Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Birthday: "Peace goes into the making of a poem as flour goes into the making of bread."

Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, aka Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
Poet, diplomat, activist

Few events in history have so cast down the hearts of fathers in every land than their sons’ announcements that they wanted to be writers- worse yet, poets.

Pablo Neruda’s father, who worked for the Chilean railways, put his foot down after the boy- he was known as Naftali Reyes then- wrote his first poem at the age of eleven, and published his first at thirteen. He published regularly in Chilean newspapers as a teen.

At sixteen he went to university in Santiago, to study to be a teacher. He also adopted the pen name Pablo Neruda, borrowing the surname of a 19th century Czech nationalist writer, Jan Neruda, though fifty years later, he wasn’t quite sure why:

I’d read a short story of his. I’ve never read his poetry, but he has a book entitled Stories from Malá Strana about the humble people of that neighborhood in Prague. It is possible that my new name came from there. As I say, the whole matter is so far back in my memory that I don’t recall. Nevertheless, the Czechs think of me as one of them, as part of their nation, and I’ve had a very friendly connection with them.

Publishing as Neruda got his dad off his back, and in 1923 and 1924 he published is first two collections. The second, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, was a critical sensation, though it sold poorly and did not go into a second edition until 1932.

At twenty, Neruda was what his father had predicted: a broke poet. He applied for and got the post of honorary Chilean consul in Rangoon, Burma, which he’d never heard of, and spent six lonely years moving through consulates in Sri Lanka, Java and Singapore before marrying in 1930 and returning home.

Soon he was back on the road, as consul in Buenos Aires, then Madrid. There he fell in with the literary set of the mid-Thirties, including the young Garcia Lorca:

...he was such a happy person, such a cheerful creature. I’ve known very few people like him. He was the incarnation . . . well, let’s not say of success, but of the love of life. He enjoyed each minute of his existence—a great spendthrift of happiness. For that reason, the crime of his execution is one of the most unpardonable crimes of fascism...Writers are always interchanging in some way, just as the air we breathe doesn’t belong to one place. The writer is always moving from house to house: he ought to change his furniture. Some writers feel uncomfortable at this. I remember that Federico García Lorca was always asking me to read my lines, my poetry, and yet in the middle of my reading, he would say, “Stop, stop! Don’t go on, lest you influence me!”

The Spanish Civil War, and the torture and murder of his friend, radicalized Neruda. He became a Communist, and such a vocal opponent of the Franco revolutionaries it cost him his job in 1936. He moved on to Paris, where he was a special consul in charge of relocating Spanish refugees, and then- from 1940 to 1943- to Mexico City.

Traveling to Machu Picchu and other ancient sites on the way back to Chile inspired a series of historical epic poems, and his admiration for the Russian resistance to the Nazi invasion prompted a series of increasingly political works lionizing the leading lights of Communism (he had a remarkable facility for shooting from style to style, from romance to politics to surrealism).

By 1945 Neruda was so famous he was called upon to read at a Communist rally attended by 100,000; in elections that year he was elected to the Chilean Senate.

A strident critic of the government, Neruda was forced into hiding in 1946, then, to escape to Argentina on horseback. He made his way to Europe on the passport of a friend who looked like him; Pablo Picasso greased his entry into France, and he made a triumphant appearance at a world peace congress even as the Chilean government was insisting there was no way Neruda had left the country.

Five years of  in exile followed before another change in government allowed him to go home to support the Socialist Party candidate for president of Chile, Salvador Allende. He spent the Fifties in Chile, publishing more, his books selling in ever-larger numbers. Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair sold over two million in Neruda's lifetime alone. Critics derided him as a champagne Communist, with his three homes and constant travel; though he came to rue his wartime cheerleading for Stalin, he remained a devoted party member, so much so that it took the playwright Arthur Miller’s intervention with President Johnson to get Neruda a visa to accept an award in New York. His political views scuttled his 1964 Nobel nomination, and through the Sixties he was a prominent, and irritating, critic of America's intervention in Vietnam.

Still, there was something about his poetry. It seemed quintessentially Latin. Neruda himself argued no translation could carry with it the “atmosphere” of his work, which eventually saw print in thirty different tongues. The Chilean Communist Party nominated him for president in 1969, and he conducted a lively four month campaign before throwing his support to the successful Socialist candidate, Salvador Allende. His rallies were unique affairs, featuring performances of his folk songs, and speeches alternating between public policy and readings of his work (he explained he felt he had to read some poems or people would leave the events disappointed).

In January 1970, Neruda sat down with The Paris Review for an installment in its Art of Poetry series:

If you had to choose between the presidency of Chile and the Nobel Prize, for which you have been mentioned so often, which would you choose?


There can be no question of a decision between such illusory things.


But if they put the presidency and the Nobel Prize right here on a table?


If they put them on the table in front of me, I’d get up and sit at another table.


Do you think awarding the Nobel Prize to Samuel Beckett was just?


Yes, I believe so. Beckett writes short but exquisite things. The Nobel Prize, wherever it falls, is always an honor to literature. I am not one of those always arguing whether the prize went to the right person or not. What is important about this prize—if it has any importance—is that it confers a title of respect on the office of writer. That is what is important.

Shortly after the interview, Neruda was recalled to the diplomatic service by President Allende, who appointed him ambassador to France. A year after he professed indifference to the Nobel, the call came from Stockholm.

Ill health forced his resignation in early 1973. He was undergoing treatment for cancer when Allende’s government was overthrown and the president committed suicide rather than face capture. The day before he planned to leave Chile for exile- some said, to organize an opposition government- he was taken to a clinic in Santiago Shortly after he complained of an injection he said he had been given, he was dead. The official cause of death was heart failure.

Neruda’s home was ransacked and most of his books and papers vanished; the military government blockaded his funeral from the public.

Rumors and allegations about his death refused to die or be suppressed. After the Pinochet military government finally ended, Neruda’s body was exhumed and tissue samples were taken for testing. Last year the Chilean government acknowledged that it was “possible and highly probable” that the poet’s death was due to a third party, but that a first round of tests had found no evidence of poison. More tests were ordered.

Neruda was married three times. He was also a connoisseur of detective fiction:

A great literary work of this type of writing is Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios. I’ve read practically all of Ambler’s work since then, but none has the fundamental perfection, the extraordinary intrigue, and the mysterious atmosphere of A Coffin for Dimitrios. Simenon is also very important, but it’s James Hadley Chase who surpasses in terror, in horror, and in the destructive spirit everything else that has been written. No Orchids for Miss Blandish is an old book, but it doesn’t cease being a milestone of the detective story. There’s a strange similarity between No Orchids for Miss Blandish and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary—that very disagreeable but important book—but I’ve never been able to determine which was the first of the two. Of course, whenever the detective story is spoken of, I think of Dashiell Hammett. He is the one who changed the genre from a subliterary phantasm and gave it a strong backbone. He is the great creator, and after him there are hundreds of others, John MacDonald among the most brilliant. All of them are prolific writers and they work extraordinarily hard. And almost all of the North American novelists of this school—the detective novel—are perhaps the most severe critics of the crumbling North American capitalist society. There is no greater denunciation than that which turns up in those detective novels about the fatigue and corruption of the politicians and the police, the influence of money in the big cities, the corruption which pops up in all parts of the North American system, in “the American way of life.” It is, possibly, the most dramatic testimony to an epoch, and yet it is considered the flimsiest accusation, since detective stories are not taken into account by literary critics.

At 67, Neruda reflected on the course of his life:

My poetry has passed through the same stages as my life; from a solitary childhood and an adolescence cornered in distant, isolated countries, I set out to make myself a part of the great human multitude. My life matured, and that is all. It was in the style of the last century for poets to be tormented melancholiacs. But there can be poets who know life, who know its problems, and who survive by crossing through the currents. And who pass through sadness to plenitude.

His work has been set to music by scores of artists; he has been the subject of an opera and novels. Even Bart Simpson knows Neruda’s work. One, which memorably recreated Neruda in exile, was 1994’s Il Postino, in which a part-time letter carrier on an Italian island seeks Neruda’s advice wooing the woman he loves:

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