May 27, 2018
"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.
April 10, 2018
"The Infernal Library"
Henry Holt, 379 pages
Dictators are lousy writers. Yet many have felt the urge to commit their thoughts, such as they are, to paper and then to compel their captive audience not only to read them, but also to rhapsodize about them. Given the abysmal nature of this genre, one can only conclude that Daniel Kalder – whose book "The Infernal Library, On Dictators, The Books They Wrote and Other Catastrophes of Literacy", required him to slog through thousands of pages of hogwash – has uncommon stamina. How he did it, and wrote so well about it, is something to marvel at. He ploughed through the oeuvre of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Gaddafi, Franco and many others and adroitly summarizes their banal pensées. Having read his book, one feels no need to consult the original sources. Of Mussolini’s "Fascism Its Theory and Philosophy," Kalder writes that it “sounds like the work of a clever autodidact, way out of his depth, drowning in his own pretension.” Of Hitler he remarks, “it seems that Hitler’s ideas were fluctuating, and that as late as 1919 he was interested in pursuing career opportunities other than crazed ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic genocidal tyrant.” The ghastly "Mein Kampf" sold well in Nazi Germany, but could never compare with the market share of another dictator tome: “The billion selling 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was coming.”
Mao’s bibliography reveals that in addition to theoretical works, the chairman wrote poetry, which Kalder describes as “not as bad as Hitler’s painting, but not as good as Churchill’s.” As dictators who murdered more people than anyone else in the history of civilization, Hitler, Stalin and Mao deserve their own category. But Kalder’s literary focus leads him to lump these mass murdering genocidal tyrants together with garden variety murderous dictators. And so "The Infernal Library" also considers the writings of Zaire’s Mobuto, of Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier, of Uganda’s Idi Amin, and of Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, who “took a break from declaring that he would build socialism while not actually building it,” to issue several tomes on the subject. And then there was Gaddafi’s unforgettable "The Green Book." “The problem is that the book is exceedingly awful,” Kalder writes. “It is not merely boring or banal or repetitive or nonsensical…It is quite simply stupid.” Even by the extremely low standards of dictator literature, "The Green Book" flunks.
There is only one point to quibble with here: Kalder refers to Khrushchev’s “naïve good Lenin/bad Stalin dichotomy.” But the man who dared stand before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and denounce Stalin to an audience of true believers, was anything but naïve. He knew the difference between a dictator like Lenin, who had killed people in a revolution and a civil war and a world-class mass murderer like Stalin, who had sabotaged any hope in the revolution with his purges, Terror and gulags and, in "On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences," reportedly deployed that difference to great effect. He found Leninism useful and Stalinism criminal.
Kalder aptly describes Khrushchev as “a jovial fat man of peasant stock,” who, coming to power, “had just spent two decades wading through gore on behalf of a capricious master, who had murdered many of his close colleagues.” But for all his savvy toughness and experience, Khrushchev was maneuvered out of power within a decade of his heart-stopping speech. After this came Brezhnev, who also produced tomes of deadly prose. Somehow Kalder read these too.
Addressing dictatorship itself, Kalder asks, could it happen here? And he answers, yes. “It couldn’t happen here? Why not? It happened there.” He cites the United States’ “long, deep experience with millenarian hopes and apocalyptic terrors that, in mutant form, played an important role in the rise of the twentieth century’s great dictators.” Kalder’s in-depth exposure to dictatorial prose gives him a well-informed appreciation of just how fragile and tenuous our exemption from tyranny really is.