The Last Days of Pablo Neruda
If I die, survive me with so much pure strength
That you arouse the pale and the cold to fury,
From south to south, raise your indelible eyes,
From sun to sun, let your guitar mouth sing.
I don't want your laugh or your step to waver,
I don't want my legacy of happiness to die ….
Neruda to Matilde in One Hundred Love Sonnets
Strangely enough, it was eleventh of September, but in the year 1973. Matilde had risen early from bed at their home in Isla Negra, on the Chilean coastline. Isla Negra was not really an island. According to local folklore, Pablo Neruda would sometimes go in a big boat with friends and spend hours drinking and reciting poetry in the ocean, pretending to be in an island. It was to be a busy and important day. Neruda's friend and poet, Jose Varas was bringing a newly printed book of Neruda, due to be released in a few days by the publisher. Sergio Insunza, lawyer and then the minister of justice was also due with the documents and blueprints for the establishment of the 1971 Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda's Foundation. Matilde wanted them to have a good time and had taken a lot of pains the day before to prepare special items for their lunch.
Matilde and Neruda looked out at the ocean next to the house. The usual high waves were pounding the coast and the morning was glorious, promising a very joyous day. Matilde put on the radio for the morning news and was stunned by the shocking news that a military coup had gone on since early morning and Le Moneda, the impressive presidential palace was under fire. Even though there were rumours in recent months of the army moving in against the socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende, nobody really believed that it would take place. Unlike other Latin American countries, Chile had democratic traditions and never experienced a military coup.
Matilde was the third wife of Neruda. She was an actress and singer and travelled all over Chile. Neruda was already married to fellow communist party worker, del Carril. She was 20 years older than Neruda and for some time, there was no love between the two. Neruda was having an affair with Matilde for a few years and after they met at a Berlin festival in 1952, they decided to live together. Since there was a ban on Neruda's return to Chile, Neruda went to live with Matilde in the island of Capri in Italy for a few months, illicitly marrying her there. Those who have seen the famous Italian movie, Il Postino, would remember seeing the beautiful villa by the seaside, Neruda writing romantic poetry and reciting these to Matilda and the postman, a poetry lover and a budding poet himself. When he was allowed to return to Chile, Neruda would clandestinely carry on with Matilde for a few years until 1957, when del Carril found it out and separated from Neruda. Matilde remained by the side of the great poet whom she loved and greatly admired until his very last day. She came to be known as the source of peace and domesticity in Neruda's life, and keeper of the flame after his death.
Going back to the events of 1973, Neruda was getting increasingly restive as he heard the news reports. On TV, there were pictures of fire and smoke in the revered presidential palace and other parts of Santiago. Soon President Allende spoke over the radio, “I have faith in Chile and in her destiny. Others will surmount this gray, bitter moment in which treason seeks to impose itself. You must go on, knowing that sooner rather than later, the grand avenues will open along which free people will pass to build a better society.” To Neruda it seemed like a farewell speech. As a senator, he had campaigned up and down the country for the election of the socialist president. To him Allende's was a democratically elected government from which at last the ordinary Chilean people would obtain real benefits.
Even though Allende had secured the presidency through a coalition with a majority in the assembly, he had to sign a pledge not to tinker with the fundamentals of the economy and the government before being sworn-in as the president. However, Allende had started to make necessary changes for the betterment of the people, which alarmed the vested interests, domestic and foreign (mainly mining). The government was already facing a lot of opposition and non-cooperation from the right wingers. The army took the opportunity to treacherously impose its will on the people. Allende and his sympathisers were an obstruction to their scheme of things and they meant to crush them. And crush they did by causing the destruction of the presidency, the death of the president and killing, maiming and imprisoning thousands of so-called leftists in the city's stadium. The purpose was to create such a scare that the army could rule for a long time without any opposition.
Neruda was in utter despair. He would not touch his breakfast. He flipped through the radio stations and heard from an Argentine Radio station that Allende was dead. Chileans learnt it hours later. Some friends later came in to inform that hundreds of people were being killed in the streets or rounded up by the army, including some friends of the Neruda family. Neruda was suffering from prostate cancer but the prognosis was good and his health was steady. However, the strains and the sadness caused by the coup and all the bloodshed was too much for a sensitive person like Neruda. He suffered a heart attack. In that situation, Matilde did not know how and where to seek help. She somehow got hold of a nurse who managed to come and provide some medical help at home. Three days after the coup, Neruda felt slightly better and dictated to Matilde the last part of his memoirs. He said, with reference to the coup that, “Allende's acts and works… enraged the enemies of our liberation. The tragic symbolism of this crisis became clear in the bombing of the government palace.” Soon police arrived to carry out a search of the house. Neruda was in bed and advised Matilde to cooperate. He said the police would not find anything more dangerous than poetry in his house. They did not.
On September 18, Chile's Independence Day, a few friends came to Isla Negra not to celebrate the day but to see Neruda. They brought alarming news of friends in hiding or in prison and others dead. That day Neruda became feverish and at the request of Matilde, his doctor was able to send an ambulance the next day to remove him to the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago. The Mexican president, Echeverria sent his ambassador and offered to send a plane to take him to Mexico City. Neruda thanked the ambassador but he would not agree to leave. Chile was his country and when the people were going through such suffering from dictatorship, he wanted to stay with them. Meanwhile, his condition worsened and he would often go into a delirium about the condition of the people and the terrible oppression that was going on. In particular, he would mention the name of his friend and singer Victor Jara, who was mutilated while being tortured. In the clinic, Neruda remained unconscious for a few days and died in his sleep on 23rd Septembers, 1973.
Matilde had heard that their house,Le Chiscona in Santiago had been raided by the police. It was looted and badly damaged. So was Neruda's house, La Sebastiana in Valparaiso on the sea. In order to draw the attention of the press and the outside world to the brutalities, Matilde took the body in a coffin to La Chiscona. Despite the prevailing fear and restrictions, many of Neruda's mourning admirers came to visit the house. The military Junta paid a condolence visit to the house and wanted to meet Matilde. She refused to see them, saying the generals were responsible for the bloodshed in the crucified country. Instead, Matilde asked her writer friends to show the generals the destruction of the house. The coffin was then taken to the cemetery in an ever-growing cortege. People came out from all sides, joining the march with flowers in their hands. Soldiers, in many military trucks, carrying machine guns pointed at the people appeared helpless in the face of the steely expression of the marchers who shouted, “Pablo Neruda! Present! Now and forever!”
[The above account is based primarily on Matilde Urrutia's autobiographical book, 'My life with Pablo Neruda'. It was translated into English from the Spanish original in 2004.]
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington
(R) thedailystar.net 2006