Friday, June 03, 2011

Chile: A Dead Poet's Society?

"I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion."
Pablo Neruda

The past, they say, dies hard.

And so did poets, musicians, and other dreamers who, decades ago, tried to make Chile a more fair and just society.

You don't read about these things in the United States, which is why highwayscribery's sleepy editorial board has decided to apply the blog's efforts at informing the uninformed.

It was reported in the Spanish daily, "El Mundo," that a Chilean court has ordered an investigation into the death of Pablo Neruda, "The Poet of Love."

Neruda, (pictured at right) for those of you who did not see the Miramax production of "The Postman" (Il Postino), was a rock star poet whose work was known and beloved throughout the world in spite of the fact he was a dyed-in-the-wool communist.

Or because of it. Who knows?

The last of his kind, Neruda typified an early-to-mid-twentieth century intellectual who worked as hard generating beauty as he did justice.

We'll not engage a curricula vitae of his work in poetry and politics here. Suffice it to say, he served in the Chilean senate, ran for the presidency, and secured the Nobel Prize for Literature.

An important and worthwhile man who touched millions.

The poet died 12 days after a sanguinary general by the name of Augusto Pinochet led a Sept. 11, 1973, coup d'etat which overthrew Neruda's close friend, the left-wingy, but legally elected, Salvador Allende (at left).

The poet was ill with advanced prostate cancer at the time. He died, it was officially reported, after his condition was exacerbated by watching his friends being rounded up, tortured, and killed.

President Allende, for his part, was assumed to have shot himself before butchers in the Chilean military could lay their cold and grimy paws on him.

Enough of the dictator's acolytes are either dead or senile now to permit a thoroughgoing examination of these claims without Chile sliding back into the bloody horror of the 1970s and '80s.

To that end, Allende's body was recently exhumed for a forensic examination that will hopefully reveal the true nature of his death.

As for Neruda, his chauffeur, one Manuel Araya, recently told a story that conflicted with the official version peddled once the poet's voice was stilled.

Araya says that Neruda was fine, walking about, and ready to be flee the country in a plane Mexico's then-President Luis Echevarria had put at his disposal.

According to the driver, Neruda sent Araya and other helpers to get some personal belongings. When they returned, the poet was dead, with a big, red, bloody blotch, staining his stomach.

Araya insists the poet was injected with a lethal chemical cocktail by a doctor at the clinic in question.

Not surprisingly, nor out of character with the incoming regime's practices, Araya was then arrested and sent to the national stadium where so many unfortunate progressives met their terrible end.

Some Neruda "experts" have contradicted Araya's account, but it should be pointed out that he was present on the poet's last day, and the biographers and academics were not.

Similarly, it is worth noting that Neruda's death mirrored that of way too many others.

Long after the state was secured, Pinochet's thugs made a habit of showing up to the houses of journalists, writers, and opposition activists in white vans, 'round midnight, and pulling them from the frantic arms of loved ones.

These unfortunates invariably "disappeared," and their bodies are still being searched for to this day.

As for artists, the dictatorship reserved a special disdain and exquisite cruelty.

highwayscribery long ago drafted an intense post designed to memorialize the life and death of singer/songwriter/guitarist Victor Jara.

The post noted that, as the coup unfolded, "Jara was singled out for special treatment. The charming men who saved Chile from godless communism and agrarian reform took delight in breaking his hands and then daring him to sing without the benefit of a guitar.

Few witnesses survived the massacre, so we must trust or distrust the legend which has Jara singing the anthem of Allende’s Unity Party, and being joined in chorus by others awaiting their own turn to be broken on the wheel.

And then they killed him. A pop star."

Which is to say, Araya's story doesn't seem far off the mark at all. Certainly, a Neruda in exile would have been, to say the least, nettlesome for the U.S.-backed dictatorship.

And if it seems to some that this is dredging-up old stuff, chasing water under the bridge, remember that great poets -- like all people -- are entitled to their story.

If Neruda's tale ended with a clinically induced death at the hands of lowly men, then his life and its end take on a more tragic and ironic cast than currently understood.

And that is a swan's song that deserves singing.