‘She was right to regard me with contempt’
Pablo Neruda wrote in green ink, usually on a rough-hewn wooden table. From unremarkable provincial origins in Temuco, “the farthest outpost
of Chilean life in the southern territories … where the rain fell, like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs”, a tall, shy boy wrote himself, Chile and Latin America into the world.
In 1924, at the age of 19 Neruda had written what is now the most popular volume of poems yet published in Spanish — Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.The 1994 film Il Postino made it hugely popular in English translation and launched a relentless avalanche of attempts at seduction involving reference to “sad nets” cast into “oceanic eyes”, and break-up emails with the subject line “Tonight I can write the saddest lines”.
Gabriel García Márquez affirmed Neruda as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”.Neruda’s weight as a writer is such that one doesn’t have to set out to read Neruda to encounter him. Neruda is the Poet in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits. His influence can be heard in the lyrics of the debut Juluka album, Universal Men, first released in 1979. In The Simpsons Lisa quotes Neruda, reads Jean-Paul Sartre and listens to Miles Davis.
Neruda had a portrait of Walt Whitman hung in each of his three homes in Chile. In his home in the village of Isla Negra, above the Pacific, he kept three photographs on a table set against a window — Whitman as a young man, Whitman as a greybeard and Arthur Rimbaud at 17, a picture taken seven months after the slaughter of the Communards in Paris.
Neruda bought every copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he came across, and owned a first edition from 1855. He sought to do for the South what Whitman had done for the North. He wrote Latin America into the world with an extraordinary sense of the marvellous, an emerald perspective of buried jaguars, subjugated snows, torrents of sunbursts, and an abundance of roots and moons — the moon scarred, quartz, crystal, hot, cool, white, red and moist. Neruda wrote beyond his home, his name and his language, and into “the oneness of the ocean, a generous, vast wholeness, a crackling, living fragrance”. He wrote to give dignity to the ordinary — to the tomato, the lemon, salt, a rooster, a large tuna in the market, the light on the sea, a gentle bricklayer, a woman gardening and an aged poet.
Neruda read in factories and, from Santiago to Sao Paulo, in stadiums. In 1971 he was awarded the Nobel prize for ‘”a poetry that with the action of an elemental force brings alive a continent’s destiny and dreams”. In his acceptance speech he affirmed his affiliation to Rimbaud’s vision: “In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid Cities.” He declared that his “duties as a poet involve friendship not only with the rose and with symmetry, with exalted love and endless longing”, but also a “taking sides” with the “organised masses of the people” in struggle against the “condemnation of centuries” and for “justice and dignity”.
Neruda’s political commitment had begun to cohere during the Spanish Civil War. Before the war he lived, as a diplomat, in Madrid, in a suburb “with bells, and clocks and trees” in a house with ‘”dogs and children”, a house “called the house of flowers, because in every cranny geraniums burst”. He shared friendships with Federico García Lorca and César Vallejo. The war brought “dead houses”, “blood in the streets” and a “proletariat of petals and bullets, alone alive, somnolent, resounding’”. The execution of Lorca by the fascists in 1936 pushed him into open support for the Republic. In 1945 he joined the Communist Party.
Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, understands the poem “as diction of being”, or “the song of thought”. He observes that “some truly great poets ... have been Communists” and offers the example of Neruda along with Nâzim Hikmet in Turkey, Rafael Alberti in Spain, Edoardo Sanguineti in Italy, Yannis Ritsos in Greece, Ai Qing in China, Mahmoud Darwish in Palestine, César Vallejo in Peru and Bertolt Brecht in Germany.Badiou offers no explanation for providing a list made up exclusively of men, or, even on those terms, the striking omission of Aimé Césaire in Martinique.
Badiou affirms “an essential link between poetry and communism, if we understand ‘communism’ closely in its primary sense: the concern for what is common to all”. In the work of the great communist poets he discerns “the poetic desire that the things of life would be like the sky and the earth, like the water of the oceans and the brush fires on a summer night — that is to say, would belong by right to the whole world”. This formulation sits very well with much of Neruda’s work.
Many militants have taken the poem into struggle, and life around struggle. Che Guevara read Neruda to his first lover, at 17, and, throughout his life, often carried Neruda’s works, and gave copies of them as gifts. During the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra Guevara read from Canto General, Neruda’s 10th collection of poems, and arguably his most ambitious, to his soldiers in the evenings. Before he left for Bolivia in 1966 Guevara recorded a spoken selection of love poems, mostly from Neruda, on to a tape recorder for his wife.
It is just over half a century since Guevara was wounded, and then captured, in the potato patch of a tiny Bolivian village. The next morning he was executed on the orders of the CIA. After a little less than a year in the mountains Guevara’s small group of guerrillas were not in a good state. When Guevara was captured the record of the contents of his backpack was brief — some film, a broken radio, a few maps, two diaries and a green notebook.
Guevara had bought the notebook when he was in Dar es Salaam in late 1966, to meet with Frelimo. In the notebook, transcribed in Guevara’s hand, were 69 poems by four poets. They included Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo, and León Felipe, but the bulk of the poems were by Pablo Neruda. The CIA initially assumed that the poems must have been some sort of code. But, after frantic efforts to decode the notebook failed, they eventually concluded that there was no deeper meaning to be discerned in the green notebook beyond the fact that Guevara was the kind of man who takes poems into battle.
Neruda’s political commitments brought him into a decisive confrontation with history in 1970 when Salvadore Allende, a democratic socialist, won the presidency in Chile. On September 11 1973 a United States-backed military coup ended this experiment in democratic socialism, and Allende’s life. Neruda’s home was desecrated by the military, and 12 days after the coup, and Allende’s death, Neruda himself was dead. It is now thought that he may have been poisoned. His funeral became the last open demonstration in support of the deposed government.
In what has been speculated to be his last poem, published after his death, he wrote that his country was “on the naked edge of her knife”, enduring a time when “heroes hop around like toads”. His “last call” was “to the garden, comrade, to the pale lily,/ to the apple tree, to the intransigent carnation, to the fragrance of lemon blossoms,/ and then to the ultimatums of war”.
In life and in death Neruda has, like Pablo Picasso, been held to account for his support for Joseph Stalin. When Stalin died in 1953 Neruda wrote an execrable poem in his honour. Lines like “Stalin is the noon, the maturity of man and the peoples. Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride” have been excoriated for what they are, doggerel written in service of an authoritarian counterrevolution.
But it is only since 2011 that, generally in entirely marginal spaces, Neruda has begun to be understood in terms of his own account of a rape he committed when he was
a diplomat in what was then Ceylon in 1928. For almost 40 years the rape was simultaneously in plain sight and ignored as if it were of no consequence. Neruda gives an account of it in his memoirs, which were published after his death in Spanish in 1974, and translated into English in 1977.
He describes the woman who came to clean out his toilet each morning with all the rhetorical excesses of the most baroque Orientalism — she is simultaneously presented as a goddess and a wild animal, a being from “another existence, a separate world”. He writes that: “One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist ... The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt.”
As a growing global movement serves notice on the ubiquity of predatory forms of sexuality we must take full measure of the weight of the fact, a fact that an incoming tide of feminist courage has placed on the other side of silence and in plain sight, that no space or project is immune to its ravages.
The family, the church, the university, the arts, and many forms of real commitment to urgent dimensions of emancipation, offer no guarantee of sanctuary. For Frantz Fanon, a prospect “is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein”. That always has to mean, without exception, women and men, and it always has to include, again without exception, public life and private intimacies.
Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research