Solitude and Multitude

Tony Gould

  • Pablo Neruda: Absence and Presence by Luis Poirot, translated by Alastair Reid
    Norton, 185 pp, £25.00, March 1991, ISBN 0 393 02770 8
  • Adios, Poeta by Jorge Edwards
    Tusquets Editores, 335 pp, ptas 1,800.00, November 1990, ISBN 84 7223 191 7

According to his friend from a younger generation, the Chilean writer and diplomat Jorge Edwards, the most enigmatic thing about Pablo Neruda was the way he could switch in one bound, so to speak, from solitude to sociability. This poet of the sea and of lonely places was also one of the most gregarious people Edwards has ever known. Neruda discusses the contrasting attractions of ‘solitude and multitude’ in his Memoirs:

   The human crowd has been the lesson of my life. I can come to it with the born timidity of the poet, with the fear of the timid, but once I am in its midst, I feel transfigured. I am part of the essential majority, I am one more leaf on the great human tree.

   Solitude and multitude will go on being the primary obligations of the poet in our time. In solitude, the battle of the surf on the Chilean coast made my life richer ...

   But I learned much more from the huge tide of lives, from the tenderness I saw in thousands of eyes watching me together. This message may not come to all poets, but anyone who has felt it will keep it in his heart, will work it into his poems.

Luis Poirot’s photographic study of Neruda and Nerudiana was originally published, in a limited edition, in Chile in 1986, during the Pinochet era, and celebrates the myth of the poet partly in order to denigrate the dictatorship. Jorge Edwards’s memoir, published after Chile’s return to democracy and during the first year of Aylwin’s presidency, has a political subtext more in line with the ideal of ‘national reconciliation’ to which Chile’s new leaders are committed; his aim is to rescue the man from the myth, to smash the statue and portray the poet in all his human confusion and complexity.

Ricardo Eliecer Neftali Reyes Basoalto, born in 1904 the son of a railway worker and a primary schoolteacher and raised in Temuco at the edge of the Chilean rain forest, may have been a timid and vulnerable human being: but Pablo Neruda, friend of the great – Lorca, Picasso, Eluard, Aragon, Ehrenburg, Vallejo, Cortazar – and colossus of Chilean literature, author of Residencia en la tierra and Canto General, among innumerable other works, was distinctly larger than life. From his early years as a diplomat in such outposts of the British Empire as Ceylon and Burma (which left him with a lasting dislike of the British), through his intimate involvement in the fight against Fascism during the Spanish Civil War and his consequent conversion to Communism, up to his death in Chile immediately following the military coup and the suicide of his friend Salvador Allende, Neruda seems always to have been in the right place at the right time. His death, in particular, may have appeared to express his heartbreak at the failure of Chile’s ‘peaceful road to socialism’, though in fact he had been ailing with cancer for some time and had had to abandon his post as Allende’s Ambassador in Paris for that reason.

Neruda was a collector – of people and of things. Poirot’s book begins with things: Neruda’s figureheads, dotted around his house at Isla Negra on the Pacific coast, his books, his ships in bottles. Then there are the houses themselves, one close to the zoo on the San Cristobal hill in Santiago, another built on to the back of a cinema in Valparaiso (and ransacked after the coup), together with the Isla Negra dwelling which the military government closed after the death of his widow in the Eighties, though that did not prevent people from covering the surrounding fence with subversive or touching graffiti. ‘I didn’t like Neruda’s houses,’ says the novelist Jose Donoso, in the second section of this book, in which some of the people he collected pay tribute to the great man. ‘I found them ugly, but obviously they were houses of someone to whom surroundings mattered.’ The third section consists of Poirot’s photos of Neruda, who describes himself as having ‘a solid nose, small eyes, not much hair on my head, a spreading belly, long legs, broad feet and a yellowish complexion’. These pictures, and those of the objects in the first part, are accompanied by poems or extracts of poems more or less relevant to them. The effect is somewhat hagiographic.

The poet Nicanor Parra, photographed wearing the same kind of Araucanian poncho as Neruda wears in one of his photos, calls himself ‘a seasoned Neruda fan’ who yet reacts ‘like a neophyte’ in his presence: ‘I stammer and I lose my voice.’ In fact, the relationship between the two poets and near-neighbours in Isla Negra, as Edwards makes clear in Adios, Poeta, was far from harmonious, breaking down completely during Allende’s regime when they found themselves on opposite sides of the political fence. But then the Neruda who emerges from Edwards’s intimate, amusing and, in the end, liberating account is no saint: capable of generosity, yes, but also vain, cliquey and sometimes malicious, particularly about other poets who might challenge his supremacy, with more than a touch of the Addison of Pope’s ‘Atticus’ portrait.

Jorge Edwards tried hard to reconcile Neruda with the most talented Chilean poet of the younger generation, Enrique Lihn, but his efforts came to nothing. What he failed to do in life, however, he achieves on the penultimate page of his book, when he brings the two together, contrasting their funerals – the one public and political, the other private and moving, ‘I felt,’ he writes of Lihn’s funeral, ‘that the river of our poetry, the invisible river [of which Neruda wrote], flowed through there in that moment, through that funeral ... I felt that Lihn and Neruda ... were now reconciled in death in spite of themselves.’ In challenging the personality cult that has grown up around Neruda since his death, Edwards lays himself open to charges of literary parricide and worse. But he is used to accusations and abuse from the Left. In his earlier account of his time as Allende’s envoy in Cuba, Persona Non Grata, he dared to criticise Castro and the Revolution. In a sense, Adios, Poeta is a sequel to that book.

As a Communist, Neruda welcomed the Cuban Revolution, and he remained an unequivocal admirer of Che Guevara, who told him that he read Canto General at night to his guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra. But he was not so enthusiastic about Castro, who, at their one meeting, had manhandled a photographer trying to snap the two of them together. Then came ‘the most exasperating and sensitive’ episode of the last period of Neruda’s life. In 1966, he went to New York at the invitation of Arthur Miller and read poems highly critical of American involvement in Vietnam at a conference of the International PEN Club (to which Cuban writers were also invited, but at which they failed to appear), and on his way back to Chile he stopped off in Lima to receive a decoration from his friend and admirer, the President of Peru, Fernando Belaunde. Shortly after his return home, he received a letter from the Cuban writers’ union accusing him of fraternising with the enemy both in the United States and in Peru. This Castro-inspired criticism was both a personal and a political attack, since the Chilean Communist Party, of which Neruda was the most internationally renowned member, was traditionally moderate and considered insufficiently revolutionary by the Cubans.

Neruda never forgave the Cubans for their impertinence. So when Jorge Edwards fell foul of them for siding with the ‘dissident’ poet Heberto Padilla during his time as chargé d’affaires there, Neruda insisted on having him as his assistant at the Paris Embassy, a plum posting for someone who might otherwise have been in diplomatic disgrace. In his Memoirs Neruda merely writes: ‘My new counsellor arrived from Cuba in a very nervous state and told me his story. I got the impression that both sides were right and at the same time neither was, the way it sometimes happens in life.’ Neruda surprised Edwards by earnestly counselling him to join the Communist Party – for his own protection! In Chile, meanwhile, Neruda had faced an even knottier political dilemma. Allende was a friend, as well as a political ally, yet Neruda’s support for his presidential candidature in 1970 – if Edwards’s account is to be believed – was less than wholehearted. ‘Did Pablo feel,’ Edwards speculates, ‘that Allende might act as the Trojan Horse of Castroism in Chilean politics?’ Certainly, when Allende seemed sure of victory, Neruda – whom Edwards met in Peru, where he was then stationed – was far from euphoric, fearing that things would turn out badly. ‘But I can’t possibly, as you’ll understand,’ he told Edwards, ‘vote for Jorge Alessandri’ – the right-wing candidate.

What had particularly angered Neruda about the Cuban writers’ letter had been the insinuation that the Neruda of 1966 would have been condemned by the great Neruda of Canto General – no doubt because it contained a grain of truth. Neruda came to regret his earlier adulation of Stalin – Je me suis trompé, he told a journalist on L’Express in 1971, just before he received the Nobel Prize – and he privately welcomed Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in the 20th Party Congress of 1956, while remaining publicly cautious so as not to give comfort to the enemy. This kind of double standard persisted: when he was Ambassador in Paris in 1971 and 72, Edwards recalls, ‘it was as if he, a proven militant, could allow himself the luxury of moments of lucidity or depression, while I, on the other hand, a mere fellow-traveller who had happened upon the crisis, had no right to such indulgences.’

The question any reader must ask is: does Edwards go too far in rectifying a false image of Neruda? In undermining the idol of the Left, the intransigent militant of popular mythology, is he not simply re-creating Neruda after his own image – intelligent, sceptical, liberal? There is a suspicion of this here and there, but Edwards does not claim to be objective. He is not writing a biography of Neruda. What he is offering is an account of his relationship with the great man, and through it an assessment of his own life and times as much as Neruda’s. In this he is successful, and provides an affectionate and convincing portrait of Neruda into the bargain.

He prefers the early, pre-Communist Neruda of Residencia en la tierra, and the later personal poems from, for example, Memorialde Isla Negra, to the political Canto General of the Forties and the deliberately ‘elementary’ as well as ‘elemental’ Odas Elementales of the Fifties. Of these last two books, as it happens, excellent new translations[*] have recently appeared.

[*] Canto General, translated by Jack Schmitt (University of California Press, 407 pp., $35, 28 March 1991, 0 520 05433 4) and Elemental Odes, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden (Libris, 375 pp., £40 and £12.95, 30 May 1991, 1 870352 63 7).