Is it important to understand how an iconic figure really died? That was one of the questions people asked when the remains of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda (born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) were exhumed at the end of May 2013 following allegations that the Nobel Laureate was actually poisoned, and did not die of cancer as was originally thought, just days after the brutal dictator General Augusto Pinochet seized control of the nation in September 1973.
Whatever the cause of his death, few could argue that Neruda’s lyricism and spirit have inspired lovers, dreamers and revolutionaries the world over. But can the legendary Nobel Prize winner, who fellow Laureate and literary icon Gabriel Garcia Marquez referred to as ‘the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language’ remain relevant and important in the 21st Century?
Enduring Media Icon
“Well, now / if little by little you stop loving me / I shall stop loving you little by little.” That stanza from “If You Forget Me,” perhaps one of Neruda’s most famous love poems, echoes through his life and art. It is as if speaks not only to his lover, but to the reader, his country and the world beyond. The master poet has not been forgotten or unloved, as is evidenced in part by his omniscient presence on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube; his words and spirit immortalized by international admirers including pop queen Madonna, who recited “If You Forget Me” for a 1997 video.
Even prior to the social media blitz, Neruda made a comeback with the release of the 1994 film Il Postino, directed by Michael Radford. In the film, Neruda (Philippe Noiret) forms a relationship with poetry-loving postman Massimo Troisi (Mario Ruoppolo), who tries to woo the most beautiful woman on the island, Beatrice Russo (Maria Grazia Cucinotta). The film was a huge success, gaining an international audience and a bevy of celebrities lined-up to record a piece of Neruda’s for the film’s soundtrack, for which Madonna had originally recorded “If You Forget Me,” Glenn Close recited “I Like You To Be Still,” Samuel L. Jackson read “Walking Around,” and “Tonight I Can Write,” was interpreted by Andy Garcia.
The Communist Ideology
Known as much for his politics as for his erotic romanticism, Neruda is still viewed as a scion of the communist ideology that fueled much of his poetry, and which also resulted in his exile. On the April 10, 2013 “Books Blog” section of The Guardian Oscar Guardiola-Rivera wrote “…faced with an economic crisis without foreseeable end and few alternatives, a new generation of world activists needs to reconnect with the vibrant political imagination embodied by Neruda” – probably referring to the emblematic Tercera Residencia and Canto General. In the former volume, Neruda wrote “I Explain a Few Things”, a now-famous poem describing the Spanish civil war with words that could easily be applied many other wars and uprising before and since:
“Opposed to you I have seen the blood
of Spain rise up
to drown you, in a single wave
of pride and knives!
consider my dead house,
consider Spain, broken:
but from every dead house burning metal flows
in place of flowers,
but from every hollow of Spain
but from every dead child rises a gun with eyes,
but from every crime are born bullets
that will find you one day in the house
of the heart”
Canto General, which Neruda begun 1938 and completed while in exile, was referred to as ”a gospel of our time” by Greece’s most important living composer and musician Mikis Theodorakis in 1971 while he himself was in exile. Theodorakis continued, “Neruda lays bare his fighter’s soul. The work brings the historical events of his country to vivid life. It is destined to help men to vanquish in times of crisis and enforce the law. Neruda, deliberately, puts himself at the service of the peoples’ revolution for freedom, independence and democracy.” Theodorakis composed music to the General Song that would not be performed in Chile until 1993 after Pinochet’s downfall.
Doubtlessly it is work like the “Canto XII” from “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” within Canto General that inspired, and continues to inspire, artists and revolutionaries like Theodorakis with rallying cries, immortalizing Pablo Neruda’s world vision through his poetry, which will continue to be relevant as long as people struggle. That will never change, regardless of how he died.
“Arise to birth with me, my brother.
Give me your hand out of the depths
sown by your sorrows.
You will not return from these stone fastnesses.
You will not emerge from subterranean time.
Your rasping voice will not come back,
nor your pierced eyes rise from their sockets.
Look at me from the depths of the earth,
tiller of fields, weaver, reticent shepherd,
groom of totemic guanacos,
mason high on your treacherous scaffolding,
iceman of Andean tears,
jeweler with crushed fingers,
farmer anxious among his seedlings,
potter wasted among his clays–
bring to the cup of this new life
your ancient buried sorrows.
Show me your blood and your furrow;
say to me: here I was scourged
because a gem was dull or because the earth
failed to give up in time its tithe of corn or stone.
Point out to me the rock on which you stumbled,
the wood they used to crucify your body.
Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.
I come to speak for your dead mouths”