Heroic Neruda: The Word of Chile

Last 15 February, His Excellency, Ambassador Roberto Mayorga, Ambassador of Chile to the Philippines, awarded this essay as a winning piece for the Chilean Embassy’s “Chilean Herores Essay Contest”. It was a contest organized in collaboration with Instituto Cervantes and participants had to watch films on Chilean heroes and write essays on their preferred heroes based on the films. I will never forget that day when an ambassador went into my classroom to award me. Sadly, the school paper, The Guidon, didn’t even feature the occasion.

People have varying definitions of what a hero is. A hero can be someone people look up to because of a person’s great fame. A hero can be an intellectual, a politician, a religious or even an ordinary person. The heroic man/woman can rise from the ranks of workers, professionals and the elite. People might define the hero as industrious or as ambitious. But for me, the heroic person surely possesses talent, vision, courage and universality. No doubt, Pablo Neruda, Chile’s celebrated poet, is a hero. He is a hero not only to Chile but to the rest of the world. Though he was a controversial figure during his time due to his political ideology as well as his extra-marital affairs, Neruda was and continues to be heroic by virtue of his work as a poet. But if we assess why Neruda should be emulated by today’s Filipino youth, we should also try to grapple with the question: Are heroes born or are they made?

Ricardo Eliezer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto was born in Parral, Chile in 12 July 1904. His father was a railway worker while his mother, who died a couple of months after his birth, was a school teacher. Neruda’s talent in writing surfaced early in his youth. He began composing verses as a young boy, and by the age of thirteen, he was able to publish his first work, “Entusiasmo y perseverancia”. Soon, his literary prowess became manifest in his various works published in local magazines and winning in literary contests. Though his father disliked the idea of his son becoming into a writer, Ricardo Reyes, who took the pseudonym “Pablo Neruda” in 1924, soon became known among Chileans and the Spanish-speaking literary world for his collection of love poems entitled, “Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada”. Erotic and sensual, the collection became increasingly popular during its time, and was translated to other languages. The love poems touched on a variety of things: from the beauty of the female anatomy to the sorrows of losing one’s loved one.

Here’s the opening verse from Body of Woman, a poem taken from Veinte Poemas de Amor:
Body of woman, white hills, white thighs,
You look like the world in your attitude of surrender.
My savage peasant body plows through you
And makes the son surge from the depths of the earth. (Neruda 1924)

As the film narrates towards its end though, Neruda’s poems not only encompassed a variety of themes but also dealt with the everyday pursuits of men and women. The film made the viewers read, hear, see and most importantly, feel how the most mundane and banal things can be transformed into glorious and beautiful things through a poet’s pen. His talent to elevating the lowly, everyday things to the sublime testifies his innate skill and talent. His appropriate use of metaphors and symbols, and at the same time, his mastery and devotion to the language of Miguel Cervantes, Francisco Gomez de Quevedo y Villegas, Félix Arturo Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca provided solid foundation for his writings. They were not products of bouts of fancy or of whimsical, day-dreaming. True, his poems were borne out of his creative imagination. But they were well-grounded in the daily realities of the Chilean experience and in the tradition of the Spanish language. He was a talented Spanish writer and thinker.

Do these then imply that indeed, a hero is born? I beg to disagree. For me, a hero, Pablo Neruda for example, is both born and made. This is because if Neruda had the sheer talent, what was his talent for if it wasn’t used for loftier goals, for a life of sharing and service? There have been great writers out there whose works merit praise but they are not considered heroes. In the movie “Neruda”, the poet from Chile, of Chile, and for Chile, proved that heroes are also made.

As seen in the movie, Pablo Neruda did not lead the usual comfortable life of a multi-awarded writer. He was also a social critic and politician. He served in Chile’s Foreign Ministry and actively supported the Communist movement. What then do these activities and engagements suggest? That he was an ambitious man ever ready to seize every opportunity to project himself? Perhaps to some, he was. After watching the film, however, I concluded that it was in the political sphere Neruda really embodied the Word of Chile. He became an embodiment of the struggles and dreams of a people to break free from the neo-imperialism gripping the entire Latin American continent and the corruption of their own leaders. Through his commitments, Neruda lived the Chilean experience, and using the same language of contemporaries Federico García Lorca and Miguel Hernádez, campaigned for what he truly believed to be beneficial to Chile and the rest of Latin America.

As senator and diplomat, Neruda’s worldview expanded and deepened. His participation in the state honed his talent. As a diplomat to Spain during the bloody Civil War that gripped that nation, Neruda wrote poems about Mother Spain and the turbulence that divided the country. From that experience, he became a committed Communist and in fact became a communist senator. When President González Videla outlawed communism, Neruda had to hide, and eventually go into exile. The experience of being exile gave him the chance to write about so many things: political movements, his distant country and even about the United Fruit Company.

A verse from his poem “La United Fruit Co.” below shows his opinion on the said fruit company, which has often been used as a symbol of North American neo-colonialism.
With the bloodthirsty flies
Came the fruit company,
Amassed coffee and fruit
In ships which put to sea like
Overloaded trays with the treasures
From our sunken lands. (Neruda 1950)

Throughout his life as poet, social critic and politician, Neruda witnessed the rise of a free Chile’s oligarchy that controlled and influenced economics and politics, the rise to power of military adventurists and the division caused by the Socialists, Christian Democrats, Communists and other forces. But again, Neruda’s heroism became manifest in his activism during those years of tumult and confusion. He didn’t simply look down on Chile from his ivory tower; he engaged the people and the government. Through the written text, he wrote about the travails of his people. Again, the hero here appears to being a product of social activity and history, of politics and economic forces. Neruda wasn’t simply born to write; he wrote to live. Neruda wrote to interpret and critique the Chilean experience, but ultimately, he also wrote on the universal human experience. His love poems, his poems about war-torn Spain and his odes testify to his devotion to humanity.

Why is he a hero of Chile and that of the entire human race? Simply because in him we find the transformative power of poetry. His poetry transforms the ugly to the beautiful, the profane to the holy. It also transforms the reader from a passive observer of history into an active and important player in social transformation. It compels the poet to look at himself, define his ideals and act upon them. Neruda proves that a poet is both born and made. We saw in the movie the genius of that proud Chilean. But we also saw how his talent was honed, skillfully mastered and properly used to pursue what he believed was just and truthful. His commitment to his country, and the promotion of universal values he found essential in humankind grounded and made his talent meaningful. He brought the light of his experiences as a Chilean to the rest of the world through his participation in politics. Through his passionate engagement with domestic and international politics, Neruda used the word as his weapon of choice.

This militant, waving the banner of the noble Spanish language in his quest for beauty and global transformation, should be an inspiration to the Filipino youth and to the youth of the entire world. He is a hero because his very life, and his body of works, transcend cultural and age differences. The universality of his themes and his passionate dedication to the written text should inspire the youth to wake up from apathy and to break free from the chains of fads and passing trends. The youth today must fight against ignorance and consumerist attitudes. These evils can be traced in part to unbridled capitalism. The youth of today should read the life and works of Chile’s famous poet not simply because he was popular but because his example testifies to what a hero is like: courageous, visionary, talented and universal.

Instead of surrendering to hopelessness, the youth of today, informed by the wisdom of the past and the example of heroes like Neruda, should pursue structural reforms with the spirit and joy of their youth. Reforms in politics, economics, welfare, the academe, healthcare, and in other fields are needed more than ever in this day and age of ecological crises and growing violence. Chile, the home country of Neruda, which has gained international applause for initiating a series of reforms, is a good example. There the government and private institutions cooperated to bring about meaningful change. Slowly but surely, the many calls for reform by Chile’s social thinkers and heroes like Neruda paved the way for Chileans to listen, act and cooperate in the movement for reform.

With the same heroic dedication Neruda showed as poet-critic, the young of today are called to emulate the same virtues, heroism and ideals he possessed.

The rotund poet is the WORD of CHILE. He is an incarnation of the vibrant and rich heritage of a people, a country that struggled to fight for justice and freedom against the military dictatorship and a nation that was determined to create a niche in the world. He symbolizes and articulates, through his poems, the triumphs of a people who learned to develop a sense of solidarity with each other. Through his written works, Neruda lives. Through his masterpieces too, Chile is able to reach out to the world.

That is Neruda, a hero both born and made by Chile for the rest of the world.

Translated Poems of Pablo Neruda were taken from The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (ed. By Mark Eisner, City Lights Books: San Francisco.2004.)

Photo of Pablo Neruda taken from: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1971/neruda.html

Article about the event: http://www.admu.edu.ph/index.php?p=120&type=2&sec=29&aid=9608


About hechoayer

Things made yesterday still influence us until today. Things made today will influence us tomorrow. Things of the essence such as faith, culture, food, music and values should never disappear nor eroded by the times. Instead, these must be recorded, lived and shared. Something made yesterday - hecho ayer - can be tomorrow's saving grace. Never ignore the past.
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