Saturday Magazine

Remembering Pablo Neruda on his 30th Death Anniversary
Placating the anger of this world

by Malinda Seneviratne

September 23, 2003 was the thirtieth death anniversary of Pablo Neruda. I was but a child when Neruda died, ironically, a few days after the US-sponsored military coup ousted from power Salvador Allendeís democratically elected Communist Party and helped install a military dictatorship led by Pinochet. I must have been in my teens when I first heard the name. Then came youth, idealism and the poetry of revolt. With it, came Neruda, among others of course. Yes, Neruda the poet, the revolutionary, the inspirer of dreams and dreamer of rebellion, although thirty years dead, is still alive.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez once remarked that Neruda was like a King Midas of literature; all that he touched turned into poetry. He was not perfect, of course. Marquez realized this. Neruda uncritically celebrated the Soviet Union. Perhaps it was out of sympathy for the enemy of oneís principal enemy, Uncle Sam. Perhaps not. There were other "problems" with his poetry. It is claimed that he was a racist. But, as Marquez points out, "even when his poetry got him into trouble on account of its politics, it was still very good poetry". To me, it is much more simple. His imperfections are nothing compared to those of his critics.

The first collection of his poetry that I read was "Residence on Earth". I remember browsing through it in a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Interestingly, it happened to be a twenty third of September. I cannot remember the year, but I recall being numbed by the coincidence. The whole of Latin America came to me like a tremendous ocean. I could not understand then and even now, how it was that my puny heart could accommodate that corpus, most tragic and so very heroic. And so tender too. That was the kind of power he worked into his verse.

He spoke of his continent, South America, and he was at once speaking of the vast continents of discontent, disconnected by seas and mountains and connected by sorrows and celebrations. He spoke of the generals, dictators and other tyrants and tyrannies, he named names. And he was at once speaking of personalities closer home who provoked anger. He spoke of heroes and heroics, and one recognized oneís closest friends. He spoke of love and lovers, and one could not help smiling.

Strangely, it is a comment he once made and not a line from some poem, that came to my mind when I recalled the man today. "Ah! If only one could placate the anger of the world with a drop of poetry or love! But that requires strength and a resolute heart". Neruda, I have argued always, made the unwilling heart willing and the willing heart resolute with his love and his poetry.

A few years back I saw a beautiful Italian film based on Nerudaís encounter with a simple fisherman and his particular anxieties in a village in Italy. The title of the film was "Il Postino" or "The Postman". In the film, the postman in the small fishing village in Italy where Neruda was spending his exile insisted on referring to the man as "The poet of love" even though his boss, the postmaster and member of the Communist Party, called him "The poet of the people". I thought then that he was both. Today, I err towards "love".

I remember a cynical friend telling me a long time ago, "when you are twenty, if you are not a socialist, you donít have a heart; if you are still a socialist at thirty, you donít have a head." When I turned thirty, I wrote a poem, which is lost among academic papers, love letters and other accumulations characteristic of that age. I only remember the last line: "At thirty, I am proud to say, ĎI have my heartí."

Looking back, I believe it is the poetry of revolution that gave me the clearest arguments for the worth of the collective, the notion of solidarity and a commitment to utopias that transcends the personal and the temporal framework of "lifetimes". It was certainly not the texts of Marx. The heart, I have learnt, is best left untheorized. Its nurturing requires no "classes", for codification is antithetical to its functioning. And what nurturing did occur, happened thanks to the explosive and yet tender outpouring of sensibilities from the pens of rare individuals like Neruda.

No theoretical argument, however air-tight it appears to be, however robust in its treatment of history, historicity, modes of production, production relations, habitus and what-not, can sustain commitment to an idea, a vision, a different version of reality and a utopia, as does a word that inspires in a million and one ways. "Socialism works!" was soon replaced by "It failed!" Marx, for some, is, was and will always be, strangely, "god". That god died. The "collective" in the full sense of the word survives his passing. Political theory teaches the mind: "time is long". Poetry teaches the heart what the ancients always knew: "time is longer than life". Political theory may teach us to survive. Poetry teaches us to live.

And this is why, tonight, I address Pablo Neruda thus: "Grandfather of all the continents, resident of all our earths, the moon over your Chile, friend to the fighter, carrier of love letters across continents, sweetheart of resolve, rebellion and a million other delights, I salute you tonight from a million light years away. And at your feet."