Saturday, February 11, 2006

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda and the poetry of South American love.
On 12 July 1904 Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was inconspicuously born in the small Chilean town of Parral, the son of a railway working father and teaching mother who died shortly after his birth. On 23 September 1973, Neftali - by then known as Pablo Neruda the Nobel Laureate and South America’s greatest poet, died of leukaemia in the Chilean capital Santiago, shortly after the murder of President Salvador Allende.

It was Allende’s socialist government that had appointed Neruda as Chile’s Ambassador to France from 1970-72, yet it has been suggested that the politics of Chile hastened the death of the despairing socialist poet - his decline accelerated by the murder of Allende and the Pinochet coup in 1973. Modern day Chile’s imminent return to a left wing government however, with the recent success of Michelle Bachelet, may have restored something his own personal vision of Chile (Bachelet, a 54-year-old socialist pediatrician was elected in January and takes office on 11 March). In the midst of these months of significant South American political events sits the unrelated commercial spectacle of Valentine’s Day, which of itself should have precious little to do with the government of Chile. Yet, however tenuous the link, thoughts of romance (on 14 February or any other time of the year) will inevitably lead me back to Neruda’s Chile and the poetry of South American love. For at the age of only 20, Neruda (the pen name which he adopted in memory of the Czechoslovak poet Jan Neruda (1834-1891) and used for over 20 years - before adopting it legally in 1946) wrote Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada (Twenty Love Songs and a Song of Despair) in Santiago. Correspondingly at the age of 28, I met and fell briefly in love with a Chilean woman in Santiago, and mere days later was introduced to Neruda’s first of many collections of love poetry. The episodic romance of that particular woman has passed. The romance of the poetry and the country that she reminds me of has not.

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