Exiled in Spain during Chile's Pinochet years, Neruda's close friend and political associate Teitelboim wrote this first major biography of the Chilean poet. Teitelboim's approach is sound on the whole. Neruda, who began to write poetry at eight and never stopped, was a force of nature, his genius an insoluble riddle. Teitelboim quotes generously from the poems and seeks their immediate source in the details of Chilean politics and Neruda's love life. He doesn't bludgeon or needle the work with textual, Freudian, or any other form of cant- ridden analysis. On the other hand, he's so close to his subject he can trip over its feet. Evoking the Chilean landscape, he sometimes writes a pale pastiche of the master. Describing the Bohemian intellectual scene of Santiago circa 1920, he drops names so freely an American reader may be bewildered. In his brief, episodic chapters, though, the savory anecdotes multiply. Neruda had a great appetite for love and friendship and the improvised life. Tales of his early stint as honorary Chilean consul in Rangoon, his years in Madrid with Garc°a Lorca, are delightful and heart-rending. If only the tone weren't so relentlessly post-Stalinist p.c. Lorca's being gay is not mentioned. Neither are the battles between anarchists and communists in the Spanish Civil War, or between Stalinists and the Trotsky circle in Mexico in the 40's. Neruda's political involvement had its ironies, not hinted at here. The result is a flattening of his complex, contradictory character in the later chapters. What does come through is the long history of American meddling in Chile, going back to the 40's. Still, Teitelboim's take on Neruda, his friend of 40 years, is unique. He knew the poet's mistress/muses when they were young and fresh. He knows them now, old, frail, and querulous. Shifting readily between vibrant past and faded present, he has written a work of elegiac charm, one that reads like a novel whose real subject, as in Neruda's beloved Proust, is the ravages wrought by passing Time.