Pablo Neruda was in the news again recently, as the press has begun to openly speculate that he was murdered. Accordingly I decided to re-publish this old review, as it still represents both my feelings on his life and work and my feelings about his death–even when I did not believe it was foul play.
Years ago, one of science fiction’s Golden Agers told me a strange story. This writer was a child in Europe during the 1940’s, and he clearly remembers the summer day when a great army of liberation came marching through his home town. The people lined the streets, waving their handkerchiefs and cheering. They reached out to touch the soldiers as they drove past, blessing them, thanking them, pressing flowers into their hands. He remembers his own mother lifting him high above the crowd to a smiling man in the command car, and how the soldier bent and kissed the crown of his head…and then laughed and tousled his golden curls with rough affection, as if he had kissed his own son.
That soldier’s uniform was black as coal, and his collar sported a pair of bone-white lightning bolts. Those friendly eyes, blue as the summer sky, belonged to a member of the Waffen SS Division “Totenkopf”, the Death’s Head. The great liberator was also a stone killer, taken directly from duty as a concentration camp guard to serve on the Eastern Front. He was a man far more likely to have been gassing babies than kissing them, on any given day of his military career.
In July of 1941, his unit was marching through Lithuania on a red carpet of public enthusiasm. So far as the locals were concerned, the Germans had come to beat the Devil! Under the leadership of Wilhelm von Leeb, Hitler’s Northern Army was driving Stalin out of the Baltics, and the people simply could not have been happier.
Why do I keep thinking of that story now? Because every time I turn on the television these days, I’m confronted by an ugly reality: I haven’t got a team to root for, in the latest war. We’ve been conditioned to look for right and wrong, good and evil, whenever two armies meet. But the truth is that Darkness often wars with Darkness, in this world, and all is not necessarily well afterward, no matter who wins. When I have Hitler on one side of a battlefield and Stalin on the other…who the hell do I cheer for?
It all depends on where I’m standing, and what I have at stake. If I’m Lithuanian in 1942, still reeling from the Russian assault in 1939, and I don’t happen to be a Jew or a gypsy? I might very well think “Go Hitler go.” And sadly, horribly, it doesn’t make me a bad person to cheer for the Waffen SS on that day, or even to let a murderer kiss my baby. Queasy-making as the memory might be, fifty years later, to the man that little boy became.
We all make the best calls we can, given our circumstances. Even the best, brightest and strongest among us can do nothing more than fight the Devils that we know. In the thick of the battles we’ve chosen, the enemies of our enemies will always become our friends; it’s not only natural, it’s inevitable. We may regret our choice of allies later on, but when our backs are against the wall in a stiff fight against a known evil, we’ll take whatever aid or comfort is offered–we don’t play Twenty Questions.
Once this basic principle of human struggle is understood, it becomes very easy to understand the Communist Revolution, and its history as a counter-culture of the 20th century. And it was a hell of a powerful counter-culture, we can’t kid ourselves on that score. Regardless of how strong our stance against this movement may be, or how much we personally love playing on the capitalist team, we have to give the opposing side its due. They had a rotten coaching staff and corrupt management, but the Communists got some AMAZING draft picks over the years.
Let’s just take a look at this team roster, shall we? George Orwell. Bertolt Brecht. Albert Camus. Diego Rivera. Pablo Picasso. John Steinbeck. Upton Sinclair. Even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Einstein played a season for these guys. How can all these people have fallen in league with a Revolution that was ultimately directed by men like Joseph Stalin? What does it all mean? Were all these artists, poets, scholars and scientists really? evil? Or stupid? Or terminally gullible?
Personally, I think they were just unlucky. When I want to know how so many intellectuals could be duped into supporting the cause of Communism over the years, I have to turn my eyes away from the Soviet Union, the Maoist purges and the madness of Pol Pot. I don’t concentrate on the Devils that I know–I turn and look over my shoulder to see the Devils that THEY knew.
Imagine what Steinbeck felt when he watched a ten-ton pyramid of fresh oranges being soaked with kerosene and torched in front of a crowd of starving families. Lie down with George Orwell in a flophouse full of broken indigents who’ve been made to work from dusk ’til dawn picking hops, and have been paid for that work with nothing more than a louse-infested cot and a piece of bread and margarine. If these men dared to dream that there might be a better answer than the cold equations of supply and demand, can I really blame them?
The appeal of Communism in the 20th century is not a mystery but a tragedy, and no one person embodies that tragedy more perfectly than Pablo Neruda. In a movement that sported many great poets, Neruda is still the most universally revered. Even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, his work was read around the world in a dozen languages. The intensity of his political vision had an enormous influence on the history of the Communist era. He was a key inspiration for Che Guevara in the 1940’s, among others. But even for those with no interest in the revolution, Neruda’s poetry can easily transcend his politics: the blazing passion, unearthly beauty and sensual power of his verses cannot be concealed by even the clumsiest translation.
Fortunately for us, Ben Belitt has not made a clumsy effort here. Neruda himself described Belitt’s work as “faithful and lovely translations that have done much to make my poetry better known in your country”, and Five Decades, despite Belitt’s modest denial in the preface, IS in fact a definitive volume. Not because it collects all of Neruda in one place (that’s an impossible task, outside of a library edition), but because it gives the reader a rich cross-section from fourteen different books of his poetry, and serves as a biography-in-verse of the author.
In some ways, Five Decades is actually superior to Neruda’s prose memoirs, the Confieso que he Vivido, in much the same way that a shot is superior to a beer. Same kick, same content, but a poem is stronger stuff; it goes down faster, and it’s a lot more likely to knock you out.
This man was born in Chile in 1904, and given the mellifluous name of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto by his impoverished parents. His mother was a schoolteacher; she died of tuberculosis when he was a baby. His father was a railway worker. Neruda described him in a poem from Black Island Memorial:
“The brusque father comes back from his trains…Wind entered in gusts with my father; and between the two advents, footfalls and tensions, the house staggered, a panic of doorways exploded with a dry sound of pistols, stairs groaned and a shrill voice nagged hatefully on in the turbulent rain.”
The closing lines of “Father” are also very moving, as the unhappy son of an unhappy man tries to offer some absolution to the dead:
“Poor, durable father, there on the axle of life, virile in friendships, your cup overflowing: the whole of your life was a headlong militia…Then, on the rainiest day of them all, the conductor, Jose del Carmen Reyes, boarded his death train and has not come back to us since.”
The son of the conductor began writing poetry at the age of 10, published his first magazine article at the age of 14, and his first poem at the age of 15. At 17, he took up the pseudonym Pablo Neruda so that he could publish more poems without upsetting his family. They disapproved of his literary ambitions. Very few poets in history can match Neruda’s meteoric rise into his artistic powers; by the time he was 21 he had achieved international fame as the author of 20 Love Poems and One Song of Despair, and by twenty-three he had become a diplomat, appointed by the Chilean government as their consul to Burma.
This is actually not an uncommon practice in Latin America, although it may mystify some Americans. When a writer is declared the Voice of his people in a Spanish-speaking country, he tends to become that Voice quite literally. He’s expected to travel the world as an avatar for his nation, a living embodiment of their dreams, ambitions, and yearnings.
In any case, Neruda’s early experiences in the far East are reflected in some of the poems collected here. Some of the best are about the exotic animals of a foreign clime: “Black Pantheress” is included, in which he invokes Singapore as “a blood heat of rain on the mouldering white of the walls, bitten with wet and the leprous kiss of humidity“, and describes his encounter with a panther in a cage: “Saw the surge of her body that shaded to velvet, the flexing perfection…a barbarous queen in a box, midway on the trash of the street“. There’s also “Elephant”, a gentle meditation on the beauty and dignity of a creature which we seldom see outside the humiliating servitude of a circus tent:
“Make no mistake: that endeared and enormous sojourner of jungles is nobody’s clown; he is patriarch, father of emerald lights, the innocent and ancient sire of the universe.”
More interesting to me personally are the lessons he learned about humanity in Asia. “Opium in the East” is a powerfully political poem, sinking its teeth into the hypocrisy of those Europeans in the 1920’s who would decry the rise of opium addiction in London and Geneva, even while they raked in a tidy profit peddling the stuff on every street corner in Singapore. And “Religion in the Orient” is an even more powerful statement:
“It came to me there in Rangoon…all gods are our enemies…”
It was also during his early years as a diplomat that Neruda began his long pas de deux with Communism. During the 1930’s, Communism was considered the antidote to the rise of Fascism in Europe; many of Neruda’s friends during that time were members of the Party, including the great Spanish poet and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca. Neruda was also living with the painter Delia de Carril at the time, a woman whom he deeply loved and respected, and who encouraged him to become involved in politics.
When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, the die was cast for Neruda. Violence erupted all over the country, and Fascist soldiers dragged his friend Lorca out of a house and shot him, without trial, in the streets of Granada. It was a shot heard around the world–and the straw that broke the camel’s back, for a small-town boy from the mountains of Chile. In fairness, however, Neruda was not the only one to be deeply moved by Lorca’s death. People from every corner of the globe joined the cause of the Spanish Republicans out of sheer outrage. To them, the death of Lorca was not just a senseless murder, but an appalling act of spiritual vandalism. He had been the best-known Spanish writer of his generation, and the premiere poet of Andalusia and its gypsy sub-culture; the men who silenced his deep songs were seen not just as political bully-boys, but as the enemies of all mankind.
Neruda expressed his rage and anguish over the war in Spain, and the loss of everything he had loved in that country, in a poem called “A Few Things Explained”. There may not be another poem in this entire book which more perfectly answers the question: why? Why did this poor, sad, gentle man, who would have infinitely preferred to spend a lifetime writing poems about the beauty of nature, or the love of women, or the quiet suffering of the poor, end up spending so many years writing angry, polemic verses? Even with a casual glance at his life and work, it’s clear that he was never cut from a warrior’s cloth; he had no great joie de guerre, took no pleasure in the use of his pen as a weapon.
“Would you know why his poems never mention the soil or the leaves, the gigantic volcanoes of the country that bore him? Come see the blood in the streets, come see the blood in the streets, come see the blood in the streets!”
He was not given a choice. The Devil was staring him in the face, and he had to fight in the cause of Life–regardless of what flag Life was flying that day. So he struck what blows he could. He wrote poems about United Fruit Company. About dictators laughing in their palaces while the innocent rot in their graves. About beggars dying and entire districts starving. About Madrid burning, and fascist planes descending from the skies, and children bleeding.
And all those poems are here, along with the sweeter murmurs of his spirit. Poems about his wives, especially the third and most beloved, Matilde. Poems about volcanoes, about jungles, about red clay and lemons. Poems about leaves, and vines, and beasts:
“on the vastness of water, like a continent circled, drenched in the ritual mud, rapacious, religious, gigantic, the coiled anaconda.”
He fought to the end; even days before his death, Neruda would not give up. The last words he ever wrote were a description of the death of his friend Salvador Allende, the President of Chile. On September 11, 1973, Allende’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Neruda gave the last of his failing strength to the final words of his memoirs, and wrote a description of Allende’s last moments, and of the sad funeral which only the President’s wife was permitted to attend.
I can only hope that Neruda was too ill to be told what happened next. Because six days later, Pinochet’s thugs repeated the horror of 1936. They took a group of political prisoners into a stadium, among them the great Chilean folk singer Victor Jara; Jara, like Lorca in Spain, had committed the crime of supporting a left-wing cause with his songs. And after the soldiers had broken the bones of his hands, they taunted the musician cruelly. “Sing your songs now, Victor! Play the guitar for us!”
When Victor Jara found the strength to rise above his pain, and lifted his voice to sing a few lines of his anthem for the Popular Unity Party, they ended his final performance with a bullet. In another six days, Pablo Neruda had slipped away, dead at the age of 69. Decades of oppression followed, years in which Chile suffered in silence, the passionate Voices of its people dead and buried. A great and enduring victory for capitalism: hip hip hooray!
Tell me that the Devil didn’t dance in Pinochet’s palace, and I’ll spit in your eye.
–originally written for The Official Anti-Oprah Book Club of Joe Bob Briggs
Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970
Written by Pablo Neruda
Translated from the Spanish by Ben Belitt
Grove Press, 1983, $15.00 USA
© 2003 Arinn Dembo All Rights Reserved