Sunday, April 10, 2016

Pablo Neruda / A Passion for Life / Review by Andrew Motion

And where are the lilacs?

Adam Feinstein neatly combines the music of Pablo Neruda's poetry and the whirl of his life

Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life
by Adam Feinstein
497pp, Bloomsbury, £25

Andrew Motion
Saturday 31 July 2004 01.05 BST
Pablo Neruda couldn't hold a tune. "My ear," he admitted, "could never recognise any but the most obvious melodies, and even then, only with difficulty." His friends agreed with him. "The only thing he didn't have an ear for was music," said Aida Figueroa. "He couldn't understand music. He could hear the sound of birds, people's words. But not music."
This is remarkable: the artfulness and range of Neruda's cadences are crucial to the power of his writing. In early work such as Crepusculario (1923) and the best-selling Veinte poemas (1924) he has the mingled richness and discipline of a string quartet. In more political mid-century work he blows and drums with impressive vehemence. In later, more personal and/or metaphysical writing such as Memorial de Isla Negra (1964), he is a virtuoso solo instrumentalist. No one reading his poems in their original Spanish would want to separate their sense from their sound. Even when translated into English, their meaning is inseparable from their melody.
Adam Feinstein's new biography, published to coincide with the centenary of Neruda's birth, is fuelled by an infectious enthusiasm for the poems: this is its greatest strength. But it also has an admirable patience with the dizzying detail of his life. It's difficult to think of a 20th-century poet who did more than Neruda. He wrote a huge number of books, he travelled like a man possessed, he whirled himself round in the life of his times, he loved and lost a large number of women, he collected a small army of famous friends. Some of these things are grist to the biographer's mill: Feinstein's account is crammed with adventure stories, narrow scrapes, passionate encounters. Others are harder to deal with: globe-trottings which have to be logged but risk becoming a list of place-names. By pacing the story so as to give pre-eminence to the writing and the adventuring, while recording the duller passages more briefly, Feinstein creates his own sympathetic music. His book turns Neruda's life into an opera - a blend of aria and recitative.
Sensibly, he relies a good deal on Neruda's own Memoirs (now reissued along with a bilingual edition of Isla Negra by the Souvenir Press). These are packed with marvellous details that give colour to the story, as well as providing a way of understanding how Neruda's fascination with real things, in real places, gives a shape to even his most vatic poems. At a parting with a grief-stricken girlfriend, for instance: "She kissed my arms, my suit, in a kind of ritual, and suddenly slipped down to my shoes, before I could stop her. When she stood up again, the chalk polish of my white shoes was smeared like flour all over her face."
Feinstein is too thorough to accept the Memoirs at face value, wonderful as they are. He understands that an author's reminiscences are a way of creating disguises as well as revealing secrets, and regularly checks them against the available evidence, amplifying the many complicated or contentious issues hushed up by Neruda himself. In fact he is alive, from the first, to the sense that Neruda grew up among secrets, and was therefore likely to enjoy them later. He had a half-brother and half-sister only reluctantly acknowledged by his family, his father was a disciplinarian whose severities provoked subterfuge, and his mother - who died shortly after his birth - later became a means of addressing illicit loves under the shelter of her name.
Neruda's own original name was Neftali, which he retained until the age of 16, then jettisoned as a sign that he had become his own man. Leaving his home-town of Temuco, and joining the relatively cosmopolitan world of Santiago, his interests rapidly expanded to accommodate social as well as family matters; also to create a more suggestive style.
Picking his way through the labyrinth of publishers and magazines, he relied heavily on French symbolist poetry to stretch his imagination, combining surrealist touches and impressionistic overviews with his original fidelity to facts. The result was a fusion never previously known in Chilean poetry - rarely seen in poetry anywhere - and his success was meteoric. Veinte poemas sold in enormous quantities; he was the toast of the town.
But it wasn't a town, or a country, where he wanted to stay put: his exploded imagination needed a larger canvas, and the cultural and economic condition of Chile both compelled and exasperated him. He chose various kinds of consular activity as the means of escape. By 1927 he was in Rangoon, then moved on through France, Japan, China, Ceylon and Java (where he met his first wife, Maria), before returning home in 1932. By this time his Spanish was apparently "quite odd... very much influenced by his solitude", and his sense of himself much altered: "He was no longer the sombre, melancholic, absent young man. Now he talked a lot, laughed for the strangest reasons." But these were not changes which threatened his audience: they added authority to his originality.
They didn't, however, do much for his political conscience. This only began to develop in the early 1930s, when he was posted to Spain, fell in love with Delia del Carril and made friends with Lorca. Delia persuaded him to become a communist - a process which meant that he inflicted a great deal of pain on his first wife and their sickly daughter, while producing poems that exalted the suffering masses. It confronts Feinstein with the classic biographer's dilemma - how to respect the work while dealing with a contradictory private life - and he copes with it well, by presenting the facts rather than wagging his finger, and by foregrounding the writing. As the background scenery changes from France to Chile again, we see Neruda the romantic lyricist turning into Neruda the "truth-teller and exposer of the world's injustices: 'You will ask: And where are the lilacs / And the metaphysics petalled with poppies / And the rain repeatedly spattering / Its words, filling them with holes and birds? ... Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / The blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / In the streets!"
Supported by Delia, feted by his home-crowd, increasingly famous on the world stage, Neruda spent the late 30s and early 40s travelling round South America, converting his experience of other people's suffering into poems, standing as a senator, and defending the new emphasis of his work: "I have a profound sense that I am fulfilling a duty. I was a nocturnal writer who spent part of his existence clinging to the walls on empty nights. Now I am happy. We must walk down the middle of the street, meeting life head on."
Given the political climate, it was bound to end in trouble - or rather, given Neruda's personal climate, in trouble and adventure. In 1949 he made a daring escape from Chile over the Andes into Buenos Aires, then through the early 50s set off on his travels again, speaking for the oppressed everywhere while courting the likes of Picasso and Hikmet, and neglecting Delia in favour of Matilde, who eventually became his third wife.
These paradoxes bring their own difficulties - but their tensions are massively increased by fault-lines in Neruda's politics. Even after Khrushchev had condemned Stalin's crimes at the party congress in 1956, Neruda still hesitated to speak out against him - as he also refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Prague. What was the problem? Incomprehension? Naivety? Stubbornness? Neruda himself simply (too simply) made a distinction "between two periods in the life of Stalin and his policies: the one which 'embodied the direction of the day / when he asked opinions of the light' and the one in which Stalin usurped absolute power".
Feinstein lets his readers draw their own conclusions about the moral muddle of Neruda's life, shining the same clear light on his politics that he turns on his private life (even Matilde was betrayed, when Neruda had a late fling with her niece). This is as well. The faults and weaknesses are plain to see - but so is the undimmed exuberance and generosity of the work, which feeds hungrily off the life and yet stands as a thing apart. So too is the suffering, with which the book ends. After a triumphant association with Allende, Neruda died in the early days of the Pinochet era, his house in Santiago wrecked, and his funeral wake held amid the ruins. No one could read these pages without feeling a sharp sympathy. Everything that was vain, silly, greedy and blind about Neruda weighs less than the humanity of his work, and the essential nobility of his spirit.
· Andrew Motion is poet laureate.

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