Apropos of Pope Francis’ recent election, Andrés Benítez, a columnist in the Chilean daily, La Tercera, commented on the extraordinary talent of Argentines. This has allowed them to reach the top in so many fields — from chemistry to music, from political science to football. The new Pope, that is, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, already being hailed as the Gorbachev of the Catholic Church, is only the latest example of this. Argentina has given us Carlos Gardel, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato, Evita Perón and Diego Maradona, to mention but a few personalities who have left their mark on the 20th century.

In addition to this individual ability, Argentines take great pride in their leading men and women. They respect them, help them build up their reputations, forgive them their faults and shortcomings, and stand behind them through thick and thin. Diego Maradona, considered by some the greatest football player ever, and who has had many ups and downs since his glory days in the 1980s and 1990s, is a case in point. His country has always stood four square behind him, supporting him in his most difficult moments, and even appointing him Argentina’s coach in the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa.

Travails of the poet

We, Chileans, on the other hand, are known for pulling down the best among our own, cutting them down to size at the first opportunity, in what Australians refer to as the “tall poppy” syndrome. The travails of our leading poet, Pablo Neruda, speak for themselves. Though considered by some as the greatest poet of the 20th Century, and certainly the most widely read, he never received in Chile the full measure of respect and recognition he deserved. This changed only slightly when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, a scant two years before his untimely death in September 1973, at the still young age of 69.

But what is being investigated now, as his remains are exhumed from the tomb in his beloved Isla Negra, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is something else. What his long-time driver, Manuel Araya, posits, is that Neruda did not die of natural causes a few days after the September 11, 1973 military coup that ended the presidency of Salvador Allende and brought Augusto Pinochet to power. What Araya argues, and many others, including some relatives, as well as the Communist party of which Neruda was a life-long member, endorse, is that there is a strong possibility that he was poisoned.

This is an open question. Much of the Chilean establishment, including the Pablo Neruda Foundation itself, disagrees. This is not surprising. In India this would be the equivalent of saying that Rabindranath Tagore did not die of natural causes but was poisoned by the British Raj. In Germany, to argue that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was killed on the Duke of Weimar’s orders. If there is somebody that put into words what Chile is all about, it is Neruda.

His poetry went through several phases — from the starkly lyrical in his Twenty Poems of Love and a Desperate Song to the outright political, as in Spain in the Heart. As he put it, “my poetry has the quality of an organism —infantile when I was a boy, juvenile when I was young, desolate when I suffered, combative when I had to enter the social struggle.”

Still, some consider that his most lasting work is to be found in two major poems. One is Residence on Earth, written largely during his Eastern sojourn, in Burma, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His exposure to the East, including India which he visited many times, was a watershed moment. In his Nobel Prize speech, he looked back on Asia as an experience where he learns “through other people” that “there is no insurmountable solitude”. Through his “solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence,” he is then able to “reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance … in this dance … there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny”. The 2004 Neruda Centennial celebrations in India, with conferences, workshops and publications of his work in Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu, Urdu and Bengali, among other languages, bear witness to how his poetry resonate to this day in the subcontinent.

Eloquent and magical

The other is his Canto General de América. The latter has been described as the poetic equivalent of the murales painted by Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Ignacio Siqueiros, given its force, colour and epic character, as he attempted to fill with words the vast expanses of a continent. But he began it as an ode to Chile. The directness with which he described the nature that surrounded him, (“Night, snow and sand give shape to my narrow fatherland, all the silence is to be found in its long line, all the foam comes out of its marine beard”), in a country whose most distinct feature is its dramatic geography, from the driest desert in the North, to the iceberg-filled fjords and channels of Patagonia in the South, also came forth in his portrayal of society and history. He wrote what he saw, what he experienced, in his own, eloquent, magical way.

Chile is a nation of poets, and one with its own foundational epic poem, La Araucana, an extended 16th century work by Alonso de Ercilla, widely considered one of the most powerful historical poems in the Spanish language. But no Chilean poet wrote with so much verve and brio on Chile as Neruda. The way in which we refer to and describe Chile today is rooted in Neruda’s language and his down-to-earth, minutely observed features. The notion that the man who gave shape to Chile in our collective imagination could have been killed on the orders of his own government defies belief.

The paradox is apparent. For a long time, it was thought that President Salvador Allende had been killed by the soldiers that stormed La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, on that fateful day of the military coup, September 11, 1973. We now know that Allende took his own life. In turn, we always thought that Pablo Neruda died of natural causes 12 days later. Now there are indications that may not have been the case.

The circumstances of Neruda’s death were odd. He spent a scarce 72 hours at the infamous Santa María Clinic in Santiago, where he was given a suspicious stomach injection that may have caused his heart failure. He had checked in there only on September 19, where he arrived from his home on the coast, Isla Negra, after the latter had been ransacked by the military. His plans were to take a plane that Mexican President Luis Echeverría had sent to pick him up and fly him to Mexico City, a plane that was waiting for him on the tarmac of Santiago's Pudahuel airport. The official cause of death given at the time was cachexia — a bodily collapse triggered by a metastasised prostate cancer.

Yet, as Francisco Marín, the Mexican journalist and co-author of the book, The Double Murder of Pablo Neruda (2012), shows, although Neruda was afflicted by prostate cancer, extant medical tests of Neruda taken in 1972 and 1973 show no metastasis. Other medical records, including the clinic’s bulletin on his death and of Neruda’s prior treatment at another Santiago clinic, have disappeared.

Contrary to what one would expect from a cancer-stricken patient, photos of Neruda at the clinic show a robust, even heavy-set man. The nurses describe him as full of energy and with his usual playfulness. The same goes for the Mexican ambassador to Chile, Gonzalo Martínez, who was coordinating his departure to Mexico. Perhaps, fatally, it was Neruda himself who asked to leave two days later, rather than on the originally scheduled September 20, so that some books and clothes could be retrieved from his home. His wife, Matilde Urrutia, and his driver, Manuel Araya, left to fetch them. During their absence, the stomach injection was given to Neruda. His condition deteriorated immediately, and he died shortly thereafter. It was at the same Santa María Clinic that eight years later, former President Eduardo Frei would die as well, after a routine operation, in poisoning caused by thallium and mustard gas. Several medical staff members have now been charged with his murder.

After considering many documents and witness statements, Judge Mario Carroza authorised the exhumation of Neruda’s remains. The purpose is to establish whether traces of the poison allegedly administered to Neruda can be found, and whether there is evidence of metastasised cancer in his bones. Forty years after his death, that may seem a futile exercise. Yet, forensic science has made much progress. Some specialists consider it perfectly feasible to do so.

Some ask: what is the use of this now? The answer is simple. Chile, and the world, deserve to know how Neruda died.

Some ask: what is the use of this now? The answer is simple. Chile, and the world, deserve to know how Neruda died.
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