In Chile, Poetry Outlives the Dictators
Memories of the dictator Pinochet’s murderous barbarism linger still in Chile, but the poems of Pinochet’s enemy Pablo Neruda lives like it was written yesterday.
In Santiago, Chile, last week, a longtime bodyguard of former dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested and charged with the kidnapping and murder of 13 people. Cristián Labbé was among the last of the vocal supporters of the Pinochet regime, and human rights supporters have for some years sought to arrest him.
The sad story of Augusto Pinochet and his murderous regime has closed in Chile, but it’s not ancient history. It was only in September 1973 that Pinochet, a right-wing military officer (and favorite of Margaret Thatcher), led a violent attack on the democratically-elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. Military planes strafed the presidential residence in Santiago, while Allende holed up in fear, committing suicide when rebels stormed his home (and using a rifle given to him by his friend Fidel Castro).
It was a sad moment for democracy, made even sadder by the fact that the Nixon administration did its level-best to undermine Allende, a socialist reformer, supporting the overthrow of his government in whatever ways it could find. Henry Kissinger played a key role in marshaling CIA support for this disgraceful period in American foreign policy, as documents released decades later have shown. Indeed, it seems bizarre to me that Kissinger is still accorded honor in this country, as he—as Secretary of State—was hardly an agent for liberty. But that’s another story. (Kissinger has strongly denied any direct involvement in the coup. He is quoted in Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography Kissinger as saying, “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.”
One of Allende’s friends was the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, who must be considered one of the major poets of the 20th century. His poems are to this day memorized and recited throughout South America, and he remains very popular among poets read in translation. One of his best English translators, Alastair Reid, was a good friend of Neruda, and he died only a month ago in New York. Anyone who wishes to read Neruda in English would do well to search out Alastair’s versions.
In April 1972, I was in London with Alastair and Neruda, and we went to dinner one evening—a night before Neruda would give a reading at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Then serving as Allende’s ambassador to Paris, Neruda had already become worried about the lack of American support for this government. He said that anti-Communism had been translated into an anti-democratic movement and talked about Nixon in the most unflattering terms. He had grave misgivings about the future of Allende’s government.
Neruda suffered from cancer, and he looked unwell, with a sickly yellow glow. He was a large man, totally bald, with the rough hands of a peasant. He had a sonorous voice, and laughed hard at Alastair’s witty remarks. He recalled that he had, in fact, been the leading candidate for the presidency of Chile but, at the last moment, gave his support to Allende. The ambassadorship to Paris was, to some extent, a reward for this move, but it was probably true that, given Neruda’s age and poor health, he was not an ideal person to deal with Chile’s economic problems, which at this time were considerable, including massive inflation and a high unemployment rate. Poverty was widespread, and there was a severe and ultimately fatal divide in the country between left and right. The copper industry, in particular, was a major problem. Allende had nationalized the mines—upsetting the mine owners, who were not compensated. The miners themselves went on strike again and again, trying to get their wages raised. It was a mess in Chile.
Neruda shook his head sadly, saying that he fear for the worst. He loved his country, and wished to return as soon as possible. “I miss my house by the sea,” he said.
In fact, Neruda died in Chile, only 12 days after the coup, and many thought (it wasn’t true) that he had been poisoned. He hadn’t been poisoned, but his house was broken into and ransacked. It wasn’t hard to imagine, however, that Pinochet would order Neruda’s death, as Pinochet was responsible for the death or disappearance of thousands, with tens of thousands being tortured in his prisons. It was a brutal regime.
A few years ago I went to visit Neruda’s eccentric house by the sea. It’s called Isla Negra—and the Pacific crashes on the rocks just below its big windows. It’s a warren of rooms filled with ships in bottles, and there is a large study where Neruda wrote his poems under a life-sized picture of Walt Whitman, his favorite poet. He is a poet who celebrates the natural world in ways Whitman would have understood, believing that nature is the great symbol of the spirit.
Here is “The Night in Isla Negra,” in Alastair Reid’s translation:
Ancient night and the unruly salt beat at the walls of my house. The shadow is all one, the sky throbs now along with the ocean, and sky and shadow erupt in the crash of their vast conflict. All night long they struggle; nobody knows the name of the harsh light that keeps slowly opening like a languid fruit. So on the coast comes to light, out of seething shadow, the harsh dawn, gnawed at by the moving salt, swept clean by the mass of night, bloodstained in its sea-washed crater.
Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He recently published Jesus: The Human Face of God.