On World Poetry Day, remembering the friendship between Pablo Neruda and a postman
On World Poetry Day, Baradwaj Rangan revisits Il Postino, Michael Radford's 1994 masterpiece, which imagines a fictional friendship between Pablo Neruda and a shy postman
Ardiente paciencia (Burning Patience), by the Chilean writer Antonio Skármeta, was published in 1985. The story, set in Chile, imagined a fictional friendship between Pablo Neruda and a shy postman named Mario. The #PoetryRocks conceit was as Romantic as it gets. The entire village (fisherfolk, mostly) is illiterate, and then we have Neruda, one of the most reputed man of letters in the world. Naturally, he’s the only one getting mail (he hopes one of those letters will be from the Nobel committee), and after some hesitation, Mario summons up the courage to talk to him. They talk about poetry. They talk about politics. They talk about women. The book’s title comes from a line by Arthur Rimbaud that Neruda worked into his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Only with burning patience shall we conquer the splendid city that will give light, justice, and dignity to all men. Thus poetry will not have sung in vain.”
Ardiente paciencia is one of the great literary bromances, and it was made into a movie of the same name (directed by the author himself). But most of the world knows this story through the super-successful Italian film, Il Postino (The Postman, 1994), directed by the New Delhi-born Michael Radford. I haven’t seen the film version of Ardiente paciencia, but Il Postino is a sweetly sentimental tale about how poetry can transform lives. As in the book, the Mario character falls for Beatrice, who works in her aunt’s restaurant – and poetry becomes his way to woo her. At first, he is tongue-tied. But as his interactions with Neruda become more frequent, everything changes. Skármeta writes: “First with a vehemence and then as if he were a puppet and Neruda the ventriloquist, [Mario] gained such fluency that images flowed magically out of him, and the conversation – or rather the recital – lasted until dark.”
And what is this recital? To get to this point in the narrative, which involves Beatrice, we must first discuss how a man from an unlettered fishing family begins to understand the power of poetry. One day, after delivering mail, Mario asks Neruda what a metaphor is. The poet says that it’s when you talk of something, comparing it to another. For instance, when you say “the sky weeps,” you’re really saying that it’s raining. “It’s easy, then,” Mario says, “Why has it got such a complicated name?” Neruda replies, “Man has no business with the simplicity or complexity of things.” Mario, who has been reading the poet’s work, quotes from Walking Around: “The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs... It so happens I am sick of being a man.” He says, “That’s happened to me, too, but I never knew how to say it. I really liked it when I read it.”
Just like that, Mario has understood poetry. A few lines of verse have spoken to him, and he continues these discussions with Neruda, until he finally invents his own metaphor. They’re at the beach. Neruda recites a poem: Here on the island, the sea, so much sea. It spills over from time to time. It says yes, then no, then no. In blue, in foam, in a gallop, it says no, then no. It cannot be still. My name is sea, it repeats, striking a stone but not convincing it. Then with the seven green tongues of seven green tigers of seven green seas it caresses it, kisses it, wets it and pounds on its chest, repeating its own name. He asks Mario what he thinks. Mario says that the words went back and forth, and he almost felt seasick. “I felt like a boat tossing around on those words.” That’s it. That’s a metaphor.
And so we get to Mario’s recital. It’s to Beatrice, naturally. He tells her that her smile spreads across her face like a butterfly. And when Beatrice laughs at this imagery, he tells her that her laugh is like a sudden silvery wave. This is a chaste encounter, and Mario says he’s happy to be next to a pure young woman, like being on the shores of the white ocean. We hear this recital as a flashback. A moonstruck Beatrice narrates this to her aunt – and the aunt is horrified. (We must remember that they are not used to words like these.) She tells her niece, “Enough, my child! When a man starts to touch you with words, he’s not far off with his hands.” Beatrice protests that there’s nothing wrong with words. Her aunt says, “Words are the worst things ever. I’d prefer a drunkard at the bar touching your bum to someone who says, ‘Your smile flies like a butterfly’!”
We laugh, of course, but there’s an undercurrent of sadness that only those of us who worship words can feel. Imagine living a life bereft of their beauty. At a different point, Neruda tells Mario about the time he was a senator and he visited a region where it only rains once every 50 years. “I wanted to meet the people who had voted for me. One day at Lota, there was a man who had come up from a coal mine. He was a mask of coal dust and sweat, his face contorted by terrible hardship, his eyes red from the dust. He stretched out his calloused hand and said: ‘Wherever you go, speak of this torment. Speak of your brother who lives underground in hell.’ I felt I had to write something to help man in his struggle, to write the poetry of the mistreated. That’s how Canto General came about.” Mario’s words, on the other hand, may not have changed the world, but they’ve changed a woman’s life. They’ve made Beatrice feel beautiful in a way she’s never felt before. That’s poetry, too.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).