July 16, 2011

ARMENIA | by Pablo Neruda

(In 1957, Pablo Neruda and Matilde Urrutia traveled to Moscow and from there spent several months touring the Soviet republics of Abkhazia and Armenia. The following is a rather queer account of Yerevan and the Writers' Union.)

Now we are flying toward a hard-working and legendary country. We are in Armenia. Far off, to the south, Mt. Ararat's snowy peak towers over Armenia's history. This, according to the Bible, is where Noah's ark came aground to repopulate the earth. A hard undertaking, because Armenia is rocky and volcanic. The Armenians farmed this land with untold sacrifice and raised their national culture to the highest place in the ancient world. The socialist society has brought extraordinary development and flowering to this noble, martyred nation. For centuries, Turkish invaders massacred the Armenians or made them their slaves. Every rock on the plateaus, every tile in the monasteries has a drop of Armenian blood. This country's socialist renaissance has been a miracle and gives the lie to those who speak, in bad faith, of Soviet imperialism. In Armenia I visited spinning mills that employ five thousand workers; immense irrigation and power works; and other powerful industries. I covered the cities and rural areas from end to end and I saw only Armenians, Armenian men and women. I met only one Russian, a blue-eyed engineer among the thousands of black eyes of this dark-skinned people. The Russian was running a hydroelectric plant on Lake Sevan. The surface area of the lake, whose waters empty out through just one channel, is too large. The precious water evaporates and parched Armenia is unable to gather its riches and put them to use. To beat the evaporation, the river has been widened. Thus the lake's level will be lowered, and at the same time, with the added water in the river, eight hydroelectric stations, new industries, gigantic aluminum plants, electric power and irrigation for the whole country, will be created. I shall never forget my visit to that hydroelectric plant overlooking the lake, whose pure waters mirror Armenia's unforgettable blue sky. When the journalists asked me for my impressions of Armenia's ancient churches and monasteries, I answered them, stretching things a little: "The church I like best is the hydroelectric plant, the temple beside the lake."

I saw many things in Armenia. I think Yerevan is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen; built of volcanic tuff, it has the harmony of a pink rose. I shall never forget my visit to the astronomical observatory of Byurakan, where I saw the writing of the stars for the first time. The trembling light of the stars was picked up; very fine mechanisms were taking down the palpitation of the stars in space, like an electrocardiogram of the sky. In those graphics I observed that each star has its own distinct way of writing, tremulous and fascinating, but unintelligible to the eyes of an earth-bound poet.

At the zoo in Yerevan I went straight to the condor's cage, but my countryman did not recognize me. There he stood in a corner of his cage, bald-pated, with the skeptical eyes of a condor without illusion, a great bird homesick for our cordilleras. I looked at him sadly, because I was going back to my country and he would remain behind bars forever.

My experience with the tapir was something different. Yerevan's zoo is one of the few that own a tapir from the Amazon, the remarkable animal with an ox's body, a long-nosed face, and beady eyes. I must confess that tapirs look like me. This is no secret.

Yerevan's tapir was drowsing in his pen, near the pond. When he saw me his eyes lit up; perhaps we had met in Brazil once. The zoo keeper asked me if I would like to see him swim and I answered that I would go around the world just for the pleasure of watching a tapir swim. They opened a small door for him. He threw me a happy look and plunged into the water, puffing like some fabled sea horse, like a hairy triton. He rose up, lifting his whole body out of the water; he dived under, stirring up a stormy rush of waves; he surfaced, drunk with joyfulness, he huffed and puffed, and then he went on with his incredible acrobatics at top speed.

"We've never seen him so happy," the zoo keeper said to me.

At noon, during the lunch given for me by the Society of Writers, I told, in my speech of thanks, about the feats of the Amazonian tapir and I spoke about my passion for animals. I never skip a visit to the zoo.

In his answering speech, the president of the Armenian writers said: "Why did Neruda have to go visit our zoo? This visit to the Society of Writers would have been enough for him to find all the animal species. Here we have lions and tigers, foxes and seals, eagles and serpents, camels and macaws."

From Armenia Observed, ed. Ara Baliozian. New York: Ararat Press, 1979.

1 comment:

  1. "Why did Neruda have to go visit our zoo?" -- asks the president of the Union. Here's material for another satyricon or riddle: What writers' union boasts of being a menagerie? Exile and silence all your queers and you'll have a well-managed zoo!