Politics in the Afterlife of Pablo Neruda



Poet Pablo Neruda immersed himself in Chilean politics, fighting for the causes of the poor and the disenfranchised. It was role he did not escape in death. Falling almost immediately on the heels of a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet that toppled the recently elected government of Salvador Allende, Neruda’s death was presumed to have been “precipitated” by the event, though Neruda had been in failing health for some years. Grief over the country’s much-loved poet became a political rallying cry.

Neruda’s body lay in state, not in the public place one might expect for such an esteemed Nobel laureate, but at La Chascona, his home in Santiago where a wake was held and the funeral procession commenced. General Pinochet denied Neruda a public funeral. Given the unrest of the times, paying homage to Neruda was risky business. Nonetheless, many thousands of mourners joined the procession, crowding the streets and the cemetery where his remains were to be interred. Singing the communist anthem, the Internationale, and shouting out the names of fallen Chileans radicals, the crowd turned the event into a protest against the government.

Neruda’s remains would be moved three times before arriving at their final resting place on the grounds of his home at Isla Negra near Valparaiso. The friend who offered up Neruda’s first burial site in his family’s mausoleum in the Central Cemetery of Santiago withdrew the invitation seven months later. From there his casket was moved to the cemetery’s Mexico Section, facing the tombs of the poor. Mourners continued to visit the gravesite every July 12 on the anniversary of Neruda’s birth and September 23, the anniversary of his death. To discourage such gatherings, the authorities would surround the gravesite with police cars on these dates.

The government took more steps to eliminate Neruda from the hearts and minds of his fellow Chileans. To destroy La Chascona, the military rerouted a canal that ran above the property, sending mud into the house, and ransacked its contents. Neruda’s widow, Matilde, was ordered to cover the murals across the street from La Chascona. A neighborhood informant would report on Mrs. Neruda’s comings and goings from the house.

When Neruda’s household belongings arrived in Valparaiso from Paris where he had been serving as ambassador until a year before his death, the crates were confiscated by authorities who believed they might contain weapons. The press was invited to watch the opening, which revealed mostly books, the most valuable of which were never returned. Much of Neruda’s French wine was confiscated as well.

Neruda had completed a draft of his memoirs but died before they could be edited. The last few pages he penned in the two weeks he lived after the fall of the Allende government. The Venezuelan Embassy arranged for a diplomatic pouch to carry them out of the country, photocopying the manuscript at the Mexican Embassy in Santiago first and leaving the originals there. The only copies of the book that existed in Chile for years were the thirty-six copies that Neruda’s wife, Matilde, brought back in her luggage and distributed to friends.

With the restoration of democracy in Chile in 1992, Neruda got his wish to be buried at Isla Negra on the grounds of his home south of Valparaiso. Given the turbulent period in which Neruda succumbed, doubt lingered about whether in fact he had been poisoned by Pinochet loyalists. The matter was put to rest in 2013 when authorities exhumed his body and a forensics team conducted a six-month investigation which found no trace of poison. The gravesite, visited by many during their travel to Chile, has a view of the sea, a fitting place for this nature lover to spend eternity. Among its Chile tours, Southern Explorations offers a Santiago tour extension that visits La Chascona.