Form and Content
Pablo Neruda died on September 23, 1973, in Santiago, Chile. Only twelve days earlier, the government of Salvador Allende, which Neruda strongly supported, had been overthrown in a bloody military coup. He was engaged in the final editing of his memoirs when death interrupted, so it is impossible to know what, if any, changes he would have made. The manuscript was prepared for publication by his wife, Matilde Neruda, and Miguel Otero Silva; the Spanish language edition first appeared in print the following year.
Memoirs is an appropriate title, for the book is far more a series of anecdotes linked by lyrical passages of poetic prose than it is an exhaustive, or even extensive, life history. For the most part, Neruda commits himself to the past tense, but he occasionally slips into the present tense, presumably to heighten the sense of immediacy in his account. The book is composed of twelve chapters, the contents of which are arranged chronologically. On occasion, however, Neruda will temporarily abandon chronology so that he can combine several incidents or impressions for thematic purposes. Neruda was an intensely political personality, and the narration of many of the incidents is charged with political implications. Still, it would not be fair to characterize Memoirs as an essentially political book or even one whose structure has been largely determined by political considerations.
The bulk of the book, as might be expected, is devoted to Neruda’s adult life. Only the first chapter, “The Country Boy,” deals with his childhood and adolescence. His school days, his first sexual encounters, even the loss of his virginity— all are treated rather cursorily. Neruda characterizes himself as a poet from his earliest boyhood, and it is clearly of his life as a poet that he wishes to speak. By chapter 2, “Lost in the City,” he is boarding a third-class railway carriage for the trip to Santiago and the university. There he will quickly become involved with organizations of activist left-wing students, a colony of bohemian poets (most of whom are also students), and a gallery of eccentric characters from all walks of life. The tone of the book is set.