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Neruda: A Passion for Life

Read­ing a biog­ra­phy is always an unusu­al expe­ri­ence; to think that a per­son­’s entire life can be churned into a dense col­lec­tion of words and fold­ed between two pieces of cheap paper, even a life as event­ful and dra­mat­ic as Pablo Neru­da’s. It is an expe­ri­ence that is both hum­bling and unnerv­ing, for it makes one reflect on one’s own life.

Pablo Neru­da was born Ricar­do Eliecer Nef­talí Reyes Basalto in Par­ral Chile, where “the vines curled their green head of hair.” His moth­er died two months after his birth; he grew up with his grand­par­ents; then lived with his step­moth­er; went to San­ti­a­go for col­lege; joined the gov­ern­ment so he could trav­el; trav­eled to Ran­goon in Bur­ma; then India, before remov­ing to Spain where he helped refugees escape to Chile from Fran­co’s fas­cist regime dur­ing the Span­ish civ­il war; went back to Chile; was exiled for his com­mu­nist ideals poems and writ­ing; lived as a fugi­tive and returned to Chile a hero; died in Chile because of can­cer, dur­ing a U.S. spon­sored mil­i­tary coup that end­ed up tak­ing thou­sands of inno­cent lives and placed a dic­ta­tor in office that was two rule Chile for over a decade.

Through his life, Neru­da taught me what being an artist means:

  • The qual­i­ty and tex­ture of his work was per­pet­u­al­ly chang­ing. He kept play­ing and exper­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent styles, tech­niques, and ideas, mak­ing the entire body of his work rather uneven. Crit­ics hat­ed this, but Neru­da did­n’t care. Sepul­ve­da, the best-sell­ing Chilean nov­el­ist even wrote:

    ” I share Borges view of Neru­da that he was uneven. All poets are uneven, of course, but Neru­da’s poet­ry under­went some pecu­liar leaps. How could the same man write both “El hon­dero entu­si­as­ta” and the “Odas elementales?”

    To me, this will­ing­ness to exper­i­ment and con­tra­dict him­self is pre­cise­ly the rea­son Neru­da’s work is so refresh­ing. He was­n’t afraid to dis­prove or ques­tion him­self ide­o­log­i­cal­ly or styl­is­ti­cal­ly, despite his fame. His con­stant play and exper­i­ment are pre­cise­ly what enabled him to go from writ­ing poems of love to start­ing a revolution.

This is the poet­ry we should be after, worn away, as if by acid, by the labour of hands, impreg­nat­ed with sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and of urine, splashed by the vari­ety of what we do, legal­ly or ille­gal­ly. A poet­ry as impure as old clothes, as a body, with its food stains and its shame, with wrin­kles, obser­va­tions, dreams, wake­ful­ness, prophe­cies, dec­la­ra­tions of love and hate, stu­pidi­ties, shocks, idylls, polit­i­cal beliefs…“1

  • He was poor for the major­i­ty of his life, even when he became a famous and suc­cess­ful poet. The neces­si­ty of living–paying bills, rent­ing an apartment–that was paid for by his “day job” as a sen­a­tor. A posi­tion he hat­ed for the major­i­ty of his life. But he did­n’t let the mun­dane reg­u­lar­i­ty of dai­ly life get to his cre­ative spir­it. He con­tin­ued to write, exper­i­ment and read every day just to keep his soul nour­ished. Even when he was a fugi­tive, he con­tin­ued to write in dark clos­ets and unlit spaces, let­ting his words con­vey the light.
  • He stood up for what he believed in, even when it meant that he would lose his job and free­dom. He died a dis­il­lu­sioned man; as a com­mu­nist, he was shocked when he learned about Stal­in’s crimes and hav­ing seen the effects of the US inva­sion of Latin coun­tries and Viet­nam (direct­ly or through proxy) made him wary of cap­i­tal­ism. Despite the dis­il­lu­sion­ment from pol­i­tics, he kept fight­ing for the rights of every­day work­ers till his dying breath. Even when it meant going to jail or fac­ing tor­ture. Neru­da nev­er sac­ri­ficed his ideals.
  • Even at the low­est points of his life, he nev­er lost his pas­sion for liv­ing. He kept throw­ing par­ties and meet­ing with friends, even when he was in dan­ger of being thrown in prison He did­n’t let fear con­quest his life or art.
  • He had an exten­sive library col­lec­tion and loved to read. But he was­n’t read­ing books about books; he was read­ing books that inspired him. On a cer­e­mo­ny at the Uni­ver­si­dad de Chile on 20 June Neru­da exclaimed: ‘I’m not a thinker, and these col­lect­ed books are more rev­er­en­tial than investigative.”
  • He learned ear­ly on in his life to look at the world through sym­bols. Grow­ing up in a pio­neer town where no one spoke the same lan­guage, the shops around him were strewn with sym­bols instead of words. So instead of see­ing J.B Hard­ware com­pa­ny, you would see a giant ham­mer; a cob­bler’s shop would be rep­re­sent­ed with a shoe; and so on. The world around him was all rep­re­sent­ed in sym­bols rather than words, much like his poetry.
  • He nev­er lost his sense of play­ful­ness and humor. As he was flee­ing Chile on a horse, cross­ing the moun­tains while every cop in the coun­try was look­ing for him, he saw a tree and was inspired to write a note to his hunter:

    How good the air smells
    In the Lilphela Pass
    Because the shit has not yet arrived
    From trai­tor con­soles Videle’s ass.”

  • He loved writ­ing and cre­at­ing art for art’s sake. Of course, he enjoyed fame and lav­ished in it; but at the begin­ning of his writer’s life, he had to fight his father and alien­ate him­self from his fam­i­ly to pur­sue art. Lat­er on, peo­ple tried to box him as a “love” poet or a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” poet, but he still kept evolv­ing and chang­ing; even when crit­ics wrote about how ter­ri­ble his work was. He kept his eyes on his writing.

Neru­da’s favorite col­or was green. He thought it was the col­or of hope and life. And so, he always wrote in green ink. His life, like the col­or green, has giv­en me hope. Hope that despite all the chal­lenges that life throws at us, we need to keep the child in our­selves alive and keep mov­ing for­ward, with courage and love.


  1. Cabal­lo Verde, Pablo Neruda 
Tagged: America · Art · Artist · Book Review · Chile · Green · Hope · Latin America · Love · Pablo Neruda · Poet · Poetry · Spanish · Temuco · writing
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