The life of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature, was anything but peaceful. In a biography that appears on the centenary of the Chilean poet's birth, Adam Feinstein, a journalist and translator of Spanish and Latin American poetry, conveys the reader directly into Neruda's exciting, tantalizing life. Just a recounting of the famous people Neruda encountered—Pablo Picasso, Federico García Lorca, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, Jorge Luis Borges, Jawaharlal Nehru, Arthur Miller—would be book enough without any of the other episodes that make up Neruda's resplendent life.
Like many (or perhaps most) great writers, Neruda, whose real name was Neftalí Reyes, suffered during a difficult childhood. In 1904, he was born into a poor family in Parral, Chile, which the poet described as a “grey dirty dump.” His mother, Rosa Neftalí Basoalto Opazo, died from complications during his birth, and his never-happy father, José del Carmen Reyes, punished him constantly. The poet was sick as a child and spent a great deal of time in bed listening to the rain falling. This rainfall, he came to identify as the primary character in his childhood. His father sired an illegitimate girl and a boy with the same woman and for years failed to acknowledge them. Within all the tension and chaos, Neruda found peace in his lifelong fascination with nature, with the ocean in particular, and came to love his gentle, supportive stepmother, Trinidad Candida Marverde (“Mamadre”) and his half sister Laura (“Laurita”).
Oftentimes somber and melancholic, at age sixteen Neruda changed his name and left his hometown of Temuco for the big city, Santiago. At the university there, he came to be greatly influenced by French Symbolist poetry, which inspired him cunningly and originally to combine elements of surrealism and impressionism in his first collection, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (1924; Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, 1969), which made him an instant sensation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. However, desperately angry about Chile's economic problems, the young poet soon began to long for greener meadows to nourish his capacious appetite for experience.
After his university years, Neruda served as a diplomat wandering between various Argentinean, French, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, and Indonesian outposts, where he experienced great loneliness and longing and gathered grist for his poetry mill. Wherever he went, he reached out to the downtrodden. For example, in Ceylon he was particularly struck by the arrogant British landowners and their Sinhalese laborers. “The path of poetry,” Neruda wrote in 1953, “leads outwards, through streets and factories; it listens at the doors of all the exploited.” During this lonely exile, he found himself “yearning for communion,” and in love with two Chilean women simultaneously, Albertina Azocur and Laura Arrue, whom he wrote to constantly, pleading with each to marry him.
According to Feinstein, throughout Neruda's life the driving forces behind his work remained his passionate commitment to politics and his obsession with women. It was in Java, Indonesia, that he met his first wife, Maria Antonieta Hagemaar Vogelganz, a Javanese woman of Dutch origin who spoke only English and whom...
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