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College of Liberal and Fine Arts

“The Magical Reality of Food in Pablo Neruda’s Odas.” by María A. Salgado

The Magical Reality of Food in Pablo Neruda’s Odas

María A. Salgado

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

In another essay dealing with Pablo Neruda and his representation of food that I read at this same conference a number of years ago, I spoke of my surprise when I had discovered a little known book published in 1969 by Neruda and his friend and comrade Miguel Ángel Asturias, which they titled Comiendo en Hungría (Eating in Hungary). My surprise was due mostly to my ignorance of many of the details of Neruda’s life and personal taste. The image of the poet I had constructed in my mind was strictly literary and dated from my reading of his works when I was a fairly unsophisticated undergraduate student. At that time, I had read Neruda as if he were a disembodied poet; one strictly associated with a highly learned literary tradition and totally unrelated to real life experiences. With this one-sided image in mind, I was not ready to accept that the elegant love poet of  Veinte poemas de amor (1924), the visionary surrealist of the Residencias (1931, 1935, 1947), or even the politically controversial epic bard of Canto general (1950) could possibly become involved in writing a project so clearly identified with every day life, politics, and popular culture as Comiendo en Hungría, a “journey” through Hungarian cuisine. But as I began to read Neruda’s praise and exultation of the foods and wines of Hungary, I became increasingly aware that behind the literary persona I had constructed stood a real person: one that loved the pleasures of a good table. Later, I would also learn of his joy in the preparation and savoring of food in the company of his family and friends. This very human Neruda is the earthy poet who penned the odes to food I examine in this paper.

            Neruda’s knowledge of and delight in the pleasures of a good table were genuine; Saúl Yurkievich has called him an “avezado gastrónomo” (18; expert gourmet). A measure of Neruda’s knowledge and delight on gastronomy can be enjoyed by reading his portrayal of the vegetables, fruits, and food items that he so artfully celebrated in his odas. And yet, despite his masterful portrayals, few critics have examined in detail what is the prism, or the mirror, used by Pablo Neruda to endow such quotidian objects with the magic aura of poetry. I argue in these pages that in his quest for a new and less grandiose mode of expression the Chilean poet found this reflecting prism in the literary possibilities of magical realism, a modality that had been around artistic circles since the 1920s. It was first identified in European painting by the German critic Franz Roh, who named this post-expressionist mode in a book he published in 1925. This same modality was also present in the writings of several European Avant Garde authors; the Venezuelan Arturo Uslar Pietri (a close friend of Neruda) also points it out in his country’s short stories in his book of 1948 Letras y hombres de Venezuela. Given the prevalence of this new literary approach in the representations of the Avant Garde, and given Neruda’s friendship with this group as well as with other magical realist writers, such as his friend Miguel Ángel Asturias, it seems logical to argue that he was aware of this tendency and saw its possibilities for poetizing in his odas a new, simpler and more engaging vision of the material world that surrounded him.

            Magical realism has been defined in a multitude of ways. For the purpose of this paper, and because it so succinctly captures what I consider the ultimate style of Neruda’s elementary odes, I would like to preface my working definition with the brief description of American Magical Real art I have taken from the ArtCyclopedia. In this source, magical realism is defined as an “American style of art with Surrealist overtones. The art is anchored in every day reality, but has overtones of fantasy and wonder” (n. p.). If one does not limit the adjective American to the USA as this quote does, but opens it up to the more inclusive Spanish meaning of the term, which includes the whole American continent, it is easy to see how it describes in broad strokes the magical real style of Neruda’s odes, “an art anchored in every day reality with overtones of fantasy and wonder.” More detailed and precise however is the open ended characterization of magic realism given by S. Erin Denney that I would like to use for contextualizing Neruda’s food imagery in this essay:

 

[Denney’s] project defines magic realism as that literature which crosses the border between two separate literary discourses, the realistic and the magical. In their most polarized forms ‘realism’ refers to a literary discourse that represents those aspects of the world open to empirical proof, whereas ‘magic’ refers to the literary system that admits the existence of something which can not be proven, the existence of the supernatural. The supernatural, however, takes culturally specific forms consisting of many different local manifestations with a variety of different laws and characteristics. In joining these contrasting literary systems, magic realism disrupts the traditional meanings of these terms and obscures the hierarchy of realism over magic which reflects conventional Western epistemologies. In upsetting this hierarchy magic realism allows for and encourages the disruption of further hierarchical binaries. (n.p.)

 

The fact that one of the main thrusts of Odas elementales is to disrupt hierarchies and subvert traditional Western epistemologies is no secret; it has been pointed out by several Neruda critics. In fact, despite their apparent simplicity and whimsical representations the odes were designed as another tool in the arsenal of Neruda’s political agenda. The unthreatening, fanciful style of magical realism offers an ideal means for “innocently” subverting both social and poetic hegemonic conventions. Conscious of this double subversion, René de Costa notes the poems’ political connotations, asserting that “Odas elementales is, in a very real sense, a logical corollary of Canto general, the lyric counterpart of the public voice Neruda had earlier assumed for the narrative purpose of the epic” (160). Another critic, Mario Enrico Santí, has pointed out the need not to overlook that by making poetry out of the objects of daily life, Neruda was upsetting conventional historical hierarchies, transposing “political categories into the sphere of poetic perception.” Santí emphasizes that the “elevation of common objects constitutes a leveling of poetic subjects and the breaking down of class distinctions, as if reducing all things to the same standard…” (210).

            This leveling of poetry and poetic subjects stands behind Neruda’s move to use the ode for representing common objects. The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms emphasizes that in modern usage the ode designates “the most formal, ceremonious, and complexly organized form of lyric poetry,” adding that the “serious tone of the ode calls for the use of a heightened diction and enrichment by poetic devise.” If one contrasts the noble lineage of the ode, its formal conventions, and its high-flown language with the whimsicality and simple diction of Neruda’s poems, the title “odas elementales” becomes clearly oxymoronic. It signals, even before the book is open and the poems are read, the poet’s irreverent democratization of poetry. This democratization is also present in the arrangement of the poems within the books, which rather than responding to the cohesive, logical, organization characteristic of a modern poemario or book of poems, are organized in alphabetical order, each standing on its own, giving the appearance of randomness.1 Highly democratic and poetically irreverent also are the objects of ordinary life that Neruda has chosen to protagonize each ode; this is particularly true when one considers the unglamorous types of food he poetizes.

             The political impact and the social connotations of the odes have been explored by several critics, in particular by David J. Anderson, Jr. He establishes not only the socio-political signification implicit in the form, themes, and images of these pomes, but also, and especially, the evolution of Neruda’s ideology within the odes. In his opinion, Neruda writes his first book of odes within the aesthetic tenets of socialist realism, but his later volumes become ostensibly detached from such prescriptive ideology (131).2 In other words, as Neruda evolves he represents objects and messages freer from socialist realism’s oppressive ideological weight.

            The four books of odes were published within a five year period. The dates of publication are as follows: Odas elementales 1954, Nuevas odas elementales 1956, Tercer libro de las odas 1957, and Navegaciones y regresos 1959.3 Critics have speculated about the poet’s trepidation over the problematic reception of the new type of poems he had began to write for his first book of odes. According to René de Costa this trepidation was due to the fact that Neruda had in mind a double readership: he wanted to “reach a new audience, supposedly unfamiliar with the conventions of poetry, without alienating the old” (145). To address this “old,” more experienced, group of readers, Neruda “sprinkled throughout Odas elementales poems directed towards the critics, the supposedly effete arbiters of literary taste whose reaction to simple poetry was anticipated both negative and hostile” (de Costa 145). Such fear and precautions appear to have been unnecessary since, as de Costa reports, the reception of the Odas “turned out to be an immediate and unqualified success with practically everyone, the ordinary reader as well as the literary establishment” (145). Much of this “unqualified success” rests no doubt on the whimsical effect that the magical treatment of ordinary material objects had imparted to the in many other respects uninteresting prosaic qualities of everyday reality. For René de Costa, “the poet’s attitude is so consistently serendipitous throughout [Odas elementales]. … that the overall effect is like that of a fairy tale: we are charmed by each fantastic occurrence but unwilling to accept the overall design as a meaningful facsimile of reality” (167). It is precisely this irreverent mixture of magic and realism that many years later would turn into an instant bestseller Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, another overtly political text that poetizes daily life in Latin America while questioning Western hierarchical conventions.

            Prior to the height of magical realism in the late 1960s and 70s, however, Neruda had already magically poetized in his books of odes the most basic aspects of daily life, thus awakening the immediate and personalized response he sought from his readers. His odes do speak of nature with its intrinsically poetic fruits and flowers, but they also address the prosaic trades, objects, and feelings that make up the world of ordinary people, affecting their daily lives and the ways they live. This emphasis on prosaic reality is what also stands out when one examines the food stuffs Neruda chooses for his odes’ protagonists. Contrary to poetic conventions, he does not speak of items such as the grapes, apples, oil, bread, and wine of classical tradition, charged with poetic symbolism since the days of the Greeks; he chooses instead the humble items that have always remained in the background, never becoming the subject of poetry.4 De Costa points out that in the poet’s hands, the most everyday subjects “are slight in name only, and that is their charm, for Neruda treats them with the same reverence that Saint Francis of Assisi had for all of God’s creation … and with the same sense of marvel that the Spanish Fray Luis de Granada had for the most insignificant of these creatures” (155).

            A list of the foods that appear in the odes highlights their day to day presence in the most humble of kitchens. Only nineteen of the more than two hundred odes Neruda included in these four books deal with food; two additional ones represent objects closely associated with eating in Western tradition, the spoon and the table. Of the nineteen dedicated to food, eight deal with fruits: the artichoke, the chestnut, the tomato, the plum, the lemon, the apple, the orange, and the water melon; two with vegetables: the onion and the potato; two with cereals: wheat and corn; two with fish: the conger eel and the tuna; and five with man-made products: bread, wine, olive oil, salt, and fried potatoes. The odes to fruits are the largest in number and include one of the most anthologized and studied, that to the artichoke; equally celebrated has been the ode to a vegetable, the onion. Despite their popularity with critics and reading public, however, no one has examined the role played by magical realism in constructing their imagery, the topic I will investigate in the rest of this paper.

            The popularity of the odes to the artichoke and the onion probably rests in their sheer whimsicality, their magic; to read them is to experience the “fairy tale” effect described by de Costa. “Oda a la alcachofa” defamiliarizes this common fruit by transforming it into a medieval, if somewhat sentimental, knight:

La alcachofa

de tierno corazón

se vistió de guerrero,

erecta, construyó

una pequeña cúpula,

se mantuvo

impermeable

bajo

sus escamas  (49, 1-9)

 

As one would expect of a food item, the artichoke generously offers its own flesh to the hungry; its fierce appearance is thus deceiving as it hides a “tender heart.” The image of the armored knight with the tender heart is obviously constructed with the most often used technique in magical realism: the hyperbolic exaggeration of characteristics that are immanent to the material object described. There is no doubt that the best part of an artichoke, the sweetest and most tender is its heart, and there is no doubt either that the scales outside of the fruit resemble an armor. Neruda further defamiliarizes, and thus poetizes, the artichoke and its world by drawing around the fruit’s figure a magical Disney-like scene in which the armored knight appears surrounded by the other fanciful inhabitants of the garden, hyperbolized also through their most recognizable traits: the red mustached carrots, the shriveled up vine shoots, the many skirted cabbage, and the perfumed oregano:

en el subsuelo

durmió la zanahoria

de bigotes rojos,

la viña

resecó los sarmientos

por donde sube el vino,

la col

se dedicó

a probarse faldas,

el orégano

a perfumar el mundo (49, 16-27)

 

The martial armored artichoke (“bruñida / como una granada / orgullosa”5 [50, 32-34]) is eventually picked and taken to fulfill its military destiny. In the market, among tightly constructed martial rows of vegetables, the artichoke awaits the commands of the sellers while listening to the clamor that, as in a battle, explodes all around. Finally, it is bought by a woman and ends up on a table where the guests--among whom sits the reader invited to the banquet via Neruda’s use of the all-inclusive first person plural--divest it one by one of its scales in order to enjoy its delicious and peaceful green heart:                                        

Escama por escama

desvestimos

la delicia

y comemos

la pacífica pasta

de su corazón verde (51, 81-86)

 

Similar magical whimsicality can be observed in the “Oda a la cebolla.” The humble onion has long been associated with the food of the poor--in Spanish culture, the popular saying, “contigo pan y cebolla” (with you bread and onion), signifies the willingness to live with the loved one even under extreme poverty. Within a more literary context, the reader may recall the “Nanas de la cebolla,” a lullaby written from jail to his hungry baby son by a friend of Neruda, the Spaniard Miguel Hernández, a poet who died in prison after having been incarcerated by General Francisco Franco in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. It is precisely due to this association to poverty that Neruda describes the onion as “redonda rosa de agua, / sobre / la mesa / de las pobres gentes” (73, 26-29) and later adds: “espolvoreada / con un poco de sal, /matas el hambre / del jornalero en el duro camino” (74, 47-50); he also addresses it with capricious, litany-like epithets: “Estrella de los pobres, / hada madrina” (74, 51-52), and stresses its utility, showing that despite its beauty (“Cebolla, / luminosa redoma, / pétalo a pétalo / se formó tu hermosura” [72, 1-4]) the onion is always near “las manos del pueblo,” thus deserving the poet’s most enthusiastic praise:                                        

Yo cuanto existe celebré, cebolla,

pero para mí eres

más hermosa que un ave

de plumas cegadoras,

eres para mis ojos

globo celeste, copa de platino,

baile inmóvil de anémona nevada

y vive la fragancia de la tierra

en tu naturaleza cristalina (74, 63-72)

 

As in the case of the artichoke, the poetic terms used to transform the onion into a magical object are hyperbolic metaphors of the onion’s own natural and culturally constructed qualities. It could be argued that the popularity of these two poems rests on being two of Pablo Neruda’s most fanciful odes. And yet, they are not different in either technique or fancifulness from the rest; all his odes are written following a formula that transforms ordinary attributes into magical ones through a complex series of highly imaginative hyperbolic metaphors. This method succeeds in capturing the attention of the reader by defamiliarizing the object, trade, or emotion poetized and re-inscribing it from a different unusual angle, thus forcing the reader to see anew something that had lost its mystery due to its commonality in daily life. This same metamorphosis can be observed in another ode, not so frequently cited, that Neruda wrote to the potato. In this poem he seeks to show not only the magic of this vegetable, but additionally and more importantly, how the humble potato is perhaps the main contribution of the American continent to feeding the poor of the world. The ode begins by reminding the reader in no uncertain terms of the potato’s American origins and simultaneously establishing the same American origins for the poetic voice and his readership:

Papa

te llamas,

papa

y no patata,

no naciste con barba,

no eres castellana:

eres oscura

como

nuestra piel,

somos americanos,

papa,

somos indios. (364, 1-12)

 

The adjectives and metaphors he next chooses for describing the potato suggest images of genuineness (“Profunda / y suave eres”), beauty (“rosa blanca”), and purity (“pulpa pura, purísima” [365, 14-16), which quickly endow this unassuming vegetable with the prestige granted in Western lyric poetry to these particular attributes. Furthermore, as the poet continues its transformation, the potato, a utilitarian prosaic object, becomes through the magic of language the metaphoric gold that the Spanish Conquistadores brought back to feed the old continent:         

pero cuando a las piedras de Castilla

regresaron

los pobres capitanes derrotados,

levantaron en las manos sangrientas

no una copa de oro,

sino la papa de Chiloé marino (366, 66-72)

 

Despite its unparalleled accomplishments, the potato, unconcerned with its own fame, busily goes on reproducing itself and feeding humanity. Amazed at the potato’s endurance, the poetic voice concludes his ode praising the potato’s shyness and highlighting its hidden treasure: the happiness and camaraderie this appetizing food brings to the gatherings of common people:

Universal delicia,

no esperabas

mi canto

porque eres sorda

y ciega

y enterrada.

Apenas

si hablas en el infierno

del aceite

o cantas

en las freidurías

de los puertos,

cerca de las guitarras,

silenciosa,

harina de la noche

subterránea,

tesoro interminable

de los pueblos. (367, 99-116)

 

The potato, brown and soft skinned like the American Indians, its flesh a pure white rose; the onion, a celestial globe, a platinum goblet, the dance of a white anemone; the artichoke, a medieval knight in his armor, with a tender and peaceful green heart at its core… These whimsical images are only three examples of the many ways in which Pablo Neruda succeeds in magically transforming into poetry the very real and simple foods we eat everyday. Food is but a small part of the totality of everyday reality represented in the odes, however. The magic with which Neruda endows each and every one of the rest of the objects, characters, or emotions he poetizes makes them come alive in new and unexpected ways for the reader, who after seeing these common stuffs of our daily life transformed by the prism of magical realism cannot look at them again with detached indifference. Pulling at the leaves of an artichoke, pealing a potato, or slicing an onion will never be the same again once Pablo Neruda has made us see the magical connections that tie these not-so-ordinary objects of the empirical world to the fanciful and affective side of our most intimate feelings.

   

 

Works Cited

   

Anderson, David G. On Elevating the Common Place. A Structuralist Analysis

            of the “Odas” of Pablo Neruda. Valencia: Albatros de Hispanófila, 1987.

ArtCyclopedia. “Artists by Movement: Magical Realism.” (1-23-2005)

           <www.artcyclopedia.com/history/magic-realism.html>

Costa, René de. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Cambridge & London: Harvard

            UP, 1973.

Denney, Erin S. “Crossing Borders: Marginalization and Magic Realism in

            Contemporary British Fiction.” (1-23-2005)

            <www.inkyfingers.com/samerin/proposal.html>

Hernández, Miguel. Poesías. Madrid: Taurus, 1970. 4th. Ed. 122-24.

Neruda, Pablo. Obras completas II. De “Odas elementales” a “Memorial de Isla

            Negra 1954-1964.” 4 vols. Edición y notas Hernán Loyola; Prólogo Saúl

            Yurkievich. Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores / Galaxia Gutenberg, 1999.

Salgado, María A. “La confluencia de ajíes y paprika: Hungría en el imaginario

            de Asturias y Neruda.” Convivium Artium. Fall 2002 (1-23-2005)

           <www.flan.utsa.edu/conviviumartium/CurrentIssue.htm>

Santí, Enrique Mario. Pablo Neruda. The Poetics of Prophecy. Ithaca &

            London: Cornell UP, 1982.

The New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms. Ed. T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton:

            Princeton UP,  1994.

Yurkievich, Saúl. Prólogo to Pablo Neruda, Obras completas II. 9-32.