Letter from Chile — From the January 2015 issue

The Body Politic

The battle over Pablo Neruda’s corpse

We were all there for Pablo Neruda, but nobody seemed to like Pablo Neruda. The members of the Chilean media had assembled on a rock formation that rose up from the beach, a formation that now bristled with tripods like a sea urchin, a dozen lenses trained on the darkened windows of Neruda’s hillside home. Nothing was happening there; the poet lay still in his grave.

“He wrote all these love poems, but he was a son of a bitch,” said a reporter from a wire service. She poured Nescafé from a thermos into a styrofoam cup and recited a brief history of the poet’s amorous cruelty. She wondered about Neruda’s first divorce, a hasty arrangement in Mexico, possibly unofficial. Was Neruda a bigamist?

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

“Neruda was a plagiarist,” said another reporter. He picked the ham out of a ham sandwich, tossed the meat to a stray dog, and ate the bread. The reporter was a vegetarian. He cited the verse from “Poem 16” of Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair that Neruda lifted almost verbatim from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. This had generated some controversy in the 1930s. The reporter said that we should not be bothering with Neruda at all; the real story was the recent opening, down the coast, of a museum to honor another Chilean poet, Vicente Huidobro.

A more reverential scene played out on the beach underneath the rock. Youth representatives of the Provincial Orchestra of San Antonio had gathered below Neruda’s house to perform classical standards and Chilean folk songs. Candles flickered before a small shrine draped with the national flag. Tourists photographed a folklorist wearing a caftan. Dignitaries of the Communist Party wandered around, offering commentary for the video cameras. The boss of a local fishermen’s union recited Neruda’s “Ode to Conger-Eel Broth.”

On the hillside by the house, Neruda’s tomb had been shielded from view by a white sheet. The press attempted to circumvent this primitive barrier — climbing the fence, aiming telephoto lenses from the balconies of the home next door, deploying an insectoid remote-controlled camera helicopter that hovered in the sky.

At nine-fifteen in the morning, the orchestra put their instruments in their cases. Up at the tomb, Neruda’s family, along with several political eminences, filed behind the white sheet for a brief ceremony. For twenty minutes, all was quiet. By putting my eye to a hole in the fence and peering upward at a gap in the curtain, I could see workers in white lab coats, gas masks, gloves, and surgical caps. For the third time in forty years, Pablo Neruda was being unearthed.

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’s first book, Future Sex, is forthcoming from Faber and Faber.

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April 2019

Works of Mercy

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