Thursday, 11 September 2014

' Nine — Eleven'

Confusingly for those of us who speak English rather than American, the phrase refers not to the ninth of November, but to the eleventh of September, and more specifically to the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York.

For some of us however, September the eleventh was already an anniversary, and of a far worse crime: the American overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, and the installation of a puppet dictator and torturer, whom Margaret Thatcher later invited to tea. (Surely cruel and unusual punishment.)

Among the many victims, direct and indirect, of America's action in Chile was the poet Pablo Neruda. Here is a review of mine, previously published in the London Magazine in 2005:


Pablo Neruda


Memoirs, translated by Hardie St.Martin, Souvenir Press.

Notes from Isla Negra, translated by Alastair Reid, Souvenir Press.
‘A Passion for Life’ by Adam Feinstein,Bloomsbury.


Augustus John’s painting is said to have improved following a bang on the head, and Anthony Burgess stopped dithering and started writing when a doctor told him he had only a few months to live. Rather more subtly and intricately, John Livingston Lowes’s fascinating ‘The Road to Xanadu’ purports to establish almost line-by-line, day-by-day connections between Coleridge’s poetry and personal circumstances. In general, however, the drawing of conclusions about artists’ work from their lives is a solecism as vulgar as Proust’s habit of dunking fairy-cakes in his tea: Swinburne and T.S. Eliot wrote poetry to shock, or shift the course of literature, but led dull lives; the opposite might be said of, say, Lord Byron or Robert Service.

Yeats wrote of choosing between ‘Perfection of the life or of the work’, but Pablo Neruda would not have understood the distinction: his many books are the vast adventure story of his life, wars, travels, politics, and of course loves. Loves both general and particular, from ‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ in 1924 to ‘Selected Failings’ half a century later. Nevertheless, critics and school teachers always want to divide things into periods and subjects. Bearing in mind that this is an exegetical convenience and implies no fragmentation in the actual work, one can divide Neruda’s poetry into pre- and post- ‘España en el corazón’: with the writing of this sequence, and then the collection ‘Canto General’, Neruda affirmed the left-wing political commitment of his life and his poetry.

One might therefore expect Neruda’s poetry to contain  exhortatory nonsense of the ‘Forward with the struggle, comrades’ type. In fact, such stuff is produced either by opportunist poetasters taking advantage of current fashion, or good poets who, while sympathizing with socialism or a liberation movement, are not so politically committed as to have integrated their sympathies fully into their poetry. It would be interesting to show Auden’s ‘Spain’ and Neruda’s ‘Explico algunas cosas’ (‘I’m explaining a few things’) to someone who knew neither the poems nor the poets and ask which came from the life-long communist and which from the temporary left-wing sympathizer. At a first reading, the Auden seems the more militantly political, but later one realizes that he has, as it were, put poetry in abeyance for the duration — ‘But today the struggle’ — whereas Neruda has made poetry out of it, as he did with everything in his life. The blurb on Feinstein’s biography suggests that it contains an examination of Neruda’s support of even the Stalinist version of communism, but all we get on the subject is the occasional snide remark. By his own account Neruda was in fact deeply troubled by the horror stories coming out of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and certainly there is a moral problem here that merits careful analysis. However, it is odd that poets with left-wing beliefs are expected to justify them, whereas one rarely hears complaints in the other direction — how disturbed are critics by, say, Robert Frost’s very public support of an American president responsible for the dropping of burning petrol on Vietnamese children? Yet Frost’s fine, demotic poetry too was of a piece with his life and beliefs.

The collection ‘Memorial de Isla Negra’, given here in a parallel-text version, was written just before Neruda’s sixtieth birthday, at his house in Isla Negra — actually an isolated coastal area — to which he had returned after years of travel. Originally published in five separate volumes, it is quite simply an autobiography in a hundred-odd poems: poems that are, like all his work, straightforward, fresh, intensely felt, and immediately readable and enjoyable both by the sophisticatedly literary and those who would rather not let it be widely known that they have ever opened a book of verse since leaving school. Indeed, were such poetry to be offered to schoolchildren it is likely that many more of them would admit to liking the stuff.

Everybody knows, of course, that poetry is untranslatable. This is because it typically uses words not just for their ‘meanings’ but also for their sounds, their resonances and suggestions, their textures, even their shapes on the page: all the things, in fact, that aren’t in bi-lingual dictionaries. There are, however, poets — and very good ones too  — who stick more closely to common meanings; whose musicality is not achieved at meaning’s expense. Often they are read and enjoyed by people who find the ‘other kind’ baffling. Cavafy is one such poet. Neruda is another; even his exuberant bursts of Surrealism rely more on meaning than sound. Such poets survive translation; Neruda thrives on it: the reader who knows no Spanish can be confident that, in reading Alastair Reid’s fine translations, he is reading Neruda.

It is not as disenchanting as one might expect to read Neruda’s own prose memoirs — also reprinted by Souvenir Press in this centenary year — in conjunction or alternation with Adam Feinstein’s Ellmann-sized biography from Bloomsbury. A suspension of disbelief is involved in reading a translation — one wants at least to pretend one is reading an original — and the practice of reprinting American translations rather than commissioning English ones can make this wince-inducing. The English reader is sometimes brought up painfully short by, say, ‘He was one hell of a guy’ in Hardie St Martin’s version of the Memoirs. Do American readers have similar difficulties with English-English versions? Probably not; American publishers either get new translations done, or painstakingly alter the English ones, even chopping the ‘u’ out of ‘colour’.

This aside, the memoirs are a delight; a ‘Rattling good yarn’ or rather a series of them: the literary groupie who asks every writer he meets for permission to leap over his grave; an antiphonal speech by Neruda and Lorca from opposite ends of a banqueting hall; the escape to Argentina on horseback through the Andes, followed by illegal entry to Europe on another writer’s borrowed passport; the threat by an indignant democrat to arrive with scissors at the Nobel Prize ceremony and snip off Neruda’s elitist coat-tails ‘and other appendages’,  and always and everywhere, Pablo delighting the populace and getting up the noses of governments. Some of the stories, such as the one in which uniforms from Franco’s side in the Civil War are boiled up to make paper on which to print Neruda’s poems, seem incredible, so one turns for confirmation or correction to Feinstein’s fat authoritative-looking tome.

Early on, Feinstein tells us that the Memoirs are ‘not to be entirely trusted’, but we find that not only are the outrageous stories confirmed, if sometimes in versions slightly less flattering than the originals — Neruda seems not to have been a modest man; he had after all plenty to be immodest about — but new ones are told, often for the first time in print. Feinstein includes things that Neruda himself chose not to mention, such as the social awkwardness of his first wife, who in effect made Pablo choose between herself and his friends. In the end he chose his friends and found a new wife. Other episodes too might make those given to judgement describe the biography as ‘Revealing’ and the Memoirs as ‘Self-serving’, but if someone were to make a study of the differences between biographies and autobiographies — no doubt it has already been the subject of a Ph.D. thesis or two — one suspects that Neruda would come out as more honest than most. And surely even a cynical biographer — which Feinstein is not — would have to admire the man who, almost single-handed and against petty-minded obstructions worthy of the Home Office, Chartered a ship (of sorts) and arranged the transport of 2,000 Civil War refugees from Spain to Chile.

The most unnecessary part of Feinstein’s book is his pop-psychology analysis of the poetry; fortunately there is not much of this. His strength is meticulous recording of the facts and dates, which, with a generous wodge of photographs, and an index, notes and bibliography that add more than sixty pages to the 400-odd of the main text, make this the sort of biography one calls ‘definitive’. Useful for the specialist, but as for the rest of us — who needs it, when we have the great celebration of the Memoirs?

Both books take us right up to the awful end in a shattered land: on September the eleventh 1973, the tanks of an American funded military gang rolled into Santiago. President Allende — a socialist with a human face if ever there were one — died later that day, and his friend Pablo Neruda ten days later. Only a few days before the coup, a friend of mine — just a young boy at the time — was helping his electrician father with work at the house next door to Neruda’s, and they went to peer over the fence. Deathly ill as he was, with his typical human openness Neruda came to chat with them.  Pinochet’s sole, and hideous, contribution to humanity and letters was to turn ‘disappear’ into a transitive verb for at least 6,000 people. Neruda’s is immeasurable. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez puts it on the cover of the Memoirs, ‘The greatest poet of the twentieth century — in any language.’

Simon Darragh.

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