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The Colourful Life of Chilean Poet, Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda was a Chilean poet, diplomat, political exile, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Famously named “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, he led a colourful life and remains one of the country’s most-loved icons to this day.

Born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in the town of Parral, Chile, in 1904, Pablo Neruda began writing poetry at the age of 10, much to the disapproval of his father. Undeterred, he published numerous poems between 1917 and 1923 - under the pen name Pablo Neruda - during which time he moved to Santiago. It was in 1924 that he published what remains one of his most popular collections, Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Canción Desesperada ('Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair'). Passionate and explicit in its sensuality, the collection became a fast success for the 20-year-old Neruda.

By this time a well-renowned poet in Chile, Neruda undertook numerous diplomatic posts between the years of 1927 and 1935, and as such travelled extensively. It was during this time, whilst in Asia, that he wrote Residencia en la Tierra ('Residence on Earth'), which paints a desperate picture of a chaotic world and garnered him international recognition. 

In 1934 he took up the position of Consul in Spain, travelling first to Barcelona and then Madrid. His experiences of the Spanish Civil War had a profound effect on him, and his politicization during this time was demonstrated through his works, chronicling some of the events of the war, including the execution of his friend and fellow poet García Lorca by Nationalist forces. His collection España en El Corazón ('Spain in My Heart') showed his allegiance with the Republicans and cost him his consul post.

After subsequent posts in France and Mexico, he returned to Chile in 1943, after which he toured Peru and visited Macchu Picchu, which inspired Las Alturas de Macchu Picchu ('The Heights of Macchu Picchu'). An epic work in 12 parts, the poem praised the massive achievement of Macchu Picchu while criticising its use of slave labour.

Neruda became increasingly outspoken about his political views. He demonstrated his growing admiration of Joseph Stalin by publishing odes to him and, later, Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro. In 1945, Neruda was elected as Communist Senator in Antofagasta and Tarapacá, and joined the Communist Party of Chile in July of that year. Though he always remained committed to communism ideologically, in later years he expressed regret of his support of Stalin and Soviet leadership, particularly with regard to its “cult of personality”.

As political hostilities broke out in the country, the Communist party was banned under what became known as the ‘Ley Maldita’ (Accursed Law). Following Neruda’s ardent condemnation of the aggressive repression of a Communist-led miner strike, the poet went into hiding in Chile. He was forced to take refuge in the homes of his supporters and moved from place to place until 1949 when he escaped the country to Argentina through the Andes mountains. Using the passport of his friend, novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias, Neruda made his way to Paris, purportedly thanks to the help of another friend, Pablo Picasso. From there, he spent much of the next few years travelling in Europe and Asia.

As things in Chile became safer for the poet, he returned to his home country once again in 1952. In 1954 he published his Odas Elementales ('Elemental Odes'), which saw a change in his poetic style to one that was less florid and more precise. His unwavering left-wing political ideology saw him speaking out publicly against the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. In the 1960s, he was targeted by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist group which, it later emerged, was funded by the CIA.

Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, and gave a colourful acceptance speech in which he spoke of his dramatic exit from the country and the dangerous passage to Argentina many years before. 1973 saw the infamous coup d’état, led by Augusto Pinochet, take place against the government of Salvador Allende, of which Neruda was a staunch supporter. Neruda died shortly afterwards, during the ensuring chaos of the coup. Though he was said to have died from prostate cancer, controversy surrounds his death. It has been said that whilst in hospital, he was given an injection which some have speculated contained a poison which led to his death six and a half hours later.

To this day, Pablo Neruda remains an important Chilean icon, remembered for both his political activism and his impressive and much-loved poetry, which includes some of the best-known poems to have ever come from the country.

Written by Laura Pollard

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