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Neruda in Ceylon: On making peace (of sorts) with Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (12 July 1904-23 September 1973) was a Chilean poet-diplomat who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. His legacy was tarnished by his admittance of raping a Tamil cleaning woman who worked for him during his posting as Chilean consul to present-day Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). This letter was written to him in response to the sexual assault that continues to complicate his history today.

by Robina P Marks

Dear Pablo,

I write this letter to you from Colombo, Sri Lanka, a few days after 12 July and on what would have been your 116th birthday.

I have held a deep love for your passionate poetry for many, many years. It’s a letter that I have struggled to write as I delved deeper into your work, your history, and your beliefs. But now I feel a fresh sense of urgency, because I will be leaving Sri Lanka soon, and you are part of the goodbye that I must make as I end my diplomatic posting here.

Neruda ( File Photo)

And you, a poet-diplomat, know what it feels like to live the peculiar sense of loneliness, dislocation, self-discovery, people, culture and longing for your motherland that is such a necessary part of serving your country as a diplomat in a faraway country.

You too, served your country Chile from 1927-1932 as a diplomat in what was then called Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Java (Indonesia). And like me, you too found moments of transcendent joy and inspiration for writing here in Sri Lanka.

Much later in 1972, when you were ambassador to France, you were awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in recognition of your undeniable genius at spinning words into poetry that could excite, incite and inspire. As an activist, I have loved your righteous rage exploding into poetry against the exploitation of indigenous Indians in Chile, and others across the developing South, and for which you have been justly described as the “conscience of a continent”.

I admired your sense of justice and solidarity, even while I cannot come to terms with the role you played in the failed assassination attempt in Mexico on the life of one of the leaders of the 1917 October revolution, Leon Trotsky, and of which you explained later that you were merely following orders.

Was that the second betrayal?

The first one came early on during your diplomatic posting to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

The similarity of our chosen careers as diplomats, a peculiar form of patriotic self-banishment, drew me to you even further after I started my own career in diplomatic service to my country. I liked your respectful descriptions of Sri Lankan life… you wrote about hearing the mesmerising heartbeat of local music one night on your way to another dreary reception with people whose colonial mindset you abhorred. The music was “vibrating and sobbing, soaring to unspeakable heights, suddenly ceasing altogether, dwindling into the shadows, clinging to the odour of frangipani, braiding itself into arabesques.” I, too, felt that sense of enchantment and joy when I heard here the hypnotic drumming and watched dancers dip and sway and jump to its beat… and I felt my heart leaping lightly, joyfully as I listened to the hypnotic rhythmic sounds of Baila music, brought to these shores by the Portuguese colonisers and their bounty of African slaves, and surely played by those enslaved in snatched moments of time away from forced labour.

The anger that I feel as a South African that it is still described as “kaffir” music by many has become something of a crusade for me as I try to ensure that everyone understands how abhorrent this term is for us, and should be for the rest of the world. Baila music reminds me so much of my own ancestral slave roots, and the Sunday-at-rest gatherings for those enslaved as they came together to play sometimes plaintive, sometimes joyful music in the Slave Quarters in Cape Town, South Africa.

You recall that when you finally arrived at your party, and explained why you were late, your hosts exclaimed, “What music? You mean the natives are musicians?” Our ghoema music, too, has been denigrated and dismissed by some as carnivalesque ditties, with no cultural value or significance.

Pablo, I love that your constant companions to stave off your loneliness here were a local dog you adopted, and a pet mongoose called Kira, who brought you solace during those many moments of seeking living connection. And like you, I have found comfort in the company of my Thailand pavement special called Ching-chi, who was a wretched, emaciated little dog when I adopted him, and newly rescued from a truck loaded with terrified dogs headed for the meat trade. He too, has provided comfort and solace here in Sri Lanka. And like you, I delighted in the astonishing greenery of this beautiful heartache of an island, with its painful history of repeated colonisation, civil war, a devastating tsunami, political turmoil… and learned to rejoice in the pride, resilience and tenacity of its people.

In some aspects we differed: you eventually formed fleeting liaisons with a succession of local beauties “dusky and golden, girls of Boer, English, Dravidian blood. They went to bed with me sportingly, asking for nothing in turn”. You see, the unwritten rules of sexual norms are very different for male and female diplomats. And while male diplomats may “bed sportingly” with local “dusky” or “golden” girls, and would be slyly admired for it, such latitude does not exist for female diplomats.

My love for your poetry is complicated further, because the memory of a Tamil woman called Thangamma keeps casting a dark shadow of fear and menace over your work. She darts and dives between the lines of your poems with an angry, restless spirit that will not cease.

And although you admit to at least one relationship with a woman in Burma (Myanmar), a country that, like you, I also served as a diplomat, and where you shared your bed with a local woman called Josie, later you fled from her in the dead of night, scared of her love and passion, because you perhaps realised the limitations of your own. And she followed you to Ceylon, and camped outside your bungalow in coastal Wellawatta, just about 20 minutes’ drive from my house. And again you spirited her away back to Burma, amidst her tears and protestations. Such were her lamentations that you described her as “the torrential Josie Bliss”, and a “love terrorist”. And you use words to paint a picture of a woman that would lead many to think that she was crazy and deranged. After all, what woman in her “right” mind would cradle a knife in her hand while looking at her lover lying next to her whilst she contemplated him leaving her to be on her own? Who may have been told, during passionate embrace, that you couldn’t live without her? And yet, now, alive, wanted to leave her? She must have known that you had no intention of staying.

And so when you use the power of your pen to depict her as mad, it dismisses your own culpability as a man who engages in a relationship with someone that he has no intention of staying with. Pablo, do you know how often women who dare to love men, who do not deserve their love, are called “crazy”? Can it be that what you thought of as Josie’s crazy behaviour that made you flee your home in the dead of night to escape her wrath might be what Shakespeare describes as “I have heard my grandsire say full oft, / Extremity of griefs would make (wo)men mad”?

Pablo, you wrote about her as if your relationship was an empathetic revolutionary act to show just how much you immersed yourself as a “foreigner” to these shores: “I went so deep into the soul and life of the people that I lost my heart to a native girl.”

But of course, a woman is not a country, and physical intercourse is not a “loving” form of colonialism that allows you to “inhabit” another human being. I am left unsure whether you ever really understood this, Pablo. Because my love for your poetry has always taken my breath away with its ability to weave and spin with delicate thread emotion in a way that I, as a shy and fledgling writer, can only dream about.

My love for your poetry is complicated further, because the memory of a Tamil woman called Thangamma keeps casting a dark shadow of fear and menace over your work. She darts and dives between the lines of your poems with an angry, restless spirit that will not cease.

Thangamma, the woman who would come every morning to your house next to the sea to collect buckets of your human waste, and those of others in your street. Thangamma, that you dreamt of possessing, and to whom you offered endless gifts of fruit and silk that she ignored. Until one day, as you recall in your writing, when you gripped her hard by her wrists. You described this vividly:

“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.”

So here’s what I did today, Pablo. I collected little stones from the beach across from the house where you lived. The same beach where you used to walk and watch the sea at play, and of which you wrote, “Each morning I was overpowered by the miracle of newly cleansed nature.”

And then you continued with an account of the rest of your life, in your memoir, as if this was of no consequence, and just a momentarily regrettable incident. Did you think that saying “she was right to despise me” somehow absolved you from this act of rape? Because that is what it was. Not a consensual act of shared love and desire between two people. No. It was rape. It was the rape of a poor woman from what was seen as an inferior caste and gender, whose only means of supporting herself and her family was to collect buckets of human waste from homes such as yours. A woman with no power.

For her, you would’ve represented white, male power, even though you proudly self-identified with the oppressed. An illiterate woman, she understood that she had no power, no agency, no voice. To survive, she lay there silently and endured this assault. Like so many women have before her and long after her. And you, who wrote about how repelled you were by the patronising and superior attitude of those from Europe who you had to consort with in the course of your diplomatic duties, must have been aware of this power imbalance.

It is unclear, when you write, “the experience was never repeated again”, whether she continued with her duties to collect your bucket after this “experience”, or whether this means that this “experience” was never repeated in your life again with other women who refused your advances.
And history has erased Thangamma. We do not know how she dealt with what you describe as an “experience”. How did that rape affect her, and the rest of her life? Might she have told others about it? Or remained quiet because she was scared that they would say, “she asked for it”?

That silence must have felt lodged like a stone in her throat. How did that shape her relationship with herself? With men? We know that you left Ceylon soon thereafter, and that your fame as a poet grew worldwide, and that you were honoured with many awards and prizes, and later of course the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature. What was Thangamma’s life and spirit like after the rape? And even now, largely erased from history, and reduced to an “experience” you had one sunny morning in Ceylon?

Pablo, my hope was that my small act of remembrance will comfort Thangamma’s restless spirit that still plays hide and seek with me between the lines of your poetry. I want her spirit to know that someone said her name, and to remain there in the rhymes and rhythms of your poetry and roam freely, easily, knowing that what happened to her matters to all of us.

So here’s what I did today, Pablo. I collected little stones from the beach across from the house where you lived. The same beach where you used to walk and watch the sea at play, and of which you wrote, “Each morning I was overpowered by the miracle of newly cleansed nature.”
I, too, feel that way when I stand on the edge of the shore and watch the waves as they ebb and flow onto the shore. Pablo, watching the waves may have made you feel “cleansed”, but the stain you left on the body and spirit of Thangamma remained. There was no cleansing for her, just the daily collection of your plastic bucket of waste that she placed on her head and carried away carefully.

So I picked up those stones, and wrote her name in large black letters. Took them to the home where you used to live after being invited in by the kind Muslim family who have lived there for all these years since you left. Kept up a conversation with them, the shy matriarch and her two sons, while dropping the stones bearing her name surreptitiously on the ground where she used to walk. Said my goodbye to the family after refusing the kind offer of strong black local tea because I knew that the stone lodged in my throat would make it difficult for me to swallow. And I walked down the road and on to the beach where I dropped more stones bearing her name on the beach. And said her name that history erased.

Thangamma. Thangamma. Thangamma.

Pablo, my hope was that a curious child discovers that stone engraved with her name next to your house, or others would walk along that long stretch of beach that you used to frequent, and they might pick it up, cradle it in the palm of their hand, and wonder at the story behind this stone tossed on the sandy beach. If you had come across a similar stone that was so named, might it have moved you to write a poem about it, and wonder at the tale that it inspired? I think of you holding such a stone, moved by fancies of thought and words as you said her name for the first time, the name that you didn’t say when you took what didn’t belong to you on that fateful morning.

Pablo, my hope was that my small act of remembrance will comfort Thangamma’s restless spirit that still plays hide and seek with me between the lines of your poetry. I want her spirit to know that someone said her name, and to remain there in the rhymes and rhythms of your poetry and roam freely, easily, knowing that what happened to her matters to all of us.

And as for the two of us… I will continue to love your poetry, but with my heart and my intelligence. Because a woman is not a country, and a man’s penis should never be used as a weapon of war, in the bedroom or on the battlefield.

I leave you with this offering from your own poem called Goodbyes in the hope that you might come to consider in the afterlife where you dwell that you never left Ceylon:

Goodbyes

And, newly arrived, promptly said goodbye…
Left everywhere for somewhere else…
It’s well known that he who returns never left.
…growing used…
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.
With honest and loving regard,

Robina P Marks, South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and The Maldives.

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