PABLO NERUDA’S last act of defiance came after his death in November 1973.
Chile’s most famous poet was a Communist and a supporter of Salvador Allende, the Chilean president overthrown and murdered by Augusto Pinochet in September that year.
Neruda died less than two months later. He had spent his last days at his home on the coast, Isla Negra, the setting for the film Il Postino.
When he died the military regime tried to bury him without ceremony, but his body was brought to Santiago.
His funeral became a demonstration of over 10,000 people chanting slogans against the military government—the only one that would be permitted for many years.
It was a fitting end. Pablo Neruda had won a unique position in his country. He was a poet who was listened to and memorised by workers.
He was a writer who spoke aloud about political events with the same passion that he devoted to love, sex and the celebration of ordinary things.
Though he was always involved in politics, his public influence came from his writing and not from any official role in society.
Neruda was born Neftali Reyes in Temuco, southern Chile, 100 years ago. His father worked on the railway that was then stretching down through Chile and opening up the country as it went. Neruda wrote:
“The railwayman is a sailor on earth
and in the small ports without a sea line
—the forest towns—the train runs and runs,
unbridling the natural world.”
In that sense his father was a pioneer. In his early poetry of love and self discovery, Twenty Poems of Love and a Desperate Song, that many young Chileans still carry in their pockets, the poet sees his own first approaches to a woman just like an exploration of empty lands.
Much of the poetry that follows that famous little volume is fixated with private emotions and a sense that poetry—words—are a fragile protection against a shifting and unstable world.
Neruda had become a diplomat and, by the time his career took him to Madrid, he was beginning to change.
Meeting the writer Federico Garcia Lorca, the artist Salvador Dali and the film-maker Luis Bunuel—the adventurous bohemians of Spain’s capital city—had its effect.
More importantly, he lived through an extraordinary period of change. In 1931 Spain’s king abdicated, and a new republic was ushered in promising social change and progress.
But the old order resisted and by 1936, social conflict became armed struggle. It was a key moment for Neruda the poet.
He had already said that poetry “should get its hands dirty”.
Then came the Spanish Civil War. Neruda’s marvellous poem “Explain A Few Things” marks a turning point:
“You will ask—where are the lilies?
And all the metaphysics wrapped in daisies?
And the rain that beat against his words
and filled them with absences and birds?”
His answer is dramatic and full of rage:
see my dead house,
see my broken Spain…
Come and see the blood in the streets”
At this terrible moment Neruda the poet assumed a new responsibility—to speak aloud and to use his gift of words to shed light on public events and collective experiences.
He had taken on the role of a witness and adopted the language of public speech.
Back in Chile, Neruda became a Communist—though he had always been a sympathiser.
As a consul in Mexico, he had even had some involvement in an attempt to murder Trotsky.
Some of his poetry at the time was written to order. But the great “General Song”, written while he was escaping persecution by the Chilean government, is an epic historical vision that rediscovers the ordinary men and women who had built and created everything.
In the Inca city of Macchu Picchu he finds the chisel marks left by anonymous heroes of the past:
“John Stonecutter, child of the sun god Wiracocha
John Coldeater, son of the green star,
John Barefoot, grandson of the turquoise
climb and be born again with me, my brother.”
In the “Elemental Odes” of the 1950s, Neruda pursues the idea of the heroism of the ordinary, the beauty of the everyday. There are odes to old socks, tomatoes, onions, bread—celebrations of simple things.
He would read them in his peculiar resonant voice in factory canteens and sports stadiums to working class audiences who were probably astonished to see their lives reflected in a poet’s words.
If there was injustice Neruda could express anger. At other times he could be witty and tender in the extreme.
But in the end he was a poet moved by solidarity, and those things that make each of us unique yet bind us in a shared reality:
“And so the poet threw in his lot
with his brother whom they had beaten,
with those who worked underground,
and, after struggling with stone,
came to life again, alone, to go to sleep.”
Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life by Adam Feinstein is available from Bookmarks for £25. Phone 020 7637 1848