Unravelling Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's mysterious death fifty years on

Did the Nobel laureate die a natural death or was it murder by poison due to his political leanings? New investigations point to the latter

Debarghya Sanyal New Delhi
Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (Photo: Wikipedia)

One of the most enduring modern writers of poetry also died under one of the most mysterious circumstances in modern Chilean history. On September 23, 1973, poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda breathed his last at the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago. He had been suffering from prostate cancer and the cause of death at that time was said to be heart collapse.
On Tuesday, nearly fifty years after Neruda passed away, his nephew Rodolfo Reyes told Spanish news agency EFE that the forensic tests had found that the poet had been poisoned, confirming decades of suspicions that he was murdered.

Neruda’s death was surrounded by mystery and suspicion at the very outset. Firstly, Neruda, who was a Leftist politician and diplomat, died less than two weeks after a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist government of the poet's friend and ally, President Salvador Allende. Moreover, in 2013, a Chilean judge ordered the exhumation of his remains after his former chauffeur, Manuel Araya, revealed that an agitated Neruda had called him hours before his death from the Santiago hospital where he was being treated, to say that he had been injected in the stomach while asleep.
Samples of Neruda’s remains were dispatched to forensic laboratories in four countries for analysis, and in 2015 the Chilean government said it was “highly probable that a third party” was responsible for his death.

Two years later, a team of international scientists said they were “100 per cent convinced” prostate cancer did not take the poet away.
Pinochet’s US-backed coup had reportedly devastated Neruda and led him to plan an exile in Mexico. His death came a day before his planned departure.

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Neruda has been described by his friend and another doyen of Latin American literature, Gabriel García Márquez, as “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language”--known as much for his poetry as his passionate leftist political views. Neruda was only 20 when he published ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’, the collection that made him famous. In his poetry, one can find lines like “If suddenly/you forget me/do not look for me/for I shall already have forgotten you” or “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees” — lines that morphed into romantic quotes in greeting cards and WhatsApp messages.
On the other hand, from Neruda’s mind, also came poems like “Ode to Tomatoes”, where he employed culinary metaphors to celebrate the resilience of his culture in the face of neo-imperialism and cultural appropriation.

Neruda’s passionate verses spared no one. He took on dictators and fascists, pesky neighbours and jilted lovers--and smelly socks to boot. He wrote about Chile, love, food, exile, class struggles, and the Spanish Civil War. The Canto General (General Song), an epic history of the Americas in verse, however, is often considered his greatest work.
However, over the years, Neruda’s reputation was tarnished by details of his personal life and question marks about the authenticity of his work, with several of the taints emerging from South Asia. For instance, “Poem 16” of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, is said to have been plagiarised from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Tumi Sandhyar Meghamala”. Neruda even confessed to “paraphrasing” Tagore’s poem.

Neruda was also a self-confessed rapist. In his posthumously published memoirs, Confieso Que He Vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived), Neruda admitted to having raped a Tamil woman who worked as his house help when he was posted to Ceylon as a young diplomat. He wrote, “The encounter was like that of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive… She was right to despise me,” he wrote.
Neruda has also been accused of abandoning his wife and specially-abled daughter.

These revelations, which resurfaced almost five years ago in tandem with the worldwide #MeToo movement, led human rights activists opposing an attempt to rename Santiago airport after the poet, and caused Chilean educational institutes to take his poems off their syllabi.

First Published: Feb 17 2023 | 5:18 PM IST

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