A poetic landscape
Arun Gaur

by Pablo Neruda.
Rupa. Pages 370. Rs 295.

MemoirsLAST year Pablo Neruda would have been hundred years old. So, the world celebrated the occasion on July 12, 2004. His poems were recited from the mountain tops, ships saluted his home on La Isla Negra (Chile), where he lies buried by the side of his third wife Matilde Urrutia, a crater in Mercury was named after him, the Oscar award-winning documentary Il Postino focusing on the period when Neruda was exiled in Capri was screened, and many seminars were held in universities.

To mark this occasion, a series of special editions of his works was also brought out. The present volume of Memoirs is part of that series. It is a re-print of the English translation by Hardie St. Martin that was first published in 1977 from the original Spanish edition (1974) titled Confieso que he vivid: Memorias. The final edition of this book was interrupted because of Neruda’s death in 1973 and consequently, the manuscript for publication was prepared by Matilde Neruda and Miguel Otero Silva.

What we have in the book is the warp and the woof, the attitude that went into the making of his great poetry. He begins the book by telling us that he was born in poetry, land and rain; but landscape for him was not a simple solid mass. Things like the Spanish Civil War was also its part and when blood instead of music rushed out of the guitars of Spain, his poetry changed to become a sword, a loaf of bread and a handkerchief for the man in anguish—a material part of the infinitely extending atmosphere. However, he always had a yearning, as Ehrenburg noted, to always return to the woods in the south, to the forest lost to him.

When Neruda talks about the ocean or the voices, we hear the clear reverberations from Whitman’s Song of Myself. But then there are other myriad elements that invigorated him. He was keenly aware of the Spanish conquistadors’ cultural tools of law and alcohol, the new-fangled beats of tango-dancers, and mountains of empty whiskey bottles left behind by England in India. The colonisers, the culture-invaders and the capitalists have to be fought against, and Neruda proved what an amazingly powerful tool poetry was in this crucial battle.

He edited Aurora de Chile to fight the Nazis. Guerrilla leaders on the battle lines sang from his Canto General and he moved deeply the heart of that average man who is not supposed to understand intricate poetry.

Neruda had achieved this moving power through long difficult labyrinths. His accounts of love-escapades suggest how his adolescent and early manhood-drives led him to a mature understanding of the danger of sinking in unfathomable sacrament of sex. His crossing the Chilean border through the smugglers’ path gave him an insight into the endurance and sufferings of man. His long series of encounters with men and women of substance like Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Mao Tung, Pablo Picasso, Julian Huxley, Gabriela Mistral and Federico Garcia Lorca formed for him his political ideology and poetics.

Neruda is quite clear that poetry may be a kind of madness but not mysticism inspired by God though liturgy, psalms, and content of religion spring from it. Originality is not possible and a poet has to suffer before creation.

In Memoirs, critics have noted contradictions, concealments, and diversions from the truth. Neruda does not explain why he had been infidel to all of his three wives, or why he abandoned his child from the first wife.

In short, the work is non-confessional despite its Spanish title that means: "I confess that I have lived." However, this book remains intimately connected to his poetic landscape. It is still quite young and as the time passes it would be studied and re-studied to interpret and re-interpret not only the life and work of the Nobel laureate, but also the times in which Neruda was embedded. It was not a passive embedding. Time influenced him, but it itself was influenced by his example.