as though we lived falling out of the skin into the
Barcelona: In his poem, entitled ‘Nothing but Death’, Chilean poet extraordinaire Pablo Neruda mulls over the existential question of death — or should we say life?
It certainly seems futile to contemplate death without contemplating the meaning of life itself.
Even if cemeteries are lonely, like Neruda says, there are some souls resting under their soil whose memory is hard to lay to rest or ignore. The poet — a laureate of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature — is one.
New claims over Neruda’s death
Today, Neruda’s name is back under the spotlight, following recent media statements by his nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, asserting that the poet died of poisoning, not of prostate cancer as it had been long believed.
Reyes said his uncle, who had battled cancer for about 40 years was, in fact, killed a mere 12 days after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup d’état in Chile.
Reyes, Neruda's nephew, said his uncle, who had battled cancer for about 40 years was, in fact, killed a mere 12 days after Augusto Pinochet's 1973 coup d'état in Chile.
The coup overthrew the elected leftist president Salvador Allende, thereby ending his three-year rule of the country. Subsequently, Allende, of whom Neruda was a staunch supporter, would end his own life.
However, the 'assassination' of Neruda, if confirmed, would have disappeared into the abyss of oblivion if not for the poet's chauffeur, Manual Araya.
On 23 September 1973, Araya, along with Neruda's wife, had driven the poet to the Santa Maria private clinic in the Chilean capital of Santiago, where he would die.
When Araya asserted in 2011 that Neruda had been poisoned while getting treated at the clinic, Chile's Communist Party, to which Neruda had belonged, demanded an inquiry.
Three successive commissions of inquiry were formed, comprising Chilean and international experts (from Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, the UK, the USA, Germany, and Denmark). This year marks the 12th year since the launch of investigations.
Perhaps the significance of the claims made by Neruda's nephew stems from expectations that the inquiry commission will announce its findings soon, especially since members of the commission are legally prohibited from making statements to the media regarding the investigation.
Reyes' latest statements echo the 2017 inquiry commission findings of traces of lethal bacteria in Neruda's body.
What's new, though, is his assertion that the source of the bacteria in question, clostridium botulinum, was exogenous (injected into the poet's body) and the direct cause of his death.
Until Judge Paola Plaza announces the definitive findings of the investigation in the few coming days, Neruda's true cause of death remains a mystery.
The New York Times said it reviewed part of the report submitted to the judge, which makes a possibly conclusive point: the theory of murder is likely — especially considering the Chilean military junta's proven poisoning of several political prisoners in 1981 using the same method, lethal injections.
In his book, 'Story of a Death Foretold: The Coup Against Salvador Allende' (2012), Colombian author and researcher Oscar Guardiola-Rivera revealed fresh details regarding Neruda's death. Based on documents from the National Archive in Sweden, he narrates how then-ambassadors of Sweden and Mexico to Chile, Gustav Harald Edelstam and Gonzalo Martínez Corbala, visited Neruda on his deathbed in Santiago.
According to the documents, Edelstam found the poet to be "very ill, but still willing to travel to Mexico."
In a memo he sent to the Swedish Foreign Ministry, Edelstam observes: "In his last hours, Neruda either didn't know or didn't recognise he suffered a terminal illness. He complained that rheumatism made it impossible to move his arms and legs. When we visited him, Neruda was preparing as best he could to travel … to Mexico. There, he would make a public declaration against the military regime."
The writer quotes a report published by The Guardian on 10 April, 2013, a few months after the investigation into Neruda's death was opened, as saying: "Members of the junta are on record expressing the view on the morning of 22 September that if Neruda flew into exile, his plane would fall into the sea."
"In the afternoon, radio stations under military control announced the poet would probably die in the next few hours, at a time when he was still awake in the hospital. The following day he was dead."
In its review of Rivera's book, The Guardian adds that "when the Swedish diplomat went to Neruda's house to offer his condolences, he found it destroyed.
Pinochet's men were bent on erasing every trace of his existence. They would do the same with thousands of people during a reign of terror that would last for nearly two decades."
The poet of the people
Neruda belongs to a class of poets whose literary life is inseparable from their political stances or 'struggle'. For half a century, and until he won his Nobel Prize in 1971, Neruda assumed several political roles: an activist at times, an official at others, an exile for most of his life.
For half a century, and until he won his Nobel Prize in 1971, Neruda assumed several political roles: an activist at times, an official at others, an exile for most of his life.
His greatest legacy, however, remains poetry. He managed what few poets could do: become the voice of the people in not only his home country of Chile, but all of Latin America.
At a time when poets and writers still shaped the cultural and moral rhetoric and defended the values of freedom, justice, and equality, Neruda was a global symbol, an unrivalled 'star'.
A revolutionary dissident like no other, Neruda was unabashed in his opposition to the fascist rhetoric taking Europe by storm in the 1930's and 40's, and also to the US backing of the world's worst dictatorships in the name of the war on communism, especially after WWII.
Even this rebellious tone that accompanied Neruda's name during his life and after his death did not manage to overshadow his pure greatness as a poet, despite the frequent exploitation of his poetic masterpieces for the sake of political agendas.
Lebanese poet Paul Chaoul says much of Neruda's Hors d'Oeuvres were tarnished by the 'Arab left wing', which focused solely on the revolutionary and populist aspects of his poetry.
Thus, little appreciation was left for the poet's refined artistic talent, or the other themes he explored in his works, such as language, love, death, memory, imagination, and philosophy, or even the epic side of his poetry, which left an indelible mark on the Latin American cultural heritage, with a poetry that "brings alive a continent's destiny and dreams," as the Nobel Prize put it in its rationale for granting him the award in 1971.
Mahmoud Darwish and Pablo Neruda
Mahmoud Darwish might just be to Arabs what Pablo Neruda was to Latin America. Darwish, the voice of the Palestinian cause, penned an eulogy for Neruda that he held very dear to his heart, but which never made it into any of his collections.
The poem, entitled 'Going to the Poem – To Neruda', was published by Darwish in 1975 in the Shu'un Filastiniyah ("Palestinian Matters") magazine.
It is one of his longer poems and carries, as some critics believe, a tone that Darwish would cement in his subsequent poems.
Below is an excerpt of the poem:
We agree: the deer is in our hands.
The blood of poets plows
the rejoicing soil.
We agree: the deer is in our hands.
For you, the ducks camped south of the sea returned
Neruda! For you, we settle for a song and a glass of clouds for a lifetime.
Cities slumber on the steps, awaiting your return.
Your voice draws onto the coasts of this small land
weeping seagulls and pelicans
learning to perform the dance of death.
Oh Neruda! In all the corners of the earth, the
melody of your poignant voice resonates,
The demonstrations, celebrations by the hell-
For you, the confessions of women in love.
For you, the blue hymn… the blue freedom… the
farthest village of the earth
But after your passing
Through your passing
Near your passing
Every dawn was awaiting your dimness to shine,
Every voice was awaiting your muteness to rise.
We agree: the deer does not like poetry in bad times."