Life and career
Pablo Neruda was born on July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, a city in Linares Province in the Maule Region, some 350 km south of Santiago, to José del Carmen Reyes Morales, a railway employee, and Rosa Basoalto, a school teacher who died one month after he was born. Soon after her death, Reyes moved to Temuco, where he married Trinidad Candia Marverde, a woman with whom he had had another child nine years earlier, a boy named Rodolfo. Neruda grew up in Temuco with Rodolfo and a half-sister, Laura, one of his father’s children by another woman. He composed his first poems in the winter of 1914.
Goliat El Asesino Lirical
something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
and wrote the first faint line,
faint without substance, pure
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
From “Poetry”, Memorial de Isla Negra (1964).
Trans. Alastair Reid
Neruda’s father opposed his son’s interest in writing and literature, but he received encouragement from others, including the future Nobel Prize winner Gabriela Mistral, who headed the local girls’ school. On July 18, 1917, at the age of thirteen, he published his first work, an essay entitled “Entusiasmo y perseverancia”(Enthusiasm and Perseverance) in the local daily newspaper La Mañana, signed Neftalí Reyes. From 1918 to mid-1920 he published numerous poems, such as “Mis ojos” (“My eyes”), and essays in local magazines, as Neftalí Reyes. In 1919, he participated in the literary contest Juegos Florales del Maule and won third place for his poem “Comunión ideal” or “Nocturno ideal.” By mid-1920, when he adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda, he was a published author of poems, prose, and journalism. He is thought to have named himself Neruda after the Czech poet Jan Neruda. The young poet’s intention in publishing under a pseudonym was to avoid his father’s disapproval of his poems.
In 1921, at the age of 16, Neruda moved to Santiago to study French at the Universidad de Chile, with the intention of becoming a teacher. However, he was soon devoting all his time to writing poems. In 1923, his first volume of verse, Crepusculario (Book of Twilights), was published, followed the next year by Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), a collection of love poems that was controversial for its eroticism, especially considering its author’s young age. Both works were critically acclaimed and have been translated into many languages. Over the decades, Veinte poemas sold millions of copies and became Neruda’s best-known work, though it did not go to a second edition until 1932. By the age of 20, Neruda had established an international reputation as a poet, but faced poverty.
In 1926, he published the collection Tentativa del hombre infinito (The Attempt of the Infinite Man) and the novel El habitante y su esperanza (The Inhabitant and His Hope). In 1927, out of financial desperation, he took an honorary consulship in Rangoon, the capital of the British Indian colony of Burma, then administered from New Delhi as a province of British India. Rangoon was a place he had never heard of before. Later, mired in isolation and loneliness, he worked in Colombo (Ceylon), Batavia (Java), and Singapore. In 1929, while the Chilean consul in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Neruda raped a Tamil woman. He recorded his assault in Confieso que he vivid (I Confess That I Have Lived, 1974). In Java the following year he met and married his first wife, a Dutch bank employee named Maryka Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang. While he was in the diplomatic service, Neruda read large amounts of verse, experimented with many different poetic forms, and wrote the first two volumes of Residencia en la Tierra, which includes many surrealistic poems.
Spanish Civil War
After returning to Chile, Neruda was given diplomatic posts in Buenos Aires and then Barcelona, Spain. He later succeeded Gabriela Mistral as consul in Madrid, where he became the center of a lively literary circle, befriending such writers as Rafael Alberti, Federico García Lorca, and the Peruvian poet César Vallejo. A daughter, Malva Marina Trinidad, was born in Madrid in 1934; she was to be plagued with health problems, especially hydrocephalus, during her short life. During this period, Neruda slowly became estranged from his wife and began a relationship with Delia del Carril, an Argentine twenty years his senior.
As Spain became engulfed in civil war, Neruda became intensely politicised for the first time. His experiences of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath moved him away from privately focused work in the direction of collective obligation. Neruda became an ardent Communist for the rest of his life. The radical leftist politics of his literary friends, as well as that of del Carril, were contributing factors, but the most important catalyst was the execution of García Lorca by forces loyal to the dictator Franco. By means of his speeches and writings, Neruda threw his support behind the Spanish Republic, publishing the collection España en el corazón (Spain in My Heart, 1938). He lost his post as consul due to his political militancy.
His marriage broke down and the couple divorced in 1936. His ex-wife moved to Monte Carlo and then to the Netherlands with their only child, and he never saw either of them again. After leaving his wife, Neruda lived with Delia del Carril in France.
After the election of President Pedro Aguirre Cerda, whom Neruda supported, in 1938, Neruda was appointed special consul for Spanish emigrants in Paris. There he was responsible for what he called “the noblest mission I have ever undertaken”: transporting 2,000 Spanish refugees who had been housed by the French in squalid camps to Chile on an old ship called the Winnipeg. Neruda is sometimes charged with having selected only fellow-Communists for emigration, to the exclusion of others who had fought on the side of the Republic. Many of these Republicans and Anarchists were killed during the German invasion and occupation. Others deny these accusations, pointing out that Neruda chose only a few hundred of the two-thousand refugees personally; the rest were selected by the Service for the Evacuation of Spanish Refugees set up by Juan Negrín, President of the Spanish Republican Government in Exile.
Neruda’s next diplomatic post was as Consul General in Mexico City, where he spent the years 1940 to 1943. While he was there, he married del Carril, and learned that his daughter Malva had died, aged eight, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.
In 1940, after the failure of an assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky, Neruda arranged a Chilean visa for the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was accused of having been one of the conspirators in the assassination. Neruda later said that he did it at the request of the Mexican President, Manuel Ávila Camacho. This enabled Siqueiros, then jailed, to leave Mexico for Chile, where he stayed in Neruda’s private residence. In exchange for Neruda’s assistance, Siqueiros spent over a year painting a mural in a school in Chillán. Neruda’s relationship with Siqueiros attracted criticism, but Neruda dismissed the allegation that his intent had been to help an assassin as “sensationalist politico-literary harassment”.
Return to Chile
In 1943, after his return to Chile, Neruda made a tour of Peru, where he visited Machu Picchu, an experience that later inspired Alturas de Macchu Picchu, a book-length poem in twelve parts that he completed in 1945, and that expressed his growing awareness of, and interest in, the ancient civilizations of the Americas. He explored this theme further in Canto General. In Alturas, Neruda celebrated the achievement of Machu Picchu, but also condemned the slavery that had made it possible. In Canto XII, he called upon the dead of many centuries to be born again and to speak through him. Martín Espada, poet and professor of creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has hailed the work as a masterpiece, declaring that “there is no greater political poem”.
Bolstered by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Neruda, like many left-leaning intellectuals of his generation, came to admire the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, partly for the role it played in defeating Nazi Germany and partly because of an idealist interpretation of Marxist doctrine. This is echoed in poems such as “Canto a Stalingrado” (1942) and “Nuevo canto de amor a Stalingrado” (1943). In 1953 Neruda was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. Upon Stalin’s death that same year, Neruda wrote an ode to him, as he also wrote poems in praise of Fulgencio Batista “Saludo a Batista”, (“Salute to Batista”) and later to Fidel Castro. His fervent Stalinism eventually drove a wedge between Neruda and his longtime friend Octavio Paz, who commented that “Neruda became more and more Stalinist, while I became less and less enchanted with Stalin.” Their differences came to a head after the Nazi-Soviet Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939, when they almost came to blows in an argument over Stalin. Although Paz still considered Neruda “The greatest poet of his generation”, in an essay on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn he wrote that when he thinks of “Neruda and other famous Stalinist writers and poets, I feel the gooseflesh that I get from reading certain passages of the Inferno. No doubt they began in good faith […] but insensibly, commitment by commitment, they saw themselves becoming entangled in a mesh of lies, falsehoods, deceits and perjuries, until they lost their souls.”
Neruda also called Lenin the “great genius of this century,” and in a speech he gave on June 5, 1946, he paid tribute to the late Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, who for Neruda was “man of noble life,” “the great constructor of the future,” and “a comrade in arms of Lenin and Stalin”.
Neruda later came to rue his support of the Soviet leadership. In response to Nikita Khrushchev‘s Secret Speech at the Soviet 20th Party Congress in 1956, which denounced the “cult of personality” that had surrounded Stalin and accused him of committing crimes during the Great Purges, Neruda wrote in his memoirs that “I had contributed my share to the personality cult,” explaining that “in those days, Stalin seemed to us the conqueror who had crushed Hitler‘s armies.” Of a subsequent visit to China in 1957, Neruda wrote: “What has estranged me from the Chinese revolutionary process has not been Mao Tse-tung but Mao Tse-tungism.” He dubbed this Mao Tse-Stalinism: “the repetition of a cult of a Socialist deity.” Despite his disillusionment with Stalin, Neruda never lost his essential faith in Communist theory and remained loyal to “the Party.” Anxious not to give ammunition to his ideological enemies, he would later refuse publicly to condemn the Soviet repression of dissident writers like Boris Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky, an attitude with which even some of his staunchest admirers disagreed.
On March 4, 1945, Neruda was elected a Communist Senator for the northern provinces of Antofagasta and Tarapacá in the Atacama Desert. He officially joined the Communist Party of Chile four months later.
In 1946, the Radical Party’s presidential candidate, Gabriel González Videla, asked Neruda to act as his campaign manager. González Videla was supported by a coalition of left-wing parties and Neruda fervently campaigned on his behalf. Once in office, however, González Videla turned against the Communist Party and issued the Law of Permanent Defense of the Democracy. The breaking point for Senator Neruda was the violent repression of a Communist-led miners’ strike in Lota in October 1947, when striking workers were herded into island military prisons and a concentration camp in the town of Pisagua. Neruda’s criticism of González Videla culminated in a dramatic speech in the Chilean senate on January 6, 1948, which became known as “Yo acuso” (“I accuse”), in the course of which he read out the names of the miners and their families who were imprisoned at the concentration camp.
During the late 1960s, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was asked for his opinion of Pablo Neruda. Borges stated, “I think of him as a very fine poet, a very fine poet. I don’t admire him as a man, I think of him as a very mean man.” He said that Neruda had not spoken out against Perón because he was afraid to risk his reputation, noting “I was an Argentine poet, he was a Chilean poet, he’s on the side of the Communists, I’m against them. So I felt he was behaving very wisely in avoiding a meeting that would have been quite uncomfortable for both of us.”