Rethinking Pablo Neruda

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: https://www.publicbooks.org/nerudas-ghosts/

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: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/23/chile-neruda-airport-rename-outrage-admitted-rape-memoirs

Meanwhile, the Neruda Foundation (https://fundacionneruda.org/), 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.