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Pablo Neruda: Turbulent career, unquiet death

Shihab Sarkar | Published: November 16, 2017 21:55:26 | Updated: November 16, 2017 21:59:19


Pablo Neruda in a poetry recital at Valparaiso, Chile in 1971

Ever since the death of the celebrated poet Pablo Neruda two weeks after a bloody coup in Chile in 1973, speculations have been rife about the real cause of his demise. The junta led by Augusto Pinochet publicised cancer as the cause which was rejected by the poet's close circles as being a blatant lie. The poet was a close friend of the ousted Chilean President Salvador Allende, who had allegedly committed suicide amid the mayhem of the coup. Admirers and left-leaning literary and political circles around the world did not waste time to conclude that Neruda was killed by the junta agents.

A recent assertion by a group of international experts that prostate cancer did not have any role in the death of the poet has now added fuel to the 44-year speculation that he may have been killed by the regime of Pinochet. The experts did not, however, say that their findings about the murder plot were conclusive. The poet had been undergoing treatment at a hospital during the coup. Immediately after the coup, he was kept interned at a solitary house in Santiago. He was planning to flee Chile and seek exile in Mexico to form a resistance movement against the military government. Thus his being on the hit list of junta chief Augusto Pinochet was a foregone conclusion.

Neruda was a close associate and adviser to Allende. He had been elected senator for a term on the ticket of Chilean Communist Party. Later, he was about to become the country's President; but withdrew from the election race in favour of Salvador Allende.

In essence, Neruda was as much a major poet of the 20th century as he was committed to left politics. During Pinochet's dictatorial rule (1974-1990), socialism remained a taboo subject in Chile.  Given this fact, the poet's drawing the ire of the anti-socialist junta seemed a normal corollary. It has long been believed that the 1971 Nobel Laureate was killed on a personal order from the junta chief. It was alleged on several occasions that while in hospital, Neruda had been given a mysterious injection in the chest.  Many have suspected the injection to be a lethal one. The poet died a couple of weeks later.

Despite his being a dedicated leftist throughout his turbulent times of youth and middle-age, Neruda's poems earned readers in both socialist and capitalist blocs. Among the poet's many other features, he was gifted with one that kept him apart from his contemporaries. Few poets of the modernist writing world could master his ability to blend social message with romance-laden lyricism.

An unwavering Marxist, Pablo Neruda developed a deep friendship with Salvador Allende when he was a socialist politician. A turning-point in the poet's life occurred in 1948, when the then Chilean President Gonzales Videla outlawed communist activities in the country, and issued an arrest warrant for Neruda. On being helped by friends to remain in hiding in the country for some time, the poet embarked on an arduous trek to Argentina. The years of Neruda stalked by hazards one after another have grouped him among the artists who nurse the inborn propensity to engage in a turbulent life. They remain averse to the so-called peaceful and placid careers. In many cases, these lives could hardly taste the mundane normalcy due to their being deprived of the warmth of familial bonds. They, however, do not care for it either. They push themselves to the domains of uncertainties. Creativity and defiance remain interspersed in them. Authors from Christopher Marlow, Baudelaire to Ernest Hemingway to Jean Arthur Rimbaud, painters from Van Gogh to Paul Gauguin and many others have embraced this rugged path of life. As they grow up, the rituals of survival appear before them as a challenge. They do welcome hostilities sportingly. The notion of turning away from difficult times was something completely strange to Pablo Neruda.

In his widely read autography titled 'Memoirs' the poet narrates scores of events that have stood witness to his celebration of the heroic virtues of life --- in his unique way though. In an incident in the book, the poet is seen reading out his poems to a select audience inside a dense forest in a Latin American country. The striking part of the episode comprises the soldiers in uniform encircling the poet, guns pointed at him.

Like the troubadours of the middle ages, Neruda was able to severe his links to all material fulfillments. His aspiration to become his country's President, election to the post of a senator or his later assignments as a globe-trotting Chilean envoy might confuse a few. To Pablo Neruda, all these choices of work were filled with the doses of adventure and missions aimed at exploring nations and cultures. During his career as the Chilean envoy, Neruda travelled a lot of countries including India, Sri Lanka and Burma. His intimate time with Delhi and Kolkata writers occupies a considerable space in 'Memoirs'.

Few poets in the 20th century were capable of enjoying the readers' adoration and feverish mass popularity like the Chilean poet. He returned to his homeland from self-exile after Allende assumed office in 1970. Following his becoming a Nobel Laureate in 1971 Neruda read out his poems in Santiago before an audience of 70,000 people. Earlier, in 1945, the poet kept nearly 100,000 listeners spellbound with his reading in Sao Paulo in Brazil. Despite the emergence of modern poetry as a virtually folk event in urban culture, such a wide acceptance remained elusive to many poetic stalwarts. In the erstwhile Soviet Union the poets Mayakovsky, Voznesensky and Yevtushenko were able to carve out their positions as cultural icons among the general people. But due to their toeing the government line at times, i.e. extolling the virtues of the Soviet system, their poetry sessions used to enjoy enormous state patronage.

 Neruda emerged a dissent and non-conformist. His poetic career remained dogged by state-led hostilities and persecutions. Much before the three-year tenure of President Salvador Allende, Neruda's stature as a major anti-establishment poet had started taking root beyond the country's borders. After the start of his diplomatic career in 1927, the poet had been posted in a host of countries as the Chilean ambassador and consul.  The countries included those in Latin America, and also a few countries in Europe including Spain and France. During his diplomatic assignments, the international literary quarters were able to have glimpses of his many-faceted genius. His unalloyed love for nature and the minute details of life, his romantic yearnings and the other finer sensibilities keep him apart from many popular poets. Neruda's political activism coupled with humanity adds to his all-round greatness.

The eagerness to learn about the true cause of Neruda's death since 1973 shows the extent of love his readers have nursed all these years. A revelation would be like spotting a skeleton in the cupboard. This also applies to the mysterious circumstances that led to the deaths of Poet Garcia Lorca or PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.

shihabskr@ymail.com

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