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Walking with Pablo Neruda

1 Jan, 2023

My wife and I are visiting Argentina and Chile during the holidays. We started off with a few walks in the continent's deep south, and coasted in the new year on the beach, just south of Valparaiso. Chile's capital is, of course, Santiago, but nearby Valparaiso is the home of the country's National Congress.

Valparaiso is also often associated with the Chilean Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. A diplomat and politician, a communist, and winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature. He had a house in Valparaiso, as well as in the nearby El Quisco, where we are staying, a mere stone's throw away from Neruda's house.

Well respected both politically and literarily, more recently, Neruda has become a somewhat more controversial figure. Not unjustified, particularly in the light of a rape he confessed to in posthumously published memoirs.
Even if we can't expect anyone to be flawless, the legacy of any individual is the amalgamation of their life's work, both good and bad. To me, this should at least mean that the tours you can experience in his three houses (the man seemed surprisingly wealthy for a communist), which focus more on the man than on his literary work, should also feature his flaws.
At the moment, the way in which Neruda is characterised feels a bit too much like the telling of a hagiography, with Neruda being larger than life in every way. This kind of characterisation makes me highly suspicious, at best, and mistrustful, at worst. Recognising the negative sides of Neruda would certainly make Neruda more human, and could result in a deeper understanding of his work.

One of Neruda's more well known poems is Walking Around a, mostly, narrative poem in which Neruda relates to himself, and his role in society, by reflecting on the world around him.

Neruda was a communist who put his money where his mouth was; In the late 1930s, while a diplomat, he facilitated the immigration, to Chile, of some 2000 refugees from Franco's Spain. In 1948, the then-president of Chile outlawed communism and issued a warrant for Neruda's arrest, though Neruda managed to escape to Argentina, returning after three years and, eventually, taking up the role of close advisor to Salvador Allende.

Given Neruda's convictions as an individual, it's easy to see Walking Around as an accusation against the commercialisation of society, against materialism, against industrial exploitation, even against the exploitation of capitalism.

But, also, the general feeling which the poem evokes is perhaps one of futility. That is, Neruda doesn't seem to believe he can meaningfully fight against this pervasiveness of abuse, his individual actions being doomed to succeed on a societal level.

Neruda passed away of cancer shortly after the coup that ousted Allende and which installed Pinochet, heralding the age of neoliberalism and, eventually, the capitalist exploitation of the masses after the end of the Cold War, culminating in the record profits and stagnating salaries we see today.

Perhaps Neruda was right in recognising this futility.

On the other hand, just today, I saw the new president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Lula, be handed the presidential sash by a diverse group of Brazilians, representing the cultural and societal richness of not only this country, but the whole world. The sash went from pair of hands to pair of hands, until the last one in line hung the ribbon around the new president's neck.
Lula's electoral victory was perhaps uncomfortably narrow, but still meant that millions more voted for him, as opposed to the incumbent, something unprecedented in Brazilian history.

As during his previous two mandates, Lula will pursue a strong pro-poor agenda, and will complement this with policies of emancipation targeting the underrepresented in society, most notably the indigenous population, with one major feature the complete block on cutting down the Amazonian forest. Very obviously an agenda which Neruda would stand for.

Neruda opens his poem stating that he is 'tired of being a man'. Thankfully, Lula is very far from being tired, showing us, and Neruda, that the struggle for a fair and just world is not decided against us, and that it's even possible to win. But, where Neruda might have despaired with the coup against Allende, with the benefit of a longer view of history, we can see that with persistence and unity, we might just be able to overcome the capitalist abuse against society, against us.

Happy new year! Keep walking.

Co-founder of walk · listen · create

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