An empathetic biography of the Chilean Nobel Prize winner.
For more than 20 years, Eisner (The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, 2004) has steeped himself in the life and works of Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), resulting in a newly translated edition of his poetry, a documentary film, and this thoroughly researched, respectful, and evenhanded biography. Born Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the poet began to use his pen name in 1920 in order to hide his publications from his father, who vehemently disapproved of his son’s vocation. Fame came early: by the time he was 19, “such was his stature,” Eisner writes, “that he had disciples who would dress like him, copy his metaphors, and…follow him around the city.” Neruda’s reputation and popularity grew with his prolific output, and he became “the public poet, a people’s poet.” As a young man, though, needing to earn more than poetry could provide, he joined the Chilean diplomatic corps, taking assignments in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Buenos Aires, and Spain. His outspoken political liberalism was contradicted by a “pattern of disturbing misogynistic behavior” and sense of entitlement and superiority. In his memoirs, for example, he admits to raping a Tamil servant, whom he perceived “as inhuman, a piece of stone.” Sexually, “he was comfortable with the role of aggressor—even predator,” and he often juggled more than one lover at a time. Lauded for his humanitarian views, he nevertheless neglected his first wife and their daughter, who was born with a birth defect and died at the age of 8. As a senator representing the Communist Party and champion of Stalin, Neruda finally “saw the errors of Stalinism and was emboldened enough to reject them.” Some detractors criticized him as a “Champagne Communist,” who enjoyed luxury; admirers praised his fervent opposition to Franco. Beginning in 1949, when Neruda denounced Chile’s president for his oppression of workers, he was forced into hiding and, finally, exile.
Perceptive readings of Neruda’s poems are contextualized by an absorbing historical, cultural, and political chronology.