|I have just read — simultaneously — two biographies of Pablo Neruda. One is a huge work, in Spanish, by David Schidlowsky: Las Furias y las Penas, Pablo Neruda y su tiempo and the other is a ‘normal’ biography by Adam Feinstein: Pablo Neruda, a passion for life. I read them at the same time because they complement each other.
Adam Feinstein’s biography is what one can expect, the bigger lines of a life told as a good story. David Schidlowsky’s biography, on the other hand, is a thesis for a PhD titel, very detailed, with a lot of attention for the political history and the social environment. Schidlowsky relates Neruda’s life based on many documents. For many, this biography will be too detailed, with abundant footnotes, but it will be a work of reference. Unfortunately Schidlowsky could not find an editor prepared to publish such a work (something like 1500 pages), not even in 2004, Neruda’s centenary. Because the text would have benefited of the attention of a good editor. There are many typing errors and small mistakes. Moreover, the biography lacks an index, which is really a pity because this would make all the names and facts in this book readily available. As a whole it is a magnificent work, documentating many aspects of the poet’s life, only not on the literary value of his publications.
Schidlowsky’s work is for specialists or devotees like me, interested in getting the whole picture. He accentuates the political environment, the role of marxistic ideas and the communist party in Neruda’s life. He does not lose himself in speculations about the poet’s love life or other fancyful aspects of his life. But he does show (based on documents!) Neruda’s attitude towards Maruca Hagenaar, his first wife. Another documented example: the chronic lack of money, because Neruda used to buy everything he fancied, without regard to his financial situation.
Adam Feinstein’s biography is good reading for a general public, for those who are still interested in this incomparable poet. Pablo Neruda resembles Ernest Hemingway in a fashion: the life inspires the work and the work reflects the life. And Neruda did live (as he confessed): traveling all over the world, many loves, three times married, witness of the Spanish civil war, saviour of a few thousand Spanish refugees, consul in Spain and France, senator in Chile for the communist party, banished from his country, his spectacular escape on horseback over the Andes mountains, Nobel prize for literature, and in his very last days he suffered from the coup by Pinochet and the death of his friend Salvador Allende.
I met both biographers in 2005 in Gouda, a small town in Holland, at the occasion of a commemoration for Malva Marina, Neruda’s daughter with his first wife. Also Marcos Ana was present, a Spanish poet, imprisoned for some twenty years under the Franco dictatorship. Neruda had written to liberate him. Another remarkable presence was Nel Leys, 88 years of age, the sympathetic nanny of Malva Marina. You can find here some foto’s of this event. The foto’s also give an idea of the musical fiesta with the duo Contraviento (Isabel Lipthay and Martin Firgau), the singer-songwriter Luis Barros, Jacqueline Castro and Manuel León.
Part of this commemoration was an academic session where both Feinstein and Schidlowsky spoke about the poet. At one moment, I remember, a young woman, obviously communist, interrupted the proceedings, waving Vollodia Teitelboim’s biography as if it were a bible. She accused the biographers of blackening Neruda’s reputation. The dubious behaviour towards fis first wife Maruca Hagenaar and their daughter Malva Marina is a thorn in the flesh of the party men. Feinstein and Schidlowsky argued that they had only tried to describe his life as faithful as possible. They did not want to defame the author, nor did they want to write a saint’s life. For me, it felt strange to witness such a young woman defending with almost religious fanaticism a lost case.
Neruda wasn’t a saint, nor a hero, but a man of flesh and blood, a man with lovers, friends and enemies. Like anyone with some character. I sometimes wonder: where does my intrest in him come from? Is it because of my travels in Bolivia (where part of my family and friends live) and South-America, the impact of the Andes mountains, of Machu Piccho, of the south-american people? I believe there is more to it. Unlike a writer of novels — in most cases I can read novels without knowing anything about the life of the author — in a poet’s work you’ll find the sedimentary deposit of what he sees, feels, hears. Neruda’s poetry, full of strong images, of love, of the struggle for a simple life, his committed poetry, invites one to know more about the life behind the work. Or perhaps the myth behind the work. But my fascination comes in the first place from the power of his poems. Neruda wrote unforgetables verses like Si muero, sobrevíveme con tanta fuerza pura (If I die, survive me with such a pure force) and Plena mujer, manzana carnal, luna caliente (Full woman, flesh-apple, hot moon) (taking only two verses from his book Cien sonetos de amor (One hundred love songs)).
What’s up, Pablo? ¿Qué tal, Pablo? Let’s have a glass of wine, and look at the sea, and talk about women and books.