Memoirs: A book review

Published March 16, 2013

Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs, as the name suggests, are about his entire life, literary influences on him. What one doesn’t know is that Neruda had led an eventful political career as a staunch left-wing politician, first as a Chilean diplomat and then as a parliamentarian, as well as writing numerous poems during that time. A major portion of his Memoirs details his political birth and subsequent political career, which simultaneously influenced his poetry. In fact, Neruda began to use poetry as a medium to express his political beliefs, as well as detail the momentous political occurrences happening all around him.

In his memoirs, Neruda talks about several themes, such as his politics, patriotism/nationalism, communism, socialism, local politics, regional politics, world politics, the literary circles Neruda had moved in, all the writers, poets, editors he met throughout his life. These are the major themes of the book and by extension, his life.

Neruda begins the Memoirs with a small, yet beautiful and evocative passage about the Chilean forests. He continues like this for much of the first chapter, which is based on his childhood. Neruda also describes the rain, the landscape of the region where he lived in his childhood, claiming that it is unlike any other region he has ever seen. And that seems probable because the way he describes it, one really cannot help but think that yes, I have never seen such rain or vegetation. That is why the landscape seems so intrinsic to his region.

It is also interesting to note how Neruda begins his life account with a short, poetic passage. The passage is an apt introduction to Chile and its landscape, or its landscape as Neruda knew it. It is, in fact, an apt introduction to Neruda himself as he was the product of that very landscape the starting passage describes:

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”  (p. 6)

The sights, the sounds and the feelings are described in such a haunting manner that one cannot help but see, feel or hear every single thing that Neruda describes. It has a lingering effect on the reader. Honestly, this passage was probably the only poetical passage that has affected me the most.

The opening passage is then followed by an account of his childhood, which is equally evocative. It seems like Neruda started with passages that would catch the readers’ attentions when they started reading his memoirs, which may be a dry genre for some. In case of Neruda’s Memoirs, the latter parts, especially the political ones, tend to be a bit dry at times.

Neruda discusses many themes in his book, like literature, writing, poetry, leftist ideology, Communism, Socialism, politics, history. However, some of these are the most striking out of all the themes discussed, especially Neruda’s love for his native land, Chile, his dedication to his politics and leftist ideology and most of all, a certain dedication and love for the art and craft of poetry.

Right from the start, Neruda’s description of Chile, its people, its culture, and landscape all exude strong feelings of genuine love for his country, not just the typical jingoism that smacks entirely of politics. Even his criticism of his country seemed to be derived from the love he had for his land. This was honestly one of the most striking and endearing aspects of the book.

Another equally striking thing was his views on writing, poetry, prose and all the members of the literati that he had known throughout his life. He delves into long discussions, as if he were having a conversation with the anonymous reader and telling him/her everything he experiences.

There are many parts where Neruda writes about how his poetry reached to, influenced and affected people internationally. He writes about how he recited his poems in front of huge crowds in a highly charged atmosphere. The effect he has had on people is profound, enough to deeply affect Neruda himself, enough to actually make him write about it. Nevertheless, there are a few moments throughout the book where Neruda comes across as being a bit too full of himself.

Neruda, towards the end, writes about writing itself and language too. This is probably one of the best parts of the book, especially if one is interested in language, creative writing etc. He talks about Spanish and the differences between the Latin American dialect and the dialect spoken in Spain. But most of all, he talks about the restraints of language and its usage in writing; how he had to transcend boundaries of language, including all other restrictive aspects of writing, to be able to write poetry, which to him was effective enough.

If you have read Neruda’s poetry previously or are generally interested in Latin American literature, then this book is highly recommended. Also, if you are interested in memoirs/biography/autobiography as a literary genre in itself, then this book is for you.

Happy reading!

Note: All quotes are from Memoirs of Neruda, Pablo, translated by Hardie St. Martin, Penguin Books, 1978.

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