THE CHILEAN WRITER Pablo Neruda is "the greatest poet of the twentieth century--in any language." Or so said Gabriel García Márquez, in a line recently repeated by the Washington Post and several other American publications. Readers in the United States seem destined to have Neruda thrust upon them every few years, much as the cicadas return to whine and roar up and down the East Coast. The excuse this time is the centennial of Neruda's birth on July 12, 1904.
There is probably no more chance of halting this current binge of Neruda worship than there is of banishing the cicadas, but, still, the truth does need to be said: Pablo Neruda was a bad writer and a bad man. His main public is located not in the Spanish-speaking nations but in the Anglo-European countries, and his reputation derives almost entirely from the iconic place he once occupied in politics--which is to say, he's "the greatest poet of the twentieth century" because he was a Stalinist at exactly the right moment, and not because of his poetry, which is doggerel.
Yes, his work is still plagiarized by teenage boys in Latin America, who see his Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song and figure there is nothing wrong with borrowing from it--just as one poem in the book is itself stolen from Rabindranath Tagore--and presenting its overwrought lines to their girlfriends. But if those boys grow up to be serious writers, they leave Neruda behind.
Nonetheless, the American progressive literary caste adores, adulates, and idolizes Neruda. He found the exact measure of his mediocrity in Robert Bly, beater of drums and perpetrator of vexingly atrocious verse, as translator. I admit to feeling a little sympathy for the dead Neruda once: When I discovered that his political poem Que despierte el leñador, in which Lincoln represents the Marxist element in the history of the United States, had been done into English by Bly. Awarded a Soviet "International Peace Prize" for 1950--and there's a phrase that should provoke considerable thought--the text was published in America by the Communist party with its title stirringly rendered as Let the Railsplitter Awake! Actually, Bly's title, I Wish the Woodcutter Would Wake Up, may be even more revealing.
In 1938, two singular men sat down to compose a statement about the situation of the global intellect as they then saw it. They wrote, among other things, "The totalitarian regime of the U.S.S.R., working through the so-called 'cultural' organizations it controls in other countries, has spread over the entire world a deep twilight hostile to every sort of spiritual value. A twilight of filth and blood in which, disguised as intellectuals and artists, those men steep themselves who have made servility a career, of lying for pay a custom, and of excuses for crime a source of pleasure." Nobody more embodied the phenomenon described in these lines than Pablo Neruda. The description was written by the surrealist André Breton and the exiled Leon Trotsky.
Whatever may be said of the Trotskyists, neither their leader nor they themselves ever promoted bad art. And the essayists, authors, and critics who cleaved to Trotsky, including James T. Farrell, Sidney Hook, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and a considerable number of others, were inspired by the words of Breton and Trotsky when, in 1939, some among them helped found the Committee for Cultural Freedom. Trotsky and his followers rejected the childish argument that leftist politics makes good writers and that authors of the right are necessarily heartless and mercenary.
THE RISE of Pablo Neruda may be the definitive example of the Soviet influence on art around the world. Late nineteenth-century poetry in Spanish was dominated by the inflated rhetoric of Rubén Darío, on whom Whitman and the French Parnassiens exercised a baleful influence. Then came the "Generation of '98," the group of extraordinary writers in Spain who, in the aftermath of that country's defeat in the Spanish-American war, carried out something comparable to the Imagist revolution of Pound and his contemporaries--clearing the exaggerated, gassy vocabulary of Rubén out of the idiom, replacing it by a clean, spare style as well as a harsh recognition of the realities that had befallen Spanish society and culture. They included some of the great modern classics of the language: Unamuno, Azorín, Ortega y Gasset, Pío Baroja, and Valle-Inclán.
Above all, Antonio Machado exemplified this new poetic diction in Spanish. The Generation of '98 had major echoes in Latin America, but also paved the way for the "Generation of 1927," which comprised a yet more brilliant constellation of poets, known for an even less cluttered modernist style: Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Gerardo Diego, Dámaso Alonso, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca, Luis Cernuda, Rafael Alberti, Manuel Altolaguirre.
To move from the lucid achievement of these extraordinary men to the pseudo-Whitmanese of Neruda represented an immense step backward for Spanish poetry; it meant a return to the lazy, overwrought excesses employed by imitators of Rubén Darío, without the solid Catholic values and connection to the Nicaraguan landscape found in Rubén and his better disciples (most of them known only among his fellow Nicaraguans). Everybody who knows Spanish literature recognizes this fact--everybody except a few academic demagogues and a large number of American newspaper reviewers, who are still responding to the reputation built for Neruda by the Soviet machine. The admirers of Neruda are tourists in their approach to Hispanic literature, like people who attend a flamenco dance performance and think they have seen Spain--but with a politically correct edge.
Neruda was a figure promoted to global literary stardom by the creators and bestowers of the Stalin Peace Prize, which he received in 1953. He was joined in this role with a group of writers, some of them once very gifted, whose talents faded when they sold themselves to Moscow. The best among them as writers, and therefore the worst morally, were the French ex-surrealist Louis Aragon, who before his communization was unquestionably the finest young prose stylist in his language, but who turned into a leaden pedant, authoring poems in praise of the Soviet secret police, along with his compatriot Paul luard, who followed the same path, endorsing the last Stalinist purges.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote, "I was shocked when, in 1950, the great French Communist poet Paul luard publicly approved the hanging of his friend, the Prague writer Zavis Kalandra. . . . When a great poet praises an execution, it is a blow that shatters our whole image of the world." Neruda, however, was not a great poet, even though he praised many executions and even participated in an assassination plot, while also helping consign anti-Communist leftists to the tender mercies of Adolf Hitler.
NATURALLY, these details are not to be found in the hagiographic articles that have poured forth in recent weeks on the occasion of the Neruda centenary. A few weeks ago, the London Guardian dramatically evoked Neruda's labors to relocate refugees from the defeated Spanish Republic. Officiating as a Chilean diplomat in Paris, Neruda assisted in hiring a ship, the Winnipeg, to convey 2,000 Spanish leftist exiles to Chile.
Adam Feinstein writes, "The Winnipeg left Pauillac, the port of Bordeaux, on August 4, 1939. Neruda stood on the dock, in his white hat, alongside his second-wife-to-be Delia del Carril, to wave the boat off. In the key poem, 'Explico algunas cosas' ('Let Me Explain a Few Things'), Neruda reveals that he has disowned his previous, inward-looking self, together with any romantic, unworldly lyricism, and is now fully committed to his new role of truth-teller and exposer of the world's injustices."
A charming legend, but one hiding historical truths known in rather different terms to scholars. Neruda played the role of a reverse Schindler. Using his status as a diplomat, Neruda made sure that passports to board the Winnipeg went to refugees who shared his politics and beliefs, which were those of Joseph Stalin. Rejected refugees were then condemned to internment or death in France, which fell within a year into the hands of Hitler's rapidly advancing armies.
IN HIS DISTINGUISHED WORK Beyond Death and Exile, Louis Stein notes that the anarchists and anti-Communists "were given a disproportionately small share of the available places." A leading Spanish anti-Communist leftist, Federico Solano Palacio, went further, declaring that some 86 percent of the applications for transportation by anarchists were thrown out. Solano Palacio specifically cited the example of the Winnipeg. The Catalan labor historian Josep Peirats wrote in 1993: "Before World War II stopped all departures, [three ships] sailed to Veracruz, Mexico. Later on, the Winnipeg sailed to Chile. . . . These trips were administered by the Communists. . . . They granted or denied passports [and] strictly screened passengers at points of embarkation. The same procedure applied to transport to Chile, where Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet . . . did the screening."
Neruda's services to Stalin did not end with this sorry episode. In May 1940, the Mexican Communist muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, in a preview of a successful assassination three months later, led an armed attack on the Mexican residence of Trotsky, in which an American guard was kidnapped and murdered. Siqueiros, facing nine separate criminal charges, was released on bail. But soon after, Neruda helped arrange for him to get a Chilean passport. Siqueiros immediately fled Mexico, thus squelching a major part of the Mexican government's investigation of the anti-Trotsky conspiracy. For the rest of his life, Neruda expressed his undiluted pride in this action, which had led to his suspension from the Chilean diplomatic service.
Neruda never bothered to hide his great enthusiasm for Stalin. Upon the dictator's death in 1953, he wrote a threnody declaring:
To be men! That is the Stalinist law! . . .
We must learn from Stalin
his sincere intensity
his concrete clarity. . . .
Stalin is the noon,
the maturity of man and the peoples.
Stalinists, Let us bear this title with pride. . . .
Stalinist workers, clerks, women take care of this day!
The light has not vanished.
The fire has not disappeared,
There is only the growth of
Light, bread, fire and hope
In Stalin's invincible time! . . .
In recent years the dove,
Peace, the wandering persecuted rose,
Found herself on his shoulders
And Stalin, the giant,
Carried her at the heights of his forehead. . . .
A wave beats against the stones of the shore.
But Malenkov will continue his work.
This poem remains in print in Neruda's Spanish-language collected writings. It does not often appear in anthologies of his work in English.
In 1971, Neruda got the Nobel Prize, which he had sought for years and the denial of which he complains about in Il Postino, the 1994 Italian film based on his later life. The award of his Nobel came much to the disgust of certain members of the selection committee, who could not forget his actions in behalf of the Soviet dictatorship. But his Swedish translator, Artur Lundkvist, from the moment he was elected to the Nobel Academy in 1968, made it his business to get the Chilean the prize.
When Il Postino came out, it was said that Bill Clinton and Al Gore were among its most enthusiastic fans, and that Clinton even went so far as to buy, as a birthday present for Hillary, a copy of Love: Ten Poems by Pablo Neruda. But what serious reason can justify allowing the continued transformation of this loathsome figure, vain and selfish, ambitious and unctuous in his service to a totalitarian regime, into a champion of Spanish literature?
And yet, here is Carolyn Curiel in the New York Times this July 6: "That Pablo Neruda was the greatest poet of the last century is beyond argument in much of South America." In fact, the more honest of his fellow Chileans express great resentment that Neruda's Nobel overshadows that awarded in 1945 to another Chilean poet, Gabriela Mistral, unknown north of the Rio Grande today, and many of them argue that yet another Chilean modernist, Vicente Huidobro, was a thousand times better and more important to world literature than Neruda. Huidobro compared Neruda, unfavorably, to a tango dancer.
THIS SUMMER the Chronicle of Higher Education gave space to Ilan Stavans, a Mexican-born professor at Amherst, to make a new anointing of Neruda as the savior of Hispanic literature. Along the way, Stavans had the nerve to proclaim that Neruda's adherence to the Communist party made him "the spokesman for the enslaved." Is this not, perhaps, a misprint, overlooked by the proofreaders at the Chronicle of Higher Education? The Communists were enslavers, as the whole world, except perhaps Professor Stavans, now admits. We must ask, can one really consider Neruda a finer poet than Paul Celan, who survived a fascist concentration camp, or Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag?
Such comparisons are worse than distasteful; they border on the obscene. Federico García Lorca said of Neruda, "he is closer to blood than to ink;" it was an insight of great depth, far beyond its author's knowing--and today, unbelievably enough, the reputation of García Lorca has been annexed to, and overshadowed by, that of Neruda. It is time to treat Pablo Neruda as the French surrealists once recommended dealing with another Nobel laureate, Anatole France: Let us box up his memory with his books and throw the whole thing away. As Breton wrote, "There is no reason that, once dead, this man should create any more dust."