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Chile Still Loves Pablo Neruda

November 01, 1987|WILLIAM R. LONG | Long, The Times' bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro, writes often on culture and politics in South America.

SANTIAGO, Chile — 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.

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