by José Piñera (International Center for
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Many years ago, I had the fortuitous honor of being a postman
to our Nobel Laureate poet, Pablo Neruda. The event came to
mind after I saw "Il Postino", the film version
of the Skarmeta novel about the relationship between the exiled
poet and the young mailman in love. In my case, the setting
was not the lush island of Capri, as in the film, but the
rough and rocky Chilean seashore at Isla Negra, where Neruda
lived much of his life.
During my college years, my father was the Chilean Ambassador
to the United Nations. Every year from 1966 to 1970, I would
leave the warmth of the southern summer and join our parents
for the Christmas holidays in the fabulous jeweled winterland
of New York City.
One day, early in 1970, my father confessed to me his guilt
in an odd matter: he had been unable to send a book to Pablo
Neruda. An American publishing house had recently put out
a special edition of the Canto General, with illustrations
by the Mexican artist David Siqueiros. The publishers had
then given a copy--with the original illustrations by Siqueiros--to
the Chilean Embassy in New York, with the expectation that
the Embassy would send the book to Neruda in Chile.
What made the book so difficult to mail was precisely what
made it such a rare and special work. Not only was the book
inestimably precious: it was gigantic. It was a great effort
to merely heft it, and to open it and read it required a good-sized
tabletop. When I saw it, I was astonished. I had always loved
books, but this was not simply a book--this was a veritable
art gallery, a monumental tribute to one of the world's great
In the days that followed, I spent many hours alone with
that stranded literary temple. Four decades earlier, the great
spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, had declared that "Pablo
Neruda's poetry rises with a tone of passion, tenderness,
and sincerity never equaled in America." With the publication
of the Canto General in 1950, Spanish America's greatest poet
was paying homage to his native continent and its inexhaustible
natural and cultural riches.
It was probably then that I was first seized by those verses
that made such an impact on me, and that many years later
I would use to express my love for Chile in those short minutes
on television during my 1993 testimonial and independent presidential
"But I love even the roots of my little cold country.
If I had to die a thousand times,
there I would want to die.
If I had to be born a thousand times,
there I would want to be born".
Toward the end of February, I received the latest issue of
the Chilean magazine Ercilla, in which Neruda wrote a column
lamenting, "Out of New York came a very large book, the
Canto General, translated by Ben Belitt, with illustrations
by Siqueiros. The book is--they tell me--nearly a square meter.
And what is it like? I have not seen it. It does not fit in
the mail. It was rejected by customs. It doesn't fit in a
suitcase." I decided immediately that I would take the
book back with me on my return to Chile, and thus began my
short career as an international postman.
As I boarded the overnight plane to Santiago, the stewardesses
regarded me with skeptical eyes, but I was insistent that
my precious package would not be put into the cargo hold.
Of course, the book could not fit into the overhead compartment,
so I rode for the entire 14-hour flight with the immense tome
resting on my lap. In Santiago the customs people met me with
a minimum of hassle, and I was greatly relieved.
Back at home, I placed a nervous call to Neruda's house in
Isla Negra. Matilde Urrutia, his wife, answered the phone.
I explained that I had flown the book back to Chile and gotten
it through customs. She was very pleased and invited me to
deliver the book personally to their house by the ocean.
Meeting Neruda was not an everyday occurrence, and like Skarmeta's
postino, I was less interested in meeting the "poet del
popolo" than I was eager to learn from the "poet
dell' amore", the poet who had invented whole languages
and whole geographies in the service of love.
Neruda greeted me cheerfully, as if he had nothing better
to do than to talk to the college student who had appeared
on his doorstep. And talk he did! The old raconteur seemed
to delight in the very words that wandered out in their nasal
way from his mouth, and he was always the main character in
the innumerable and interlocking tales that came skipping
and laughing out of his prodigious memory.
The house at Isla Negra was more of a cluttered museum-frigate
than a home. The poet walked me up and down the decks of that
strange vessel, pronouncing his authoritative verses on the
various maritime artifacts assembled there.
The pounding sea was a constant presence, and I was persuaded
that only this curious caretaker was capable of being its
custodian, as he suggested in "Una Casa en la Arena":
"The PacificOcean ran off the map!
There was no place to put it.
It was so huge and chaotic and blue that it would not fit
So they left it in front of my window."
At length Neruda took me into his bar, and we stayed there
until well into the night, surrounded by a rainbow of bottles
and lost in stories whose color and abundance out-dazzled
those bottles. I do not remember if he asked me my name, and
if I had returned the next day, I am not certain that he would
have recognized me.
At the time, I was rather proud of my role in bringing Neruda's
book to Isla Negra. Looking back now from the vantage point
of three decades, I understand that Neruda himself was the
real postman. He took packages from the elemental spirits
of my native land and delivered them abroad. His letter was
a love-letter to life and to the people of the world.
As he wrote in the "Versos del Capitan":
"And thus this letter ends
my feet are firm upon the earth,
my hand writes this letter on the road,
and in the midst of my life I will be always
with friends or confronted by the enemy,
with your name in my mouth
and a kiss which never
After inquiring recently about this magnificent book, I received
the following answer from Tamara Waldspurger, Director of
"Bibliotecas y Archivos" in the National Library:
"In reference to the book that you gave personally to
Pablo Neruda in Isla Negra, may I assure you that this big
book---'nearly a square meter'---is in the Specialized Library
of the "Fundación Neruda". It contains a
selection of poems from "Canto General" translated
to english by Ben Belitt and published in New York. It comes
with original litographs from David Alfaro Siqueiros and it
is the edition XVI of XXV".
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