Neruda in Cuzco: Aftermath of Worlds Colliding

The shadows and sunshine of war even reached Cuzco in the early nineteen forties, when celebrated poet Pablo Neruda visited. The poet and those days are long gone, as is most of the generation that knew that time of war.

The Picantería “La Chola” where a plaque claims Neruda wrote while in Cuzco is also gone, though a new version has opened in the Casa Cartagena Hotel (Pumacurco 336). But the Machu Picchu about which he wrote still stands, and much of the dilemma of the Americas that filled Neruda’s writing can still be found.

At the time Machu Picchu was substantially covered by forest, as can be seen in fotos from Neruda’s visit. Cuzco itself was not the tourist mecca of fine restaurants and hotels it is today. It was a different, somehow more Andean, city divided among a small economic and racial elite — that celebrated both its European status and its connection to an Imperial past — and a mass of Indians with mestizos in between; This complex social and racial reality was captured in the photographs of Martin Chambi.

One cafe does remain from years near to those, the Cafe Extra (Espaderos 116). Just as the Cathedral still stands on one side of the main plaza with its airs of Inca times, and the Spanish conquest of Moorish Seville, Café Extra still receives many of Cuzco’s intellectuals for hot chocolate, coffee, food, and conversation. It tangibly reminds us, with its lack of sophistication, of a different though still living time, when in his Heights of Macchu Picchu Neruda wrote:

Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed
through the lost jungle’s tortured thicket
up to you, Macchu Picchu.
High city of laddered stones,
at last the dwelling of what earth
never covered in vestments of sleep.
In you like two lines parallel,
the cradles of lightning and man
rocked in a wind of thorns.

Mother of stone, spume of condors.

High reef of the human dawn.

Spade lost in the primal sand.

This was the dwelling, this is the place:
here the broad grains of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail.

Here gold thread came off the vicuña
to clothe lovers, tombs, and mothers,
king and prayers and warriors.

Here men’s feet rested at night
next to the eagles’ feet, in the ravenous
high nests, and at dawn
they stepped with the thunder’s feet onto the thinning mists
and touched the soil and the stones
till they knew them come night or death.

I look at clothes and hands,
the trace of water in an echoing tub,
the wall brushed smooth by the touch of a face
that looked with my eyes at the lights of earth,
that oiled with my hands the vanished
beams: because everything, clothing, skin, jars,
words, wine, bread,
is gone, fallen to earth.

And the air came in with the touch
of lemon blossom over everyone sleeping:
a thousand years of air, months, weeks of air,
of blue wind and iron cordillera,
that were like gentle hurricane footsteps
polishing the lonely boundary of stone.

But there was more to the “lonely boundary of stone”.  Going to Cuzco and Machu Picchu came at an important time in the poet’s life and had an outsized impact, as he describes.

It was a decisive encounter in my life.  It took place in 1943:  the great war of the Europeans still showed no signs of ending.  Goya had prophesied ‘The fantasy of reason will engender monsters.’  While reason slept in the world, the monsters practiced supreme butchery.

The monstrosity of war in Europe, with its fire bombings and mass destruction, led Neruda to confront the brutal Spanish invasion of the Americas, something shouted by every one of Cuzco’s stones.  Not only did it cause the fall of a great empire, it caused the new world’s population to collapse.  Only in the last century did it return to pre-Spanish levels.

Ever since the epoch of the sufferings of pre-Columbian America when, according to Father [Bartolomé de] las Casas the dogs of the invaders were nourished often with the flesh of live prisoners, women, children, and men;  reason never knew such a disastrous dream.  The degradation, the martyrdom, the annihilation on gigantic proportions, were methodically put into practice.  From ancient Europe came the crashing of bombs and from distant lands we followed a thread of blood, that, through the night and sea led us to this ancient scene of culture, now in slavery and agony.

In Machu Picchu, while  accompanied by the great Cuzco intellectual José Uriel Garcia, who sought to go beyond the straight jackets of race and the heritage of conquest in the lands Pizarro invaded, Neruda’s focus was transformed.  Like the indigenistas he wrote about the native heritage and the Indians but his focus, ultimately, was on a transformation of the modern context in which he wrote. More than a decade before Neruda came to Machu Picchu, José Uriel Garcia, like other indigenista intellectuals turned to the Indians to understand and critique the Latin American present.  García grasped this when wrote:

The future belongs to men of spirit, far more than to those of nervous riches or muscular power.  Our continent suffers, rather, from a plethora of organic vitality.  More than the river of blood, or physiological inheritance, life’s most exalted fruits were always won through spirit.  The epoch of “races” ended a long time ago, because those races were closed spirits, intimately tied to the circulation of blood.

Woman and Child in Cuzco
Woman and Child in Cuzco

With García’s words in his ear,  Neruda went to the hill top sanctuary.

Machu Pichu revealed itself before me like the persistence of reason above delirium. The absence of its inhabitants, of its creators, and the mystery of their origin with its silent tenacity opened for me a lesson of an order that man can establish over  centuries with his solidary will: the collective edifice capable of challenging nature’s disorder and human misfortune.

[Machu Picchu and other American] discoveries reveled many paths to me and among them the memory of my destiny with that lasting truth; with collective creations, in which all the ingredients — hope and anguish, delicacy and power –had been joined many times in a singular organism that directed all possibilities of action and gave origin to a new sonorous silence, filled with intelligence and music.

Neruda left Cuzco and went on to great fame, including a Nobel Prize in literature.  He saw his political dreams collapse in a brutal coup d’êtat and he died almost immediately as if his heart could not withstand the loss of his dream, his goal.

But he was not alone in his hopes and aspirations, nor in being inspired by the stones of Machu Picchu and Cuzco.  Many continue in his path.  If one listens carefully in Machu Picchu, or in Cuzco –even in Café Extra — one can still hear that “sonorous silence filled with intelligence and music,” and the cacophony around it, while sipping Cuzco’s hot chocolate.

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