A Brief Biography of Pablo Neruda

Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (Pablo Neruda 1904-1973) grew up in the hard-scrabble logging town of Temuco in Chile’s rugged southern frontier. He would later blame the endless rain for his melancholic personality, but beyond poetic license, the death of his mother from tuberculosis when he was two months old, his father’s hot temper, and the family’s endemic poverty are more likely culprits. Young Ricardo was raised by his stepmother, whom he reverently called Ma’madre—more mother. He rode the rails with his father, a conductor on the maintenance train fleet. On these journeys he witnessed the indignities suffered by the railroad workers, whom he befriended, as well as the oppressed indigenous Mapuche people.

By the time he was 14, Ricardo had published his first poems. In a rage his father burned the adolescent’s writings. After that, he would publish under the name Pablo Neruda: supposedly Pablo for Paul Verlaine, his favorite French poet, and Neruda for Jan Neruda, a Czech writer. Neruda moved to Chile’s capital Santiago, where he studied at the university and participated in the progressive student movement. Some proclaimed him the poet of his generation. When he was only 19, Neruda’s second book was published, Veinte Poemas de Amor y una Cancion Desesperada / Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The book burst through the old traps of traditional love poetry, and the richness of its yearning would endure across generations, selling millions of copies around the world.

The young poet’s notoriety gained him an honorary diplomatic post in the Chilean government, and he was sent to Burma and Sri Lanka. These years were full of intricate collisions with—and influence from—the various cultures he encountered, during most of which he suffered from anguished mental “desolation,” at one point turning to opium dens for relief. He married a Dutch woman whom he eventually scorned and abandoned. Neruda later became Chile’s cultural attaché to Republican Spain, where he joined a group of intellectuals and artists that included his new beloved friend, the poet Federico García Lorca and his future wife, the enigmatic Argentine communist, Delia del Carril. The bloodshed, including the death of Lorca, of the Spanish Civil War instigated by the fascist Francisco Franco, was a watershed experience for Neruda and his poetry. He played a key role in the resistance, using his poetry as a tool for organizing and inspiring the rebel Republican Army, as well as leading an inspiring effort to bring 2,000 Spanish Civil War refugees to Chile.

From that point on, he would ally his poetry and his person with the international fight against fascism. Neruda’s staunch Stalinism dated from this era, when only the Soviets who would come to Spain’s rescue, when they seemed to be the only ones confronting fascism, where Stalin was seen as the world’s chief defender of freedom. Although he was aware of Stalin’s crimes, Neruda stayed silent—he would not burn the flag he was cloaked in—until years after the dictator’s death.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Neruda published prolifically, including Residencia en la Tierra / Residence on Earth, a groundbreaking collection of modernist poetry. Neruda also joined the Chilean Communist Party and was elected senator representing the militant miners of northern Chile. But in the post-World War II era, Neruda’s outspoken condemnation of Chile’s exploitation by U.S. corporations led to charges of subversion, and the poet was persecuted and forced into exile, with a dramatic escape across the Andes. Neruda was granted asylum abroad, and throughout the Cold War era, he moved from country to country. In spite of this constant travel, Neruda wrote volume after volume of poetry, including his monumental political work, Canto General. This poetic manifesto took on Latin America’s legendary exploiters, from the Spanish Conquistadores to multinational corporations such as the United Fruit Company.

Eventually the Chilean government had no more political capital to go after the poet who now shined on the international stage. Neruda returned to Chile and joined the progressive parties organizing to revolutionize Chile by the ballot box. For Chile’s 1970 presidential election, the parties on the Left couldn’t unite behind one candidate, so each nominated their own, in a sort of primary. The Communists named Neruda their candidate for President. Eventually, support coalesced behind the Socialist’s Salvador Allende, and Neruda withdrew his candidacy and endorsed his friend Allende, who became the world’s first democratically elected Marxist president.

Meanwhile, in his fabled eccentric coastal home named Isla Negra, Matilde Urrutia, his third and most romanticized wife, discovered that Neruda was having an affair with her niece. She threatened to leave him. To resolve the situation, Allende appointed Neruda ambassador to France. In 1971 Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he accepted, “not as a Chilean but as a Latin American.” But by this time, he was greatly weakened by prostate cancer and was forced to return home.

In Chile, Allende’s Popular Unity government lacked a cohesive mandate. Its reforms were sabotaged by internal divisions, as well as by a U.S. economic blockade and the CIA’s multimillion-dollar effort to destabilize the country. On September 11, 1973 Allende was overthrown in a bloody coup. Two weeks later, the first public demonstration against the military dictatorship took place at the funeral of Pablo Neruda. Some said Neruda had died of a broken heart. But even in death Neruda’s spirit evoked the fierce resistance that characterized his poetry, as the mourners chanted “Compañero Pablo Neruda!” and the whole procession answered “Presente!” “Compañero Pablo Neruda!” “Presente!” “Ahora y siempre! The demonstration at his funeral became a global symbol of resistance, and that sealed the destiny of Neruda’s poems as international rallying cries for justice and humanity—as well as love—for decades to come.

© Red Poppy 2016