Friday, November 20, 2015

Poet-Diplomat Pablo Neruda, 69, Dead: Cancer or Murder by Poisonous Injection?

Chilean poet, politician, and diplomat, Pablo Neruda (real name: Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto), Nobel Prize-winner for his poetry, both surrealistic and passionately romantic, died under highly mysterious circumstances that are still under investigation more than forty years later. 

Born July 12, 1904, in Parral, Chile, he was the son of a railway worker and a school teacher. His mother died a month after he was born, and he was raised by a stepmother. He showed poetic talent by the age of ten and by sixteen had published a number of verses under the pen name Pablo Neruda, chosen to honor the Czech poet Jan Neruda and to keep his poetry secret from his father, who strongly disapproved of such fripperies.

He struggled to earn a living with his writing and in 1927, financially desperate, he accepted the post of honorary consul of Chile in Rangoon, capital of the British colony of Burma, a city whose name he had never before heard. It was the beginning of a long diplomatic career in which he served as consul, consul general, and ambassador in several far-flung posts. He became involved in politics and was elected as a Communist senator. When the Communist Party was outlawed in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he hid for months in a basement in Valparaiso, then fled to Argentina. During this period, he also traveled to Paris, using the passport of his friend, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, whom Neruda vaguely resembled. Years later Neruda became a close adviser to the Socialist president Salvador Allende, who appointed him ambassador to France.

Throughout his diplomatic and political career, he continued to write and publish, establishing a reputation as one of the world’s leading poets.  Some of his notable works are Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, The Book of Questions, 100 Love Sonnets, Odes to Common Things, On the Blue Shore of Silence, Intimacies, Canto General, and Residence on Earth. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez has called him “the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language,” and critic Harold Bloom places him among the twenty-six essential writers in the Western literary canon. Honored with the International Peace Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, and the Stalin Peace Prize, Neruda received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

Neruda married three times. The first was to a Dutch banker, whom he met in 1930 on one of his diplomatic assignments in Java. They had a daughter and were divorced in 1936. After that he married Delia del Carril, a woman twenty years older, and they were divorced in 1955. (She lived until 1989 when she died at age one hundred and four.)  In 1955 Neruda married Matilde Urrutia,  who remained his wife until his death.

Although from a Roman Catholic background, Neruda shied away from expressing religious conviction. In a 1971 interview with Eric Bockstael for Radio-Canada, Neruda said: “I have no theory about man. I have theories on the shoes I am going to buy when mine are worn out or that my clothes are already getting threadbare. I don’t know what man is. And I am a living man, and life is not for thinking about what substantially is ‘Man’ in that sense. Perhaps it is a thing that interests me less than the profession of a mechanic or of a geologist; that’s more important. But this interminable debate on what is man is so much talk that it doesn’t interest me. We know that we are born, and that we are going to die, etc. But between all that it’s very difficult, or it’s very easy to say things. And I have nothing to do with that; I don’t know what it’s all about. … I leave the philosophers free to continue to ask themselves what is it that man is. But don’t ask me, because I am completely ignorant on that question.”

And in a poem about the death of his dog, Neruda seems to make it clear that he has no belief in an afterlife for human beings:                           
                         …and I, the materialist, who never believed                             in any promised heaven in the sky
                         for any human being,
                         I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.

On September 11, 1973, Neruda’s political ally, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and killed in the presidential palace. At the time Neruda was hospitalized in the Santa María Clinic near his home for treatment for prostate cancer. On September 23 Neruda received an injection, presumably from a doctor. He called his wife, Matilde, to take him home because he was feeling bad and suspected the injection may have caused his discomfort. He returned to his home on the Isla Negra and died there six and a half hours after the injection.  He was sixty-nine.

The official cause of death was attributed to advanced metastatic prostate cancer resulting in “malnutrition and wasting away”—although Neruda weighed 220 pounds at the time of his death. It has long been speculated that Neruda was planning to flee to Mexico to head a government-in-exile that would denounce Pinochet, and that Pinochet ordered a fatal dose of poison to be administered to him in the injection. Neruda's driver identified the doctor who gave the injection only as "Doctor Price"--and his description matched that of a known professional assassin named Michael Townley, who had worked for the CIA and for the Chilean secret police, and who is now living under the federal Witness Protection Program after a prison term for an earlier assassination. 

In 2013 authorities finally exhumed Neruda’s body but found no definitive evidence of poison. Nonetheless, in November of 2015 the Chilean government officially acknowledged a document that stated “it was clearly possible and highly likely” that Neruda was killed as a result of “the intervention of third parties.”

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