I have often, in my recently concluded diplomatic career of thirty-two years, reflected on what it was in my Peradeniya3 undergraduate education in the Department of English, or my "formation" as the French put it more aptly, that equipped me to face diplomacy's challenges and opportunities. I have no doubt that others have asked themselves the same question on the relevance of the study of English Literature to life after Peradeniya. For myself the question is framed in terms of whether my training in literary criticism and English literature in fact built a reservoir for me to draw upon in my work of representing Sri Lanka's national interests abroad.
A training in reading with discrimination and practical criticism is an obvious asset when confronted with the subtle propaganda not only of foreign governments but also your own. Acquiring the skill of writing with clarity, cogency and concision is also an enormous advantage. Beyond that there is also a more profound impact on our approach to life and society -- our world view and our values. Godfrey Gunatilleke, one of the more illustrious products of the Ludowyk era, has written in the 1984 publication of a collection of essays Honouring E. F. C. Ludowyk, that the study of English literature" became a doorway to an immensely rich body of knowledge" as we explored the milieu of the writers we read -- quaintly described, in my time, by such courses as "Eighteenth Century Background". I have wondered myself what, after all, are the bonds linking the magical world of the creative imagination of poets, playwrights and novelists and the mundane world of realpolitik and diplomatic negotiation in the management of relations among independent states.
The kind invitation of the annual Ludowyk Memorial Lecture organizers to be this year's speaker provides me with a fortuitous opportunity to undertake a deeper and more serious probing for the answers to these questions -- an opportunity which I grasp eagerly both as, perhaps, a self-serving exercise in introspection as well as, more extrovertly, a long overdue act of homage to Peradeniya and my teachers.
Except for a memorable month in my junior year, Lyn Ludowyk was not among my teachers in the English Department in Peradeniya. He had left, reportedly because of the ill health of his European wife and in a mood of disenchantment with the political trends in the country, the year before I entered this fabulously beautiful campus with soaring adolescent aspirations. But I had read and heard enough of Ludowyk's prodigious contribution to tbe worlds of scholarship, letters and theater and bad reverentially pored over his Marginal Comments to be awestruck by this legendary Peradeniya figure. In my final year in school I had, as an aspiring Thespian, watched Ludowyk's farewell production of Androcles and the Lion spellbound – a rare theatrical experience matched a little later by another masterly Peradeniya production Sarachchandra's Maname. I also recall Ludowyk's wry sense of humour as he defused the tension surrounding the" fast unto death" of a fellow Peradeniya don with the question" But why on earth the archaism?" In 1960 Ludowyk returned to Sri Lanka on a sentimental journey and for a month he brought Macbeth to life for me as no other teacher before or after has done, teasing out bidden gems of finely nuanced interpretation through his dramatic reading and his perceptive commentary.
Years later, as a neophyte diplomat on my first posting, I carried a letter from Hector Passe to Ludowyk at his London fiat. He generously took me under his wing and, learning of my strong interest in China and Chinese culture, invited me to lectures and other cultural events on China held in London. I never met Ludowyk after I left London on my transfer to Beijing in 1968 although his books, especially those on Sri Lanka, have been my constant companions.
There is an inescapably mordant tradition amongst Sri Lankans to be self-denigratory and in that spirit it has seemed to me that we are often perversely unable to recognize, and honour "prophets" in our own land. Professional rivalries and other petty considerations frequently prevent us from throwing bouquets as enthusiastically as we throw brickbats. I am, therefore, happy that another great adornment in our Intellectual life, the distinguished bibliographer Ian Goonetilleke, has generously endowed this series of annual lectures to commemorate the life and work of Professor E.F.C.Ludowyk. May it survive, long after the generation that knew Ludowyk has passed on, as a shrine to the eternal values that Ludowyk represented and his deep love for this land and her people.
My twin and life-long interests in literature and diplomacy have led me to a fascination with those in the diplomatic profession who have succeeded in retaining the creative spark under the carapace of protocol; to evoke through metaphor and imagery the kaleidoscope of different countries and cultural experiences they are privileged to live through forsaking the jargon of diplomatic dispatches and reportage; and, to remain sharply sensitive and emotionally responsive to the universality of the human condition unencumbered by nationalistic posturing and representational zealotry. And yet, both the diplomat and the creative writer must possess an acute sensibility and must be able to communicate. Sharp observation and the ability to register experiences and convey them are also shared virtues. But while the creative writer explores subtle shades of thoughts and emotions, the diplomat has to be precise and unambiguous in conveying situations or encounters.
And so I have read with enjoyment the novels of the British diplomat Lawrence Durrell's tetralogy -- The Alexandra Quartet -- and its evocation of the exotic and unique atmosphere of that Egyptian city; savoured the poetry of St. John Perse (the pseudonym of one of France's greatest diplomats Alexis Saint-Leger Leger) who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960, and the plays and symbolist poetry of his French compatriot Paul Claudel who was France's Ambassador to Japan, the USA and Belgium. Also from Europe is the Yugoslav diplomat-novelist Ivo Andric who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 and whose historical trilogy on Bosnia including The Bridge on the Drina which has, in the context of the ongoing tragedy fn the Balkans, acquired a special importance. From Latin America there is the haunting fusion of reality and fantasy in the fiction of the Mexican writer-diplomat Carlos Fuentes and the insightful depths in the literary work of his compatriot Octavio Paz who was concurrently accredited as Mexico’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka from New Delhi.
My focus of attention will be on the poet Pablo Neruda who was Chile's Consul in Rangoon (now Yangon), Colombo, Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris and Mexico City In his early from 1927 to 1940 and who was later to be the Chilean Ambassador to France from 1970 to 1972 during which time he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have no doubt that there are many others who have combined creative writing of varying quality with the active pursuit of the diplomatic profession both as career and non career diplomats, including our own Ediriweera Sarachchandra from whose sojourn as our envoy in Paris we have his English novel With a Begging Bowl. The larger the canvas the broader my brush strokes must necessarily be. And so, prudence and economy dictate that I confine myself to the work of Pablo Neruda -- alas, only in its English translation -- in order to discern, more clearly, the fusion between the worlds of the creative writer and the diplomat.
Another compelling rationale is certainly the fact that Neruda lived in Colombo from 1929 to 1930 while in his early twenties. Chile, until recently, imported large quantities of tea from us and this explains the reason for a Chilean consulate in Colombo although Neruda also attributes the network of Chilean consular posts to" the fights of fancy and self-Importance we South Americans generally indulge in “He refers in his Memoirs to his friendship with Lionel Wendt "the central figure of a cultural life torn between the death rattles of the Empire and a human appraisal of the untapped values of Ceylon” who "got into the extravagant and generous habit or every week sending to my house, which was a good distance from the city, a cyclist loaded down with a sack of books." Lodowyk was in Cambridge during these years, which explains why, to my knowledge, there is no record of the two of them meeting. Ian Goonetilleke, in his Lanka, their Lanka provides us with a vivid and detailed account of Neruda's stay in Sri Lanka and its impact on him and on his poetry. Neruda left Colombo for Jakarta with his Sri Lankan domestic aide Bhrampy and his pet mongoose Kiria. He revisited the country in the 1950s recalling that he had "… lived a lonely life in Ceylon, writing my bitterest poetry there, surrounded by the beauty of nature's paradise … I found none of my old friends. And yet the island knocked on the door of my heart again with its sharp sound, with its immense scintillation of light."
Born in 1904 in Parral in central Chile and named Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Pablo Neruda -- the name he assumed at the age of 16 -- belonged to a small farming community. His father moved after Neruda's mother died, within a month of his birth, to become a railroad worker in the southern town of Temuco. Publishing his first poem at the age of 13 Neruda moved to the capital Santiago to study at the Teachers' Institute while continuing to write and publish his poetry. He came to diplomacy as a poet hoping to influence the authorities to send him to Paris -- then very much the vortex of cultural currents for aspiring Latin American writers. He finally opted for the vacancy in Rangoon, which he had never heard of before. He did get to visit Paris, en route, traveling by ship from Chile to Burma finding a rather unique use for his newly acquired diplomat passport as a security deposit for an unpaid restaurant bill. So began Neruda's first phase as a diplomat.
The influence of his stay In Asia was manifold. He was encountering colonial societies and although Chile had been an independent country since 1818 for Neruda the wounds of Spanish colonialism were still unhealed. His perspective was distinctly that of what we call the Third World or the developing South today. He has been described as the "conscience of a continent" and his poems often express rage against the exploitation of the indigenous Indians in Chile.
As a Chilean Neruda was better equipped to empathize with the people of Asia. We see this in his Memoirs as be writes of his Rangoon days where the British boycotted him:
This boycott couldn't have pleased me more. Those intolerant Europeans were not really interesting. And after all, I had not come to the Orient to spend my life with transient colonizers but with the transient spirit of that world, with that large hapless human family.
Later in Colombo he writes of stopping off to listen fascinated by the beautiful singing and drumming in humble home on his way to a posh dinner-party and eventually telling his British dinner companions of the reason for his late arrival --
They, who had lived in Ceylon for twenty-five years, reacted with elegant disbelief. Music? The natives had musicians? No one had known about it. This was news to them. This terrible cap between the British masters and the vast world of the Asians was never closed. And it ensured an inhuman isolation, a total ignorance of the values and the life of the Asians.
Neruda was perceptive enough to recognize exceptions to this and mentions Leonard Woolf who stood out.
The creative writer in Neruda recognized the universality of the human condition and the need to reach out to all segments of the society he lived in. In Michael Radford's enchanting and luminously beautiful film Il Postino or "The Postman", produced a few years ago, the relationship between Neruda and a simple Italian village postman who delivered letters to the poet in exile is sensitively explored.
The professional diplomat similarly has to be able to mix with the elites and the masses if he is accurately to interpret the country of his accreditation to his government. Finely honed antennae and a wide range of contacts from all walks of life are essential also in enhancing your country’s image abroad. The occupational hazard of being in self-imposed confinement with the elites in foreign countries occurs not only in colonial and authoritarian regimes but also in democratic societies. Cosmopolitanism is not the superficial ease with which one slips into the sophisticated drawing room conversations in the capital cities of the world or the cultivation of epicurean tastes but rather the genuine appreciation and understanding of the diversity of peoples and cultures.
Neruda was comfortable writing in the language of his colonial legacy. He once said “What a great language I have. It’s a fine language we inherited from the fierce Conquistadores. They carried everything off and left us everything. They left us the words.” It was those words that Neruda used magically to become the voice of his continent. Neruda’s unique contribution was to take the use of the metaphor in Spanish poetry to new heights. Critics have said that Neruda’s poems were always “spoken poems” and that one had to listen to the poet himself recite them to grasp their meaning completely.
There is an anecdote illustrating the remarkable impact Neruda had in his continent. On a visit to a Latin American country Neruda was requested by a member of the audience to recite one of his more popular poems. Neruda hesitated, having momentarily forgotten the words; whereupon the entire audience rose to its feet to recite the poem in unison! How many poets in the world enjoy that kind of public acclaim? He used the Spanish language to articulate his thoughts and emotions to the entire world.
As a diplomat the careful and sensitive use of language as a vehicle of communication by speech and in writing is crucially important. A fluent use of internationally spoken languages -- Neruda spoke Spanish, French and English -- is an undoubted asset for diplomacy. Sri Lankan diplomats are fortunate to have ready access to English and, since we regained our independence in 1948, several Sri Lankan diplomats have distinguished themselves, especially in multilateral conference diplomacy, through their mastery of the English language used in the initial drafting of conference resolutions and declarations. Like Neruda we should shed the emotional baggage or the “hang-ups" -- such as the concept of English as a " kaduwa" -- in our post-colonial society. All Sri Lankans should have equal opportunities to learn and exploit the language we were left with by the British colonial administrators as a tool in our constructive engagement with the global environment for the benefit of our people while, at the same time, fostering our national languages and indigenous culture.
No diplomat can succeed unless he is deeply rooted in his country and his culture. Neruda, both as a diplomat and a creative writer, remained rooted at all times in Chile where the indigenous Araucanian Indian, Chango and Friegian cultures remained distinguishable amidst the majority mestizo and Christianized population. He was proud of his Chilean origins as is evident in these lines from the poem "The XIX” in the 1969 publication World's End --
How long is it been since Verlaine
rained over us? How long since
the umbrellas of Baudelaire
accompanied us in the glare of the sun?
Where are the Araucanian pines
in my Chile of yesteryear,
the evergreen oaks of the twentieth century,
and where are the hands, the fingers,
the gloves of our century?
Walt Whitman doesn't belong to us --
that's called the nineteenth century! --
yet he keeps tracking us down
because no one else cares for our company.
And now, over that desert Sputnik
has scattered the red of its pollen
between the stars.
The final lines refer cynically to the Soviet launched satellite.
By 1940 Neruda had reached the end of his diplomatic: tether and resigned his position as Consul General of Chile in Mexico City impatient with his bureaucracy and the racism of the Chilean elite. It is a small wonder that his artistic sensibility put up with it for so long. As Sir Harold Caccia said while being the British Ambassador in Washington, "If you are to stand up for your Government, you must be able to stand up to your Government."
Neruda's “diplomatic suicide", as he described it, resulted in a return to Chile which Neruda welcomed. He wrote in his Memoirs --
I believe a man should live in his own country and I think the deracination of human beings leads to frustration, in one way or another, obstructing the light of the soul.
I can live only in my own country.
I cannot live without having my feet and my hands on it and my ear against it, without feeling the movement of its waters and its shadows, without feeling my roots read down into its soil for maternal nourishment.
It is all too frequently assumed that the life of a diplomat abroad Is a bed or roses especially If the diplomat is from a developing country posted in a developed country. Living apart from one's country for an extended period can be as harmful to a creative writer's sensibility as it is to a professional diplomat. There is ultimately the isolation the diplomat experiences in a foreign country however gregarious he may be and, like the creative writer he must have the inner resources to fall back upon. Both need the nourishment of their soil and their cultural roots to continue their work productively. This is truer of diplomats from developing countries where the pace of political and social change is greater and where budgetary constraints prevent more generous home leave visits.
The diplomat, especially when located in a foreign assignment, is very much in public life and yet must jealously retain his private persona and sensibility in the same way as a creative writer. In another context Auden speaks of "this nightmare of public solitude". Neruda's loneliness in Colombo in his period as Consul continued to be reflected in his later poetry as these lines from “That Light” in his 1964 publication Memorial de Isla Negra ("Black Island Memorial") reveals --
The light in Ceylon that was life to me
was living death to me too -- for to Live
in a diamond's intensity
is a lonely vocation for corpses.
The poem ends with the words -- “Suckled by light / I live as I must."
We all do -- live, as we must. To do so, however, retaining one's individual identity as fiercely as possible, despite your representational capacity as a diplomat of your country, is not easy. Compromises in the pursuit of principle and firmly held beliefs must necessarily be internalized as diplomats conscious, of permanent national interests are constrained to defend transient government policies and rationalize the venality of their politIca1leaden. The diplomat who is a creative writer has a release -- an escape valve -- through his writing. Some other write their memoirs as an act of expiation for the bruising of the soul they have experienced in their working lives. Material comforts in a foreign country do not alleviate the loneliness of the soul and I am not surprised that alcoholism has been the refuge several diplomats have misguidedly sought. The strain of the nomadic life a diplomat must lead comes out in Neruda's poem “Goodbyes" –
And, newly arrived, promptly said goodbye …
Left everywhere for somewhere else ...
It's well known that he who returns never left.
…growing used …
to the great whirl of exile,
to the great solitude of bells tolling.
Neruda also wrote, “poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread." For the diplomat committed to peace and security internationally, peace within oneself can be achieved, as Neruda did, by creative writing. Perhaps Neruda Was seeking in poetry the truth he could not find in diplomacy where national interest, as the “realist school” of international relations theorists tells us, is the only morality. One of Neruda's American translators, William O'Daly, said of the poet, "He came to see poetry as a moral act, with personal and communal responsibilities.”
Neruda joined the Chilean Communist Party in 1945 after the first phase of his diplomatic career and while being an elected Senator in his country. It is outside my purview here to explain Neruda's political philosophy. It certainly led him to persecution and even exile from Chile as a consequence with the long arm of the Chilean Government even attempting to reach him in France and India. Neruda's Communism did not blind him to the defects of the former Soviet Union. He recognized its dogmatism in the arts and the absurdity of the personality cult.
He wrote in his Memoirs -- “…We know that life is stronger and more obstinate than precepts. The revolution is life; precepts prepare their own grave”. On his second visit to China be was revolted by the mindless adulation of Mao Zedong by the people waving Mao's little red book of quotations and recalled guiltily --
In Stalin's case, I had contributed my share to the personality cult … And now, here in plain sight, in the vast expanse of the new China's land and skies, once more a man was turning into a myth right before my eyes … I could not swallow that bitter pill a second time.
A mind unshackled by dogmatic beliefs provides the creative writer with the intellectual suppleness to absorb fresh ideas and new experiences. As a diplomat scrupulous objectivity is essential in approaching other ideologies. Filtering impressions of other governments and their policies through preconceived notions or beliefs would be a dereliction of the duties of diplomatic reporting. Blinkered visions and allegiance to personality cults, which can exist even in democracies, are serious impediments both for the creative writer and the diplomatic observer.
Neruda's oeuvre was as vast as it was rich and diverse. In a life of 69 years (1904 -73) he published over thirty volumes of poems beginning with the 1923 publication of Crepusculario. He died of cancer in the very week of the CIA orchestrated overthrow of his friend Salvador Allende. The range and depth of Neruda's poetry is astonishing. From the brooding melancholia of his early poems through the passion of his love poems and the Residencia en la Terra/ Residence on Earth ( 1925-45) written during his Asian sojourn. Neruda's is a quest for fulfillment in his relationships with women and with Nature escaping the drab mediocrity he saw himself surrounded by. It is not my intention here to "deconstruct" Neruda's poetry or to analyze his poetic achievement as I attempt to trace the links between his diplomatic persona and his identity as a creative writer.
Some critics see several Nerudas in his poetry. He approached poetry as a means of understanding the world around him and wrote --
Poetry is pure white,
It emerges from water covered with drops,
is wrinkled, all in a heap.
It has to be spread out, the sea's whiteness...
pure innocence returns out of the swirl.
Among the many Nerudas in his poetry there was also Neruda the politician. The poems of his volume Canto General are his most political in which he denounces the corrupt leaders of Latin America. Here he describes the history of his continent -- a primeval paradise, where man and nature were one, destroyed by colonialism and reborn and liberated through the elemental energy of nature. An important poem in this collection, and widely regarded as perhaps his best, is “The Heights of Machu Pichu” describing the spectacular fortress city of the Incas in the Peruvian Andes and now it establishes a link between Neruda and his ancestors:
We come upon permanence; the rock that abides and the
word the city upraised like a cup in our fingers,
all hands together, the quick and the dead and the quiet;
death’s plenitude holding us there, a bastion, the fullness
of life like a blow falling, petals of flint,
and the perduring rose, abodes for the sojourner,
a glacier for multitudes, breakwater in Andes.
More trenchant is his denunciation of American capitalism in his continent in the poem "The United Fruit Co.”--
When the trumpets had sounded and all
was in readiness on the face of the earth,
Jehovah divided his universe:
Anaconda, Ford Motors,
Coca-Cola Inc., and similar entities:
the most succulent item of all,
The United Fruit Company Incorporated
reserved for itself: the heartland
and coasts of my country,
the delectable waist of America.
They rechristened their properties:
The “Banana Republics.”
The profession of diplomacy perhaps more so than any other vocation embraces a large slice of life providing the creative writer in diplomacy with unique access to a wide gamut of experience with different social and professional groups. In the interpretation of the policies of a country one to another and the filtration of cultures, the diplomat is an important conduit. The success with which this function is performed depends very much on the sensibility and professionalism of the individual. This can of course be enhanced through training and experience but an innate intelligence and sensitivity remains the irreducible basis. The diplomat who pursues cultural interests outside of his purely official duties will find the opportunities abundant apart from the obvious one of foreign travel and the fresh stimuli that every change of environment brings with it.
Neruda had his talent for poetry before he embarked on a diplomatic career that gave him the stuff of life from faraway lands to write about. Towards the end his life he published a volume Plenos poderes -- the title being a pun on the plenipotentiary powers of the Ambassador. A poem in that volume is entitled "The Poet's Obligation" -- where be restates his purpose of being a voice for those who have no voice:
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.
So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to an keep
the sea's lamenting in my consciousness …….
So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.
An equally ambitious obligation may well be set for the diplomat as he endeavours to open doors for his government and the people be represents so that we may all live in a better and safer world. The world needs both the diplomat and the creative writer. Where the two identities merge in one individual there are clearly mutual benefits. But there are tensions as well. And it is perhaps these tensions that have produced the high quality of creative writing in Neruda and other diplomat-writers.