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Words That Pulse Among Madrid's Dead

Neruda's verses howl against terror today and yesterday -- testimony to the courage of Spain's people

March 21, 2004|Ariel Dorfman

Madrid is no stranger to bombs.

Almost 70 years ago, as the Civil War was beginning, Spain's capital suffered devastating attacks from the air. With the support of Hitler and Mussolini, the insurgent forces commanded by Gen. Francisco Franco targeted the civilian population of Madrid in the hope that the democratically elected government would capitulate.

Living in that city at the time was the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and he left behind a series of memorable poems denouncing those assaults and commemorating the resistance of ordinary people.

By a strange coincidence -- not the first time history and literature, tragedy and words, colluded in my life -- one of those poems was on my desk at the very moment when I heard about the terrorist attacks on Madrid on March 11 that left more than 200 dead and so many more wounded. I had been reading that poem, "Explico algunas cosas" ("I explain a few things") over and over again, in preparation for a homage to Neruda to be held at the Kennedy Center in celebration of the centenary of his birth.

I had originally chosen to recite that specific poem because I felt it was a way of allowing Neruda to condemn the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the bombs falling upon the innocent, the blood of children that runs, today as yesterday, "simply like blood of children." And I also wanted Neruda's verses to howl against the destruction of so many other cities and lives.

"Look at my dead house, look at broken Spain" could refer as well to Santiago de Chile, the capital that Neruda inhabited for so many years, that I saw bombed on that fateful Sept. 11, 1973. And also to New York on fire, that other Sept. 11, the New York that Neruda treasured, the New York that fascinated his friend, Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet killed by fascists in 1936, the New York that had also been visited by smoke and pain and widows.

It is always one small group, "jackals that a jackal would despise," that sows death and always others, the many others, overflowing with light, who die, simply die. The poem ended up being more relevant than I had planned. When I finally read it at the Kennedy Center, I understood, as did the audience, that Neruda had captured my mouth, stolen my throat, in order to whisper something far more urgent.

The recent bombings in Madrid transformed his words into a requiem for the recent dead: It was Madrid that was again aflame, again the Madrilenos were being attacked by "vipers that vipers would abominate," again the innocent were paying for a war they had not desired or deserved. It was my own beloved Madrid, that city so open to wanderers, the city of Velazquez and Goya and Lope de Vega, where "one morning everything was burning/ and one morning bonfires/ came out of the earth/ devouring humans/," it was Madrid, "and from then on fire/, gunpowder from then on,/ and from then on blood."

After the homage, spectators thanked us and the gods of poetry for expressing how these victims of terror replicate and multiply with their deaths so many earlier deaths -- Madrid today and yesterday, Santiago yesterday, and Baghdad today, New York, Srebrenica, Rwanda and Cambodia.

But that was not all that Neruda was telling us. There are commentators in America as well as in Spain who have declared that the Spanish people, by punishing the ruling Aznar government and electing a leader opposed to war, have offered up a victory to terrorism, that from now on fanatics will be able to use their lethal weapons to intimidate the free citizens of the world and blackmail the electorate.

Such a claim is not only an insult to the maturity and courage of the Spanish people but also an insult to the intelligence of the world itself.

They dare to say that of a citizenry that has confronted and isolated the criminal ETA? They dare to sustain such nonsense of the men and women whose parents and grandparents resisted for three years the fascist forces, Mussolini's troops and Hitler's air force, while the world watched with distance and indifference?

Those who believe Spaniards are afraid should listen to Neruda. In his poem, he makes the following prophecy: the blood of Spain will rise to drown its murderers "in one single wave/ of pride and knives"; he promises us that "from each dead house burning metal will come."

We should not be confused. Just because a sovereign nation decides to reject and oppose an unnecessary, unjust and deceitful war does not mean that the people of that nation are not willing to defend themselves, fight to return Madrid to that moment before the bombs exploded, which Neruda also remembered:

I lived in a barrio

of Madrid, with bells

with clocks, with trees.

My house was called the house of flowers.

Raul, do you remember?

Do you remember, Rafael?

Federico, do you remember,

dead under the ground,

do you remember my house with balconies

where the June light drowned

the flowers in your mouth?

Brother, brother!

Yes. Brother, brother! Said to the murdered Garcia Lorca and now, so many years later, to those who have again died, said to all those senselessly slaughtered all over the world and who are remembered ceaselessly by a poet who was born 100 years ago and lives now only in the legacy of his words, tendering us consolation and rage and hope once more in these times of tragedy and terror.

Ariel Dorfman is author of "Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North" (National Geographic, 2004) and the upcoming "Other Septembers, Many Americas" (Seven Stories).

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