SANTIAGO, Chile, July 10 — Pablo Neruda may be Latin America's greatest modern poet, but the centennial of his birth did not start auspiciously: late last year, his childhood home was sold and its new owner demolished it, after a group of Neruda fans could not meet the purchase price.
Since then, though, Chileans, with their government in the lead, have done everything possible to build up the image of a poet who at times during his life was as persecuted for his Communist beliefs and reviled for his bohemian lifestyle as he was admired for his work. With the birthday itself falling on Monday, Chile is firmly in the grip of what can only be called Neruda fever.
All over the country, cities and towns are belatedly "realizing that they owe a debt to Neruda," winner of the Nobel Prize in 1971, said Javier Luis Egana, director of the government commission in charge of the official commemorations. "People recite his verses in school, but there has never been a recognition of the preponderant role Neruda played in Chilean history."
Still, the question of which of Neruda's many facets to celebrate remains unresolved. The poet who wrote the magnificently passionate and daringly frank "100 Love Sonnets" and "20 Poems of Love and a Song of Desperation" obviously deserves recognition. But what to do about the author of mortifying agitprop like "Ode to Stalin" and "Call for the Destruction of Nixon"?
The official celebrations have skirted literary judgments in favor of pomp. President Ricardo Lagos and other dignitaries, for instance, are scheduled to arrive on Monday in the southern town of Parral, Neruda's birthplace, aboard a Poet's Train, and medals are being awarded to dozens of people, in Chile and abroad, who have written about, translated or otherwise supported Neruda.
But to many experts on Neruda and his work, something essential seems to be lacking. They object to what they call the deification and mythification of the figure of Neruda at the expense of what really matters and makes him great: the vast and varied output contained in 47 volumes of poetry, letters and memoirs.
"Neruda no longer divides Chile," said Faride Zerán, editor of the literary magazine Rocinante and author of a book about the poet and his critics. "But in order for that state of affairs to be achieved, we are being served up a decaffeinated Neruda, a Neruda light, with an anecdotal focus on his houses, his women and his collections, instead of a serious discussion of his work."
That Neruda has been transformed into a symbol of national identity and unity is undeniable. To the astonishment of those who remember Chile's violent recent past, Roman Catholic priests and members of the Communist Party were scheduled to come together Sunday for a mass at Isla Negra, the quixotic house on the south-central coast where Neruda and his third and last wife, Matilde Urrutia, are buried side by side.
Like many Latin American intellectuals, Neruda, whose real name was Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, lived abroad both as a diplomat and as an exile, depending on the political circumstances back home. He was the Communist Party candidate for president in 1970, and died barely a week after the military coup of Sept. 11, 1973, that toppled his friend Salvador Allende.
"He was sick, but I think the coup killed him," Mr. Egana said. "He died in anguish for what his nation and his people were suffering," which makes the centennial an event that "mixes commemoration with reparation."
Indeed, the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet not only forced Neruda's initial burial in an out-of-the-way setting and vandalized his property, but for the next 17 years virtually proscribed him. The government instead chose to anoint the country's other Nobel laureate poet, Gabriela Mistral, as Chile's principal cultural figure and transformed her into "the mother of the nation."
But when democracy was restored in 1990, the balance began to tip back in favor of Neruda, or one particular version of him. Rather than, in the words of the writer Ariel Dorfman, "the ponderous, militant, stolid Neruda" traditionally favored by the left, the generation that had been born or grown up under the dictatorship embraced the trickster and free spirit who can be seen as a precursor to beatniks and hippies.
"Today's young people are suspicious of the institutionalized Neruda who won the Nobel Prize, or for that matter, any artist presented as `a spokesman of the people,' " said Federico Schopf, a leading Neruda scholar who teaches at the University of Chile. "They prefer Neruda the poet of love, uncertainty and anguish, the metaphysical Neruda whose fragility is on display."
As a result, he added, a more intimate collection of poems like "Residencia en la Tierra" may now be valued over the vast "Canto General," with its call for Latin American unity. At the same time, erotic poems that once scandalized the conservative Chilean elite are now more appreciated in a society whose mores are becoming more liberal.
"One reason why Neruda has always been very popular among young people is that he liked sex so much," Mr. Dorfman said. "In every generation, men, including me, have cited Neruda to try to get the girl."
But the novelist Volodia Teitelboim, at 88 one of the last of Neruda's contemporaries, argues that even Neruda's worst political poetry has value, if only cautionary. Exposing those flaws is the only way to prevent Neruda from turning into "just another statue in the plaza, all stone and no heart," said Mr. Teitelboim, the author of several books about Neruda and himself a former president of the Communist Party of Chile.
"Neruda is like an Andean mountain range, with high peaks and low hollows, inevitable in someone as prolific as he was," he added. "He wanted to be part of the people's struggle, and while that may have led to some poems that were dispensable, he thought it would be cowardly to eliminate them from his collected works."
Mr. Teitelboim and other admirers also worry that as Chile plunges headlong into modern capitalism, Neruda runs the risk of becoming merely a "piece of merchandise for the cultural industry." A book of recipes drawing on his reputation as a gourmand, called "At the Table With Neruda," has been published to coincide with the centennial, and his verses have even been incorporated into advertising campaigns here and abroad.
On the margins of the official celebrations, however, some artists and critics have sought to focus on aspects of Neruda's life and work they fear are being overlooked.
Leading that tendency is "A Perfectly Ridiculous Being," a play by Flavia Radrigán, which attacks Neruda for abandoning his Javanese-born first wife, María Antonieta Hagenaar, and the couple's deformed daughter, Malva Marina, who died during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
There is also an irreverent anthology of selections by new poets called "Desencanto Personal," which Ms. Zerán describes as "the youngsters killing Neruda." The writer Rafael Gumucio, born in 1970, jokes that "in Chile, thanks to Neruda, being a poet is like being a philosopher in Germany," and has occasionally drawn fire for stitching some of Neruda's most famous verses into collages that satirize him.
Many who still remember Neruda the man suspect that he would have been more pleased by the mockery than by the official tributes. That characteristic, they say, helps account for his eternal appeal.
"Neruda himself changed the way he versified every 5 or 10 years, as if preparing for his own transformation into everything and anything," Mr. Dorfman, the writer, said. "If he was like that in life, why shouldn't he also be adaptable in death? It was never easy to define him as one thing only, which means, now as then, that he belongs to whoever wants to use him."
July 12, 2004