Rethinking Pablo Neruda


One of my most treasured books, at least until recently, has been Neruda: Retratar la ausencia, a beautiful collection of black and white photographs of the poet’s home in the coastal town of Isla Negra, by Luis Poirot and published by the Neruda Foundation. The book, signed by dear friends, was presented to me at a small going away party in 1989, when I moved from Chile after nearly a decade of living and working in Santiago.

I also have a very old paperback copy of his memoir, Confieso que he vivido.  And it contains a disturbing passage from the poet’s time in Ceylon in the late 1920s, about a young Tamil woman whose job it was to empty human waste receptacles at his residence.  He seems oblivious to the fact that she wants nothing to do with him—avoiding eye contact, ignoring “gifts” of fruit and silk he places in her path and not responding when he calls out to her.  He can’t take a hint and decides that she is a “shy jungle animal.”  He grabs her wrist and “leads” her to his bed:

“It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open, all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me.”

Neruda’s memoir, with its confession of rape, was published in Spanish in 1974 and in English three years later, but it seems that only recently any attention has been paid to this passage and other unpleasant incidents in the Nobel laureate’s life. In 2015 Dutch writer Hagar Peeters published a novel, Malva, about Neruda’s only daughter, born with hydrocephaly, whom he abandoned along with her mother in Nazi-occupied Europe. Here’s a review of the English version, released a year ago:

There had been a proposal to rename Santiago’s airport after Neruda, and the cultural committee of Chile’s Chamber of Deputies voted for the change. But a growing chorus of outrage from human rights activists might put a stop to this. One parliamentarian and member of Chile’s Humanist Party, Pamela Jiles, wrote that it was bad for the country’s image to pay homage to “an abuser of women, who abandoned his sick child and confessed to rape.” Here’s a good summary in The Guardian:

Meanwhile, the Neruda Foundation (, which manages the poet’s legacy, has remained stonily silent. But perhaps the Foundation could raise some money and make a donation to a group helping survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka.

The price of books in Chile

Chile, as most anyone who knows the country will tell you, has two Nobel Prize winning writers, poets Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. But the cost of buying a book is prohibitive for most Chileans: some 40 years ago the Pinochet dictatorship imposed a value added tax (VAT) of 19 percent on books sold in the country, the highest in the region and effectively pricing them out of reach for many Chileans. And until now, no one has managed to get the tax eliminated or even reduced.

But a 17-year old Chilean student, Fernanda Moya, started a petition on  urging the country’s Ministry of Culture to eliminate the tax and has already gotten over 19,000 signatures.

“It’s hard to imagine that in a country like Chile, where the average price of a book is equal to 5 % of the minimum wage, how parents can bring books into their homes to motivate their children to read,” she told El Mostrador.

Stay tuned.



More on the Neruda investigation

A laboratory in North Carolina is still studying samples taken from the remains of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda, to determine whether he died of prostate cancer or was poisoned by a mysterious injection during his hospital stay shortly after the 1973 coup. (see earlier post:

Meanwhile, there has been speculation in both the Chilean and the foreign press that Neruda’s killer might have been Michael Townley, an American who worked for the Pinochet regime’s secret police organization, the DINA. Last week a Chilean judge ordered police to search for a “tall, blond, blue-eyed man” whom a doctor claimed to have seen at the hospital where Neruda died.  The physician, Dr. Sergio Draper, has changed his earlier account of the poet’s death and according to The Independent,

Dr Sergio Draper now claims a doctor called Price was with Neruda. There is no record of a Doctor Price in any of the hospital’s records and Draper said he never saw the man again after leaving him with Neruda.

The prosecutor believes that whoever the man was, “the important fact is that this was the person who ordered the injection” that may have killed Neruda. The description of Price as tall and blond with blue eyes matches Michael Townley, a CIA double agent (sic) who worked with the Chilean secret police under Pinochet.

There are a few problems with this line of inquiry. The DINA did not form until months after the coup, and neither this secret police organization nor its successor, the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI) worked with poisons until the 1980s. Townley, who moved to Chile with his parents as a teenager in the 1960s, is known to have been in the United States at the time of Neruda’s death.  As Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File, told the Santiago Times

“He was in Florida, a fugitive from justice in Chile where he had been part of an anti-Allende operation March 1972 that left a man dead. Only after Pinochet was well consolidated did he return and join DINA,” Kornbluh said.

He explained that officials in the U.S. undertook an extensive investigation into Townley and can verify his whereabouts for the time in question.

“Michael Townley was a prolific international terrorist who committed an act of terror and murder in the [U.S.] capital. As the target of a massive FBI investigation, the FBI retraced his movements in the years he was associated with violence in Chile,” said Kornbluh.

This blogger interviewed Townley’s ex-wife in Santiago in the late 1980s, and she remarked that her former husband had never lost his American accent. Which means that in the unlikely event he was in Santiago at the time of Neruda’s death, and managed to enter the poet’s hospital room dressed as a doctor, his accented Spanish would have made him even more conspicuous to hospital staff. And though they may be a minority, Chile does have its share of tall, blond and blue-eyed people.

Neruda update

Poet Pablo Neruda was buried alongside his wife Matilde Urrutia at their coastal home in Isla Negra.

Poet Pablo Neruda was buried alongside his wife Matilde Urrutia at their coastal home in Isla Negra.

Pablo Neruda’s bone samples will be sent to a laboratory at the University of North Carolina for toxin testing, giving investigators a better chance of determining whether the Nobel laureate was poisoned in his hospital room nearly 40 years ago (see earlier posts  and A team of Chilean and foreign forensics specialists are already examining Neruda’s remains and are expected to issue a preliminary report on their findings April 22. Judge Mario Carroza, the Chilean prosecutor in charge of the investigation, told Radio Cooperativa that Neruda’s casket cannot be returned to the grave site until he receives the forensics reports.  Rodolfo Reyes, a lawyer and the late poet’s nephew, said the Neruda family wants investigators to “take all the time in the world so that no doubt remains.”

On a more pleasant note, here’s a link to the Fundacion Neruda web page on Isla Negra, where the poet is buried:


Exhuming Pablo Neruda

A scene at Pablo Neruda's funeral shortly in September 1973. Marcelo Montecino, who took this photo, recalls that "The procession came past the morgue where lists of the dead were posted on the door. As the crowd gathered at the gate of the cemetery they started to sing "The International" plaintively but also full of rebellion and anger."

A scene at Pablo Neruda’s funeral shortly after the military coup in September 1973. Marcelo Montecino, who took this photo, recalls that “the procession came past the morgue where lists of the dead were posted on the door. As the crowd gathered at the gate of the cemetery they started to sing “The International” plaintively but also full of rebellion and anger.”

How long does a man live, after all?

Does he live a thousand days, or one only?

For a week, or for several centuries?

How long does a man spend dying?

–Pablo Neruda

The investigation into the death of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda began nearly two years ago, and this week his remains are being exhumed.  Was Neruda, who was suffering from prostate cancer, poisoned in his hospital room shortly after the 1973 coup? He was planning to fly to Mexico with other Chilean asylum seekers and his driver maintains the poet called him to say, “come quickly because I was sleeping and a doctor gave me a shot in the gut. I’m in a lot of pain and I’m boiling.”

But investigators are warning that, nearly four decades after the death, they may not be able to determine whether he was poisoned. Eva Vergara of the Associated Press reports

Neruda’s remains have been buried for years in soil that receives intense coastal humidity. Once they are exhumed, investigators will then have to work with what experts say is outdated technology and equipment.

“No big or false hope should be made about the exhumation and the analysis of the remains of Neruda yielding a cause of death” said Dr. Luis Ravanal, a forensic specialist.

Chile’s legal medicine laboratory “lacks basic equipment for the analysis of toxics and drugs that even the most modest labs own,” he said. “Technically there’s a big limitation; there is no sophisticated equipment to detect other substances, so they’ll invariably have to seek other labs.”

Ravanal also said that Chile lacks expertise in analyzing bone remains.

Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras, who is overseeing the exhumation, said he was disappointed that outside experts were not allowed.

“There’s no ill doing or trickery, but I think this not rigorous enough,” Contreras said.

Some more background on the poet’s death and the investigation by the Guardian’s Jonathan Franklin:

A weekend news round up

The Washington Post has a piece on Chile’s wine industry, which was hit hard by the February 2010 earthquake:

Canada’s Chronicle Herald has a review of The Neruda Case, the first of Chilean novelist Roberto Ampuero’s books to be published in English:

The Economist has an article on Chile’s fishing industry, which it describes as “a paradise for anglers but a headache for regulators.”

Reuters reports on a move by Chile’s Labor Ministry to fine and blacklist Starbucks and Wal-Mart, along with 34 other companies, over labor practices:

The Neruda Case


Chilean novelist Roberto Ampuero’s thirteen books have been translated into German, French, Italian, Chinese, Swedish, Portuguese, Greek and Croatian and the Spanish-speaking world has awarded him several literary prizes. But only now are English-speaking readers getting a chance to read his work.  This month Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin group, has published The Neruda Case, one of Ampuero’s six detective novels featuring Chilean sleuth Cayetano Brulé.

The Neruda Case opens in present day Valparaiso, with vivid descriptions of the port city’s “fifty teeming, anarchic hills” and its inhabitants who “risked their lives on shabby postwar trolleys and a handful of whining cable cars each time they rode to work or to homes with crumbling balconies and gardens that settled gracefully on peaks or clung precariously to hillsides.”  Cayetano Brulé watches the city, remembering his work as a much younger man, and a photograph of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda sends his mind back to 1973, before the military coup that ousted Socialist president Salvador Allende.  The poet, gravely ill with cancer,  summons Brulé and asks him to track down an old acquaintance last seen in Mexico.

Here’s an essay by Ampuero’s translator Carolina De Robertis in Publishers Weekly:

What killed Pablo Neruda?

Pablo Neruda, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, the second Chilean poet to receive the award.

The Chilean Communist Party has asked that the remains of poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda be exhumed to establish whether he was poisoned by an injection he received shortly before his death less than two weeks after the military coup which brought General Augusto Pinochet’s regime to power.   A judge who has been investigating Neruda’s death since June of this year will consider the petition, but the Neruda Foundation ( ) says such a move would be “an act of desecration.”

Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer and was moved from his home in the coastal town of Isla Negra to a Santiago hospital, where he died on September 23, 1973. Earlier this year the poet’s former driver said Neruda—who up to that moment had been able to walk around his hospital room and receive visitors—had been given an injection shortly before he died suddenly.  The former Mexican ambassador to Chile, who had offered the poet asylum in his country, has signed a legal affidavit to the effect that Neruda was well enough to plan such a relocation. The Neruda Foundation’s president, Juan Agustin Figueroa, opposes any exhumation and said “we do not believe in any third party involvement in his death.”

Judge Mario Carroza, who also investigated the death of former president Salvador Allende, has sent the Mexican affidavit, along with the testimonies of Neruda’s former driver, a doctor and a nurse to Chile’s Servicio Medico Legal to determine whether there are grounds for an exhumation.



Death of a poet

Salvador Allende with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature

“I am writing these quick lines for my memoirs only three days after the unspeakable events took my great comrade, Salvador Allende, to his death.”

Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize-winning poet, added the final sentences to his memoir after a military coup overthrew the Socialist government of Salvador Allende. Soldiers raided his seaside home, and the poet, suffering from prostate cancer, is said to have told them, “There’s only one thing of danger for you here—poetry.”  A short time later the author of Canto General, a poetic treatise on Latin America, and Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair, was moved to a hospital in Santiago, where he died on September 23, 1973.  His funeral turned into the first public show of defiance against Chile’s new military regime.

Neruda did not believe the official account of Allende’s suicide, and for many years, neither did many of the late Chilean president’s family and supporters.  On May 23 Allende’s body was exhumed and is being examined by a multinational team of experts who hope to determine, once and for all, how the democratically-elected Marxist died. The initial inquiry has established that the cadaver is in fact Allende’s, but the complete investigation will take up to three months.

Senator Isabel Allende, the late president’s daughter, has stated she believes the account by Dr. Patricio Guijon, who said he saw Allende shoot himself. Guijon was arrested by the military and imprisoned, along with other Allende government officials, at a remote island camp in Chile’s extreme south. In a statement read during the exhumation, she said that the Allende family was convinced “that the president took the decision to die as a gesture of political coherence in defence of the mandate given him by the people.”

Chile’s national television station broadcast a report quoting a Uruguayan forensics specialist–who is not part of the investigation–who read the 1973 military report on Allende’s death and said there was evidence that the Chilean president might have received two shots. The program discussed the hypothesis that Allende might have attempted suicide, shot himself and then been given the coup de grace by one of his aides. Senator Allende criticized the broadcast as “an insult to scientific intelligence.”

Meanwhile, Chilean officials have opened an inquiry into Pablo Neruda’s death. The poet’s former driver recently recalled that shortly before he died Neruda complained that hospital staff had injected something into his stomach.  The Pablo Neruda Foundation ( quickly issued a statement rejecting this assertion, but the Chilean Communist Party requested a judicial investigation, citing other doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death. Though suffering from terminal cancer, Neruda was still able to walk around his hospital room and was talking with visitors about moving to Mexico before dying suddenly of a heart attack.  The deaths of the poet and the president have been added to 725 other cases of unresolved deaths during the Pinochet regime.

Long land of earthquakes

I awakened when dreamland gave way beneath

my bed.

A blind column of ash tottered into the middle

of the night,

and I ask you: am I dead?

Hold my hand in this rupture of the planet

while the scar of the purple sky becomes a star.

Ah!, but I remember, where are they? Where are they?

Why does the earth boil, gorging on death?

Earthquake, from Canto General by Pablo Neruda.

When Pablo Neruda published this work in his tenth collection of poems, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded was still a decade away.  On May 22, 1960 a 9.5-magnitude quake hit the coast of southern Chile, followed by a tsunami with waves over 80 feet tall.

On Sunday Chileans marked the first anniversary of another earthquake on February 27, 2010, not as catastrophic as the 1960 disaster but still severe enough to rank among the top five earthquakes since 1900. It measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, followed by a tsunami that left 524 dead, another 31 missing and hundreds of thousands homeless and caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.

Last week the Pinera government published a report on reconstruction And the aftershocks keep coming, with two tremors measuring 6.0 and 5.1 hitting southern Chile on Sunday.  Two weeks earlier a 6.8 tremor struck, prompting authorities to issue a tsunami alert and evacuate around 5,000 people from beaches.