The Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, who lived between 1904 and 1973, is known to many readers as the inspiration for “Il Postino,” the 1994 film, based on a novel by Antonio Skármeta, that fictionalized a portion of Neruda’s political exile in Europe in 1950.
Neruda was a Chilean political figure as well, serving in several diplomatic posts for his country throughout much of his life. He was an ardent Communist, which complicated his life as Chile’s political pendulum swung back and forth. Neruda died shortly after Augusto Pinochet, with US support, staged a military coup against elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. In recent years, suspicions that Neruda had been poisoned in the wake of the coup prompted officials to exhume his body and test it for toxins. Forensic scientists found no compelling evidence of foul play regarding Neruda.
Neruda’s presence in “Il Postino,” as well as the bizarre speculation concerning his death, underscore the degree to which his life and work are shrouded in myth, especially in his native Chile, where his homes are venerated as shrines.
In his sweeping and exhaustively researched biography, Mark Eisner plumbs the man behind the legend, a task for which he’s well-suited. Eisner has spent the past two decades working on projects related to Neruda, including a documentary about the poet’s life and work. With such an extensive grounding, Eisner doesn’t so much document his subject as inhabit it. Although his fascination with the celebrated poet sometimes lapses into hagiography, he frankly chronicles Neruda’s dark side, including his rape of a servant.
As Eisner was writing "The Poet’s Calling," he couldn’t have known how Neruda’s sexual misconduct, which included a cruel criminal offense, would achieve heightened relevance in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Neruda’s actions invite the reader to revisit questions that rest at the heart of recent revelations about various figures in the film and television industry who have been accused of abusive behavior. To what degree can we separate a person’s work from his morality? Is it possible to admire the work while abhorring the deeply flawed creator behind it?
That dilemma looms over the legacy of Neruda, who wasn’t the benign old man of letters depicted in “Il Postino.” In the most disturbing passage of Eisner’s book, he details Neruda’s time as a diplomat in Ceylon, where he raped a woman deemed an “untouchable” by the caste system. She was responsible for cleaning out his latrine, and it’s obvious from his own account of the incident that Neruda felt he could commit the assault without legal consequences because the woman’s social status made it impossible for her to hold him accountable.
“In his and others’ writings, there is no evidence that Neruda ever committed another assault of this nature, but ... he describes his exercise of power and privilege with little shame,” Eisner tells readers. Eisner documents other aspects of Neruda’s relationship with women that point to a pattern of misogyny.
Neruda’s political views present another moral quagmire. His embrace of communism wasn’t unusual among intellectuals coming of age in the first half of the 20th century, and it had particular currency among Latin American revolutionaries reacting to oppressive right-wing regimes. Even so, Neruda could be almost willfully blind to the depravities unleashed by Joseph Stalin, publishing a fawning poem about the Kremlin leader after he died. As Eisner points out, between 1936 and 1938, Stalin “had arrested over a million of his own party members in his Great Purge. At least 600,000 were killed, many from torture.... Estimates range from five to fifty million deaths caused by the famine that resulted from Stalin’s ill-conceived policies.” Yet Neruda lionized Stalin effusively, hailing him as “the noon, the maturity of man and the peoples.”
Neruda’s poems could be memorably sensual, particularly in “Odes to Common Things,” a series of compositions in which seemingly prosaic household items such as scissors and soap, a table, chair or pair of socks achieve, through the power of language, a life of their own. Here, in a stanza from “Ode to the Dictionary,” Neruda reflects on the presence of a venerable volume in his childhood:
Ancient and weighty, in its worn
held its tongue,
refusing to reveal its secrets.
Neruda’s odes to his “common things” reflected an abiding fascination with personal possessions, a passion expressed in his flair for kitsch. “In a Neruda house,” writer Joyce Maynard observed, “you may find a taxidermied flamingo overhead, or a life-size bronze horse, or a 50-times-larger-than-life-size man’s shoe.”
Perhaps the governing contradiction of Neruda’s life was his tendency to see humanity in objects while too often objectifying humans. Eisner earnestly tries to give his subject the benefit of the doubt, and there are times when he indulges gushing elegy, as when he writes that Neruda is “one great body, still, in all its fullness, stretching across the world, to all its famous and hidden corners.”
Such flattering assessments aside, one finishes "The Poet’s Calling" with a sense that it was better to read Pablo Neruda than to be around him.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.