Silhouettes: In the House of Pablo Neruda

20:43, Jan 17 2013

I was actually in Pablo Neruda's house, the first time I read one of his poems.

The house was La Sebastiana, Valparaíso, and the year was 2011. I was there with a friend who was moving to Chile; Neruda moved there from Santiago in 1961, and died of heart failure in 1973.

In a 1959 letter to the Chilean poet Sara Vial, Neruda talked about what he wanted in a house:

"I feel the tiredness of Santiago. I want to find in Valparaiso a little house to live and write quietly.  It must have some conditions. It can't be located too high or too low. It should be solitary but not in excess. With neighbours hopefully invisible. They shouldn't be seen or heard. Original, but not uncomfortable. With many wings, but strong. Neither too big or too small. Far from everything but close to the transportation. Independent, but close to the commerce. Besides it has to be very cheap. Do you think I would find a house like that in Valparaiso?"

Vial found him La Sebastiana two years later. It was to be Neruda's third house, joining La Chascona in Santiago and beautiful Isla Negra in San Antonio province. After making extensive renovations- removing the floor-wide birdcage on the third floor, among other things- Neruda named his new home for its builder, Sebastián Collado.

To get there, my travel buddy and I took a noisy, colourful bus from our apartment in Vinya del Mar to central Valparaiso. Valparaiso is one of Chile's two main cities, just a few hours south of the capital. Centred around a port, it feels different to the more cosmopolitan Santiago - older, grubbier, prettier and a little more dangerous.

Like Wellington, many of Valparaiso's nicer suburbs are located in the hills above town and accessible by cable car. The car we rode in had tattered racing stripes and holes that showed tracks through the floorboards, but when we saw the view across the harbour, it didn't seem important. We stopped to listen to a man playing Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" on the accordion and bought silver earrings from a gypsy market before winding our way further uphill to Bellavista.

La Sebastiana was looted after the military coup which kicked off shortly after Neruda's death. It stood empty for some time but was restored in 1991 with money from a telephone company. Unlike the other two houses, La Sebastiana is completely open to the public.

I got a very quick run-down on Neruda before we entered. Much like New Zealand's Sam Hunt, Neruda established a reputation as a notable poet before he was out of his teens. He was best-known for love poetry but also dabbled in surrealism and never hid his bent for politics. Neruda spent time as a senator for Chile's communist party during the 1940's and had to be hidden by friends after communism was outlawed, but was able to make a grand return after developing ties with presidential candidate Salvador Allende in the mid-1950's.

Five stories high and rather skinny, the great man's house is no mansion but a comfortable, happily eccentric home. Almost every object inside has a story behind it, which we translated haphazardly from Spanish-language information cards.

One of the famous tales behind Neruda's moving into La Sebastiana features a worker who asked if a framed portrait of Walt Whitman was the poet's father. "Yes, in poetry," replied Neruda, delighted.

Near a large painting of Shakespeare, a lidded porcelain bull sits on the dining table. Neruda used to fill it with punch for dinner parties and ladle drinks out of its back. He also had a bright pink bar near the table that only he was permitted to use - guests were shooed away.

Neruda was famously keen on collecting maritime goods. Eye-catching shells and furniture from ships are scattered here and there, particularly around his bedroom with its views across the ocean. In places, it almost looks like Neruda has returned from a trip to the beach and unloaded his pockets before disappearing into thin air.

He wrote a poem (which I have badly translated) for the house in his book, Fully Empowered:

I established the house.
I made it first of air,
then I raised the flag in the air
and I left it hanged
from the open air
from the star,
from the light and from the darkness...

There used to be pictures of this trip, but unfortunately my travel buddy had an accident with her hard drive while living somewhere in Santiago's artist quarter. The only ones that survive are the series I took of her, her then-boyfriend and myself each air-kissing an iron silhouette of Neruda that we found in a park nearby.

Revisiting them, the pictures remind me a little of how Chilean critic Fernando Alegría described Neruda's wake: "We are here witnessing the presence of the poet who has only begun to die."