Neruda was later a diplomat, a senator and was nominated as the Communist Party's candidate for president in 1970, though he withdrew in support of Allende. Despite his worldwide fame, Neruda's political activism made it difficult for his name to become part of the public history of Chile in the years after his death.
"There was a time when all the mayors had been appointed by the military authorities, and clearly no one would have dared to name a plaza or a street for Neruda then," Egana said.
In preparation for the centennial, Egana a year ago wrote to all 341 municipalities in Chile, politely asking local officials to conduct a census of public spaces in their domains named for Neruda. "Many wrote back to say, 'We were sure we had at least one place named for him, but we don't, so now we're going to fix that,' " Egana said.
In recent months, the Chilean government has dispatched its cultural attaches to book fairs from Geneva to Guadalajara to promote celebrations of Neruda's oeuvre. And new anthologies of the poet's works are being published here and elsewhere.
"His humanist message is as vital as ever, and I think that's what [the official celebrations] are trying to recognize," said Adam Feinstein, the British author of "Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life," the first major biography of the poet in English, published this year by Bloomsbury. "It comes from that infectious joy of life that fed his poetry so beautifully."
In Feinstein's book, Neruda emerges as a man who pursued his passions for love and politics around the globe. As a Chilean diplomat in Burma (Myanmar), he fell in love with a woman so jealous that he feared she might kill him. Working as a consul in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, he helped more than 1,000 refugees escape to Chile.
Neruda was elected to the Senate in 1945, but was later expelled for writing a letter critical of then-President Gabriel Gonzalez Videla, and wrote "Canto General" while in exile. He returned to Chile in 1952.
In 1964, when he was a favorite to win the Nobel Prize in literature, the CIA organized a smear campaign to pressure the Nobel committee to deny it to him, Feinstein said.
"The committee gave the prize to [Jean-Paul] Sartre instead, but he turned it down," Feinstein said. One version of the Nobel contretemps has Sartre saying, "I'm not going to have it. Neruda should have got it."
Neruda won the prize in 1971.
Once upon a time, Chileans avoided discussing such controversies.
"There used to be a tendency to decaffeinate Neruda, to take away his political edge and just leave the poet who wrote about nature and love," said Jose Miguel Varas, a friend of Neruda who last year published "Neruda Clandestino," an account of the years the poet lived as an underground dissident in the 1950s. "Now we have gotten beyond that. We have come to appreciate the entirety of his character. Like any human being, he had his contradictions."
Varas met Neruda in the 1950s when he was editor of the Communist Party's daily newspaper, a publication to which Neruda occasionally contributed. Later, when Varas was press director of Chile's government television station, Neruda called him every morning for news updates.
Neruda telephoned as usual on the morning of Sept. 11, 1973, Varas said. "I told him, 'There's been a coup in Valparaiso.' I was supposed to drive out to Isla Negra to visit him that morning. I told him, 'I'm not going to be able to make it. Maybe later.' "
"Maybe never," Neruda answered.
About 3,000 leftist activists were killed in the days that followed. "They're executing them!" Neruda said shortly after being transferred to the Santiago hospital where he died Sept. 23. "They're executing them all!"
Neruda's widow, Matilde, spent her final years in Isla Negra, fighting off attempts by the Pinochet government to have the property expropriated because of Neruda's membership in the outlawed Communist Party. She created the Pablo Neruda Foundation, which sealed off the home of interlinked cottages after her death in 1985.
Two years later, the curator hired to transform the home into a museum opened the door for the first time.
"I found something very sad," said Maria Eugenia Zamudio, who still works there. "It was obvious that in her final years, Matilde was living in a smaller and smaller part of the house." At the very end, she was apparently cooking her meals in her bedroom.
The home was filled with Neruda's haphazard collection that included colored glass and the carved wooden statues from prows of old sailing ships. Much of it was in a poor state.
"When you are this close to the sea, the salt, humidity and fungi do a great deal of damage," Zamudio said. After a yearlong preservation effort, the home was opened to visitors in 1989.