50 years of the Nobel Prize to Neruda: from the figure of the great Latin American poet to criticism for rape

Pablo Neruda in May 1956, in Budapest, with the Liberty Bridge over the Danube in the background (Photo: EFE)

On the morning of October 21, 1971, the world learned that the Nobel Prize for Literature was once again in the hands of a Latin American. And not just anyone: Pablo Neruda. It was the third in a list that began in 1945 with his compatriot Gabriela Mistral, which was still in 1967 with the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and that it continued with the figure of this emblematic poet, one of the great names in literature of the first half of the 20th century.

The Swedish Academy sent a telegram to Santiago from the Chilean Embassy in Sweden the day before, on October 20. It read the following: “Confidential information held by the Embassy indicates that the Nobel Prize would be awarded tomorrow by Neruda. I beg US. maximum reservation view information is not confirmed ”. Later, the jury would argue its decision like this: “For a poetry that with the action of an elemental force gives life to the destiny and dreams of a continent.”

That day Neruda was in Paris. He was Ambassador of Chile in France. Days before, the newspapers nominated him as a possible winner. He and his wife, Matilde Urrutia, they were skeptical; Jorge Edwards, who accompanied him as cultural advisor in the representation of the government of Salvador Allende against France, he bet “a meal in the best restaurant in Paris.” The fate of the bets: He finally paid for that dinner with great joy.

Pablo Neruda in January 1952 in Capri, Italy (Photo: Keystone / Getty Images)
Pablo Neruda in January 1952 in Capri, Italy (Photo: Keystone / Getty Images)

Neruda had turned 67, was an honorary member of the Chilean Academy of Language and was considered one of the great poets of the 20th century. His political career as an anti-fascist and a communist – he was a member of the Central Committee of the Chilean CP – had made him one of the best known defenders of the Spanish republic; he had been a senator in his country and had gone into exile in 1950; at the end of the sixties he had been a pre-candidate for the presidency.

Six months later, in April 1972, in London, he gave a speech at the Royal Festival Hall. The American tells it Mark Eisner in the huge biography Neruda, the poet’s call: “After a hundred years of struggles of the humiliated, the shattered and the working class, we had a great victory.” It was that, neither more nor less, a great victory, which a few months later would end in the worst dictatorship in the country, in addition to his death.

The Coup d’état led by the Army Commander Augusto Pinochet —Who would govern de facto for 17 years—, with the support of the United States government led by the president Richard NixonIt started with the bombing of the Palacio de La Moneda, the Chilean government house, and there, overwhelmed and with no way out, Allende committed suicide. It was September 11, 1973: the end of the socialist dream and the beginning of a bloody dictatorship that spread throughout Latin America.

Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda
Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda

By that time, Neruda was in very poor health: he had prostate cancer. When the coup occurred, he was hospitalized and convalescing. He died eight days later, on September 23 at 10:30 p.m. 1973. Versions about his poisoning are still circulating. He left a line of unique books. From its famous Twenty love poems and a desperate song from 1924 – published in his twenties – to General song, The captain’s verses and Bizarre.

How do you read Neruda today? A review of the personal and literary aspects of the poet happened at the same time as the movements #Not one less in Argentina and #MeToo in the United States, they were gaining space. With the growth of feminism in Chile, one of the best-known verses of the Nobel, “I like it when you are silent because you are absent”, was transfigured as a slogan: “Neruda, shut up.” Why? In his posthumous autobiography is the answer.

A year after Neruda’s death his memoirs were published. I confess that I have lived was published for the first time by the Seix Barral publishing house in 1974. There he toured the opium dens in Thailand, Burma dominated by the English, his experiences with all kinds of women in all kinds of situations, conversations with the Che Guevara, his trips to Mexico or the Soviet Union, his consulate in Spain during the Second Spanish Republic.

Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda

But there was a fact that went unnoticed and that the artist Carla Moreno Saldías, in 2015, he refloated it. He illustrated it on the cover of the magazine Male Progre with the title “I confess that I have raped a poor black woman of the Tamil race when I was consul in Colombo.” In these memoirs, Neruda confesses in great detail having raped, while he was consul in Ceylon in 1929, “the most beautiful woman he had seen in Ceylon up to then.”

“Neruda, shut up,” is a slogan that appears repeatedly in Chilean feminist demonstrations in recent years. It challenges the most well-known verses of the Nobel and proposes a second look at an emblematic, giant figure, not only in the history of Chilean literature but also in Latin America and the world. But Neruda never found out about these criticisms, these reviews, these challenges.

Almost fifty years ago, on the afternoon of December 10, 1971, the Nobel Prize for Literature ceremony took place. There Pablo Neruda stood with his overwhelming presence in front of an international audience. “The poet is not a little god,” he said, “the best poet is the man who gives us our daily bread: the closest baker, who does not believe himself to be a god.” If someone believed that Neruda was a little God … indeed, he is no longer.


Neruda, shut up: 50 years after the Nobel, the Chilean poet is questioned for the story of a rape in his memoirs
The intense life of Pablo Neruda, between the lightning of his verses and the doubts about his death
The story of Neruda’s original sonnet that they just found and that even the military could not destroy

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50 years of the Nobel Prize to Neruda: from the figure of the great Latin American poet to criticism for rape

Hank Gilbert