Context — November 6, 2015, 5:44 pm

The Body Politic

The battle over Pablo Neruda’s corpse.

Published in the January 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Body Politic” examines the circumstances of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s death, in 1973. The story is free to read in full through November 9. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant access to our entire 165-year archive.


From a Guardian report, published November 5, 2015, on the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Chile’s government has acknowledged that Nobel-prize winning poet Pablo Neruda might have been killed after the 1973 coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power.
     The interior ministry released a statement on Thursday amid press reports that Neruda might not have died of cancer as previously believed.
     The statement acknowledged a ministry document dated March of this year, which was published by the newspaper El Pais in Spain.
     “It’s clearly possible and highly probable that a third party” was responsible for Neruda’s death, the document said.

In 1962 the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra described the work of his friend and rival Pablo Neruda with the following formulation:

In general terms we could say that the process of development of our poet consists of:

I. A fall from the leaning tower of consciousness to the abyss of the chaotic and nebulous subconscious.
II. A somewhat extended stay in that asphyxiating atmosphere.
III. A triumphant return to reality after a bloody fight.

He repeated this assessment in further terms:

Neruda’s evolution is also susceptible to the following equivalent formulation:
Conflict, Rupture, Reconciliation
Dusk, Night, Dawn
Clash, Retreat, Victorious Advance
Autumn, Winter, Spring-Summer
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

Parra was talking about Neruda’s poetry. A half-century later, the formulation also applies to the passage of Neruda’s corpse through space and time. One dialectic maps very neatly onto the other: the three burials of Pablo Neruda; the conflict, rupture, and reconciliation of Chile; the dusk, night, and dawn of the Chilean left. In September 1973, in the turbulent aftermath of the military coup that initiated the long dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Neruda died and was hastily interred in the borrowed mausoleum of a family friend. In 1974, as Pinochet consolidated power, Neruda’s remains were moved to an unexceptional niche tomb in another part of Santiago’s General Cemetery, where they stayed for the duration of the long dictatorship. In 1992, four years after the referendum that signaled the end of Pinochet’s presidency, the poet finally received the burial he’d wished for, facing the sea at his home in Isla Negra.

Until 2013, the uncanny coincidence in the timing of Neruda’s death and the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship produced a sentimental canard: although the poet officially died of prostate cancer twelve days after the coup, it became common in Chile to lament, with a sigh, that the Communist poet had died of “a broken heart.” The explanation sufficed for almost forty years. Then, in 2011, Neruda’s former chauffeur alleged that the poet had not died of prostate cancer, or of a broken heart, but had been poisoned in the early days of the coup by an agent of Pinochet’s regime in Santiago’s Santa Maria medical clinic. Once again, the poet’s surviving relatives donned their dark suits, the leadership of Chile’s Communist Party prepared statements, and the television satellite trucks convened.

Read the full story here.

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More from Emily Witt:

From the April 2016 issue

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From the January 2015 issue

The Body Politic

The battle over Pablo Neruda’s corpse

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

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