- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

ISLA NEGRA, Chile — Literary pilgrims come from around the world to pay homage at the home of the poet whose verse reflected the essence of the human spirit. The life, poetry and legacy of Pablo Neruda, whose simple yet searing verse earned him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971, will be celebrated worldwide Monday on the centennial of his birth.

Why? What was there about Mr. Neruda that he is remembered a century after his birth and 31 years after his death?

“That’s difficult to answer,” said Hernan Loyola, Mr. Neruda’s friend and biographer, who fled to Italy during Chile’s military regime but now teaches an occasional course on Mr. Neruda at Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. “We loved the person of Neruda. He was an extraordinary person, on various levels, at different angles. He knew how to touch the most varied themes, important for any human being, the themes of love and death, but also natural things and objects, everyday things. He loved this planet and knew how to communicate this love.”

Neruda researchers discover three personages: Mr. Neruda the poet, the politician, the lover. All are evident at the three houses in which he lived and which are now museums: Isla Negra, La Chascona in Santiago and La Sebastiana in Valparaiso.

He was born Neftali Reyes in Parral, Chile, on July 12, 1904, the son of a railroad worker. He discovered his talent for poetry as a student and found inspiration in the works of Walt Whitman, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. He took his pen name from Czech poet Jan Neruda.

He published his first work, “Crepusculario,” at 19. At 20, he published “Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Cancion Desesperada” (“Twenty Love Poems and One Desperate Song”), which became an international sensation and remains in print.

He became a diplomat, serving in Burma and the Dutch East Indies, where he married Antonieta Hagenaar in 1930. Posted in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he embraced communist politics and left his wife for Delia del Carril, 20 years his senior.

“It was based on sex and turned to affection,” Mr. Loyola said. “His first wife he loved in an intellectual way.”

His first marriage in Java was not recognized in Chile, which left him free to marry Miss del Carril in 1936 — making him a bigamist in some countries.

Mr. Neruda was elected to the Chilean Senate as a communist in 1948. During this period, he published his best-known political work, “Canto General,” a condemnation of the right-wing government.

“The political part of his poetry is not of good quality,” said Cedomil Goic, who teaches literature at Catholic University. “He is remembered more for his poetry that dealt with nature, with love.”

During the government’s crackdown on communists in 1951, Mr. Neruda fled to Italy, where he spent a year in exile. His residence on the Isle of Capri was the inspiration for the 1995 Italian motion picture “Il Postino” (“The Postman”).

During a visit to Mexico in 1952, Mr. Neruda fell in love with Matilde Urrutia, a Chilean, whom biographers regard as his greatest love. He left Delia del Carril and lived openly with Miss Urrutia, but divorce was against the law in Chile, and remained so until this year. He married Miss Urrutia after his second wife’s death in 1966.

Mr. Neruda was to be the communist candidate for Chile’s president in 1970 but yielded to Salvador Allende, who headed a three-party coalition and became the world’s first elected Marxist president. Mr. Neruda was Mr. Allende’s ambassador to France when he received the Nobel Prize. He soon returned to Chile, suffering from prostate cancer.

Mr. Allende was overthrown and committed suicide during a bloody military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. Twelve days later, Mr. Neruda died in Santiago. The military monitored his Santiago funeral to prevent political demonstrations.

The Pinochet regime padlocked all of Mr. Neruda’s homes, but later allowed his wife to live at La Chascona. She died in 1986. In 1994, four years after Gen. Pinochet relinquished power, they were reinterred side by side at Isla Negra, overlooking the Pacific.

Maria Eugenia Zamudio, curator of the Isla Negra museum, said it has 120,000 visitors annually, 15 percent of foreigners, mostly from Europe.

“We had a lot more American visitors after ‘Il Postino.’ The Neruda character was so close to the real Neruda,” said Mrs. Zamudio, who knew Mr. Neruda during the last five years of his life. “It’s better to know something of his poetry before coming here.”

By contrast, La Chascona receives 15,000 visitors a year, 60 percent of them foreigners.

“Before 1959, Latin America didn’t exist for the rest of the world except maybe for Carmen Miranda,” said Mr. Loyola, who met Mr. Neruda in 1952. “Neruda overcame this. Neruda was more than a person; he was a personality.”

All three homes contain an astonishing array of bric-a-brac that fascinated and inspired Mr. Neruda: glassware, seashells, ships’ lanterns, ships’ figureheads, railroad memorabilia, stuffed birds, artwork. La Chascona has a two-headed portrait of Matilde Urrutia by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera.

“He gave spirit to every object. Everything in his houses has his personality,” Mr. Loyola said. “He said he was a child with all his toys, the objects of the world. He looked at them in depth. He had a magic relationship with things. Matilde said objects called to Neruda.”

Today, even conservative Chileans revere Mr. Neruda, while his leftist admirers downplay his affluent lifestyle.

“He was a communist, but he didn’t really practice socialism,” said Dario Oses, librarian at La Chascona. “He was a great critic of Stalin. He had a rupture with Cuba. But that doesn’t mean he was bourgeoisie. He didn’t follow one thing dogmatically.”

The adjective invariably used to describe Mr. Neruda is “universal.”

“The language that Neruda used was universal,” said Mrs. Zamudio. “The quality of his poetry rose above politics. The concept that Neruda had of human beings was humanist.”

“His poetry was very universal,” echoed Mr. Oses, “in terms that most people could understand it.”

“It was an exceptional phenomenon for a poet to have the same effect in French, in English, in Italian as in his native language,” Mr. Goic said.

“You know what his secret was?” Mr. Loyola said. “He didn’t do anything except write about himself. But he did it in such a way that he spoke of you and me. He explored the human condition by using himself as an example. The star of all his works was himself. He put into practice the formula, ‘I am not only my own body and mind, I am my circumstance.’ He is an image of the world.”

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