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Exhuming Neruda’s spirit

April 11, 2013

I HAVE been reading Matilde Urrutia’s memoirs of her life with Pablo Neruda. At one level it’s a saga of passion for the woman Neruda loved and who inspired much of his poetry.

In other ways Urrutia vividly but in simple prose captures the dreams the iconic Chilean poet dreamt to liberate his people from poverty and injustice that stalked them perennially.

She was by his side during his life in exile. She was with him when he died unexpectedly in an unfriendly hospital in Santiago less than a fortnight after a CIA-backed coup killed the Chilean president and Neruda’s friend Salvador Allende on Sept 11, 1973.

On Monday, they exhumed Neruda’s body to see if the leftist poet who admired Cuba and global revolutions (a possible reason he mistrusted Nehru) was murdered by the US-backed Chilean regime of Augusto Pinochet.

I am sure there is no conscious link in the disinterring of Neruda’s remains and the publication of the latest WikiLeaks documents the same day, but both events in their separate ways may help throw fresh light on what was possibly the most criminal phase in US foreign policy, the 1970s.

The Kissinger Cables, published this week by Julian Assange, can be summed up in Henry Kissinger’s bone-chilling words that flowed from the diplomat’s unparalleled clout in Washington DC: “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Exhuming Neruda’s body and publishing Kissinger’s missives reflect a ceaseless need to keep an eye on the past. “He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past,” Assange said on Monday, quoting from George Orwell’s novel 1984.

“You could say that the [US] government cannot be trusted with these documents,” a WikiLeaks spokesperson said.

Neruda was clearly one among countless victims of right-wing dictatorships inflicted on Latin America by American policies dictated by Kissinger from 1969 to 1976. Initially, it was thought the poet had succumbed to prostate cancer. Two years ago, his communist party-sponsored bodyguard and driver, Manuel Araya suggested that the Pinochet regime eliminated Neruda to avoid the possibility that he would become a renowned voice of dissent.

There is an inaccuracy in Araya’s account that needs to be corrected. He claims Neruda was making preparations for exile in Mexico, when doctors injected the poet with a substance, after which his health rapidly deteriorated. Urrutia, who published her secret memoirs in 1986, was emphatic that Neruda had chosen to stay on in Chile whatever the threats to his life.

Urrutia says that Neruda’s driver had mysteriously disappeared a day or two before the poet died. She heard he was subsequently tortured but there was nothing in her narrative about what became of the driver whose absence she felt strongly in coping with grief and logistics involving Neruda’s burial initially in Santiago.

The investigating judge originally doubted Araya’s claim but his inquiry over the past two years is said to have uncovered sufficient evidence to order the exhumation.

Among the evidence are reports said to be from the pro-Pinochet El Mercurio newspaper the day after Neruda’s death, referring to an injection he was administered. The official death certificate said an advanced and incurable cancer led to malnutrition and wasting away.

It is strange that Araya’s speculative claim has been cited to exhume the body. Urrutia gave a clearly more authentic account of the circumstances of Neruda’s death over two decades ago. Her description of that harrowing and desperate moment is worth sharing.

Neruda had fever shortly after the coup. He was taken from his fabled seaside home in Isla Negra to the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago. Among the first friends to arrive at the clinic was the Mexican ambassador. President Echeverria had offered to send a plane to transport the couple to Mexico. Neruda would have none of that. “I will not leave Chile. My fate is here. This is our country and my place,” the poet protested.

Urrutia kept news of the bloody mayhem in Chile from Neruda. When he found out he exploded. “They are killing people. They bring in mutilated bodies. The morgue is full of dead bodies. Hundreds of people line up to reclaim them. How can you not know what happened to Victor Jara?” Neruda chided Matilde Urrutia, remembering their friend and popular leftist folk singer. “He is one of the mutilated. They destroyed his hands.”

An “indifferent” nurse gave Neruda a tranquilliser injection. It helped him sleep. But he never woke up again. “It is September 23,” Urrutia records. “Here in this hospital we [his sister and her friend] three sad and silent women sit. My eyes do not leave Pablo. Suddenly, I see him grow a little agitated. ‘Oh good,’ I think, ‘he is going to wake up.’ I stand up. A tremor passes through his body, contorting his face. I draw close to him. He is dead. He has never recovered consciousness. He has slept the entire day before his death.”

Urrutia was the inspiration behind two of Neruda’s most famous works — The Captain’s Verses and One Hundred Love Sonnets. She quotes from one of the poems he devoted to her:

“And now walking by my side/you see that life goes with me/ and that death is behind us./ Now you can’t go back to dancing/ in your silk dress in the ballroom./ You’ll wear out your shoes,/ but you’ll grow on the march./ You have to walk on thorns/ leaving little drops of blood./ Kiss me again, beloved./ Clean the gun comrade.”

While probing if Pinochet killed Neruda (what else do fascists do?) it would be also purposeful perhaps to see if Monday’s events — the exhumation of his body and the publication of the Kissinger Cables — could revive a bit of Pablo Neruda’s fearless spirit which he shared with the world to fight injustice everywhere.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.