Chile Still Loves Pablo Neruda

<i> Long, The Times' bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro, writes often on culture and politics in South America. </i>

Like forbidden love, Chile’s passion for Pablo Neruda is strong and bittersweet. Once secretive and fearful, it now flourishes more openly than it ever has since the Communist poet died 14 years ago.

When the armed forces seized power in 1973, Chilean bookstores cautiously hid Neruda’s works. The new military government hated Communists.

It still does. But despite official antipathy for the poet’s political party, hardly anyone in Chile would deny the greatness of his poetry, which won the 1971 Nobel Prize for literature.

Neruda’s earthy and evocative verse has emerged from the closet into a full-scale public revival. And with renewed interest in his literature has come increased public attention to the poet’s life, his politics and his death.

According to a recently published book by his late widow, Neruda’s shock at the bloody 1973 military takeover hastened his death. He was 69 when he died of cancer Sept. 23, 1973, just 12 days after Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power.

For Chilean leftists, Neruda is a powerful political symbol. But Pinochet’s opponents are not the only lovers of Neruda’s poetry.

“Ultra-rightists also read him, and they enjoy him,” said Guillermo Blanco, a prominent writer and editor.

Many Chileans admire Neruda, not only as a poet but as a self-made Chilean man and a genial public personality.

He rose from poor provincial origins to his artistic success and international celebrity. Originally named Neftali Reyes, he was the son of a railroad conductor.

Throughout his career, he returned frequently to the provinces and gave popular poetry recitals in town after town.

He was a poet of love:

Here is the loneliness where you

are absent.

It rains. The ocean wind hunts

errant sea gulls.

The water walks barefoot on wet

streets.

From that tree, like patients,

the leaves complain.

And he was a poet of revolution:

Pure youth of this bloody sea,

Communist youth of this day:

There will be more and more of

you to cleanse

The territory of tyrannies.

In Pinochet’s Chile, Neruda’s poetry can have a dangerous, subversive ring. In recent years, anti-government protesters have often displayed signs bearing fragments of his verse and portraits of his jowly, round-nosed face.

Meanwhile, some of the same bookstores that once hid Neruda’s works now prominently display them on front shelves and special tables. No other poet sells so well.

“In Chile, his popularity is by far the greatest,” said Carlos Franz, the executive secretary of the Chilean Book Chamber, a business association. “There is still no other author who approaches him.”

Demand is also strong for Neruda’s autobiography, “I Confess That I Have Lived,” and for books by other writers about him. A fictional dialogue between a postman and the poet, borrowing heavily from Neruda’s verse, was a stage hit in 1986 and early 1987.

A book of memoirs by Matilde Urrutia, Neruda’s widow, currently is a Chilean best-seller. Titled “My Life with Pablo Neruda,” it has been among the five best-selling nonfiction books for the past 20 weeks.

The edited memoirs were published last year in Spain and this year in Chile. Urrutia, Neruda’s third wife, died in 1985 at age 70.

In recounting Neruda’s last days after the 1973 coup, she is bitterly critical of the military government.

One passage in the book, written in 1983, charges that “after 10 years, while I write these memoirs, there still is torture, and the monsters of ’73 have perfected themselves and continue to kill in the streets.”

Neruda’s friend, President Salvador Allende, died in the uprising. “And they also killed Pablo that day, because he saw that all of his illusions, for which he had fought his whole life, were thrown to the ground,” Urrutia wrote.

On his deathbed, Neruda heard reports of torture and killing by the military government in its drive against leftist opposition.

According to his widow’s memoirs, the poet’s last words were, “They are shooting them! They are shooting them!”

Urrutia’s book was published by a Chilean affiliate of Editorial Seix Barral, based in Spain. Bartolo Ortiz, a Seix Barral executive in Santiago, said the 10,000 copies in the first Chilean edition have been sold out and a new edition will be published here in October.

“This year, the book with the most sales we have had has been this one,” Ortiz said in an interview.

He said that Seix Barral is also planning to begin publishing Chilean editions of Neruda’s books later this year.

“The poetry of Neruda sells, it sells,” he said. In Spain, Seix Barral has published 22 of Neruda’s 49 books.

Neruda published his first collection of poems, “Crepuscular,” in 1923. Among his most political volumes was the 1973 “Incitement to Nixonicide and Praise for the Chilean Revolution,” the last of his books published while he was alive.

Ten of Neruda’s books, including his autobiography and several volumes of poetry that he was saving as a “gift to the country,” were not published until after his death.

The only book of Neruda poetry published in Chile since 1973 has been a 1985 edition of “100 Love Sonnets,” one of his most famous works. All others are imported from foreign publishing houses.

Ortiz and other publishing sources said the main reason for the absence of Chilean editions has been that foreign houses have held the copyrights. Neruda’s poetry has never been officially banned in Chile.

Foreign copies of his memoirs, published in 1974, at first were not allowed to be imported into Chile. But after bootleg copies proliferated, authorization was granted.

The military government maintains a discreet silence about Neruda. Since 1973, the government has commemorated no anniversary of his birth or death and has named no streets or plazas in his honor. Neither has it openly propagandized against him.

Franz, of the Chilean Book Chamber, said the government apparently does not want to be seen as either denigrating or promoting such a popular figure.

“For the regime, the figure of Neruda is embarrassing, very embarrassing,” Franz said.

Since his widow’s death, the poet’s estate has belonged to the Pablo Neruda Foundation, which was incorporated in 1976, after a year and a half of bureaucratic delays. Sources close to the foundation said that the government was obviously reluctant to legally recognize an entity dedicated to promoting Neruda’s image.

“Let’s put it this way: They were not delighted,” said one source.

The foundation wants to make a museum out of Neruda’s country cottage at Isla Negra, a village on the Pacific Coast. Full of Neruda memorabilia, including his big collection of seashells, the cottage was confiscated by the government in 1973.

Chilean law bars the government from selling any state property close to the coast, so the Pablo Neruda Foundation has asked to administer the Isla Negra property under a long-term concession. The request has met with mixed signals from authorities.

“Sometimes they say yes, and other times they say no,” said artist Mario Carreno, an old friend of Neruda’s and one of the foundation’s five trustees.

Another Neruda house, in the port city of Valparaiso, is being refurbished by the foundation to serve as a cultural center. Carreno and his wife, Ida Gonzalez, said the Valparaiso home was ransacked by security forces after the 1973 coup.

“They ripped paintings with their bayonets, the wretched people,” Gonzalez said.

Here in the capital, Neruda also owned a house, a multilevel complex spread around a sloping garden near the foot of San Cristobal Hill. This house is now the foundation’s headquarters.

Carmen Elgueta, the foundation secretary, conducts guided tours of the house. Inside are a pewter bar still stocked with Neruda’s liquors, a closet full of his clothes, a favorite dining table that seats 10, a secret passage through a cupboard, a three-room library stuffed with books, a new vault containing his personal papers and manuscripts, and a bathtub guarded by three antique dolls with China faces and cherubic lips.

“Neruda liked to take his bath surrounded by dolls, he said, so he bought these dolls and put them here,” explained Elgueta.

Since the house was opened in April for visits by appointment, hundreds of people have come to see it, she said. Among the most avid visitors have been returning Chilean exiles, allowed back into the country by a gradually liberalized government policy.

“They come here as if they had come to a temple,” said Elgueta. “They get very emotional about it.”

The foundation’s work is restricted to promoting Neruda as a poet, not as a Communist. “Of course we have to be very careful not to get involved in anything concerned with politics,” Elgueta said.

She said open manifestations of interest in Neruda have increased markedly, with more newspaper articles, public commemorations, and discussions on television.

Records of Neruda reading his poetry are available in commercial cassettes, and folk-singers put his verses to music in small night spots. Chilean high schools, where some of Neruda’s love poems are required reading, borrow video cassettes and slide sets on Neruda from the foundation.

“I would say people started talking about him in the last three years, because before, they were kind of scared,” Elgueta said. “I think the interest always existed. Now it has become public.”

“It is impressive how it has been increasing,” said architect Raul Bulnes, a foundation trustee. “A myth has grown up around Neruda, an adoration.”

Neruda’s grave in Santiago’s general cemetery is a small rectangle in a long wall of equal niches. The face of his niche is covered with graffiti, messages of devotion and respect. Some are political, some not.

“Pablo, your comrades in peace and liberty will always remember you,” said one signed “JJ.CC.,” the Spanish initials for the Communist Youth organization.

“Pablo, thank you for your words,” said another, signed “Paula.”