An imaginary conversation with Pablo Neruda

Carlos Arredondo
Edinburgh, May-Sept. 2004

I have in front of me the poet, sitting in a wooden chair.
I dared to ask him:

How have you managed, poet,
to write so dreamily,
yet so precisely, about love,
about the history of Chile and of America,
about politics, about the tomato,
the onion, and the sock?
And more than that,
to nail, with words of fire, the history of Franco and of Spain?

Let me see. the man in the flat cap said.
Listen and do not answer me back. I will try
to summarise for you some aspects of my life.

When, as a young man, I watched the seas of Chile and later of Rangoon,
the virginal enchantment of women
inspired me to romantic adventures with no endings.
These courtships amongst the reeds,
the dark rain of Temuco
the humid scents of the earth
the aroma of my mother's cooking,
my father's work on the railroads,
all provided my delicate southern lungs,
with their first breath of pure air.

The astonishing landscapes of the Araucanía
the home of the Mapuche and their volcanoes
the Copihue flowers,
the black-necked swans,
the strawberries,
the insects
and the industrious axes of the German colonists.
When I arrived in Santiago I discovered
how unsophisticated,
rich and poor I was.

Thus, blow by blow,
I was surprised by life
And all the elements that compose it -
frontiers separating
the incomparable landscapes of our world,
from humanity
and its never-ending history.

The Fauna, the fantastic insects and animals,
the Flora with their spectacular colours and enchantments.
I started to discover who I was,
the value of my existence and that of others.
I felt in love with words and poetry -
and with its magic power over me
and over others.

I changed my ways - started to listen,
to see, to feel, to measure, to discover that poverty
was the lot of so many - and wealth and power
the privilege of a few.
And not because some God had decreed it, but because
a few men wished it so.

I decided I should be a communist and a senator of the Republic,
to add one more voice to the movement of the people.

To shatter the jaws of the Chilean oligarchy
was a crazy dream, the more so without a weapon,
and hiding timidly under a black cloak.

At first, I hid myself away to write poetry which could speak of
love, and later of my own experiences, and Chile's -
the pre-Colombian and the modern - so many, many things.
I wanted to turn everything into art,
in the manner of the great Mexican muralists.

In this way,
between poem and poem,
wine and bread,
obsessions and affections,
I was able to see clearly
a cord of flame
segregating, burning:
The city dwellers from the country people,
the peasants from the foremen,
the foremen from the landowners,
the bourgeoisie from the workers,
the Indian people from the Creoles,
the Creoles from the 'mestizos',
the foreign multinationals from the riches of the People.
Above all I was able to observe
the rope of steel
which separates the two laws -
the one for the rich, the other for the poor.

I also thought much about "Chilean Justice"
which walks on by when it sees that
you're only a "roto", an uneducated working class lad:
in the kingdom of Chilean law,
Injustice reigns.

Let me see, let me see.
The man in the flat cap said to me.
What else can I tell you?
I keep silence. I am in a reflective mood,
attracted by his soothing voice.
I was omnivorous.
I lived and observed in order to free myself from my unease as a poet.
I crystallised with my gaze the steam coming out from the kettle in order to see
everything with real enthusiasm,
not only the women that I attracted me, but to be attentive to everything in life :
organic and inorganic -
like the copper and saltpetre, so important
for my mournful land.

In this respect, I was always a country boy,
a lifelong collector of dreams and
an unconditional
devotee of simple structures,
fascinated by their mechanisms,
their boisterous, utilitarian appearances.

As material for poetry,
each thing:
small or great,
ugly or beautiful,
was valued by me without pre-judgement
by my prolific, provincial fantasy.

Thus it is that
with joy, with pride,
on these rough, artistic pathways,
my poetry did not disintegrate
but rather
began to soar high. Very high. Nevermore to descend from the heights.

Ah! Ah! Ah!
To do this, my poetry
had first to paint herself green and red, be schooled by me,
so I could love her as a respected friend.

Reading came easily to me, and it was Gabriela Mistral who
"launched me into that serious, terrifying vision of the Russian novelists"
I have to say that it was not difficult for me to free myself, as soon as I could,
from the chains of religion.
As a communist I said YES to my own independence.
It was my desire to understand rationally
under what light I would be walking the harsh roads of dawn
and in what twilights I would deposit
my tears of joy and rage.

The key was to find the words to express true feelings,
like the words spoken with conviction by honest trade unionists.
Oh! Luis Emilio Recabarren!
Those words, which one day were to be my testimony,
I had to search for with patient effort,
as one might even now still search for a Mapuche indian, an Easter Islander
or a native Aimara to become
President of Chile.

With my frail vocabulary, with what I had,
I began to thread words with words, make them to collide with each other,
fragmenting into syllables,
to justify ideas which would express it all:
What I felt about love
everything that I perceived of inequality and injustice
and, as best I could,
I joined and separated words, I took language apart,
to form new phrases and new messages
with love and imagination.

These creative impulses, at times solitary and whimsical,
cunningly began to organise themselves into green, literary
These paragraphs organised themselves into thousands
of separate, bustling pages
and, with the aid of commas, spaces and full stops, and some charismatic editors,
formed themselves into a powerful trade union of literary texts to
awaken the female heart and threaten the evil governments, imperialists, dictatorships and cringing traitors like Gonzalez Videla
and the Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean Army: Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

These books of prose and poetry,
were, I must say in all immodesty,
cunning ghosts which haunted the
exploiters of the working class, the peasants and the miners.

Persecuted both as communist and poet,
I vanished on horseback and by aeroplane - went into exile,
like thousands of Chilean men and women,
who had to find asylum when Pinochet rose to power.

Being both poet and officer of state,
I met so many lovely people: Chileans and foreigners.
People I loved with infinite respect.
I travelled throughout Chile and the world -
saw so many things, had so much pleasure, was so happy.

Oh, I forgot to say that: on the 3rd of September, 1939, several thousand Spanish refugees arrived in Chile thanks to me and the Chilean Government of the time.
I was happy then,
I am happy now.
How could I remain idle when Federico, Miguel, Rafael, sons of the Spanish Republic, were my brothers?

I will tell you something, my curious friend. As an act of self-criticism to allow me to sleep serenely with all my siren muses.

But first, allow me to stand up. I don't feel comfortable in this chair.

In front of me, and close to the spume of the cold sea of Isla Negra,
I have the Nobel Prize winner, cosily protected beneath his poncho,
quietly examining his collection of sea-shells and ships in bottles.

My poetical books of fantasy, with the passing of time,
made me, simultaneously, a hero and a villain:
Go and ask Pinochet
what his army dared to do in 1973
with so many sons and daughters of Chile
and with all my prized possessions.

For some time now I have been, with reason and without reason,
the target of so many attacks, because at some moments in my life,
I showed weakness: I have many weaknesses - literary and personal.
My poetry was not always good - many critics are right about that.
Part of my poetical landscape could be seen as a political platform - but why not?
And even then, my poetry triumphed, to the frustration of my political detractors and those intellectuals ignorant of the People's needs.

Pablo Neruda is not a single verse or even a long, elaborate poem.
Neither is he one book: It was all my books, all my efforts, which, one fine day in 1971, gained recognition, when a Swedish King handed me a much-coveted medal - and a nice sum of money! - for what I had achieved with the language of Cervantes. Honour for Latin America and for Spain.

I cannot pass over my literary disputes with other great poets of my country,
like Pablo de Rocka and Vicente Huidobro.
Perhaps they will never forgive my pedantry, my corpulence - or my ideas, so different from theirs.

There were occasions, it is only right to say, that I acted less than fairly towards some
of my three wives.

I betrayed Delia Del Carril on the Isle of Capri, when I burst like a bullet into the heart of Matilde Urrutia.
I was fortunate that Matilde accepted my love - and all my sins - for I loved her so much.
I had a handicapped daughter with my Dutch wife and, on one of the saddest days of my life,
was forced to abandon them to their own devices, somewhere on the frontier between Spain and France.
They were very hard days for Europe, for me, for Chile, for Spain and for humanity.

The word "Cacheton"
is a very Chilean expression which refers to people who brag
about the things that they have seen and the things that they possess.
I always was proud of what I achieved. I travelled extensively and got to know so much of the world.
I was a friend of the world.
I owned many things and for this I also stand accused.
But why should I not possess things?

For in this story which contains so much,
let us not forget the context in which my life unfolded,
a most unusual setting for the life of any Chilean, man or woman.

I think that we have to stop to reflect - to study the history of Chile and America
in order to evaluate, by the light of the moon,
what I was - and was not - within this story.
We also have to bear in mind
the things I was able to accomplish
with my poetry, my personality, my convictions, my ideas and, above all,
my love for Chile -
the Chile of the poor, of course.


© Carlos Arredondo 2007