It was 1945 and São Paulo’s Pacaembu Stadium, one of the largest in the world, swayed under the weight of a 100,000 capacity crowd. On the green pitch below, there were no teams, no linesmen and no ball. Down below there stood just one man, tiny and forlorn. On his crackling, echoing voice rode the hopes and dreams of a whole Latin American generation. As Neruda read, the crowd wept and screamed; fists raised in emotive indignation. Poetry on this passionate continent is not the aristocratic recreation it has become in Europe, but the lyrical pleas and woes of its forgotten people.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto on July 12, 1904, in the small town of Parral in middle Chile. His mother, a respected school teacher, died two months after his birth and Neftalí was brought up by his father, a hardworking railway worker. Although his father ridiculed poetry as unsuitable for ‘real men’, by the time Neftalí moved to Santiago to study French in 1921 he was already a published poet and journalist, and had taken on the penname Pablo Neruda. In Santiago Neruda gave up the idea of becoming a school teacher, and dedicated himself wholly to verse. Despite enjoying marked success and publishing what many still regard as his greatest work, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), by 1927 Neruda’s finances were in dire straits. Out of desperation he opted to join the diplomatic service.
First sent to faraway Burma, his postings would take him all over the world, awaken his political consciousness and seal an international literary reputation. The Spanish Civil War, which Neruda experienced whilst placed in Europe, ignited a left-wing radicalism in the poet that continued to burn brightly until his death. The political nature of his poetry brought him a huge popular readership in Latin America and established him as the epochal voice of the oppressed. Che Guevara fought the Cuban Revolutionary War with a copy of Neruda’s Canto General in his pack.
However, Neruda’s unswerving support of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union also attracted much criticism. Particularly damning were the voices of other leading Latin American writers, Jorge Luis Borges and Octavo Paz. In 1942 Neruda and Paz almost came to blows in a heated argument over Stalinism. Borges in the 1960s famously described Neruda as “a very fine poet” and a “very mean man”. Widely accused of being a mere pawn to Russian interests, Neruda was heavily criticized for organizing a Chilean visa for the Mexican painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros, a suspected conspirator in the failed assassination of Leon Trotsky.
However, to most Latin Americans Neruda remains a hero. His escape from Chile on horseback over the Andes, carrying little else but the manuscript of Canto General, and his stunning appearance at the World Congress of Peace Forces in Paris, whilst the Chilean government continued to deny that he could have left the country, are the stuff of legend. Poets have long played a decisive role in Latin American politics and Neruda followed in the distinguished footsteps of the Cuban independence leader and poet, José Martí, and paved the way for the poets of the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, such as Ernesto Cardenal and Tomás Borge.
The Nobel Prize, which Neruda won 1971, sealed his reputation as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century in any language. Although he lived long enough to see his hopes of a Communist Chile dashed by the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government, and the installation of a repressive military dictatorship led by General Pinochet, his ideals remained true and his criticism sharp.
When the army searched his house in Isla Negro during the coup of 1973, Neruda bedridden by terminal prostate cancer, stood up to exclaim perhaps his most famous line, “Look around – there's only one thing of danger for you here—poetry”. His death of heart failure later the same year shook the country, the continent, and the world. Pinochet refused to make Neruda’s funeral into a public event. However, as thousands of Chileans disobeyed the curfew and took to the streets Neruda’s funeral became the first public protest against the new military regime.
Want to learn more? Try
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, by Pablo Neruda.
Canto General, by Pablo Neruda.
Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, by Adam Feinstein.