Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195
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 attitudes. In chapter 1, he expresses sympathy for the Araucanian Indians, the original inhabitants of the land that would become Chile. Initially, the Spanish conquistadors drove them into the cold regions of southernmost Chile; later, the Chilean government instituted a pacification program for Araucania which was, in fact, an annihilation program.
Neruda’s father was a conductor on a ballast train, so the boy was exposed early to the workingmen of the railroad. One in particular, a scar-faced laborer named Monge, would bring Neruda the exotic spiders and beetles he knew the boy prized. Monge would subsequently be killed as the result of falling from a train and tumbling down a precipice.
Neruda recalls how, as a poverty-stricken university student in Santiago, he observed the abuses of the oligarchy that dominated Chile and of the police who did the oligarchy’s bidding. During his twenties, he served in consular posts at Rangoon, Burma; Colombo, Ceylon; Batavia, Java; and Singapore. He developed a hatred for colonialism and, judging from the tone of his reminiscences, a special antipathy toward the British. He decries their clannishness, insularity, and smugness. At one point, he states that when the British finally abandoned their empire, they left only poverty and starvation behind. Most objective observers would judge this something of an overstatement. It has often been noted that, of all the former colonial powers, Great Britain probably left the most behind in terms of government systems and infrastructure.
Neruda is a highly partisan writer, and his partisanship leads him not infrequently into hyperbole. For example, he refers to Adolf Hitler as “the Nixon of his era.” Few of Richard M. Nixon’s most virulent enemies would equate him with Hitler. At the time Neruda drew that comparison, however, Nixon was president of the northern Goliath that was actively subverting the socialist government that he, Neruda, had labored so long and hard to establish. In a reference to the notorious Scottsboro case, Neruda speaks of racist justice in the United States as if the adjective and the noun are permanent and inseparable companions.
Although Neruda’s ideology had been solidly leftist from the beginning, the Spanish Civil War proved to be for him, as for so many of his generation, the galvanizing political experience. His dear friend Federico Garcia Lorca, whom he considered Spain’s greatest poet, was taken to be shot on a night when the two of them were to have attended a wrestling match together. Miguel Hernandez, the peasant of the Spanish Levant, died of tuberculosis after three years of imprisonment. Neruda threw himself into the war effort by publishing Espana en el corazon (Spain in the Heart, 1946) in 1937. Republican soldiers at the front made the paper and operated the printing press for this remarkable book. Neruda states that, although he did not receive his party membership card until much later in Chile, he had considered himself a Communist ever since the war in Spain. No more could he indulge himself in the melancholy of Residencia en la tierra (1933, 1935, 1947; Residence on Earth and Other Poems, 1946, 1973), which was written during frequent periods of isolation and loneliness in the Orient. Henceforward, he must be one with the people, and his poetry must express the aspirations of mankind.
Still, it is poetry’s aesthetic value rather than its ultimate utilitarianism which is always uppermost in Neruda’s mind. Of all the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, it is Garcia Lorca’s murder which brands the Franco forces as monsters. That Spaniards from Garcia Lorca’s own Granada could kill their greatest poet is inconceivable. Neruda even characterizes the war as a Fascist attempt to deal poetry its death blow. He observes, however, that poetry, like a cat, has nine lives.
The last half of Neruda’s Memoirs is largely an account of his political activities: his return to Chile and election to the senate, his persecution and flight from the reactionary government of Gonzalez Videla, his years of exile in Europe. Toward the end of his life, he would be the Communist Party’s candidate for the presidency of Chile, although he eventually withdrew in favor of Salvador Allende. While this account has some intrinsic interest, it does not yield many insights into Neruda’s art.
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