Pablo Neruda: Birth Centenary Year

Pablo Neruda, the famous poet and politician, was born in July 1904. In celebration of his centenary year we are now reproducing these extracts from Adam Feinstein’s biography of Neruda, along with Neruda’s poem on the death of Stalin, which we were unable to include, due to lack to space, in the last issue of LALKAR.

Pablo Neruda

On the death of Stalin, March 1953

A translated short extract from his longer poem

To be men! That is the Stalinist law!…

We must learn from Stalin

His sincere intensity

His concrete clarity ..

Stalin is the noon,

The maturity of man and the peoples.

Stalinist, let us bear this title with prideā€¦

Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day!

The light has not vanished.

The fire has not disappeared.

There is only the growth of

Light, bread, fire and hope

In Stalin’s invincible time!…

In recent years the dove,

Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,

Found herself on his shoulders

And Stalin, the giant,

Carried her at the heights of his foreheadā€¦

A wave beats against the stones of the shore.

But Malenkov will continue his work.

Nearly half a century before Pablo Neruda won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, lovers everywhere wooed one another with verses from his Twenty Love Poems (1924). Many more have been entranced by the elegant and touching simplicity of the Elementary Odes (1958), the hermetic beauty of Residence on Earth (1933), the epic power of the Canto General (1950), the gloriously witty self-mockery of Estravagario (1958), and the overpowering lyricism of the later love poetry.

The power of his poetry, his humanism and his sheer pleasure in being alive earned him the devoted support of not only close friends but also of some of his political foes. He spanned the century and the globe and he was a close friend of some of the most influential figures of the 20th century, including Federico Garc Lorca, Pablo Picasso and Paul.

Neruda was not just a poet, diplomat and politician. He was also an energetic lover of wine, women (he had three wives and numerous mistresses) and song. After the end of the Spanish civil war he saved the lives of 2,000 Republicans by shipping them out to Chile in an old fishing boat. He spent a year in hiding from his own country’s tyrannical president, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, and risked death in a daring horseback escape across the Andes. His three years in exile in Europe included a successful flight from the Italian authorities by gondola in Venice. Back in Chile, he was nominated as candidate for the presidency, only to stand down in favour of Salvador Allende.

He wove a spell over most people he met. Lorca memorably called him “closer to blood than to ink”. Neruda was also an immensely complex man. He acknowledged the contradictions within himself, calling “Pablo Neruda … my most perfidious enemy”. Born Ricardo Eliecer Neftala Reyes Basoalto on July 12, 1904, he changed his name at the age of 16 to Pablo Neruda – probably in homage to the great Czech writer Jan Neruda. He was 20 when the book which first made his name, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, was published. He continued to write poetry while working as a junior diplomat.

After desolate consular postings in the Far East, he was transferred in 1933 to Argentina, where he became a close friend of Lorca, and then to Spain the following year. It was Lorca’s murder in August 1936 that pushed Neruda into deciding it was worth compromising his diplomatic position by supporting the Republican side.

He started writing his great hymn to the victims of the Spanish civil war, ‘Espaa en el corazan’ (Spain in My Heart), in which he clearly laid down his commitment to social and political justice.

By 1937, he was back in Chile. There was considerable concern there over the plight of more than half a million Spanish Republicans who had crossed the Pyrenees, mostly on foot, from Spain into France to escape the Franco onslaught. They were placed in squalid concentration camps without basic hygiene or medical facilities. They were considered prisoners of war, surrounded by barbed wire, carefully guarded, living in tents without a roof over their heads to protect them from the harsh winter. They were fed little more than bread and water. Neruda read the press reports with horror.

He returned to France to coordinate the rescue mission. Thousands of letters arrived for him there from inmates of French concentration camps. The boat, the Winnipeg, was hired to take the 2,000 refugees to Chile.

In Chile, the opposition press – notably El Diario Ilustrado – claimed that the country could not afford to allow so many refugees to enter. The debate soon hit the Chilean parliament, with heated discussions in the chamber of deputies between those who supported the Winnipeg mission for bringing in “honourable, hard-working people” and opponents who claimed that the operation would “fill the country with vagrants”.

Neruda, though thousands of miles away in Paris, was well aware of the controversy at home. Those final days leading up to the departure of the Winnipeg were extraordinary ones, as concentration-camp inmates arrived in Bordeaux, in third-class train carriages, weak from fatigue, hunger and thirst. The Winnipeg left Pauillac, the port of Bordeaux, on August 4, 1939.

Neruda stood on the dock, in his white hat, alongside his second-wife-to-be Delia del Carril, to wave the boat off. In the key poem, ‘Explico algunas cosas’ (Let Me Explain a Few Things), Neruda reveals that he has disowned his previous, inward-looking self, together with any romantic, unworldly lyricism, and is now fully committed to his new role of truth-teller and exposer of the world’s injustices.

“You will ask: And where

are the lilacs

And the metaphysics petalled

with poppies

And the rain repeatedly spattering

its words, filling them with

holes and birds?…

You will ask why his poetry

does not speak of

dreams and leaves,

and of the great volcanoes

of his birthplace?

Come and see the blood in the streets.

Come and see

the blood in the streets

Come and see

the blood in the streets!”

Even before he made his formal allegiance to the Communist party, Neruda was approached, in 1944, to stand as a candidate for senator, representing the arid northern provinces of Tarapac and Antofagasta in the Atacama desert, the driest region on Earth. Here, for the first time, he came into contact with the poorest, most desperate people in Chile.

“My heart is still shuddering with the memory of the poverty of those camps … Here in Pan de Azcar, the camp was built on rubbish tips. As I enter one of the houses, a pampa woman tells me how suddenly, from under the floor of her room, dead mice and old shoe-soles appear. It’s the rubbish dump which is swimming up to the surface [from beneath the floorboards]. I enter her house and she shows me the rickety old beds, one on the floor, other furniture, a table made out of shelves, a lone chair for the whole house. There was no kitchen. At ground level, a stove of corrugated iron and metal hoops acts as an oven. ‘The food comes out black,’ she tells me.”

On March 4, 1945, Neruda was elected a Communist senator for Antofagasta and Tarapac; and four months later he officially joined the Chilean Communist party at a ceremony in Santiago’s Caupolican arena. The personal significance of the event can be gauged from his poem ‘A mi partido’ (To My Party), from Canto General.

“You have given me brotherhood

towards the man I do not know.

You have given me the added

strength of all those living.

You have given my country back

to me, as though in a new birth.

You have given me the freedom

that the lone man lacks.

You taught me to kindle

kindness, like fire.

You gave me the straightness

which a tree requires.

You taught me to see the unity

and yet diversity of men.

You showed me how one person’s

pain could die in the victory of all…

You have made me see the world’s

clarity and the possibility of joy.

You have made me indestructible,

for I no longer end in myself.”

In October 1947, after increasing repression by the Chilean government, mineworkers began another strike in Lota. President Videla sent his forces into Lota and the surrounding areas. People were arrested and sent on navy warships to military prisons on the islands of Santa Maria and Quiriquina. Among the men responsible for rounding up prisoners was the 33-year-old Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. The majority were later transported to a concentration camp in the port town of Pisagua, in the northern desert, where the coal miners were soon joined by hundreds of other prisoners arrested throughout the country. Pinochet was later named head of the Pisagua camp and chief military delegate of the Emergency Zone for a year.

On November 27, 1947, Neruda could hold back no longer. Because of the censorship of the press in Chile, he looked abroad, and published a bombshell article in the Venezuelan daily, El Nacional, under the headline: “The crisis of democracy in Chile is a dramatic warning for our continent”. In it, he launched a ferocious attack on Videla, who had, wrote Neruda, used the Lota strike as “the pretext for his ultimate betrayal, an excuse to provoke a wide scale international reaction and to unleash a persecution against workers such as had never been seen in my country … he has treated the strikers with a cruelty and savagery found only in Nazi systems of slavery and oppression . . .

“They placed pistols to children’s breasts to make them tell where their fathers were hiding. They filled trains – like the trains of the Nazi condemned – with families and workers who had lived as long as 40 years in that area. Often, the trains served as jails for many days, and no one was permitted to go to the aid of the victims, who were kept isolated and without food. Children and adults died as a result of this treatment. Corpses of miners appeared on the hills, and no investigation was possible, because no one was allowed to enter the zone.”

On January 6, 1948, Neruda rose to his feet in the Senate and delivered one of the bravest, most astonishing speeches in Chilean political history. It has come to be known as ‘Yo acuso’ (I accuse), after Zola’s denunciation of the French government’s persecution of Alfred Dreyfus, 50 years earlier. Neruda read out the names of 628 people, men and women, who were being detained at Pisagua concentration camp, without having been interrogated or informed of the charges against them.

Neruda became a wanted man. He knew he would have to flee Chile to evade imprisonment – or worse. The newspaper El Imparcial announced a reward if any of the 300 agents put on the poet’s trail actually managed to arrest him. As Neruda said later in his memoirs, “The only course left was to bide one’s time and go underground to fight for the return of democracy … Chile went through a malaise that wavered between shocked daze and agony. With the protection of the United States, the president whom our votes had elected turned into a vile, bloodthirsty vampire.”

Neruda lived underground, sheltered by friends, for a year, until it became too dangerous and in early February 1949, he was forced to flee. He was disguised by a heavy beard and dark glasses and carried false papers naming him as Antonio Ruiz Lagorreta, an ornithologist. Neruda loved this touch: he did know a great deal about birds – and would go on to write a book called Arte de jaros (The Art of Birds) in 1966. He was driven south by a timber-mill owner, Jorge Bellet, who recalled that he was kept from falling asleep at the wheel by Neruda’s love of nature, down to the smallest detail: “He knew the name of the insect which had just died on the windscreen; how and when the beautiful tree along the side of the road had arrived in Chile … he knew everything, and he explained it all with infinite tenderness.”

Then came the first tense moment of the journey. A police officer flagged down the car, and asked if Bellet could drive him a few hundred miles along the road. Fortunately, the policeman sat in the front seat and did not take any notice of the blanketed bundle in the back.

After that, there were no further problems on this leg of the journey and the car arrived at its destination: a water-lapped timber estate near Lake Miahue. There, Neruda had to be prepared for a perilous journey on horseback. He had not been on a horse since his rides along the beach at Puerto Saavedra as a child.

On March 8, 1949, they set out in a boat from the extreme west of the lake. On the shore they found three loyal cowhands, whom Neruda would always refer to as ‘Los Tres Juanes’ (the Three Juans – he was disguising their real names), with three horses.

Their first major task was to cross the Curringue river. Neruda’s horse was carrying precious cargo on its back: Latin America’s most famous poet, a bottle of whisky and the typescript of Canto General, as heavily disguised as its author. It had a false cover, bearing an equally false title: ‘Risas y grimas’ (Laughter and Tears) by Benigno Espinoza. Neruda also insisted on bringing his typewriter with him.

On this phase of the hazardous journey, Neruda nearly died. He described the experience when he accepted the 1971 Nobel prize: “We had to cross a river. Those small streams born in the peaks of the Andes head down, discharging their dizzy, overpowering force, forming cascades and stirring up earth and rocks with the energy and the speed that they bring from those famous heights. But on this occasion, we found a pool, a great mirror of water, which could be forded. The horses splashed in, lost their foothold and began to swim towards the other bank. Soon my horse was almost completely covered by the water, I began to plunge up and down without support, my feet fighting desperately while the horse struggled to keep its head above water. Then we made it across. And as soon as we got to the other side, the peasants who were accompanying me asked with a smile: ‘Were you very afraid?’ ‘Very. I thought that my last hour had come,’ I said. ‘We were behind you with our lassos at the ready'”.

The following day was the hardest part of the crossing: the so-called smugglers’ route through the mountains. As they stood at the foot of the Andes, Neruda turned, smiling, to Bellet and asked him: “What did you say this place was called?” “The Lilpela Pass,” Bellet replied. And Neruda asked Bellet to engrave with a knife a verse on a tree trunk next to them. Neruda’s verse – written in the popular cuarteta form – went:

“How good the air smells

in the Lilpela Pass

because the shit has not yet arrived

from traitor Gonzalez Videla’s arse.”

After a harrowing ride, they reached the Argentinean side. They had made it.

The next the world heard of Neruda was when he was introduced to an astonished audience by Picasso at the 1949 World Peace Congress in Paris.

He lived in exile in Europe until 1952, juggling his time between his second wife, Delia, and his new love, Matilde Urrutia. From 1955, he began a new settled life with Matilde in Chile. After several unsuccessful attempts to win the Chilean presidency, Salvador Allende finally became the world’s first democratically elected Marxist head of state, in 1970. The following year, he appointed Neruda Chilean ambassador to France. Already sick with prostate cancer, Neruda travelled to Stockholm in November 1971 to receive the Nobel prize. He returned to Chile in September 1972.

On June 29, 1973, the so-called “tanquetazo” occurred: rightwing forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel Roberto Souper, took over the centre of Santiago and assaulted the ministry of defence and the presidential palace. Although troops loyal to the government crushed the rebellion, which had been the first attempted coup against a legally elected president in Chile for 42 years, the country was collapsing.

On July 12, 1973, Neruda celebrated his 69th birthday – although ‘celebrated’ was not exactly the right word. “Very few of us went to see him,” his friend Aada Figueroa recollected. “We found him in bed. I brought him a basket of fruit, I helped him to his feet and said: ‘Hugs and kisses and fruit, as well.'”

Figueroa’s husband, Sergio Insunza, and a couple of friends sat around the bed, and everyone else ate downstairs with his third wife Matilde. “We didn’t feel in the mood for jokes. The situation in the country was at fever pitch … We expected the worst,” said Figueroa.

When he was not writing his poetry, Neruda spent days with a tiny radio stuck to his ear, his eyes gazing at the television screens, anxious for the latest news. And the latest news was terrifying. The Americans were pouring money in to help to promote a new coup. On August 2, bus and taxi owners declared a strike. On August 23, general Prats Gonzalez resigned as defence minister and commander of the army and recommended that Allende replace him with Augusto Pinochet, who was believed at that time to be loyal to the government. It was to prove a disastrously misguided choice. Three days later shop-owners called another anti-Allende strike. Government supporters fought back, demonstrating 100,000-strong through the streets of Santiago on September 4 to celebrate the third anniversary of Allende’s election. However, three days later, Admiral Raul Montero was dismissed as head of the navy. This removed the last obstacle to the coup.

According to the Chilean journalist Luis Alberto Mansilla, “Neruda watched all the TV news bulletins, listened to the radio, read all the newspapers. ‘Don’t you think,’ he said, ‘that we’re just about to see a civil war?’ He asked me to talk to some writers … to create a committee that would call a big international meeting to support the Unidad Popular government. He gave me some possible names: Jean-Paul Sartre … Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arthur Miller, etc.” The pretext would be his 70th birthday, but the aim would be to garner the support of major world cultural personalities for the government of president Allende.

That same month, Neruda published an article in the New York Times condemning the International Telephone and Telegraph Company (ITT) for what he called its constant interference in the constitutional government of Chile. When the newspaper published a reply, Neruda, now mortally ill and just a month away from death, mustered the strength to plan a counter-response which, as he told the Chilean journalist Jose Miguel Varas, would be “as hard as a kick in the snout, but with the precision of a Florentine stab”.

It was too late. Varas telephoned Neruda at about 7 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 1973, to tell him there had been a military coup in Valparaso, where Neruda and Matilde shared a house with Francisco Velasco and Marie Martner.

“See you later, perhaps.”

“See you never, perhaps,”

Neruda said with a weary voice.

And so it turned out.

On September 11, the armed forces rose and brutally overthrew the government. The presidential palace was taken and Allende died in circumstances still not clarified – he either killed himself or was murdered. Thousands of ordinary Chileans were also killed.

Matilde maintained that Neruda – desperately ill though he was – would have recovered if Allende’s government could somehow have survived. Neruda was hoping to bring out seven further collections of poems and his memoirs. These were all published posthumously.

In his memoirs, Neruda wrote: “Allende’s acts and works, whose value to the nation can never be obliterated, enraged the enemies of our liberation. The tragic symbolism of this crisis became clear in the bombing of the government palace. It brings to mind the Blitzkrieg of the Nazi war against defenceless foreign cities … Now the same crime was being carried out again in Chile. Chilean pilots were dive-bombing the palace, which for centuries had been the centre of the city’s civic life. I am writing these quick lines for my memoirs only three days after the unspeakable events took my great comrade, President Allende, to his death. His assassination was hushed up, he was buried secretly, and only his widow was allowed to accompany that immortal body.”

Neruda’s house at Isla Negra was searched by the army. Matilde recalled: “We heard voices … At that moment, the chauffeur entered in a state of great shock and said ‘It’s a raid.’ A bus loaded with helmeted soldiers had arrived late at night and ordered everyone out of the house. Neruda was in bed upstairs. From his window he could see the soldiers, holding lanterns, examining the trees and plants in the garden.

“The commander of the unit asked for Neruda. They told him where he was and he went up cautiously, his weapon in his hand. Neruda said to him: ‘Look around – there’s only one thing of danger for you here – poetry.'”

The soldiers withdrew but the army also raided La Chascona, Neruda’s house in Santiago, and this they left in ruins.

On September 18, Chile’s independence day, his health deteriorated. Matilde decided he needed urgent medical care. He was taken by ambulance to a clinic on an incongruously warm, sunny day.

On the way, they were stopped by a military patrol, which ignored Matilde’s pleas that she was accompanying the sick Pablo Neruda. They were both made to get out of the ambulance and to wait for about 30 minutes, while the soldiers carried out a meticulous examination of the vehicle, the papers, their clothing. Neruda did not say a word. Suddenly, Matilde saw that tears were streaming down his cheeks. He asked her: “Wipe my face, Patoja, his nickname for her.”

Matilde left Neruda at the clinic to pick up some belongings, but she soon received an agitated phone call from him, urging her to return to his bedside. There, he told her: “They’re killing people, they’re handing over bodies in pieces. The morgue’s full of the dead, the people are outside in their hundreds, claiming the bodies. Didn’t you hear what happened to the Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara? He was one of those they tore to pieces, they destroyed his hands … The body of Victor Jara in pieces … Oh my God, that’s like killing a nightingale. And they say he kept on singing and singing and that drove them wild.”

On the night of September 22, Neruda was left alone with Matilde. “He was very tender with me that last night,” Matilde told a friend later. “I asked him to sleep a little, because he knew that helped him recover his strength. ‘We’ve got out of worse messes than this,’ he told me. He slept for a few hours, but when he woke up, he was no longer the same … He was delirious. His conscience and his heart were with his persecuted and tortured friends. And in the midst of his incoherent speech he would cry: ‘They’re shooting them. They’re shooting them.’ And then came the drowsiness and the delirium again until, on the morning of the Sunday, he fell into a coma.”

Neruda died at 10.30 in the evening of Sunday, September 23 1973. His last words were “Me oy” (I’m going).

Matilde insisted his body should be taken to La Chascona. Hernn Loyola, a friend and future leading Neruda scholar, remembered: “I asked her why she should put herself through such pain, when the house was a pile of rubble, broken glass, overturned furniture. She replied: ‘Don’t you think that the worse state the house is in, the better Pablo will be?’ She realised that diplomats and foreign correspondents would go and they would confirm the brutality of fascism, which did not stop even in the face of the winner of a Nobel prize for literature, Chile’s greatest literary glory.”

Two days later Neruda’s body was taken out of the ransacked house. Loyola recollected: “A considerable group of workers and students had gathered outside in the street, and I heard the first shouts: ‘Comrade Pablo Neruda!’ someone screamed and all the others answered: ‘Present!’ The cortege left in a defiant column (any massive demonstration was, of course, forbidden) … and the column grew along the way. Arriving at the general Cemetery along the Avenida de la Paz, the funeral became an impressive popular protest, the first since September 11 … I confess I was frozen with fear, because the people began singing the Internationale in a crescendo. Suddenly, I found that I had my fist in the air and was singing. Soldiers, armed to the teeth, surrounded the square opposite the cemetery and I sincerely believed that, in a matter of seconds, they would let off a round of machine-gun fire. When someone in a loud voice began to shout: ‘Comrade Pablo Neruda!’ we all answered ‘Present!”

One morning, soon after Neruda’s death, his friend Francisco Velasco was returning to La Sebastiana – the house in Valparaaso which he and his wife had shared with the poet and Matilde – when he found the place in uproar. A crowd was pointing up to the top of the house, where Neruda had lived. “Doctor!” called a young man who helped around the house. “Something strange is happening in Don Pablo’s rooms. It looks like there’s something inside.” They went up cautiously and, as they entered the living-room, as Velasco recalled later, “We saw a huge eagle, with a fierce look and talons ready to attack.” How could the eagle have entered the house, when everything had been locked up for months? Velasco suddenly remembered the time Pablo had confided to him that, “if there was another life, he would like to be an eagle”. Velasco telephoned Matilde at La Chascona. “That was Pablo,” said Matilde, without hesitation.

Edited extracts from Pablo Neruda: A Biography, by Adam Feinstein, reproduced from The Guardian, 03 July 2004.

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