Ricardo Reyes, AKA Pablo Neruda (would-be Nobel Prize winning poet) landed in Rangoon where he learned lessons in love, anger and passion. Bob Percival takes us on a kindred journey of Ricardo’s last day in the city.
RANGOON, Burma, November 1928 — Ricardo Reyes looks out the window of the Chilean Consulate, the view subsumed by the grand edifice of the Secretariat building, the architectural stamp of the British Empire. He hates the British; he thinks them stodgy and conservative, and he hates their parties—full of monotonous and ignorant colonials, none of whom can speak Spanish. Here in Rangoon the heat is unbearable—a damp oven. The city is fetid … a city of blood, dreams and gold … with a white hotel for whites and a golden pagoda for the golden.
In the office there is nothing to do. He has wasted eighteen months here, with only the occasional boat arriving from Calcutta giving him papers to fill out for paraffin and tea to be shipped off to Colombo. All he could do was escape to the temples and markets to think and write.
Then he met Josie Bliss, the furious one.
It was in the bed of his small apartment, not far from the office, that the boredom and pain finally ended. Now after eight months he would have to walk out without telling her; Josie the love terrorist, Josie the secretary, lover, and sorcerous. Outside, fig trees cast shadows across the empty road. It was time to leave.
He walks down the wooden stairs, carrying the small leather suitcase he bought in Calcutta. He feels the gentle curve of the worn teak as his hand slides down the banister. He can almost smell the jungle where those massive trees had been felled, brought down on the river by barge … a river that descended from the cruel jungle in to the stifling city, and its leprous streets.
Out into Mahabandoola Street, the light and heat is tempered by the insipid winter; a horse-drawn gharry languishes by—the sound of the hooves lost in the backdrop of Victorian splendor. Ricardo wonders whether the Secretariat will still be there in a hundred years, if his poems will survive these red clay bricks made by Indians darker than the already dark girls who wear their hair up high, stiffened with lacquer, a hardness against the soft skin.
Those stupid British. They advised him never to ride in the gharry, that these vehicles are used for illicit meetings; not the proper look for a colonial gentleman. No brothels, no opium dens, no Persian restaurants serving the most wonderful tea. To his delight he passed through all of them last night, his last night in Rangoon … the flower of the opium’s sloth, the immobilized joy of our act transcending all motion. When he arrived home, the crows were already waking up the city. Josie was furious with jealousy. He looked for the silver knife that she often cupped in her delicate hands while circling the bed, raging with passion … I hid because I feared you’d kill me and now suddenly I would like to smell its kitchen steel so accustomed to the weight of your hand and the shine of your foot.
He walks towards Sule Pagoda. A tram rumbles past full of monks on their way up to Shwedagon. What would they think of Josie? And what would they think of him leaving her here alone with a savaged heart? There must be forgiveness there. There are so many gods in Burma, it is a city of gods … naked and elegant buddhas smiling at the cocktail party of empty eternity. He passes the Sunni mosque—the call to prayer. Mecca covering Rangoon five times a day with the sound of another God. A God who cannot be seen. There is no room to sleep in this noise of belief.
He nears his apartment. The tower of the fire station rises above. The highest building in Rangoon. The other day Alvaro had shown him a photograph of those colonial civil servants burning an effigy of the Kaiser, on this same spot; even the Indian workers had joined in—loyal to the King, all God’s men. In Chile, royalty is traded for military juntas. Now he doesn’t even talk to Alvaro, only silence for his best friend. There is nothing to say.
One more block. The footpath is crowded with fruit sellers. He loves the streets of Rangoon … the Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns … the Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples … and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside. A rat scrambles into the broken drain with open sewer. He comes to his doorway and walks up the steep wooden steps for the last time, unlatches the padlock, and sits down, exhausted, at the kitchen table. It’s bare except for a porcelain vase containing six yellow roses. He writes the letter. He knows that when Josie reads it she will curse everyone, especially his own mother … calling her a mother of dogs. He will tell Josie, La Magnila, the evil one, where he hid the knife, buried at the base of the coconut tree; the weapon that was the endpoint of her love. He lays down the pen and looks around. This is where she killed his boredom and taught him that love, anger, and passion shared the same bed. He is twenty-four years old.
He leaves the letter on the table with the six yellow roses, locks the door and leaves the key in its hiding place. He moves forward, down Sule Pagoda Road to Strand Road, then across to the wharves where the steamer is docked, its funnel already spewing black smoke ready to head south to Colombo. The high water ebb of the river has reached its peak, held up by the incoming flood tide. A brief period of slack water forms across the river. He walks up the wooden gangway and looks down at the stillness, and he felt a slight shudder … the river murmured things that I might have said to her in tears.
Josie followed Ricardo to Colombo soon after. She boarded a steamer, carrying a bag of rice, some blankets and the Paul Robeson records they loved listening to. On arriving at Colombo she set up camp outside Ricardo’s suburban bungalow, playing records, cooking meals and harassing any woman that landed on Ricardo’s doorstep. Threatened by police action, Josie was finally convinced to return to Rangoon, but not before demanding that Ricardo be there at the wharf to say goodbye. Pablo Neruda writes that at the last moment of leaving … she was seized by a gust of grief and love. We do not hear Josie’s story. Josie Bliss was never heard of again and her real name was never revealed. Pablo Neruda returned to Rangoon thirty years later. He searched for Josie, but all had gone. The apartment they had shared together, and the Chilean Consulate, had both been demolished, and Josie could not be found.
When you die, she used to say to me, my fears will end.
This article was first published on MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine InDepth, December 2014 issue.