Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs have, if not a clear-cut theme, at least an unmistakable guiding principle: The book is an account of a poet’s life. When Neruda falls in love, he is a poet in love. When he becomes politically engaged, he is a politically engaged poet. He believes in the fraternity of poets; throughout the book, he recounts with relish the endless hours of talking, drinking, and carousing with his fellow poets. Toward the end of chapter 4, “Luminous Solitude,” Neruda devotes precisely one paragraph to his first marriage. It is 1930, and Neruda is Chilean consul in Batavia (now Djakarta, Indonesia). He weds Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, a tall, gentle young woman of a mixed Dutch and Malay background. He reports, significantly, that she knew nothing of the world of arts and letters. Chapter 5, “Spain in My Heart,” is filled with anecdotes of Neruda’s association with Federico Garcia Lorca and other Spanish poets. The wife is a phantom presence, or no presence at all. Even Neruda’s long diplomatic career was basically an adjunct to his poetry. In his youth, a minor diplomatic post was considered a suitable sinecure for a rising young Latin-American poet. Neruda states that the poet’s appearance should match his singular calling: He should always dress in black.

The origins of Neruda’s two great passions, poetry and the struggle of the proletariat, are not directly addressed in Memoirs. Probably it is unrealistic and unfair to expect him to reveal the precise moment when he knew he was a poet or the particular circumstance that caused him to identify with the oppressed of the world. At any rate, he does not.

Chapter 1 implies strongly that Neruda was born a poet—more particularly, a poet of nature. He was born at Parral, in central Chile, but spent his childhood at Temuco, the farthest outpost of civilization in the southern territories. He characterizes Temuco as Chile’s frontier, its Wild West. It is a land of numbing cold, torrential rain, earthquakes, and a stirring volcano. It is also a land of tangled forests, rich in plant, insect, and animal life. Neruda describes his response to this landscape as euphoria, the poet’s response. The book is peppered with italicized prose poems, the usual purpose of which is to establish a mood for the narrative passages that follow. These prose poems consistently employ the rich imagery of the natural world. Neruda recalls his first poem, written when he had barely learned to read, and how he tremblingly took it to his father and stepmother. His father absentmindedly dismissed the poem, asking the boy where he had copied it. The first instance of irresponsible literary criticism did, however, inadvertently acknowledge the poem’s merit. Neruda refers to himself even at this tender age as a small boy poet, dressed in black.

The reader may also draw inferences about the development of Neruda’s political...

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