Pablo Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto on 12 July 1904, in Parral, Chile, a city in Linares Province, now part of the greater Maule Region, some 350 km south of Santiago, to José del Carmen Reyes Morales, a railway employee, and Rosa Neftalí Basoalto Opazo, a school teacher with Jewish roots, who died two months after he was born. Soon after her death, Reyes moved to Temuco, where he married a woman, Trinidad Candia Malverde, with whom he had another child born nine years earlier, a boy named Rodolfo de la Rosa. Neruda grew up in Temuco with Rodolfo and a half-sister, Laura Herminia "Laurita", from one of his father's extramarital affairs (her mother was Aurelia Tolrà, a Catalan woman). He composed his first poems in the winter of 1914. Neruda was an atheist.
something started in my soul, fever or forgotten wings, and I made my own way, deciphering that fire and wrote the first faint line, faint without substance, pure nonsense, pure wisdom, of someone who knows nothing, and suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open.
From "Poetry", Memorial de Isla Negra (1964). Trans. Alastair Reid.
Neruda's father opposed his son's interest in writing and literature, but he received encouragement from others, including the future Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who headed the local school. On 18 July 1917, at the age of thirteen, he published his first work, an essay titled "Entusiasmo y perseverancia" ("Enthusiasm and Perseverance") in the local daily newspaper La Mañana, and signed it Neftalí Reyes. From 1918 to mid-1920, he published numerous poems, such as "Mis ojos" ("My eyes"), and essays in local magazines as Neftalí Reyes. In 1919, he participated in the literary contest Juegos Florales del Maule and won third place for his poem "Comunión ideal" or "Nocturno ideal". By mid-1920, when he adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda, he was a published author of poems, prose, and journalism. He is thought to have derived his pen name from the Czech poet Jan Neruda, though other sources say the true inspiration was Moravian violinist Wilma Neruda, which name appears in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet. The young poet's intention in publishing under a pseudonym was to avoid his father's disapproval of his poems.
In 1921, at the age of 16, Neruda moved to Santiago to study French at the Universidad de Chile, with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, he was soon devoting all his time to writing poems and with the help of well-known writer Eduardo Barrios, he managed to meet and impress Don Carlos George Nascimento, the most important publisher in Chile at the time. In 1923, his first volume of verse, Crepusculario (Book of Twilights), was published by Editorial Nascimento, followed the next year by Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and A Desperate Song), a collection of love poems that was controversial for its eroticism, especially considering its author's young age. Both works were critically acclaimed and have been translated into many languages. Over the decades, Veinte poemas sold millions of copies and became Neruda's best-known work, though a second edition did not appear until 1932. Almost one hundred years later, Veinte Poemas still retains its place as the best-selling poetry book in the Spanish language. By the age of 20, Neruda had established an international reputation as a poet, but faced poverty.
In 1926, he published the collection Tentativa del hombre infinito (The Attempt of the Infinite Man) and the novel El habitante y su esperanza (The Inhabitant and His Hope). In 1927, out of financial desperation, he took an honorary consulship in Rangoon, the capital of the British colony of Burma, then administered from New Delhi as a province of British India. Rangoon was a place he had never heard of before. Later, mired in isolation and loneliness, he worked in Colombo (Ceylon), Batavia (Java), and Singapore. In Batavia the following year he met and married (6 December 1930) his first wife, a Dutch bank employee named Marijke Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (born as Marietje Antonia Hagenaar), known as Maruca. While he was in the diplomatic service, Neruda read large amounts of verse, experimented with many different poetic forms, and wrote the first two volumes of Residencia en la Tierra, which includes many surrealist poems.