Pablo Neruda, the late Chilean poet, continues to be among the most read poets of all time. He died on September 23, 1973, 12 days after General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup and 12 days after he was offered asylum in Mexico. For many years, there were doubts about the real reason for his death.
Documents released by Chile’s Ministry of the Interior acknowledged later that it is “quite possible” that Pablo Neruda was assassinated. These claims give support to Mr. Araya, Neruda’s former driver, who always claimed that the poet —whom Gabriel Garcia Marquez called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”—, was assassinated on orders of General Augusto Pinochet, and did not die of leukemia or from prostate cancer, as was commonly believed.
Although he claimed that he was not a political writer, Neruda was an artist who knew how to blend politics and poetry in his life. He was born Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto in 1904. He started writing poetry at 10, and when he was 16, he changed his name to Pablo Neruda, probably after the Czech writer Jan Neruda.
I started reading him when I was a medical student in the 1960s, and have not stopped. How could I? Two of his books —Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (written when he was only 20) and The Captain’s Verses— are intertwined with my first (mostly failed), sentimental adventures. Like millions in Latin America —and across the world— once I read Neruda, he became part of my life.
Neruda’s political beliefs were behind some of his most powerful poems. For me, he represents the very ideal of the writer as a political man. When he was 23, the Chilean government made him honorary consul in Burma, Ceylon, Java, Singapore and later Argentina, and in the Spanish cities of Barcelona and Madrid. The Spanish Civil War, during which his friend, the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, was murdered, had a profound influence on his writing and his political activities.
He joined the Republican movement, first in Spain and then in France. In 1939, he was appointed Chilean consul in Paris, and from there, he coordinated the emigration to Chile of as many as 2,000 Spanish Republicans who had first escaped to France.
In 1943, he returned to Chile and joined the protest against President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla’s repressive actions against striking miners. In 1945, he became a senator and joined the Communist Party. The government soon expelled him, and from 1947 to 1949 he lived in hiding.
In January 1948, Neruda delivered one of the most passionate speeches on Chile’s political history: He read out the names of 628 people being detained at the Pisagua concentration camp without having been interrogated or formally charged. That speech became known as “Yo Acuso” (I accuse) after French novelist Emile Zola’s 1898 denunciation of the French government’s treatment of Alfred Dreyfus. In 1949, he fled to Europe.
Neruda’s greatest poetic achievements were fueled by his political beliefs. In his epic work Canto General (General Song), published in 1950, Neruda celebrates the richness and beauty of Latin America, and the people’s struggle for peace and social justice. Part of the work is the poem “Alturas of Machu Picchu” (Heights of Machu Picchu,) a celebration of pre-Columbian civilization.
He lived in Europe for three years and returned to Chile in 1952, whence he continued traveling extensively overseas. He visited the United States in 1966 and in 1971 was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which he received after being stricken with cancer.
When Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, he appointed Neruda as Chile’s ambassador to France, where he lived from 1970 to 1972. In 1973 he returned to Chile, but in September of that year, Augusto Pinochet, with help from the CIA, overthrew Allende’s government.
Neruda’s life, I firmly believe, was shattered by Pinochet’s coup and Allende’s suicide. Neruda died only 12 days after the coup. Shortly before his death, as he was sick in bed, his house was ransacked by a military unit. When he saw the commander of the unit, weapon in hand in his bedroom, Neruda, who could hardly speak, told him, “There is only one dangerous thing for you in this house —poetry.”
Officially, Neruda died of leukemia. Now we know that he was killed on orders of General Augusto Pinochet, in a futile attempt to kill Neruda’s poetry. Pinochet, however, only killed Neruda the man. His poetry —and his legend— survived, and he is one of the most widely read poets of the XX century. His poem “The Word” is one of the most beautiful homages to the value of the word.
The word was born
in the blood,
it grew in the dark body, pulsing,
and took flight with the lips and mouth.
Farther away and nearer,
still, still it came
from dead fathers and from wandering races,
from territories that had become stone,
that had tired of their poor tribes,
because when grief set out on the road
the people went and arrived
and united new land and water
to sow their word once again.
And that's why the inheritance is this:
this is the air that connects us
with the buried man and with the dawn
of new beings that haven't yet arisen.
Still the atmosphere trembles
with the first word
with panic and groaning.
from the darkness
and even now there is no thunder
that thunders with the iron sound
of that word,
perhaps it was just a whisper, a raindrop,
but its cascade still falls and falls.
Later on, meaning fills the word.
It stayed pregnant and was filled with lives,
everything was births and sounds:
affirmation, clarity, strength,
negation, destruction, death:
the name took on all the powers
and combined existence with essence
in its electric beauty.
Human word, syllable, flank
of long light and hard silver,
hereditary goblet that receives
the communications of the blood:
it is here that silence was formed by
the whole of the human word
and not to speak is to die among beings:
language extends out to the hair,
the mouth speaks without moving the lips:
suddenly the eyes are words.
I take the word and move
through it, as if it were
only a human form,
its lines delight me and I sail
in each resonance of language:
I utter and I am
and across the boundary of words,
without speaking, I approach silence.
I drink to the word, raising
a word or crystalline cup,
in it I drink
the wine of language
or unfathomable water,
maternal source of all words,
and cup and water and wine
give rise to my song
because the name is origin
and green life: it is blood,
the blood that expresses its substance,
and thus its unrolling is prepared:
words give crystal to the crystal,
blood to the blood,
and give life to life.
(Pablo Neruda, appearing here from: “Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon”, Translated by Stephen Mitchell)