"Neruda, The Poet’s Calling"
HarperCollins, 628 pages
Many know that Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize laureate and Chilean poet, was a communist. Less well known is that until the 1960s, he was a diehard Stalinist. Though he had an understandable reason for this – Stalin was the only world leader to support the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, whose fascists murdered so many of Neruda’s friends – still his blindness about the dictator who slaughtered twenty million people is startling.
Neruda never left the communist party. As Marc Eisner documents in his new biography, "Neruda, The Poet’s Calling," the communists claimed him to the bitter end, finally and fearlessly right in the teeth of Pinochet’s fascist regime. Eisner’s description of Neruda’s 1973 funeral, after the coup and Allende’s suicide, is powerful: tens of thousands walked behind the coffin in defiance of Pinochet’s troops, who essentially had to stand down. “Communist youth of Chile!” A leader called out. “Companero [brother] Pablo Neruda!” And the crowd answered, “Presente! [he is present] Companero Salvadore Allende! Presente! Companero Victor Jara! Presente! Companero Pablo Neruda! Presente!” This, right under the eyes of the troops, defending the CIA-backed dictator.
For Neruda, the Spanish Civil War was a formative experience. Though a renowned poet before it, that struggle permanently altered his character and art; his youthful melancholy vanished, as Eisner documents. Neruda’s rival Jorge Luis Borges said: “When he became a communist, his poetry became very strong. I like Neruda the communist.” After Spain, Neruda became “a people’s poet.” He argued for “a dirty poetry, grimy from the hands of the worker, smelling of both ‘urine and lilies.’” Heartbroken by the fascist murder of his great friend, poet Federico Garcia Lorca, he wrote 21 poems in response to the civil war, collected in "Spain in the Heart." His friend, Rafael Alberti, who fought in the civil war, called Neruda’s poems “sacred verses for us.”
The list of writers who attended Neruda’s Second International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, “as the bombs fell on Madrid,” reads like a who’s who of early twentieth century literature: Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Octavio Paz, Langston Hughes and many others. Later, campaigning in Santiago for a presidential candidate, Neruda read from "Spain in the Heart" to members of the porter’s union: “They were completely silent while he read. When he ended, many applauded…then a man…[a] leader of the union said, ‘Companero Pablo, we are a much forgotten people. I can tell you that we have never felt such great emotion…’ The worker started to cry, as did others.”
As a diplomat, Neruda saved the lives of over two thousand Spanish Republicans, who would certainly have perished in Franco’s prisons and concentration camps, had he not arranged for a boat to bring them to South America and then for them to reside in Chile. Eisner writes: “Newspapers across the world described the venture, with Neruda, Chile’s ‘foremost poet,’ as The New York Tribune described him, identified as the director of the operation…One of the immigrants remembered: ‘The change could not have been more striking. We, the damnable reds, the humiliated, the dangerous, the murderers, transformed into heroes of democracy, treated marvelously, praised, cheered by crowds at the Mapocho station.’” Later there were accusations about Neruda conspiring against Trotsky in Mexico, there was his poem on Stalingrad, his campaigns for electoral office as a communist party candidate, his time as a senator, his poem against the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, more poems, his support for strikers, his newspaper articles throughout Latin America, his travels to the Soviet Union, his dramatic escape and exile from Chile during anti-communist years, when he could have ended up in a concentration camp for communists, run by the young Pinochet, his friendship with the radical Mexican muralists Rivera and Siqueiros, more poetry, his friendship with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers, his meetings with Castro and Che Guevara, his frantic travels all over the world – what a life!
Appended to this biography’s end are shocking allegations, made in recent years, that Neruda was murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen, while in the hospital for prostate cancer. He reportedly told his communist driver that he had been injected with poison. A few years ago, with the exhumation of his remains, it became clear that the official cause of death – cancer – was untrue. Whether these allegations of murder are confirmed remains to be seen. But it would not be surprising to learn that Neruda not only lived for his communist beliefs, but died because of them as well.