Photo from Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional.
When poet Pablo Neruda fled his native Chile, over the Andes and into Argentina — “[a] trip I have taken through regions that are distant and antipodean,” he later reminisced — he had nearly died before he made it to the other side. He had been living underground for 14 months during President Videla’s crackdown on communism when, in 1948, a warrant was issued for his arrest. “There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions pressed forward on our tortuous way, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay.” Buried in his backpack was the manuscript for his epic poem, Canto General.
He was born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, just south of Santiago, at the dawn of the 20th century, but later adopted the pseudonym Pablo Neruda (after Czech poet Jan Neruda) around the same time his erotic Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair was published. He was 16. But although his journalism, poetry and prose culled him international recognition, the poet was penniless, and, desperate, he took up posts as honorary consul in Burma, Sri Lanka and Singapore, transforming into a diplomat almost by accident – a title he would carry for most of his life.
Neruda radicalized while working in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, after friend and poet García Lorca was executed by Franco’s government. His outspoken political beliefs lost him his gubernatorial post and he was instead sent to France, and later, Mexico, before returning to Chile in 1943, where he was elected senator. Anti-communist Videla won presidency just three years later, and Neruda was driven into exile, through the Lilpela Pass, over the Andes, and into Argentina, in 1949.
Over the course of his three years in exile, Neruda traveled to China, India, France and Mexico, but the process of displacement lent a damp, heavy weight to his travels. Where in the past he’d been able to wander about unfettered, this tenure was marked by his inability to return home, from being barred entrance into the Chile he had written about – or, more appropriately, to – in Canto General, a 15,000-line historical, geographical and ethnographic love poem for Latin America.
Upon acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, he remarked on his attitude toward his home country and toward humanity at large:
“I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of its geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope.”