The Last Time I Saw Neruda

In June of 1972, while on my way to take up a diplomatic post at The Hague, I stopped over in Paris for a few days and paid a visit on Pablo Neruda. I had met him in New York, in 1966, at the PEN Writers World Congress, when Arthur Miller was president. Miller had lobbied the State Department to obtain a visa for him: “this is not a platform for war, neither hot nor cold. We are all indoctrinated in one cause only. Our purpose here is to restore diversity. The PEN club is a free and open platform,” he stated. In the poetry center, Archibald MacLeish announced that between “Neruda and the United States there is no conflict of ends, only of means. Each seeks the human dignity, portrayed in the poetry of Walt Whitman.” Neruda told a lady reporter: “when a carpenter was hanging a portrait of Whitman in my library on Isla Negra, he asked me: ‘Don Pablo, is he your father?’ I answered him, ‘Yes!'”

In New York, Neruda signed a copy for me of the Canto General, with the flyleaf illustrations by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. They are remembered in Neruda’s autobiography Confieso que he vivido (“Memories: I confess that I have lived”): ‘Diego Rivera had been working for so many years, and had squabbled with everybody, so that by now this burly painter had entered the annals of legend. David Alfaro Siquieros was in jail then. Somebody had sent him on an armed raid to Trotsky’s house. I met him in prison, although actually it was also outside, because we went out with the warden Perez Rulfo, to have a few drinks where we wouldn’t be particularly noticed. Then, later in the evening, we went back and, with a hug, I said goodbye to David who stayed behind bars.’

Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and was the ambassador in Paris for Salvador Allende, for whom he had given up his candidacy for presidency of the Communist Party. He cordially invited me for a cup of coffee. The news coming from Chile was not encouraging: political assassinations, street demonstrations, trade union clashes, and the destabilization caused by transnational corporations. When we arrived at the embassy, his secretary Homero Arce came out to receive Betty, Cloe and myself. In his office, a French lawyer explained to the poet the legal strategy to defend the Chilean government against the claims of a transnational company that was attacking it, above and below board. Opening the conversation with me (his poem about the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. seemed to resonate in the walls: “Nombre enrollado de serpiente,/ fauce insaciable, monstruo verde, (name like a coiled snake,/ insatiable claw, green monster):” he asked, “What do you write?” From that moment on we talked about poetry.

When we said goodbye, he told me with a face as white as a sheet: “Homero, I’m very sick. This may be the last time we meet. I have leukemia.” In fact it was the last time we saw each other. In November 1972, when I was in Holland, I learnt that he had resigned from the embassy and gone back to Chile. Then, on September 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet’s military coup against Allende took place, and the media reported the death of Neruda on Isla Negra before it actually happened. Since his death, on September 23, more or less coincided with the fall of the socialist government, first reports stated he had been assassinated by the usurpers. In Holland, there were pictures on TV of his internment, which turned into a political demonstration of rejection of the military junta. His widow Matilde Urrutia wrote: “From every street people came out to join the cortege. Cars with soldiers pointing their machine guns also appeared; they wanted to frighten us. They didn’t succeed. More and more people joined this cortege, raising their voices to shout: ‘Pablo Neruda: present, now and always'”.

In 1941 there appeared Laurel: Antologia de la poesia moderna Espanola (by Xavier Villaurrutia, Emilio Prados, Juan Gil Albert and Octavio Paz). During the printing, Neruda and Leon Felipe asked the publishers, Seneca, not to be included in the book on account of their enmity with the writer Jose Bergamin. At a dinner in honor of Neruda hosted by Mexican intellectuals in the Centro Asturiano, Neruda offended Paz, who recalled the incident in 1986 (Epilogue to Laurel): “There were thunderous speeches and excited toasts. At the exit we lined up to say goodbye to Pablo, who was talking with Clemente Orozco, Gonzalez Martinez and other celebrities. He had drunk a lot. When it was my turn, he hugged me, introduced me to Orozco, and praised my white shirt – “cleaner than your conscience “-, he added. Then he launched into an interminable stream of insults against Laurel, Bergamin and, naturally, other authors in the accursed anthology. I interrupted him. We were on the point of coming to blows. We were pulled apart and some Spanish refugees jumped on me intending to hit me. My friend Jose Iturriaga drove them off with a couple of slaps. In the street I felt depressed, broken, ‘como un camarero humillado, como una campana un poco ronca, como un espejo Viejo’ (like a humiliated waiter, like a slightly harsh bell, like an old mirror)”.

Speaking about that night, the poet Ali Chumacero told me that at the end of the dinner, “Pablo said: ‘I would like to say hello to Octavio because I’ve had a very serious disagreement with him over the Laurel anthology.’ Paz was sitting at the very end of the room, at one of those huge tables. I was sitting next to Pablo and La Hormiga (Delia del Carril), his wife. It was the table of honor. Then, when Octavio came to greet Neruda the latter said to him: ‘I don’t greet faggots. I say faggot to you because you are with those nobodies, those queers (Bergamin, Gil Albert y Prados).’ This was a very nasty insult which made La Hormiga feel really bad: ‘Pablo, what are you doing?’ But there wasn’t any question, unlike what Octavio says, of their coming to blows. It didn’t get to that. It’s not true. It’s in the imagination of Maestro Paz. When the whole hullabaloo was over, Octavio asked me: ‘How are you, Ali, how was I?’ ‘You did fine’, I told him. As for a group of Spaniards wanting to jump on him and beat him up, that’s imagination. Nothing like that happened. In 1942, Octavio was a kid. Paz published his Respuesta a un consul (Reply to a Consul) much later when Neruda’s term in Mexico was over and he had gone back to his country. It appeared after he had left. He certainly wrote it when Neruda was packing up. At that time in Mexico it took a month to leave. One, two or three days earlier, Pablo had made some statements about young, promising writers and poets in El Nacional (Mexico City daily newspaper) that were not offensive, far from it, but mistaken. He did not mention Octavio, but referred to Efrain Huerta, naturally, as the great poet, and he referred to Jose Revueltas as the great novelist” .

At thirty years after his death and close to the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, Random house Mondadori has issued the Pablo Neruda Library, from Crepusculario to Confieso que he vivido (Memories: I Confess that I have Lived). Each volume carries a prologue written by a poet or critic. In this series we can appreciate one of the most quoted lines in the Spanish language of the 20th century: Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche (tonight I can write the saddest lines), and one of the most lamentable: “Stalinianos, llevamos este nombre con orgullo (Stalinists, we carry this name with pride)” (1953, upon the death of Stalin). We can appreciate the author of masterpieces, like Residencia en la tierra, but also Las uvas y el viento and Canto general, that lyrical epic or geographical rhetoric, a collection of notes exalting heroes and flags, with its schematic division between the good guys – liberators and workers – and the evil ones – conquistadors and oligarchs -, and including one excellent section, Alturas de Macchu Picchu. In my prologue to La residencia en la tierra I remember those years that Neruda spent in Mexico as Chilean consul (1940 – 1943), as polemical ones, because of the close relationship he maintained with the Communist Party, the attempt on Trotsky’s life by his friend Siqueiros, and for his statements about Mexican poets, whom he found to be in “a state of absolute disorientation and lack of civil courage that is truly remarkable”.

Through his poems, his letters from the Orient and his memories in prose and in verse, Neftali Ricardo Reyes was able to turn the central character of his work into the poet invented by him in 1920: Pablo Neruda.*

* Pablo Neruda was born ‘Neftali Ricardo Reyes’. The pseudonym ‘Neruda’ was the real name of a Czech writer. He writes in his autobiography: “When I was fourteen, my father was always at me about my literary endeavors. He didn’t like the idea of having a son who was a poet. To cover up the publication of my first poems, I looked for a last name that would throw him completely off the scent. I took the Czech name from a magazine, not knowing it was the name of a great writer loved by a whole nation, the author of elegant ballads and narrative poems whose monument stood in Prague’s Mala Strana quarter. Many years later, the first thing I did when I got to Czechoslovakia was place a flower at the foot of the bearded statue.”