On this day in 1904, Pablo Neruda (Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) was born in Parral, Chile. Included in his Memoirs is a story that Neruda told in his 1971 Nobel acceptance speech about his flight from Chile in 1949. The government had taken a quick right turn, and though a statesman and senator, Neruda was being hunted down for his Communist beliefs. He fled by packhorse over the Andes to Argentina, over a smuggler’s trail marked by cataracts, rockslides, and gravesites. Biographer Adam Feinstein (Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, 2004) says that the trip nearly killed the underprepared poet, who had not been on a horse since childhood and who packed little more for the trip than a bottle of whiskey, his typewriter, and a camouflaged copy of his book-in-progress, Canto General. Published in 1950, the epic poem has been described as “a great hymn to the nature and humanity of a continent, its heroes and its insurrections and struggles against its oppressors.” The same love of country, countryman, and life is reflected in the following, a passage from the Memoirs in which Neruda describes the successful completion of the mountain crossing, the group descending to a beautiful Argentine meadow:
There we stopped as if within a magic circle, as if guests within some hallowed place, and the ceremony I now took part in had still more the air of something sacred. The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull. I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead ox’s eye sockets.
But the unforgettable ceremony did not end there. My country friends took off their hats and began a strange dance, hopping on one foot around the abandoned skull, moving in the ring of footprints left behind by the many others who had passed there before them. Dimly I understood there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of this world.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.