“I have always wanted the hands of people to be seen in poetry.”
Introduction and short precis of Neruda’s life
Recent reports about Neruda’s death have re-sparked interest in this great Chilean poet. Here, a short precis of his life is followed with details of his death and legacy. The latter contrasts his apparent present standing among Chilean youth with that of Gabriela Mistral.
Pablo Neruda was born in a village in southern Chile in 1904. He sold his possessions to finance his first volume, “Crepusculario” (“Twilight”) in 1923. In 1924, “Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada” (“Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair”) made him famous. During this time he disdained any political connections in his poetry.
By 1927 his poetry was rewarded by Chile in diplomatic posts, first as consul in Burma. Most famously he was posted to Madrid in 1933. During the Spanish Civil War he became friends with Federico García Lorca, who was later murdered by the fascists. He steadily grew closer to the communists. Chile’s government recalled him because of his open partisanship with the Republican side. He had written “España en el corazón” (“Spain in the Heart,” 1937) on the war front. His passage leftwards continued. During the Second World War he wrote “Canto a Stalingrado” (“Song to Stalingrad,” 1943):
“At night the peasant sleeps, awakes and sinks
His hand into the darkness asking the dawn…
Tell me if the purest hands of men still
Defend the castle of honor, tell me dawn,
If the steel on your brow breaks its might,
If man is in his place…
Tell me if gunpowder still sounds in Stalingrad…
And the Spaniard remembers Madrid and says:
Sister, resist, capital of glory, resist.”
Neruda joined the Communist Party of Chile in 1945, but did so only after he was elected to the Senate. To be elected, he had campaigned for the party by reading his poetry. Later he joined the party at a public ceremony in Santiago, where he read from an early version of the “Canto General” – the fragment “A mi Partido” (“To my Party”). He recited publicly:
“You have given me brotherhood towards the man I do not know…
You have taught me to kindle kindness like a fire…
You gave me the straightness which a tree requires..
You taught me to see the unity and yet diversity of man.”
But under the right-wing González Videla government, a military rule of brutality against progressives began. The Communists in parliament were dismissed. A miners’ strike at Lota broke out leading to fierce repression. It was now that the name Augusto Pinochet first entered into Chile’s history, as he began arresting militants and ran a concentration camp. Meanwhile, President Videla made a secret alliance with US President Harry Truman and emissary Admiral William Leahy to declare communism illegal.
Nonetheless Neruda published an open denunciation of Videla. Shortly after, in 1947, he delivered an impassioned speech in the Senate condemning Videla. Now he was in serious danger and a price was on his head. Neruda went into hiding, and completed “Canto General” including the anthem to Stalin. Neruda, hunted as he was, escaped by crossing the mountains into Argentina in 1949. Still in danger of arrest there, he went on to Paris to the World Peace Congress, where he was introduced by Pablo Picasso.
But by 1952 the Chilean government’s order to arrest leftists was rescinded, upon which Neruda returned to Chile. He received the International Peace Prize in 1950, the Lenin Peace Prize and the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. It is remarkable that he was awarded the Nobel after penning his various “Odes to Stalin,” as members of the judging committee voiced major reservations on them.
Under the social-democratic President Salvador Allende, Neruda resumed his diplomatic career as ambassador to France in 1971, but resigned after developing prostate cancer. Now the army led by General Augusto Pinochet was fueled by US imperialism to revolt. The fascist dictatorship coup of Pinochet in 1973, sponsored by the USA, violently displaced the elected democratic President Salvador Allende. Allende had led the Socialist Party and the Popular Unity Front. The latter included the Communist Party of Chile which was foremost in spreading the revisionism of a “peaceful road to socialism.” Naturally this led to illusions that facilitated the path for the Pinochet Junta. These events are well known (MLOB). Fascists killed both Allende and any residual hopes of ‘the parliamentary road to socialism.’ In short order, after first massacring progressive and communist resisters, Pinochet installed a neo-liberal experiment inspired by the Chicagoite Milton Friedman.
How did Neruda die?
On September 23, 1973, just twelve days after the defeat of Allende, Neruda died in Santiago, Chile. Of course Neruda’s death was rather convenient for Pinochet, since Neruda was so beloved by the Chilean people. Victor Jarra – also a popular singer and poet – was simply tortured and executed. But Neruda’s death had to be more quietly staged. The Mexican ambassador visited Neruda in hospital one day before his death assuring him a plane to take him to a hospital in Mexico. Tragically, Neruda wanted to wait. He died the next day. The plausible pretense was that he died of his cancer.
Rumblings of sinister causes were long voiced, but they became loud after the eventual side-lining of Pinochet. In 2013, Neruda’s chauffeur, Manuel Araya, “told the Mexican magazine Proceso that the poet had called him in desperation from the hospital to say that he had been injected in the stomach while he was asleep.”
Chilean judge Mario Carroza ordered Neruda’s body to be exhumed for forensic testing. After testing, a panel of sixteen international experts concluded that the death certificate declaring Neruda’s death was from cancer cachexia (wasting) was false. But, “That cannot be correct,” said Dr. Niels Morling of the University of Copenhagen’s department of forensic medicine. “There was no indication of cachexia. He was an obese man at the time of death.” Mysteriously, various bacteria were also found in Neruda’s body. In 2015 the Chilean government said that it was “highly probable that a third party” was responsible for his death. Researchers were commissioned to investigate further.
In March 2023 Canadian researchers of ancient DNA genomes, Debi Poinar and Hendrik Poinar, gave their analysis to a Chilean tribunal. After five years of detailed genetic analysis of bone and tooth samples, they found the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (C. botulinum) in Neruda’s body. This produces botulinum, a deadly toxin used in warfare. Moreover it is known to have been used to kill political prisoners in Chile in 1981. However only fragmentary pieces of DNA were available to identify with certainty the bacteria in Neruda’s body at death. Nonetheless they had been producing toxin. Importantly the scientists also determined that it was not an environmental contaminant from the soil following his burial.
The muted popularity of Pablo Neruda in Chile today
Poetry, as many art forms, becomes wrapped in very personal tastes. How do we interpret that currently a strong move in Chile appears to favor the resurgence of the Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957)? The popularity of Neruda today in Chile has been apparently eclipsed by that of Mistral.
Yet the two poets were life-long friends. Initially Mistral was his “school director” in Temuco, and encouraged his poetry. Then they were both consuls for Chile in Madrid and Barcelona. While Mistral also sang of the common people, she is far less well known for this than was Neruda. In 1945 Mistral became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Mistral was long known as a pioneer for women’s education and rights. While during her lifetime she was ignored by Chilean intelligentsia, she accepted the Mexican Government’s offer to lead educational reforms in Mexico.
However she had an equivocal relationship to Chile. Part of this seems to have been a reaction to attempts to label her as a lesbian. “About Chile, the less said the better,” she wrote. “I’ve even been hung up on this silly lesbianism, which hurts me in a way I can’t even put into words. Is it possible to see a bigger fake?” It is uncertain what her real feelings of sexuality were, and they are in any case quite irrelevant to the strength of her poetry.
It is interesting that when the fascist Pinochet government came to power, they used her as an icon: “Since her death, Mistral’s image has been reinvented and manipulated, particularly during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was manipulated as the symbol of social order and submission to authority.”
Also in today’s Chile, she seems to be favored in the movement of the new President Gabriel Boric. That the Pinochet dictatorship promoted Mistral has not affected her current popularity amongst today’s youth.
Perhaps some explanation stems from some unsavory aspects of Neruda’s life. At times a personal selfishness and womanizing was apparent. As Lankes remarks:
“Feminists point to a passage in his memoirs, published in 1974, in which he described raping a maid when he was a diplomat in what is now Sri Lanka… The passage has recently caused outrage, and in 2018 Congress dropped a proposal to rename Santiago’s airport after Neruda.” Neruda’s rape of a Tamil cleaning woman is completely indefensible. His own note that “she was right to despise me” is no adequate response.
However Neruda’s poetry stands for itself. Such endorsement does not equate to condoning the reprehensible personal behavior he himself describes in his memoir. For another rather more positive example of his attitude to women, see “To the Women of the World,” illustrated by Maureen Scott of the League of Socialist Artists.
No doubt Mistral’s humanity is coupled to less overt communist partisanship – in contrast to those of Neruda. This surely influences how capitalist governments promote her. This applies whether we are discussing Pinochet or Boric, even though these two radically differ.
Neruda’s poetry needs no apology, and his espousal of the workers’ cause and its political allegiances to the USSR are to his credit. The people of Chile had a great daughter-poet in Mistral. But they also had a great son-poet in Neruda.
- Adam Feinstein; “Pablo Neruda – A Passion for Life”; New York; 2004.
- Ilan Stavans; “Introduction” to “The Poetry of Pablo Neruda”; New York; 2003.
- “Pablo Neruda” at poets.org
First published by American Party Labor