the Soviet Union.

Communist Party

Arthur Miller persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to let Neruda into the US. ‘I, a poet who writes in Spanish, learned more from Walt Whitman than from Cervantes’, Neruda told an American audience.

Chile’s left-leaning government collapsed and General Augusto Pinochet took over. When Pinochet’s soldiers came to search Neruda’s property, he remarked, ‘Look around—there’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.’

Jorge Luis Borges said, ‘I think of him as a very fine poet, a very fine poet. I don’t admire him as a man, I think of him as a very mean man.’

The paradox

Reading Neruda’s writing brings me into a conflict. The Heights of Macchu Picchu is profoundly inspiring. Yet Neruda was a keen Stalinist. Stalin’s regime caused my family a lot of suffering.

Pablo Neruda

The legacy of South America’s Catholic heritage is evident in Neruda. But he uses Christian imagery in the same way Renaissance writers used Classical myths. It is a cultural reference point to him, a symbolic truth, but unfortunately not something real.

How do we enjoy the creativity of someone with whom we deeply disagree? We all do it. We are able to savour the made thing without honouring the maker.

It is by grace. It is by recognising the dignity of common humanity. We know that there is something to celebrate in every person’s worldview, however imperfect.

Without setting aside my personal, political and spiritual differences with Neruda, I listen to his voice and let him guide me up through the jungle to the heights of Macchu Picchu.

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