“As the first bullets ripped into the guitars of Spain, when blood instead of music gushed out of them, my poetry stopped dead like a ghost in the streets of human anguish and a rush of roots and blood surged up through it. From then on, my road meets everyman’s road. And suddenly I see that from the south of solitude I have moved north, which is the people, the people whose sword, whose handkerchief my humble poetry wants to be, to dry the sweat of its vast sorrows and give it a weapon in its struggle.”
— Pablo Neruda, “Memoirs”
As we contemplate Bush’s second term, there are those who bemoan the difficult and complex character of the day. Does this mean most past times were much simpler and, therefore, easier to organize?
Sometimes a look back into another period and other countries can be instructive. Let’s go to Chile, France and Spain and turn the calendar back more than 60 years. And let’s do this through the eyes of one of the Americas’ great poets, Pablo Neruda of Chile.
While Neruda is in Spain during the 1930s, his friend, the poet Garcia Lorca, is murdered by fascists. Neruda sees the treachery of the ultra-left played out. He sees the legitimate Spanish Popular Front government confronting not only Franco’s military uprising but also the resources of German and Italian fascism. The Popular Front is defeated.
Neruda returns to Chile in October 1937. In a short time, he sees the government of Arturo Alessandri Palma take a pro-Nazi turn. The old feudal oligarchies are taking up the anticommunist call.
Neruda writes of walking through village streets in the south of Chile under a “forest” of swastika-bearing flags. In September 1938, there is an aborted Nazi coup. Neruda gets death threats because of his support of the Chilean Popular Front candidate, Aquirre Cerda, and for his own antifascist writings.
In the midst of the celebrations of Cerda’s victory in late 1938, Neruda learns that 500,000 Spanish refugees, many wounded or ill from enduring the perilous climb over the Pyrenees, have fled to France. The French Socialist government of Leon Blum, under pressure from the right wing, does not give them a cordial welcome. Their living conditions are dire in concentration camps in the south of France and also in Morocco. Their situation is made more daunting and complex as the storm clouds of World War II are gathering.
Neruda, with his cumulative political experience on two continents, recognizes the moment as a race against time and death. He manages to be appointed Special Consul for Spanish Immigration to Chile, and heads off to Paris. There he works with the Spanish government in exile, which has procured a ship, the Winnipeg. He sets out to fill that ship with as many refugees as possible.
With people in the camps dying daily from epidemics, Neruda works at a feverish pace. He immediately runs into political roadblocks. Some working at the Paris Chilean embassy belong to the old regime. They place his office on the fourth floor of the building with no working elevator, thus making wounded and sick refugees struggle up the stairs to be interviewed by him.
Worse still is a new embassy appointee who is bad-mouthing Neruda’s work. This leads to a telegram from Chile in which the new president rescinds the offer to accept the refugees. Heated debates take place in Chile’s Parliament, in which opponents state the mission would “fill the country with vagrants.”
After much travail, including the Chilean Communist Party’s intervention, Cerda reinstates acceptance of the refugees. The Winnipeg arrives in Valparaiso, Chile, on Sept. 3, 1939, the very day World War II begins.
Articles and reviews last year lamented the vacuous centenary celebrations of Neruda’s life but never seemed to find the space to tell the above story. Neruda’s many years in the Communist Party of Chile were treated like an aberration instead of a logical outgrowth of his life experiences.
The hundredth anniversary of Pablo Neruda’s beginning has many lessons, especially in light of President Bush’s re-election. One of those lessons is that in defeat, there can still be victories that lay the groundwork for even bigger future victories. The hope of a country and a world without war springs from everyday struggles.
Pablo Neruda always said that the Winnipeg was his best poem. It’s time to reach deep within ourselves to write ours.
Nick Bart is an environmental activist in Connecticut.