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Sunday, November 22, 2009


Never having developed much of an interest for poetry, I had not known of Pablo Neruda before I flew to Chile. Once there and developing an interest in its literature and recent history, it is virtually impossible to avoid him. Someone had furthermore recommended his Memoirs to me before. So I felt it appropriate to bring them along on my trip even when I only managed to read through most of it on my flight out of the country. I really liked it. Quite honestly and in general, Chilean literature and culture based on the little that I have seen and read has made a really positive impression on me and I would love to read more of and about it. Preferably not in translation but in the Spanish original of course, but I guess that's just a pipe dream for the time being.

Neruda is one of those mythic early 20th century characters who seem to have perished from the earth since. A world-traveler, politician, philosopher, poet, bon vivant (in every sense of the word if you get my meaning), a communist and rich man. He spent time in India, China, Europe and of course all over his native Chile. He fled through the mountains into Argentina in order to escape his arrest and was in Spain during its monumental civil war. His life portrayed in broad strokes reminded me of Malraux (whom he fleetingly mentions in his Memoirs).

The book itself is a fascinating portrait of his life and times. I find it difficult to sum up the life of a man of his size in a few short sentences, but he follows more or less straight his development from life in rural Chile (near Temuc), to becoming a down and out poet and student in Santiago, to his career in the Chilean foreign service. His life long dedication to Communism and the people, Chileans and others. In his words: "The poet cannot be afraid of the people." His language is pristine (even in translation, did I mention that I hate having to revert to those?) and the book starts out with one of the most beautiful openings I have ever read: "In these memoirs or recollections there are gaps here and there, and sometimes they are also forgetful, because life is like that."

Again, I will not degrade Neruda to even an attempt on my part to truly reflect here the manifold issues and topics he addresses in his Memoirs. His descriptions are fascinating and the reader feels as if he really begins to understand the people, area and time-frame that Neruda lived with and in. The mistreatment of the natives by the Chileans, the poverty of the miners, the literary scene of Chile, life as an expat in the early part of the 20th century.

There are only two aspects that I would like to point out, cold political scientist that I am (and no poet). The life that Neruda lead is met with envy by the reader, especially his twenties, but his treatment and sexist perception of women served like a cold shower to me. Women are seemingly there to serve him in a subservient position. No equality, no companionship is possible. He shares his minds with friends not with the women in his life. Arguably, his relationship with Mathilde is different, but even here the words that were stuck in my head were that in his life with her, he composed poetry in the morning and she typed his verses up in the afternoon. I wonder whether he even realized what he was missing out on, or maybe partnership as equals were simply impossible to even imagine for him back then (and considering his background). I don't know, but I did feel bad for him on that account.

Finally, last point: Stalin. Neruda died in 1973. He wrote his Memoirs not long before that. Yet, for him Stalin was a great man. The 20th Congress seems to have not tarnished this image much. Maybe realizing in the fall of your life that whom (and what) you believed in was not and had never been the ideal you were looking for is simply too much to ask of a man. Still, I found that problematic.

What else? I need to read some of his poetry now. But for that I should really work on my Spanish a bit upfront.

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