Rangoon in the 1920s was one of the busiest ports in the world, second only to New York in its comings and goings. It was a cosmopolitan metropolis of the East, home to Englishmen, Bengalis, Armenians, Tamils, Chinese and one notable Chilean, the celebrated poet Pablo Neruda.
Neruda was in Rangoon as honorary consul of Chile, an unpaid posting, but nevertheless, the impoverished young man had jumped at the opportunity to leave Chilean backwaters. All of Latin America’s literary elite lived in Paris, and so, Neruda determined he must must travel overseas too.
The building in which he lived is still standing, its turmeric-hued facade offering up no secrets about its most famous resident.
Scornful of the petty colonial bourgeosie, Neruda gleefully flouted their conservative mores whenever he could, whether it was smoking opium, riding in local transport or taking a native lover. But Neruda betrayed his own provincialism when he wrote his sister, “Here the women are black. Don’t worry, I won’t be getting married.”
Once the enchantment of the Exotic Orient had worn off, he could not look past the unflattering stereotypes.
As for Neruda’s native lover, his “Burmese panther,” “she dressed in the English style and her street name was Josie Bliss, but in the privacy of her house, which I soon came to occupy, she slipped out of this impersonation and name and reverted to an eye-filling sarong and her Burmese name.”1
In his interpretation, the modern woman was a mask for a more authentic and unchanging oriental self.
That oriental self was still savage and animalistic, like the metaphors he used to describe Josie in his poems: “the swallow in your eyes, the furious dog that you shelter in your heart.”2 A few stanzas later, he reduces Josie to the most basic of instincts: “And just to hear you urinating in the dark, at the back of our home/ pouring out fine honey…”3
Significantly, he never mentioned her in his correspondence with friends and family back home.
In his inability to see Josie, Neruda revealed his limitations as an artist. Had he tried harder, he might have realised that Burmese women did not have to be reconfigured for modernity.4 Indeed, the “savage” Josie was likely more sophisticated than her civilised European lover.
Burmese women had always moved freely in society, unencumbered by practices such as foot binding or purdah, working outside the home and running their own businesses. By the 1920s, many had had some degree of formal schooling, including Josie, who at one point served as Neruda’s secretary.
Moreover, Burma was far from a closed society before the arrival of the British. Marriage between foreign traders and local women was common, and where financially advantageous, even desirable. These marriages were governed by Burmese law, which had historically entitled women to an equal share in marital property. Thus Burmese women were well-served by their own tradition.
It was only under colonial rule, when the personal law of the male foreigner came to apply to such unions, that their dissolution–often upon the arrival of a hitherto unknown memsahib from the home country– could be ruinous for a Burmese woman.
Unsurprisingly, then, as Neruda’s desire to leave Burma grew, so did Josie’s insecurity. Obtusely, he complained of her natural jealousy and how “her paroxysms became increasingly savage. She developed a crazy aversion for letters addressed to me with a foreign postmark.” One night, “I [saw] Josie…pacing…around my bed, deciding whether to kill me or not.”5
A posting in Ceylon opened up fortuitously, allowing Neruda to flee his “love terrorist.” But Josie would not give up on her lover. She followed him, taking with her a bag of rice, a gramophone player and the Paul Robeson records they had enjoyed in happier times (displaying her good taste).
Ever the coward, Neruda would not meet with her in Ceylon and asked a friend to persuade her to leave. Josie accepted, on the condition he come to see her off.
Even at the end however, Neruda would not allow Josie the dignity of being his equal.
He wrote: “She kissed my arms, my suit, in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face.”6