Memoirs, by Pablo Neruda
Poetry & Politics
by Pablo Neruda.
Translated by Hardie St. Martin. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 370 pp. $11.95.
An autobiography, as Cardinal Newman once confessed, is an exercise in self-justification. Ours is an age sorely pressed for alibis, and neither publishers nor public seem to tire of reading the “extenuating circumstances” which purportedly explain everything from personal indiscretions (Kay Summersby Morgan) to genocide (Albert Speer). Few autobiographies nowadays can be said to be “honest,” but this does not mean that they cannot be revealing—even devastatingly so—a point that is brought home in an especially poignant way by the posthumous memoirs of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate. Neruda’s career was not confined to literary work and personal relationships; instead, it crossed and re-crossed the terrain of politics and ideology, which he saw as a natural extension of his artistic vocation. That Neruda expected his private person to be judged by his public morals, is clear enough. What is far less clear, however, is whether those morals as revealed in these autobiographical pages, are worthy of praise.
Pablo Neruda was born Neftalf Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904 in southern Chile, where he spent his boyhood. His father, a railroad employee, was a matter-of-fact petit bourgeois, who, like most Chileans of this class, placed a high value on education. Young Neftali displayed literary promise early in life; at age thirteen his first poem was published in a provincial newspaper, and he continued to write copiously throughout his late adolescent years. At age seventeen his father sent him to Santiago to study for a career as a French teacher. About this time the young man adopted the pen name Pablo Neruda, presumably to avoid having to discuss with his father the way he was really spending his time in the Chilean capital.
After several years of a precarious existence as a bohemian poet, in 1924 he published Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (“Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song”), which propelled him to immediate fame. This book and several others that immediately followed brought him to the favorable attention of the Chilean establishment, which was accustomed to rewarding promising literary figures with positions in the consular service. In 1927 Neruda was posted to Rangoon, thence to Colombo (1928), Batavia (Java) (1930), Singapore (1931), Barcelona (1934), and Madrid (1935). Except for the last two, these appointments were purely honorific; there was little work for a Chilean diplomat in these places, and in fact Neruda was not expected to do anything more than cultivate his literary muse, which he did with exemplary industry.
Neruda always liked to say that the turning point of his life came with his tour of duty in Spain, where he found a political faith. His friendship with some leading Spanish literary figures—particularly Federico García Lorca—led him to ardent support of the republican cause on the outbreak of the civil war, a position which he later claimed resulted in his dismissal from the consular service. Whatever the facts, it is from this period of his life that he became identified with left-wing causes, and began to compose political verse, the most important of which (and certainly the best) was España en el corazón (“Spain in my Heart,” 1938). After the civil war he spent some time in Paris processing visas for republican refugees who chose to emigrate to Chile, and after a brief visit home in 1940 he was appointed consul general in Mexico.
In 1943 he returned to Chile and formally joined the Communist party, under whose banner he was elected to the Chilean Senate two years later. When the government of Gabriel González turned against the Communists, the poet went into hiding, but later escaped, going first to Argentina and then to Europe, where he spent several years in comfortable exile, making several journeys to the Soviet Union. There he served on the selection committee of the Lenin (later Stalin) prize, a preferment which came his own way in 1953.
In 1955 he established a permanent home in Chile, although in succeeding years he made many trips abroad, in connection with both his poetry and his politics. In 1965 he became the first South American ever to be awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University; the following year he received an ecstatic welcome in New York during the International Congress of PEN Clubs. Honors at home followed. In 1969 the Chilean Communist party designated him their presidential candidate for the 1970 elections, a distinction he eventually declined in favor of his friend Salvador Allende. Following the latter’s election, Neruda was named Chilean ambassador to France, and in 1971 he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Two years later, terminally ill, he returned to Chile, where he died twelve days after the coup which deposed his country’s Marxist government.
This is the story in outline found in the pages of Neruda’s Memoirs. But also found there, and not even between the lines, is the history of an utterly unscrupulous opportunist. To put no great gloss on the matter, Neruda was a spoiled child of the liberal capitalist order, who like most spoiled children managed to have his cake and eat it too. He does not seem particularly embarrassed to tell us how he used aristocratic acquaintances in Santiago to garner access to ministerial antechambers and a government sinecure; the same Chilean elite whom he later vilified as an enemy of culture was perspicacious enough to know (and finance) a good thing when they saw it—with no questions asked and no conditions imposed. In later years, Neruda was profuse in his admiration for the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam, but he preferred to spend most of his time abroad in the artistic capitals of supposedly decadent Western Europe. His forays into socialist territory were restricted to brief visits, where (to judge by what he himself says) the principal attraction was the epicurean cuisine. In one unforgettable passage he tells us with unfeigned delight of a meal experienced in “the most exclusive restaurant in the world”—in, of all places, Peking. It had but one table, and the waiters were descendants of the imperial family. The entrees included “a shower of cherry blossoms, a rainbow of bamboo salad, hundred-year-old eggs, the lips of a young she-shark.” A theoretical enemy of private property, Neruda was an incessant collector of exquisite articles—rare sea shells, vintage wines, old editions and prints, antiques—no vice in itself, but no less aristocratic a preoccupation when practiced by a self-proclaimed revolutionary. When he returns to Burma years after the British have left, the first thing he notices is that the streets are no longer as clean as they were under the Raj.
Far more appalling than his personal contradictions, however, is Neruda’s amoral approach to politics, in which the scale of values is exempt from the law of gravity. One can appreciate the motives which inspired him to support the Spanish Republic and to oppose Nazi Germany, but—to put it mildly—one need not have been a Marxist to do either. (Not surprisingly, there is not a single reference in this book to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.) His decision to join the Communist party he explains by quoting Curzio Malaparte to the effect that in Chile one must take sides, “with the Cadillacs or with the people who have no schooling or shoes”—a grotesque distortion of the range of political alternatives available at the time.
There is much stylized anguish expressed here about the evils of McCarthyism in the United States, but the physical disappearance of writers in China and the Soviet Union is reported in much the same tone as changes in the weather. When Khrushchev finally attacks Stalin in his “secret speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, Neruda is able to jog his memory and connect certain untoward (and for him, hitherto inexplicable) events with the evils of the personality cult. This requires him to concede that he himself contributed to that cult with his poetry, but at the same time it relieves him of having to confront the deeper political and moral issues involved.
“‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Those lines of Keats, less than two centuries old, seem far more remote from our age than they really are. For one of the most characteristic phenomena of this century is surely the degree to which poetry and political decency have strayed one from the other—Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Gerhart Hauptmann, Knut Hamsun—the list, unfortunately, is virtually endless. One might well say, of course, that poets are people too, and like everyone else they can make mistakes, even serious political mistakes. This is true as far as it goes, but the fact remains that for an astounding number of literate people in the United States and elsewhere, poets are not ordinary folk but oracles. Few people would probably be convinced that white is black and black is white if they were offered a pamphlet on the subject by, say, Herbert Aptheker. But from Pablo Neruda, a Nobel laureate and author of (among other things) some really sublime verse, it is a proposition which must be considered seriously, especially if it arrives clothed in a luxurious dust jacket and draped in all the elegant paraphernalia of which American book publishing is capable. People are afraid to criticize a poet for fear of being labeled enemies of culture, forgetting that in its most elementary aspects culture is the proper concern of ordinary (non-poetic) human beings. And they forget, too, that through vanity and vainglory, poets can easily betray their own vocation. This is surely not the message Pablo Neruda would have us derive from his memoirs, but for those who are not afraid to declare what it is that they see in front of them, it is the obvious conclusion.