Neruda’s Burmese Days
By Seamus Martov 15 June 2015
Long before he became world famous for his poetry, Pablo Neruda served as Chile’s honorary consul in colonial Yangon from 1927 to 1928. According to an essay he published in the Brazilian newspaper “O Cruzeiro” some three decades later, the circumstances in which Neruda arrived in the Far East were rather unusual.
“My friend gave to the minister [of foreign relations] the names of available cities all over the world, but I only caught the name of a city that I had never read nor heard of before: Rangoon,” he wrote. “The minister said to me, ‘Where do you want to go, Pablo?’ ‘To Rangoon’ I answered in a flash. ‘Put his name in,’ said the minister.”
So began Pablo Neruda’s brief but eventful one year posting, the first stop in a diplomatic career that saw him stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Mexico, Spain and France.
According to his writing, Neruda, who spent most of his time in Yangon living on what was then Dalhousie Street (today, Mahabandoola Road), was appalled by the British colonial occupiers who he later described as “monotonous and even ignorant.” This view was shared by many Myanmar at the time, large numbers of whom were actively resisting colonialism with strikes and protests, all of which were put down with brutal force.
The combination of his Latin American origins and his radical politics meant that Neruda was far from the typical westerner living in colonial Myanmar. His distaste for the British Empire was on full display in his poem “Rangoon 1927,” which describes both the city and the famed Strand Hotel, a popular gathering place for the colonial elite, in stark terms.
Yangon under British rule where the colonized were compelled to address the colonizers as Thakin (“lord” or “master”) was, in Neruda’s words, a place “Where a white hotel for whites / and a gilded pagoda for golden people / was as much as happened / and did not happen.”
Neruda’s aversion to the colonial overlords appears to have been mutual as, according to the poet, he was ostracized for associating with the locals, including his Myanmar lover who was the inspiration for several of his well-known poems.
Being shunned by most other westerners in Yangon didn’t seem to bother the then-diplomat too much. “Those intolerant Europeans were not very interesting,” he recounted decades later. “And, after all, I had not come to the Orient to spend my life with transient colonizers, but rather with the ancient spirit of that world, with that large, hapless human family.”
Neruda wrote evocatively of Myanmar’s bustling, multiethnic colonial capital:
“The street became my religion. The Burmese street, the Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns. The Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples operated as a business by one caste, and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside. Markets where the betel leaves rose up in green pyramids like mountains of malachite. The stalls and pens where they sold wild animals and birds. The winding streets where supple Burmese women walked with long cheroots in their mouths. All this engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real life.”
However, a letter he wrote to his half-sister Laurita from Yangon gives a slightly different picture. “Life in Rangoon is a terrible exile, I wasn’t born to spend my life in such a hell,” complained the young Neruda.
Love and Inspiration
His posting in Yangon was of a very low grade that didn’t even provide him with a stipend. “I lived in the greatest poverty and in even greater solitude. For weeks I didn’t see another human being,” Neruda would later recall in a 1971 interview with the Paris Review.
But being in Yangon did provide Neruda the opportunity to fall in love. Nearly all accounts of his Myanmar lover are from his own writing, and no photo or other independent records verifying her existence appear to have survived. “She dressed in the English style, and her street name was Josie Bliss; but in the privacy of her house, which I soon came to occupy, she slipped out of this impersonation and this name and reverted to an eye-filling sarong and her Burmese name.”
Neruda frequently described his relationship with Josie Bliss in dramatic terms, portraying her as an intensely jealous woman who would stalk him around the house. His 1928 poem “Tango del Viudo” (“Widower’s tango”)—inspired by an incident involving Josie Bliss, a mosquito net and a knife—is according to Neruda scholar Jason Wilson, one of his “greatest poems.”
While Josie Bliss may have been a great poetic inspiration, her intensity appears to have been too much for the intrepid Neruda. “Sweet Josie Bliss gradually became so brooding and possessive that her jealous tantrums turned into an illness. Except for this, perhaps I would have stayed with her forever,” he wrote in “Memoirs.” Eventually Neruda headed off to Ceylon where he took up another posting as honorary consul in Colombo.
But his departure was not the last he saw of Josie Bliss.
“Quite unexpectedly, my Burmese love, the torrential Josie Bliss, planted herself at my door again. She had made the long journey to Ceylon from her distant homeland,” he wrote. “Thinking that rice grew only in Rangoon, she came with a rice-sack on her shoulders, our favorite records of Paul Robeson, and a long roll of bedding. From the front door, she proceeded to take in everything, then insulted and assaulted all who tried to get by, consumed by devouring jealousy; then she threatened to set fire to the house. One mild-mannered English lady who came to call she attacked with a large knife.”
Eventually Ms. Bliss returned home but the young Neruda found his “heart acquired a scar that has not healed.” In 1957, he returned to Myanmar for a visit but was unable to locate her. His unsuccessful search inspired another poem “Regreso a una ciudad” (“Return to a city”).
Ms. Bliss continued to influence the poet’s work for the rest of his life. In a 1964 poem titled “Amores: Josie Bliss,” Neruda recounts his deep regret for leaving the woman he had earlier dubbed his “amorous terrorist.” “I wanted to tell her that I too / suffered: / it’s not enough: / he who wounds is wounded himself until death.”
Neruda died in Chile, just 12 days after a coup on September 11, 1973, that drove his friend, the country’s socialist president Salvador Allende, from power and installed military supremo Augusto Pinochet. The circumstances of his death, at age 69, led many close to him, including his widow and his driver, to conclude that Neruda—who was battling cancer at the time—had been secretly poisoned by General Pinochet’s henchman.
The poet’s funeral, held at his home shortly after it had been ransacked by Chilean troops, was the first act of public protest against General Pinochet’s regime.
In 2013, a Chilean court ordered that Neruda’s remains be exhumed in order to conduct forensic tests to determine if he was in fact poisoned. Although the tests proved inconclusive, the remains have yet to be reburied at the request of his family who are seeking further tests.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.