Antonio Skarmeta's novella opens with a curious dedication to Pablo Neruda's wife: "To Matilde Urrutia, Neruda's inspiration, and through him, that of his humble plagiarists." This is no simple admission of guilt by the Chilean novelist and playwright but rather a citation of the source of his own inspiration. For Skarmeta is borrowing from Neruda's poems and his life to weave a fictional homage to the Chilean hero and Nobel laureate.
This whimsical, entertaining novel, Skarmeta's sixth, is set in Isla Negra, neither an island nor black, as its name would suggest, but rather the village where Neruda lived on the Pacific coast of Chile during his last years. ("Isla Negra" is also the title of a collection of autobiographical poems by Neruda published in 1964.)
In the novel, the fictional Pablo Neruda finds himself sought out by his postman, Mario Jimenez, an overzealous teen-ager who desires to master the language of love in order to pursue Beatriz, a pretty barmaid who will have none of him. At first, Mario imagines that just having an autographed collection of the poet's work will bring him an added cachet that will win Beatriz, but when this tack fails, he essays to memorize the poems, hoping that the words themselves will lend him a new charm. At last, he even presumes on Neruda himself, engaging the master in small talk, even going so far as to claim he'd like to be a poet himself.
To be rid of this rather persistent youth, for the day at least, Neruda advises that Mario take a walk by the sea. As Neruda wrote in "Isla Negra," "I need an ocean to teach me: / whatever it is that I learn . . . / . . . I spin on the circle / of wave upon wave of the sea . . ." ("The Sea," translated by Ben Belitt).
And this advice, however offhand, seems to work changes on Mario. Where before he'd been unable to speak in his love's presence, under Neruda's unwitting tutelage, words pour forth readily. He follows Beatriz along a beach at sunset, "just as the orange sun was becoming the stuff of apprentice lovers and poets," and the seduction begins. "First with a vehemence and then as if he were a puppet and Neruda the ventriloquist, he gained such fluency that images flowed magically out of him, and the conversation--or rather the recital--lasted until dark."
The comparison to Skarmeta himself is implicit. By telling the story of an inarticulate peasant boy who under Neruda's influence becomes a passionate lover, Skarmeta creates a metaphor for his discovery of his own fictional voice.
As is Skarmeta's language throughout the novella, so is Mario's recital full of echoes and borrowings from Neruda's poems. This plagiarism is at once detected by Beatriz's mother, Rosa Gonzalez, when Beatriz returns and recounts what Mario has told her. "He said that my smile stretches across my face like a butterfly. . . . He said my laugh was a rose, a bloody sword, crashing water. He said my laugh was a sudden silvery wave." Affronted, Mrs. Gonzalez writes to Neruda directly to inform him that the young postman has appropriated his poems to use as tools of seduction. She asks to meet with him, to discuss "a certain Mario Jimenez, seducer of minors . . . ."
Faced with this exposure, Mario tells Neruda, in his own defense: "Poet and comrade. . . . You gave me your books; you taught me how to use my tongue for something other than sticking stamps on envelopes. . . ."
Neruda's poetry has helped Mario win his lover's heart. In spite of her mother's objections, he and Beatriz marry, and in the second half of the novel, settle down to life together.
In the larger world of Chilean politics, however, there is great change. Salvador Allende becomes president, and in one of his earliest acts of office, he appoints Neruda ambassador to France.
Political events dominate this latter section of the novel. In 1971, Neruda wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. Mario plans festivities at the local bar, and the townspeople celebrate and watch the television broadcast. When Neruda's speech ends, there's a burst of applause in the room. Then suddenly, the program is interrupted. "The broadcaster was saying, 'We repeat: Fascist commandos have bombed and completely destroyed the electrical towers in Valparaiso Province. The United Workers' Union calls on all of its members throughout the entire country to remain on the alert. . . .' "
The novel concludes with Allende's assassination on Sept. 11, 1973. Neruda, who himself is critically ill, is taken in for interrogation. His death occurs Sept. 23.
But Neruda's contribution to Chilean national life and literature lives on, Skarmeta seems to say, not only in the hearts and imagination of its writers but in the hearts of simple townspeople like Mario, inspired not only by his words but by his political commitment.
Any discussion of the events of this novel must not fail to take into account the charm, humor and the beauty of the language, Neruda's legacy to its author. (The excellent translation by Katherine Silver does that language justice.) The book's title comes from a line by Rimbaud which Neruda incorporated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. "Only with burning patience shall we conquer the splendid city that will give light, justice, and dignity to all men. Thus poetry will not have sung in vain."