Friday, 27 March 2015

Pablo Neruda's Forgotten Books

Whilst I'm still in post-holiday mood, something rather different for today, but still (sort of) on the theme of Forgotten Books. My trip kicked off in Valparaiso, a city that reminded me slightly of Liverpool - it's a port, with tremendous character. But unlike Liverpool, it's surrounded by mountains, and a host of funicular railways (not all of them working, unfortunately) make it easier to get up and down the steep slopes. There was something cheekily Liverpudlian, I thought, about the restaurant where I had a good meal and which called itself after Emile Dubois, a murderer who somehow became a local folk hero.

One of Valparaiso's more creditable claims to fame is as the site of one of the homes of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize winning poet and political activist. It's called La Sebastiana, and it's a gorgeous house, which takes full advantage of a great vantage point overlooking the Pacific from the slopes, and which boasts some fabulous architecture. Today it's one of the must-see sights in Valparaiso, and I really enjoyed my visit.

Neruda's judgment wasn't always sharp - he continued to admire Stalin long after even the likes of Victor Gollancz had come to regret their devotion to the Soviet mass-murderer. But, like a remarkable number of Communists of his generation, he was a passionate fan of detective fiction (it's a reminder, too, of the links between poetry and the classic whodunit.) Some people have even suggested that he took his pen-name, Neruda, from the surname of a famous violinist mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

Mention of Neruda's love of "police stories" is just a throwaway line in the audio commentary about the house, but when I reached his library at the top of the building, I decided to investigate. And there I found a collection of detective fiction paperbacks written in English. They even included two of my personal favourites, Trial and Error, by Anthony Berkeley, and The Grindle Nightmare, by Q. Patrick; his editions were identical to mine. Michael Innes was one of the other Golden Age writers represented, along with such diverse names as George Baxt and Elizabeth Fenwick. In all, there weren't many books in this famous writer's home (he was one of those Communists who owned several luxurious homes, so perhaps he kept the bulk of his library elsewhere) but it was fascinating to have this glimpse of his taste in popular fiction, as well as to learn more about one of the stellar names of twentieth century literature.


John said...

I hate to be cynical but do you really think those were Neruda's own books? They might just as easily been selected as prop books to fill the shelves as decoration. I guess it's my natural tendency to see theater in all things dealing with historical sites and museums that makes me think this way. I'm always checking out books on bookshelves (museums, historical sites, and even restaurants and hotel lobbies among other places) and I almost nearly find they are junk books purchased for either their decorative bindings a or their "vintage look".

Graham Powell said...

I don't know if you've ever seen the film Il Postino, a touching story of Neruda's brief exile in Italy and the effect he has on a local man. It's worth watching.

Val said...

fascinating, love the photos...aren't other people's book shelves irresistible!