Twenty-two years ago, the hit film Il Postino ignited something of a Pablo Neruda craze in the U.S., leading to a massive spike in sales of the great Chilean poet’s early soft-surrealist masterpiece, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. The book was stocked, in petite dimensions, for easy picking at the cash registers of Borders and Barnes and Noble, and it can still sometimes be found in such pride of place at the latter, near Valentine’s Day, right next to the espresso-flavored chocolate bits and the moleskin pocket calendars.
A much publicized release this year by the venerable Copper Canyon Press of the Lost Poems of Pablo Neruda (gathering mostly minor works, if not first-takes, and rendered by Forrest Gander, one of this country’s finest poetry translators) rides the momentum of the Neruda sub-cult appeal – one that probably exceeds, in terms of “household name recognition,” that of any U.S. poet except Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, or Dylan. This extraordinary prominence for a non-English language poet is now sure to expand with the recently released, critically acclaimed film Neruda, directed by Pablo Larraín, and starring Gael García Bernal.
But riding shotgun to this rare poetic craze, there is a big Pablo Neruda problem, too, even though few of his avid readers in the United States know much about it. And for that reason, Dispatches believes it’s appropriate to share the article below, in name of a more expansive, objective, and useful understanding of the poet’s person and past than the much-sanitized and romanticized image so blithely projected – and shrewdly marketed — over the past many years.
The specific issue at hand is that of a possible rape. The reader will find a complete first-hand testimony concerning its event below. Remarkably, that testimony has been sitting in Neruda’s self-glorifying, best-selling memoir, I Confess I Have Lived, for decades, without even being noticed—an index, perhaps, not so much of how greatly moral attitudes about sexual assault have changed, as of the extent to which Neruda’s mythical status has long protected him from ethical scrutiny by his progressive fan base.
The passage is contained inside the article by Vanessa Vargas Rojas we present below, published last year in Colombia. There has been much more posted about the matter since, mainly in Latin America, including this poster from Chile, which has gone fairly viral in Spanish-language cultural circles https://globalvoices.org/2015/10/05/portrait-of-nobel-literary-prize-winner-pablo-neruda-sparks-debate-about-rape-culture-in-chile/ .
We leave it for the reader to decide if the stunning passage cited by Vargas Rojas (how could it have remained virtually unnoticed for so long?) amounts to a “confession” by Neruda – albeit one apparently not regretted by him – of a rape committed against a “low-caste” and defenseless woman, who would have had little choice – as the latrine cleaner of a privileged and powerful man – to submit to the poet-diplomat’s demand. There is some element of ambiguity to the description, some might say, perhaps enough to cause us to reserve judgment. Others will find – as many have already – the implication to be sufficiently clear. Our Letters page, as always, is open to anyone wishing to share opinion.
There is much more to say about Pablo Neruda, a writer and political figure held in heroic, nearly uncritical esteem by poets of the United States, themselves – people who should by now really know better, especially those of the Left. In particular, there is much more to tackle in regards his direct, knowingly complicit ties with one of the most murderous regimes in human history. We have touched on some of those complicities previously at Dispatches: http://dispatchespoetry.com/articles/documents/2016/03/31
And speaking of complicity, in regards our immediate field, it should be said that influential literary venues in the U.S. have consistently participated in the airbrushing of the poet’s figure: The Poetry Foundation, New Directions, the Paris Review, or the online LitHub, just for instance, have been faithful to a fault in fostering an image of Neruda as a kind of progressive poetic saint. The new Lost Poems collection, quite likely to make more money for its publisher than all of its previous poetry titles put together, does the hagiographic same. It’s time that such partial perspective (in both senses of the phrase) start to take on a more honest and multidimensional consideration.
None of this, we want to make clear, is a judgment on Neruda’s poetic work. He is, without question, a monumental figure, even though as some would strongly argue, much of his poetic output (especially that which is most popular in English translation!) represents a backward looking, Romantic figuration that runs counter to the harder-edged linguistic and conceptual tenor of the Spanish-language vanguardia that emerged in the 1920s. This raises the question studiously ignored by North Americans of his role as acceptable showcase Communist occupying center stage and diverting North Americans’ limited attention away from more progressive and radical writers. Many serious readers would argue that Neruda can’t hold a candle to the accomplishments of the more aesthetically and politically radical César Vallejo – a poet whose work, in stupefying fact, Neruda once disparaged for its “incoherence” and “abstraction.”
Here is the article we now want to share.
– Kent Johnson
Revisiting a Dark Episode in the Life of Pablo Neruda
Forty-two years since the death of Pablo Neruda, revisiting the interpretation of an obscure episode the poet described in his book of memoirs, “I Confess That I Have Lived,” in which he himself is the author of a rape.
The figure of the poet Pablo Neruda has never been free from controversy. Nobel prizewinner for literature in 1971 and communist militant, he returned to public discussion over the last few days when his name came under consideration to rebaptize what is now known as Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport.
Wednesday 23 September marked the anniversary of the esteemed poet’s death, which has become a sort of emblem of cultural exportation in Chile. However, through decades of flowers and recognitions, few have commented about the shadows that have marked Neruda’s life.
Recently, a series of articles and columns have discussed one of the darker, more obscure episodes recognized by the poet himself, which he narrated in his style in the book “I Confess That I Have Lived” (1974), a publication extensively gathering his memoirs.
The book’s extract contextualizes the poet in the summer of 1929, when Neruda was named consul of Ceylon at 25 years of age and lived in a bungalow in Wellawatha, in Colombo. In his refuge, he describes how he defecated in a semi-hidden wooden box that appeared clean every morning, obliging him to wake at dawn to discover the mystery and determine what was literally an obscure act.
THE RAPE: THE COMPLETE EXTRACT
“One morning, I woke earlier than is my custom. I hid in the shadows to watch who passed by. From the back of the house, like a dark statue that walked, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen in Ceylon entered, Tamil race, Pariah caste. She wore a red and gold sari of the cheapest cloth. On her unshod feet were heavy anklets. On each side of her nose shone two tiny red points. They were probably glass, but on her they looked like rubies.
“She solemnly approached the toilet without giving me the slightest look, without acknowledging my existence, and disappeared with the sordid receptacle on her head, retreating with her goddess steps. She was so beautiful that despite her humble job, she left me disturbed. As if a wild animal had come out from the jungle, belonging to another existence, a separate world. I called to her with no result.
“I then would leave some gift on her path, some silk or fruit. She would pass by without hearing or looking. Her dark beauty turned that miserable trip into the obligatory ceremony of an indifferent queen.
“One morning, I decided to go for all, and grabbed her by the wrist and looked her in the face. There was no language I could speak to her. She allowed herself to be led by me smilelessly and soon was naked upon my bed. Her extremely slender waist, full hips, the overflowing cups of her breasts, made her exactly like the thousands year old sculptures in the south of India. The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes open throughout, unmoved. She was right to regard me with contempt. The experience was not repeated.” (Translation by DJ)
NERUDA CONTINUES FREE FROM SIN
From the point of view of journalist Carla Moreno Saldías, in her column “I Confess That I Have Raped”, this chapter in Neruda’s life has remained outside of public debate because, in reality, it does not seem to be a subject that could affect his image.
“Neither when the event occurred, nor when the book was published, nor now. Society purports to condemn things like rape and femicide, but in reality it does not. Men are taught to experience their sexuality objectivizing women, and as women we are taught to be good objects. Rape and femicide are nothing more than the “extreme” of this logic. A man who rapes is simply a macho guy who ‘went too far’ in carrying out his duties as a man. The same for a man who kills his wife,” she argues.
Converted into a cultural reference for Chile to the rest of the world, the figure of the poet has left no place for this type of questioning of episodes in his life, in stark contrast to what has occurred with other great Chilean artists like Violeta Parra or Gabriela Mistral, who are constantly criticised with respect to their relationships with motherhood and sexuality.
For Moreno, this scenario can be explained because “Neruda was everything that a man was expected to be. He had it all: power, money, women, fame, awards. On the contrary Parra or Mistral did everything opposite to what was expected of a woman. Gabriela was a bull dyke, what could be worse than that. Even today that’s the worst”. What is certain is that the deed seems to have disappeared from Neruda’s memoirs and been overlooked by his vast opus’s literary critics and experts, who perhaps considered it as simply another expression of the poet’s intense pen. For others, however, this type of fact, as yet absent from his official biography, reveals the paucities of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
– Translated by Danica Jorden. Danica Jorden is a writer and translator of Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. firstname.lastname@example.org