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A National Sonnet for Neruda

A century after his birth, Chile will try to bury past animosities with festivities honoring the legendary poet.

June 17, 2004|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

ISLA NEGRA, Chile — Famous for his love of the sea, Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda wrote in his landmark book "Canto General" that he wanted to rest for eternity next to his stone and wood cottages in this hamlet on the Pacific.

Comrades, bury me in Isla Negra

before the sea that I knew, to

each rough space

of rocks and waves that my

lost eyes

will never see again.

Instead, Neruda was hastily interred in Chile's capital, Santiago, when he succumbed to cancer two weeks after his friend Salvador Allende was deposed as president in a bloody 1973 coup. Soldiers ransacked one of Neruda's homes, then surrounded the mourners at his funeral procession. The speeches at his graveside were the last act of public protest allowed by Chile's new dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Nearly two decades later, Chile's new, democratically elected president asked his "special events" director, Javier Egana, to supervise Neruda's government-sponsored exhumation and reburial in Isla Negra. Thousands lined the roads and tossed flowers on the poet's flag-draped casket as it passed.

Now Egana is working around the clock on a new task: officially incorporating Neruda, whose communist beliefs didn't endear him to the conservative establishment that has dominated the country since Pinochet's coup, into the pantheon of Chile's national heroes.

In the new Chile, the ideologically driven disputes of the past have been fading amid the spirit of reinvention that comes with being South America's fastest-growing economy. With each passing year, the rancor of the conservative elite toward its old foes diminishes.

On July 12, Chile will commemorate the centennial of Neruda's birth. Cities and towns up and down the length of Chile are caught up in Neruda fever, each rushing to hold commemorative acts. In Isla Negra, children will parade, passing ships will sound their horns, and poetry will fall from the sky. President Ricardo Lagos will ride a train south from Santiago to Neruda's birthplace, the town of Parral, where a host of Latin America's leading literary luminaries will mark the event.

"Chile is recognizing a poetic hero, a hero of letters, a hero of humanity," Egana said.

As Chile's secretary of social communication and culture, Egana specializes in official acts of repentance, having also reburied Allende, a Marxist, and one of his slain former ministers, Orlando Letelier, in solemn, public ceremonies. Like those events, the Neruda centennial will be what Egana calls an "act of reparation."

Everyone in Chile knows of the tragic drama of the poet's final days. From his sickbed in Isla Negra, Neruda watched soldiers digging through his garden in search of arms. "The only weapons you will find in this place are words," he told them.

Legend has it that cancer didn't kill Neruda -- it was the sadness that overwhelmed him after hearing of the coup's atrocities, of the bodies turning up in the Mapocho River, and of the killing of friends such as singer Victor Jara and Allende, who died in the presidential palace.

Allende had come to power after winning the 1970 election, promising "a democratic road to socialism." But he soon confronted strong internal and external opposition, with the Nixon administration working to secretly destabilize his government. One of Neruda's last works was titled "Call for the Destruction of Nixon and Praise for the Chilean Revolution."

After the coup, Pinochet imposed a brutal dictatorship that lasted until 1990. But his conservative economic polices have remained in place, adopted even by a center-left president such as Lagos, a socialist who recently signed a free trade agreement with Allende's old nemesis, the United States.

In a sense, the official Neruda Centenary observances will mark another step forward in the creation of a new Chilean national identity: one in which the antagonisms of the recent past are transformed into a shared history of tragedies and triumphs.

"Fourteen years after that trauma," Egana said, referring to the end of the dictatorship, "this is a country that has recovered its sense of joy."

Neruda wrote in green ink -- "the color of hope," he called it -- and published his first book at 19. Over the course of five decades he produced a body of work that cataloged all things Latin American, from the Straits of Magellan to Macchu Picchu. In the words of New Yorker critic Mark Strand, he was "easily the most prolific and popular of all 20th century poets."

As a young man, Neruda first earned fame for his love poems. Translated into 36 languages, they have been the opening gambit of countless courtships and seductions. From the 46th sonnet of "One Hundred Love Sonnets:"

From wave upon wave

upon wave

green ocean, green cold, branch of green.

I never chose but a single wave

the indivisible wave of

your body.

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