On September 11, 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende was overthrown through a CIA backed coup, that resulted in the seizure of power by General Augusto Pinochet. The removal of Allende satisfied the Nixon Administration which had seen the democratic election of Allende as a threat to the Western Hemisphere. To Washington, it was inconceivable to think that the events in Cuba were spreading across Latin America. The consensus was clear, Allende had to be removed. McCarthyism and the red scare led to anyone having left-leaning political views to be branded as a communist determined to see the fall of Capitalism. Among Allende’s supporters was Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda (1904-193). Twelve days after Allende’s removal and death, Neruda died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was sixty-nine years old. Forty-five years later, his poetry is still beloved in Chile and other parts of the world. And he is recognized as being one of the world’s greatest poets. I had heard of Neruda before and have been fortunate enough to visit Chile. It is a unique country and there is something special about it which is not easy to put into words. Chile truly is a place you have to see in person, to experience Chilean culture and travel through Patagonia. I admit that I did not know much about Neruda’s life, so when I saw this biography in my recommendation list, I did not hesitate to buy it and start reading nearly instantly. And what I have learned is more than I could have ever imagined.
Mark Eisner has researched Neruda’s life and has compiled a biography that is nothing short of outstanding. Surely, Neruda took some things with him to the grave as all great figures do. But his large volume of work, speeches and other writings have survived, and they would all help Eisner in what was a monumental task. Neruda’s story begins in 1904, an era remotely differently from the era in which we currently live. Eisner has recreated early 1900s Chile and first tells us the story of Neruda’s parents. His father, José del Carmen Reyes Morales, is a central character in the story and the beginning of the book focuses on his life before Neruda enters the picture. On July 12, 1904, the story changed for good, when his wife Rosa gave birth to a happy baby boy, Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, the future Pablo Neruda. The young child enters a world that is marred by affairs, illegitimate children, strict social class and backbreaking work on the railroad which in some cases proved to be deadly. Neruda would inherit some of his father’s nefarious traits and the would cause him consternation and scandal in his own life. And through his poetry, he allowed the world to read his emotions. But what many did not know then and may not know now, is that there was also a very dark side to the famed poet.
Eisner does not shy away from Neruda’s failings and when necessary, uses Neruda’s own words to drive home the point. As I read the book, there were some points at which I shook my head in both shock and disgust. In fact, there are several parts of the book that may prove to be upsetting to female readers. Incredibly, Neruda was able to compartmentalize his life and the ease in which he discarded those around him was quite frankly, disturbing. To the public, he was the rising poet and Eisner follows his developing career which threatened to place him in poverty. But through a series of events, blessed with luck, Neruda persevered and went on to create poetry that has changed the lives of millions of people. But what Eisner also shows, is the two sides of Neruda which were unable to be reconciled and a poet struggling with his own happiness while at the same time, oblivious to the errors of his ways.
Neruda was an outspoken leftist and his affinity for the Soviet Union and the communist system of government, earned him many enemies as well. The author explores this part of Neruda’s life and the fear of communism that spread across several continents. His devotion to communism following his admission into the Chilean Communist Party, would prove to be a thorn in his side until his final day. But for Neruda, staying in one place for long was never an option and this story is filled with travel around the world as Neruda works and creates in several countries. Through Eisner’s words, we follow Pablo and his many love interests across the globe as he travels to and from Chile both as foreign agent and fugitive. At times, it seemed as if his life was straight out of a Hollywood film. There is no let up and Pablo has forced Eisner to move full speed ahead. Once I started the book, it became increasingly difficult to set it aside for a later time in the day. I was glued to the pages, curious to see where Neruda ends up next and who makes an appearance in his life and who makes their exit. To say his life was unorthodox would be an understatement.
At over six-hundred pages, the book is not exactly a short read but the pace of the story will result in readers forgetting about the length completely. The story is engaging and Neruda was quite the character. But he possessed a natural gift and Eisner’s inclusion of his poems, gives the book an added air of authenticity to it. In those sections, he turns the floor over to Pablo who never failed to deliver.
Having completed the book, I have mixed feelings about Neruda. But that is a credit to the author’s talent. Eisner does not show the Neruda people want to see, he shows us the Neruda that we need to see in order to come to our own conclusions. A brilliant and talented poet was also at times a cold-blooded monster. He battled loneliness but had fans worldwide. Some would call him a walking contradiction and others might simply accept the label of eccentric. Regardless off the adjective, Neruda did not fit perfectly into any mold and Eisner has captured his complex character which at times did not function based on reason or logic. It is a great story of a unique person, who never faced his own demons but was able to capture the hearts and emotions of millions of people facing their demons. In death, he became a legend of nearly God-like status and remains a cultural icon in Chile. He is to Chile what Jorge Luis Borges is to Argentina. Those looking for a good biography of Pablo Neruda, will be more than satisfied with this gem by Mark Eisner.