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Pablo Neruda is known the world over for his intensely lyrical and romantic poetry, an almost magical ability to conjure feelings and emotions through beautiful metaphors and stunning images.
It is no surprise that Neruda lived as intensely as he wrote - his life was beset by doomed love affairs and political intrigue.
Read on for my short summary of Chile’s greatest poet, Pablo Neruda.
A young Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda was born on the 12th July, 1904 in Parral, Chile. His father was a railway worker and his mother was a schoolteacher. She died just two months after he was born. He was raised by his half-sister and his father.
Neruda showed an interest in writing from an early age, although his father discouraged him from this. At age 13, he published an essay in his local paper La Mañana and went onto publish many poems there and in other journals under his given name, Neftali Reyes. Sometime in his mid-teens he adopted the pen-name he would use for the rest of his life, Pablo Neruda, perhaps inspired by the Moravian violinist, Wilma Neruda. This was to hide his literary output from his father’s disapproving eye.
At age 16, he moved to Santiago to study French at the Universidad de Chile. Although his original intention was to become a teacher, he soon dropped this ambition in favour of writing full-time. He was introduced to the prominent publisher Don Carlos George Nascimento, who would publish his first volume of poems in 1923, Crepusculario (Book of Twilights). The volume was a critical success and over the next hundred years would go on to sell millions of copies and be the best-selling work of Spanish poetry of all time. However, at age 22, Neruda was struggling financially. He took a consulship job in Rangoon, and latter Ceylon, Java and Singapore. Adrift and lonely in a succession of foreign, he continued to write poetry throughout his assignments. Even though these years took up the bulk of his young adulthood, he would later claim they had no influence on his writings.
With his first wife, Maruca
At age 26, whilst posted in Java, he met and married his first wife, Maruca. She was a Dutch bank worker. They had one daughter, born in Madrid in 1934, who was plagued with severe illness her entire life. During this time, he and his wife separated and Neruda began a relationship with the Argentine artist, Delia del Caril. Maruca, peniless and living in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, asked him for money and for help to flee to country. He ignored all her requests.
Neruda's magnus opus, Canto General
He was appointed as special consul in the Spanish embassy in Paris in 1938. He was responsible for the transport of over 2,000 Spanish immigrants from refugee camps in France to Chile. He would later describe this as “the noblest mission I have ever undertaken”. Meanwhile, his estranged wife, Maruca, was penniless and living in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, asked him for money and for help to flee to country. He ignored all her requests.
Having witnessed the effects of the Spanish Civil War, Neruda became radicalised and a Communist. His outspoken support of the Republican Party caused him to lose his diplomatic post in Spain. Like many Communists of his time, he was a staunch Stalinist. This fervid support drew a wedge between him and some of his Chilean contemporaries, who could no longer reconcile it. He was formally divorced from his wife in 1943, and she moved with their daughter to Monte Carlo. He never saw either of them again, with his daughter dying later that year. She is not mentioned once in his 1974 memoir, Confieso que he vivido (Memoirs). Her tomb in the Dutch town of Gouda was only rediscovered in the early 2000s.
With his second wife, Delia
In 1945, Neruda was elected as a Communist senator in the northen provinces of the Atacama Desert. He was the campaign manager in 1946 for Chile’s Radical Party presidential candidate, Gabriel González Videla. However, once in office, Videla renounced Communism. His repression of a Communist-led miner’s strike was the last straw for Neruda. He publicly decried it in a famous speech given at the Chilean senate in 1948. Following this, he was threatened with arrest and was forced to go into hiding with his wife for nearly thirteen months, before fleeing the country for three years. He travelled through Europe extensively, as well as parts of Asia and the Soviet Union. During his time underground in Chile and later in exile out of the country, he composed an epic poem cum travelogue of South American history and natural world, entitled Canto General.
In 1952, he and his wife were able to return to Chile. Their marriage was already on the rocks. Whilst in Mexico the year previously, he had begun an affair with Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean singer. By this time, Neruda’s was famous around the world and his work was being translated into dozens of languages. He continued to be outspoken politically, criticising the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.
In 1970 he was nominated as a candidate for presidency, although he refused it and gave his support to candidate Salvadore Allende. As president, he appointed Neruda to his last post as ambassador to France. He remained there for two years, before being forced to return to Chile due to increasingly poor health.
In 1973, a military coup was enacted by General Pinochet, a huge blow to Neruda’s hopes for Chile, and he was diagnosed with cancer. On 23rd September, 1973 Neruda was hospitalised. He would die several hours later. Various reports state that he called his wife to tell her that he had been administered an injection which he believed was poison. He believed it to have been administered by someone from Pinochet’s regime. A 2015 report by the Chilean interior ministry has said that it is highly likely that this was the cause of his death. The president Salvadore Allende had been assassinate just 12 days before.
There is no doubt that Neruda’s life-story reveals him to be a complicated and contradictory character with an ambiguous legacy - at once slaving away to secure the freedom of those under punishing regimes, whilst abandoning his wife and only child. Some of literature’s greatest poetry, written by a man who left a wreckage of broken promises behind him. In that way, Neruda remains an enigma - full of feeling, yet far from saintly. Chile does its best to honour the complex legacy of its finest poet.
Some of my favourite Pablo Neruda quotes and poems...
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