Pablo and Josie

James Jennings

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The corner of Mahabandoola and Bogalay Zay Streets where Pablo Neruda once lived. Photograph: Thet Htoo

Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, better known as Pablo Neruda, reached Burma in 1927 after a sea voyage of several months. He was twenty-three and had recently been appointed as Chile’s honorary consul to Burma. The story goes that the impoverished young poet longed for a diplomatic posting to get away from Santiago de Chile, to step out into the world. Paris and London were unattainable dreams for a young man with few connections. When Neruda finally secured his interview, the foreign minister politely asked to which vacant posting Neruda wished to be sent. He chose Rangoon because it was the only place he had never heard of. The minister assented. Speaking very little English and no Burmese, and wholly ignorant about the place, Neruda had made a brave, adventurous decision.

Neruda’s main job in Rangoon was to go down to the port to inspect shipments of paraffin and tea that would eventually dock in Chile. The tedium compounded his loneliness. To make matters harder for himself, the radically minded young poet resolved to avoid the British colonial establishment. Nor does he seem to have cultivated any friendships with the Indians, Portuguese, French, Jews or Armenians living in Rangoon at the time. He was scornful of the espantosos Ingleses — the ghastly British. George Orwell, who was a policeman in Upper Burma at about the same time, also described the British settlers as a stultifying crowd. But for a young man badly in need of company, the standoffishness was unwise. Neruda became a very isolated observer of a city he did not begin to understand. In Rangoon 1927 (Alistair Reed’s translation*):

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