Neruda: The Poet’s Calling

We live in a time of fallen heroes. As a college student I carried around a dog-eared, bilingual paperback of Pablo Neruda’s Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair), hooked by its achingly beautiful imagery and emotional cyclones. Neruda was only nineteen when he published this second collection in 1924, propelling him to the top tier of Chile’s literati. These are assuredly the poems of a young man — self-involved, self-loathing, glowing with sex and epiphany — and yet they reveal the immense talent that would eventually net Neruda the Nobel Prize for literature.

Mark Eisner’s vigorously researched, engaging biography topples the poet from his pedestal while affirming his singular genius. Neruda: The Poet’s Calling plumbs all facets of his complex personality without shying away from troubling facts. Early on Neruda sympathized with the Mapuche, an indigenous people who lived in and around his hometown, but as he matured a racist streak emerged. His friends noted that Neruda thrived on chaos, relentless socializing, the pleasures of drink and women; he would have been perfectly at home in the Paris Review era of the 1960s and 1970s, seeking inspiration in excess. His personal morality was often abhorrent: he abandoned his first wife and their severely disabled daughter and was an unabashed aficionado of Stalin.

Born Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in rural southern Chile, the poet was raised in an unusual extended family: generations of Chilean blue-collar workers and American expatriates, a disapproving father and a devoted stepmother. As a teenager he apprenticed under future Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral, who, in one of those serendipitous quirks of literary history, had settled in his hometown of Temuco. He pushed through a strict regimen of meter and form — sonnets, alexandrines, clever rhymes that Eisner wisely avoids replicating in English — which proved to be “essential training” for Twenty Love Poems: “The frequent use of rhythmic repetition within these poems helped pop the emotion off the page, off the reader’s tongue.” Neftalí’s publications and prestige expanded rapidly; he took on a nom de plume, Pablo Neruda.

Poetry may have called him early, but he embarked on a career in Chile’s diplomatic corps, posting to Southeast Asia. Here there be monsters. Eisner unflinchingly exposes Neruda’s prodigious sexual appetites: his habit of carrying on multiple affairs at once, his pathological lies, even the rape of a Tamil servant girl. His first marriage, to a tall Dutch woman in Java, produced a daughter afflicted with hydrocephaly, a fluid-enlarged head; in short order Neruda left his wife and child (who would die at the age of eight) and fled to Madrid, where he plunged into a vibrant literary and artistic scene on the eve of the Spanish Civil War.

With anti-fascist forces pouring into Spain, ready to fight Franco, Neruda coupled with an older, chic Argentine intellectual who would become his second wife. Surrounded by brutal crimes, including the execution of his close friend, Federico García Lorca, the poet shifted from the personal to the political. As Eisner observes, “His three years there forged a new voice. The war compelled him to make a personal commitment to bring injustices to light.”

The war, then, was a catalyst for change. Eisner deftly portrays Neruda’s transformation: the poet’s tight embrace of Stalin; his return to Chile as a senator; forced political exile in Europe; his career as a “champagne Communist” with a taste for expensive clothes and restaurants; his idiosyncratic collections of seashells and carved figureheads, which he later displayed in his uniquely designed ship-of-a-house at Isla Negra, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The poet shuttled among countries even as he published masterpieces such as La Residencia in la tierra (Residence on Earth) and Canto general (General Song) and found yet another wife, his Chilean nurse. Eisner renders these peripatetic years in lavish detail, seasoning his narrative with original blank-verse translations from Neruda’s oeuvre as well as incisive criticism of the landmark “Alturas de Machu Picchu” (The Heights of Machu Picchu): “Unlike many of Neruda’s poems to come, it is not merely Communist propaganda. Neruda’s commitment to the workers who built Machu Picchu drew from a well that he had now dug and explored deeply, one of empathy and commitment that he attached to the working class on a much broader scale through a more enabled technique than he first had as a teenager.”

As his fame and stature grew, Neruda backed away from more extreme stances, preferring a benign, Gandhi-like resistance to imperialism rather than the military aggressions of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. A documentarian and translator of The Essential Neruda, Eisner taps an array of archives and interviews to conjure this Whitmanesque poet, probing the common Latin American view that writers will blossom into public figures.

The book bleeds purple in sections where Eisner’s admiration swells, and he rushes through the poet’s final decade: the 1971 Nobel Prize, a diagnosis of prostate cancer, Neruda’s sad, self-indulgent liaisons with his wife’s niece even as he was dying amid the Pinochet coup. But in meticulously dissecting Neruda’s poems and in mapping out the chronology of a rich if profoundly flawed life, Eisner gives us a definitive work. Neruda: The Poet’s Calling unfolds as a masterful weave of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, a scrupulous portrait of a genius as vast and contradictory as the continent he loved.