Remembering Pablo Neruda

Wednesday, September 14, 1994

By Silvia Cuevas

September is a sad month for many Chileans: the month in which Salvador Allende's government was overthrown by Pinochet, and the month in which Pablo Neruda, one of Latin America's greatest poets, passed away.

Pablo Neruda was born on July 12, 1904, in Parral, north of Chillan, and brought up in Temuco. Christened Neftali Ricardo Reyes, the poet adopted Pablo Neruda as a pseudonym in his teenage years; he legally changed his name in 1946.

His first poem was published when he was 14 years old. During his school years he was influenced, in both his education and his poetic development, by Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), the first writer in Latin America to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1945), who was the principal of the girls school of Temuco while Neruda was a pupil at the boys school.

Neruda abandoned provincial life when he completed his secondary schooling and moved to the capital. In 1921 he went to Santiago, to the Instituto Pedagogico, to train as a teacher in French, but he never completed the course. Soon after his arrival, he won first prize in a competition organised by the Federation of Chilean Students with a poem called "La cancion de la fiesta".

In 1923 Crepusculario was published, followed within a year by his internationally acclaimed collection, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924).

While he was still at the liceo in Temuco, Neruda had been the local correspondent for the student newspaper, Claridad. In Santiago he became its editor and, between 1921 and 1928, published more than 100 contributions to this journal, while also writing for other magazines and literary supplements.

In 1926 he published Tentativa del hombre infinito (Venture of the Infinite Man), El habitante y su esperanza (The Inhabitant and His Hope) and Anillos (Rings), a volume of short prose. In 1927 Neruda accepted a post in the Chilean consular service in Rangoon. In 1928 he moved from Rangoon to Colombo.

In 1930 he was posted to Batavia (now Jakarta), where he married his first wife, Maria Antonieta Hagenaar. In 1931 he was transferred to Singapore, and the following year he returned to Chile with Maria.

Throughout these years Neruda published regular chronicles of his travels in La Nacion.

In August 1933 Neruda was posted to Buenos Aires, where he met Federico Garcia Lorca, who was to become one of his closest friends until his tragic assassination in 1936. Also, in April 1933, Residence on Earth, I was published. In 1934 he was transferred to Barcelona and in the same year, on August 18, Neruda's only child was born, Malva Marina (1934-1942).

In 1935 he was appointed consul in Madrid and published Residence on Earth, II. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out, he lost his consular assignment, and his first wife left him. Delia del Carril, an Argentinean painter he had met a couple of years before, was to become his partner and support during the Spanish Civil War, part of World War II, and during the period of Neruda's persecution by the regime of Gonzalez Videla in Chile.

Neruda left Spain in 1937. On his return to Chile, he published Espana en el corazon (Spain in my Heart), dealing with his experience of the Spanish Civil War.

During the 1940s and the 1950s, Neruda travelled around Spanish America, and also made a trip to the Soviet Union in 1949. In 1941 he went to Mexico as a consul, and the following year he travelled through Guatemala and Cuba. In 1943 he visited the ruins of the lost Inca city of Macchu Picchu, which inspired him to write his spectacular poem, "The Heights of Macchu Picchu", the key poem of Canto General.

In 1945 he was elected senator for the Communist Party, representing the mining provinces of northern Chile. He also received the National Prize of Literature.

A series of violent strikes erupted in 1946 in the mining fields of the north in response to Gonzalez Videla's policy on foreign investment. The government declared a state of siege, suspending civil rights.

Strikes continued into 1947, the year in which Neruda published Third Residence and a document attacking Videla's government and taking the side of striking miners; this resulted in his suspension from the Senate. Soon after, Videla ordered Neruda's arrest and the Communist Party was outlawed.

Neruda went underground and continued to write poems clandestinely, poems of great force which reflected his rage and pain. In 1949 he was forced into exile in Argentina, crossing the Andes on horseback. He remained there until the following year, when the government declared an amnesty.

In 1950, while in Mexico, Neruda published Canto General. Although in Chile it was sold clandestinely, it was sold freely in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. During 1950 the poet also travelled throughout the American continent, Europe and India. He received, together with Pablo Picasso, the International Prize for Peace.

After his return to Chile in 1950, he turned to the simple things that surround our daily lives, writing odes to onions, celery, the dictionary, even to salt and scissors. This collection was published as Odas Elementales (Elementary Odes) in 1954. In the same year he published Las uvas y el viento (The Grapes and the Wind). Other works include: Viajes (Voyages) in 1955, Nuevas odas elementales (New Elementary Odes) in 1956, and Tercer libro de odas (The Third Book of Odes) in 1957.

Between 1949 and 1956, Neruda and Matilde Urrutia carried on a secret relationship after meeting in Mexico. From 1952, all his books speak of her, especially The Captain's Verses (1952), One Hundred Love Sonnets (1959) and parts of Barcarole (1967). Matilde was his companion until his death in 1973.

In 1958 he published Estravagario; Navegaciones y regresos (Voyages and Homecomings) in 1959; Song of Protest in 1960; followed by two collections in 1961: Las piedras de Chile (The Stones of Chile) and Cantos ceremoniales (Ceremonial Songs). The following years he published Fully Empowered (1962), Isla Negra a Notebook (1964), Una casa en la arena (A House by the Shore) and Art of Birds (1966). In 1967 he published his only play, Death and Apotheosis of Joaquin Murieta. In 1968, Las manos del dia (The Hands of Day) and Comiendo en Hungria (Eating in Hungary). In 1969, Fin de mundo (World's End), Still Another Day and Sumario.

In 1970, Neruda found he had cancer, but he nonetheless accepted a position as ambassador to France the following year. He published two books, La espada encendida (The Flaming Sword) and Stones of the Sky. The following year, 1971, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In 1972 Neruda returned to Isla Negra, his most loved home, located at a small fishing village some 60 kilometres from Santiago. Although he was suffering from cancer and rheumatism, he continued to write and published Geografia Infructuosa (Fruitless Geography). In 1973 he published The Separate Rose and his most political book, entitled Incitacion al Nixoncidio y alabanza a la revolucion Chilena (Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise of the Chilean Revolution).

Neruda's health worsened at the news that a military coup was being staged and that most of his friends were fleeing the country while others were falling into the hands of the new dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Neruda died on September 23, 1973.

He left posthumous works: The sea and the Bells (1973), Winter Garden, 2000, The Yellow Heart, Defectos escogidos (Selected Failings), Elegy and The Book of Questions (1974). In 1980 El rio invisible (The Invisible River) was published.

Neruda's memory and poetry are still alive, not only in Chile, but in all the parts of the world which he visited through his many trips. It is with pride, sadness, respect and hope for a better tomorrow that we remember him 21 years after his death.