After troubled history, Chile finally claims Neruda

Reply Sat 19 Jun, 2004 01:52 am
After troubled history, Chile finally claims Neruda
The Nobel-winning poet's communist beliefs made him unpopular with conservative leaders; now the nation honors the centennial of his birth

By Hector Tobar
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
Published June 18, 2004

ISLA NEGRA, Chile -- Famous for his love of the sea, the Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda wrote in his landmark book "Canto General" that he wanted to rest for eternity next to his stone and wood cottages in this hamlet on the Pacific.

"Comrades, bury me in Isla Negra/before the sea that I knew, to each rough space/of rocks and waves that my lost eyes will never see again."

Instead, Neruda was hastily interred in Chile's capital, Santiago, when he succumbed to cancer two weeks after his friend Salvador Allende was deposed as president in a bloody 1973 coup. Soldiers ransacked one of Neruda's homes, then surrounded the mourners at his funeral procession. The speeches at his graveside were the last act of public protest allowed by Chile's new dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Nearly two decades later, Chile's new, democratically elected president asked his special events director, Javier Egana, to supervise Neruda's government-sponsored exhumation and reburial in Isla Negra. Thousands lined the roads and tossed flowers on the poet's flag-draped casket as it passed.

Now Egana is working around the clock on a new task: officially incorporating Neruda, whose communist beliefs didn't endear him to the conservative establishment that has dominated the country since Pinochet's coup, into the pantheon of Chile's national heroes.

In the new Chile, the ideologically driven disputes of the past have been fading amid the spirit of reinvention that comes with being South America's fastest-growing economy. With each passing year, the rancor of the conservative elite toward its old foes diminishes.

Recognizing a `hero'

On July 12, Chile will commemorate the centennial of Neruda's birth. Cities and towns up and down the length of Chile are caught up in Neruda fever, each rushing to hold commemorative acts. In Isla Negra, children will parade, passing ships will sound their horns, and poetry will fall from the sky. President Ricardo Lagos will ride a train south from Santiago to Neruda's birthplace, the town of Parral, where a host of Latin America's leading literary luminaries will mark the event.

"Chile is recognizing a poetic hero, a hero of letters, a hero of humanity," Egana said.

As Chile's secretary of social communication and culture, Egana specializes in official acts of repentance, having also reburied Allende, a Marxist, and one of his slain former ministers, Orlando Letelier, in solemn, public ceremonies. Like those events, the Neruda centennial will be what Egana calls an "act of reparation."

Everyone in Chile knows of the tragic drama of the poet's final days. From his sickbed in Isla Negra, Neruda watched soldiers digging through his garden in search of arms. "The only weapons you will find in this place are words," he told them.

Legend has it that cancer didn't kill Neruda but the sadness that overwhelmed him after hearing of the coup's atrocities, of the bodies turning up in the Mapocho River, and of the killing of friends such as the singer Victor Jara and Allende, who died in the presidential palace.

Allende had come to power after winning the 1970 election, promising "a democratic road to socialism." But he soon confronted strong internal and external opposition, with the administration of President Richard Nixon working to secretly destabilize his government. One of Neruda's last works was titled "Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution."

After the coup, Pinochet imposed a brutal dictatorship that lasted until 1990. But Pinochet's conservative economic polices have remained in place.

Political, spiritual rebirth

In a sense, the official Neruda Centenary observances will mark another step forward in the creation of a new Chilean national identity: one in which the antagonisms of the recent past are transformed into a shared history of tragedies and triumphs.

"Fourteen years after that trauma," Egana said, referring to the end of the dictatorship, "this is a country that has recovered its sense of joy."

Neruda wrote in green ink--"the color of hope," he called it--and published his first book at 19. Over the course of five decades he produced a body of work that cataloged all things Latin American, from the Straits of Magellan to Macchu Picchu. In the words of New Yorker critic Mark Strand, he was "easily the most prolific and popular of all 20th Century poets."

As a young man, Neruda first earned fame for his love poems. Translated into 36 languages, they have been the opening gambit of countless courtships and seductions. "From wave upon wave upon wave/green ocean, green cold, branch of green," he wrote in the 46th sonnet of "One Hundred Love Sonnets," "I never chose but a single wave/the indivisible wave of your body."

Neruda was later a diplomat, a senator and was nominated as the Communist Party's candidate for president in 1970, although he withdrew in support of Allende. Despite his worldwide fame, Neruda's political activism made it difficult for his name to become part of the public history of Chile in the years after his death.

"There was a time when all the mayors had been appointed by the military authorities, and clearly no one would have dared to name a plaza or a street for Neruda then," Egana said.

In recent months, the Chilean government has dispatched its cultural attaches to book fairs from Geneva to Guadalajara to promote celebrations of Neruda's oeuvre. New anthologies of the poet's works are being published here and elsewhere.

"His humanist message is as vital as ever and I think that's what [the official celebrations] are trying to recognize," said Adam Feinstein, the British author of "Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life," the first major biography of the poet in English. "It comes from that infectious joy of life that fed his poetry so beautifully."

Neruda was elected to the Senate in 1945 but was later expelled for writing a letter critical of President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, and wrote "Canto General" while in exile. He returned to Chile in 1952.

In 1964, when he was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize for literature, the CIA organized a smear campaign to pressure the Nobel committee to deny it to him, Feinstein said.

"The committee gave the prize to [Jean-Paul] Sartre instead, but he turned it down," Feinstein said. One version of the Nobel contretemps has Sartre saying: "I'm not going to have it. Neruda should have got it." Neruda won the prize in 1971.

Legacy survives

Neruda's widow, Matilde, spent her final years at the couple's Isla Negra home, fighting attempts by the government to have the property expropriated because of Neruda's membership in the outlawed Communist Party. She created the Pablo Neruda Foundation, which sealed the home of inter-linked cottages after her death in 1985.

Today it is a well-ordered shrine to Neruda's life and a popular tourist destination. About 120,000 people visit each year.

Isla Negra is making final preparations for its Neruda Centenary events, which will include a helicopter drop of pamphlets of Neruda poems.

In Villa Alegre, not far from the poet's birthplace in Parral, city officials dedicated a new Neruda monument in April. A marble plaque bears the opening lines of Neruda's most famous poem, one still memorized by legions of Chilean schoolchildren: "Tonight I can write the saddest lines/Write, for example, `The night is starry/and the stars are blue and shiver in the distance.'"

Neruda was born in Parral in 1904, but the town had never celebrated his birth: A few years back, it allowed the home where he was born to be demolished.

This year, the old enmities will be forgotten. The town government will rename several streets for Neruda's most famous works. And it is building Parral's biggest monument, a collection of steel sculptures spread over a half-acre.

Said Mayor Claudio Bravo Araya: "It's an emotional lift to the city ... to have Parral known across the world as the legitimate cradle of the poet."
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Col Man
Reply Thu 24 Jun, 2004 06:31 pm
about time too Wink
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Reply Fri 25 Jun, 2004 08:44 am
ColMan, did you see the film "The Postman?" I loved it; drove 35 miles to see it.

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Reply Fri 25 Jun, 2004 08:47 am
ColMan, did you see the film "Il Postino"? I loved it; drove 35 miles to see it.

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Reply Fri 25 Jun, 2004 11:09 am
One of Neruda's last works was titled "Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution.", says the note.

A better translation would be "Call for Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution". It was a ball to read, but not exactly high poetry.

Neruda would be 100 this year. A great singer of life, he wrote his best and saddest verses when he was a teenager. He wasn't even 20 years old when his most famous book, "Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song", was published.

BBB, you drove 35 miles to see "Il Postino"... I walked 350 yards.
Beautiful film, though I found the ending a little too manipulative.
It is based on a novel "Neruda's postman" by Antonio Skarmeta.
Neruda was exiled twice: one time, it was internal. He was sent to the island of ChiloƩ. The other, he fled to Argentina (and later visited various countries).
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Reply Fri 25 Jun, 2004 11:19 am
Neruda's "Poem XX".


Tonight I can write the saddest lines.

Write for example, 'The night is shattered
and the blue stars shiver in the distance.'

The night wind revolves in the sky and sings.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
I loved her, and sometimes she loved me too.

Through nights like this one I held her in my arms.
I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.

She loved me, sometimes I loved her too.
How could one not have loved her great still eyes.

Tonight I can write the saddest lines.
To think that I do not have her. To feel that I have lost her.

To hear immense night, still more immense without her.
And the verse falls to the soul like dew to a pasture.

What does it matter that my love could not keep her.
The night is shattered and she is not with me.

This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.
My soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

My sight searches for her as though to go to her.
My heart looks for her, and she is not with me.

The same night whitening the same trees.
We, of that time, are no longer the same.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but how I loved her.
My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another's. She will be another's. Like my kisses before.
Her voice. Her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that's certain, but maybe I love her.
Love is short, forgetting is so long.

Because through nights like this one I held her in my arms
my soul is not satisfied that it has lost her.

Though this be the last pain that she makes me suffer
and these the last verses that I write for her.


edited to correct the name of the poem
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Col Man
Reply Sat 26 Jun, 2004 01:01 am
BBB no i didnt see the film although i spent the winter or the summer depending how you look at it in argentina with my argentinian girlfriend and funnily enough she saw the film and was saying how great it was..ill be sure to check it out if i get chance....
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Reply Sat 26 Jun, 2004 01:51 am
Famed seemingly saccharinic italophile that I am, I didn't particularly like Il Postino, and not only for the slowth, though I sympathized with the postman actor, and have always admired Philipe Noiret, and the film introduced me again to Neruda.

But never mind that.

I am so glad Chile has reconciled to this point. Let me guess that there are burblelings of unrest all about the edges of this, but still, I am pleased.
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