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 Once they are exhumed, investigators will then have to work with what experts say is outdated technology and equipment.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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/07/pablo-neruda-exhumed-murder-investigation

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: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wines-from-chile-worth-a-fresh-look/2012/08/10/a6cac714-e21f-11e1-a25e-15067bb31849_story.html

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:http://thechronicleherald.ca/books/125936-the-neruda-case-challenges-image-of-chile-s-greatest-poet

The Economist has an article on Chile’s fishing industry, which it describes as “a paradise for anglers but a headache for regulators.” http://www.economist.com/node/21560283

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:  http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/10/chile-labor-idUSL2E8JA0GK20120810

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:


The anti-poet

Cristobal Ugarte, grandson of Nicanor Parra, deposits the Chilean poet's old typewriter into a vault at Spain's Cervantes Institute.

For half a century

Poetry was

a solemn fool’s paradise.

Until I came along

with my rollercoaster.

Climb aboard if you want.

Though of course I can’t be responsible if you get off

bleeding from the mouth and nose.

His official web site, www.nicanorparra.cl, contains only the poem above in the original Spanish, set alongside a childlike drawing with the words, “You’re asking me?? Anti-poetry is you!” He was too fragile to make the trip to Spain but sent his grandson to collect the prize and to hand over the ancient typewriter he has used to write his poetry. That typewriter has just been deposited in a vault in Spain’s Cervantes Institute, which this week awarded Nicanor Parra the Spanish language’s highest literary honor. The typewriter holds an unpublished poem which may not be read until 50 years from now.

Parra is the third Chilean to win this award, following essayist Jorge Edwards (1999) and poet Gonzalo Rojo (2003). And Chile has two Nobel Prize-winning poets, Gabriela Mistral (who became the first Latin American winner in 1945) and Pablo Neruda (1971).

Parra, who turns 98 this year, was born into a family of folklorists and musicians in southern Chile, but distinguished himself as a scholar, studying physics at Brown University and cosmology at Oxford.  He counted San Francisco Beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsberg as friends and influences, and on this site there’s a photograph of him with Ginsburg at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York: http://ginsbergblog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/nicanor-parra.html

And here’s one of his best poems, “The Last Toast.”


Whether we like it or not,
We have only three choices:
Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

And not even three
Because as the philosopher says
Yesterday is yesterday
It belongs to us only in memory:
From the rose already plucked
No more petals can be drawn.

The cards to play
Are only two:
The present and the future.

And there aren’t even two
Because it’s a known fact
The present doesn’t exist

Except as it edges past
And is consumed…,
like youth.

In the end
We are only left with tomorrow.
I raise my glass
To the day that never arrives.

But that is all

we have at our disposal.

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 (http://www.fundacionneruda.cl/ ) 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.