We crossed from Argentina into Chile over the Andes. The bus was angled upward like a plane taking off, the narrow road rising to an altitude of almost 12,000 feet at the border checkpoint, in a high pass called Los Libertadores. The peaks loomed above us on all sides, with Acongagua in the distance – the tallest mountain outside of Asia. It was dizzying. My nose bled, and my girlfriend fainted in the long queue at the immigration desk.
In 1949, the poet Pablo Neruda rode out of Chile in the opposite direction, on horseback, using trails known only to smugglers. Neruda himself was contraband, made outlaw by a government that had just criminalised the entire Chilean Communist Party, of which he was a member, an elected senator, and a dangerously popular spokesman.
What little I knew about his country I had learned from Neruda’s memoir, I Confess I Have Lived. Also, more obliquely, from his poetry, which seemed to give voice to everyone and everything within Chilean borders, from the rain, to the rocks, to the workers in the copper mines and nitrate fields. Obviously, those poems sounded better in Spanish, and I was trying to read them that way in a Penguin bilingual edition.
‘Noche, nieve, y arena hacen la forma de mi delgada patria,’ wrote Neruda in his Canto General, the epic poem-in-progress that he carried into exile, ‘todo el silencio esta en su larga linea.’ (‘Night, snow, and sand make up the form of my thin country/all silence lies in its long line.’) The phonetic pleasure of his words made them less of a chore to follow than the simpler Spanish texts that my teacher assigned me back in Buenos Aires; stories about pirates for six-year-olds.
In 1952, the warrant for Neruda’s arrest was revoked, and he moved back to Santiago, to build a new house for his then-lover and future wife Matilde Urrutia. La Chascona, as he named it, in reference to Matilde’s messy hair, was one of three homes that he came to own in Chile. For a poet, Neruda was conspicuously wealthy, and for a communist he lived quite contrarily to Lenin’s famous dictum that all property is theft.
All three houses are now museums and tourist attractions, managed by the Pablo Neruda Foundation. Over a few days in mid-February – late summer in the Southern Hemisphere – we visited each of them in turn. First, La Chascona, in the capital. Then La Sebastiana, in the hills above the port of Valparaiso. And finally Isla Negra, on the black volcanic coast, where Neruda was buried beside Matilde, and where his body would soon be exhumed by a team of court-appointed forensic scientists.
It was all over the national news. Judge Mario Carroza had given permission for a second autopsy, to help determine whether Neruda died of prostate cancer on September 23, 1973, or by poisoning on the orders of the military junta, who had seized power with a coup d’etat just 12 days before. As we toured La Chascona on our first morning in Santiago, an English-speaking guide named Alexandra told us that the Pablo Neruda Foundation was maintaining a ‘neutral’ position.
‘We are waiting for the new post-mortem,’ she said, walking us through the split levels of the house, with its playful landscaping and recurring maritime theme. Neruda had a thing for ships, and installed a ‘Captain’s Bar’ here that was salvaged from a decommissioned merchant vessel. He also built in a ‘summer bar’, as well as an ‘emergency bar’. By all accounts he wasn’t much of a drinker, but he was an outstanding host.
Standing in the so-called ‘French Room’, Alexandra explained that most of its present contents were sourced from the Chilean embassy in Paris, where Neruda had briefly served as ambassador for socialist president Salvador Allende. The original furnishings were looted and burned by junta soldiers on the night of the coup, September 11 1973.
Earlier the same day, those forces had bombed and stormed the presidential palace, La Moneda, where Allende had apparently shot himself. His supporters and family accepted the verdict of suicide, allowing him the honour of a brave final act of defiance and solidarity. But Neruda, among others, believed that his friend was assassinated.
He stated as much with the last words of his memoir – written in haste, anger, and illness from the relative safety of Isla Negra, before leaving for cancer treatment at the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago, where he too died shortly after. ‘Natural causes’ remained the official story all through the 17-year dictatorship that followed, and long into the modern era of nominal democracy.
But in 2011, the poet’s former driver Manuel Araya came forward to claim that Neruda was given a mysterious stomach injection at the clinic. According to Araya, whatever was in that syringe had made the poet ‘hot, red, and feverish’, and killed him within hours. The allegation was compelling enough for Neruda’s remaining relatives, and his former comrades in the Communist Party, to launch a criminal lawsuit, and for the government to open a formal investigation under Judge Carranza.
When I asked Alexandra about this, she sighed and turned ironic, reminding us that a similar inquiry had resulted in the recent exhumation of Salvador Allende. ‘The new post-mortem just confirmed the old one,’ she said. ‘So yes, of course, Allende shot himself twice in the head.’ (Sarcasm aside, ballistics still cloud this issue, as the weapon used was an AK-47, which could well have discharged two bullets in rapid succession even if the president did pull the trigger himself.)
Like many Chilenos, our guide seemed to doubt the government’s commitment to retroactive justice. The abiding legacy of the dictatorship is a mixed mood of cynicism and populism, where every attempt to address the junta’s abuses can be read as pandering to an electorate for whom the past is still a live issue. There’s still an edge of fear to their collective memory, and Manuel Araya gave this as his reason for waiting almost 40 years to speak up. Alexandra shrugged.
‘A lot of top people from the dictatorship are still in powerful positions today,’ she said, in a tone of scrupulous mildness. I suggested that she must have her own informed opinion as to Neruda’s cause of death. ‘Yes,’ she said, but did not elaborate further.
We moved on to Valparaiso, the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and his mortal enemy Augusto Pinochet – leader of the military junta and later friend of Margaret Thatcher, who famously invited the old general around for tea just days before he was arrested in London on charges of torture and murder. In Neruda’s memoir, he described how Valparaiso ‘shimmered across the night of the world’, its hillside shanties hanging over the waterfront in ‘unfathomable snaking spirals and the twisting loops of a trumpet’. His own house was up there, La Sebastiana, made of air and tethered to a star, or so he wrote in the poem he dedicated to it.
This did not prevent the property from being ransacked after the coup, but many of Neruda’s curious personal effects had since been restored: his coloured glass bottles and nautical charts, a wooden carousel horse, an armchair he that called ‘The Cloud’ because it felt like sitting on one, high above the Pacific ocean. We toured the rooms wearing headphone audio-guides that added in sound effects such as Neruda’s snoring.
We later learned that this equipment had come to replace some of the in-house personnel, triggering labour disputes and strike action against the Pablo Neruda Foundation. Outside, in the gift shop, an assistant named Christian was prepared to venture his own opinion on the poet’s death.
‘From everything I’ve heard and read, I think it was murder,’ he said in English. ‘Yes, Pablo had cancer, but he wasn’t that sick. It wasn’t so … terminal.’ Decades after the fact, the new investigation had turned up anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to this effect – witnesses who testified to Neruda’s relative good health and plans to seek a second exile in Mexico, ominous remarks made on state-controlled radio stations the morning of his death, rumours of a ‘Doctor Price’, who supposedly administered the fatal shot and was never seen again and who the police have now been ordered to find.
Certainly, Pinochet and his accomplices had motive. Neruda was the rarest kind of poet: world famous in his own lifetime, his works widely read and respected, his voice heard by the masses. In those terms he was no less a threat to their new order than the popular folk singer Victor Jara, who was also killed in the chaos of the takeover, his guitar-playing hands broken at the wrists, and his body riddled with bullets.
It has recently emerged that the junta had the means too. In 2011, the corpse of former president Eduardo Frei Snr was also disinterred by court order (Frei was Salvador Allende’s predecessor, and a notorious political flip-flopper who supported military rule only to denounce it later). Subsequent forensic tests proved that he had been covertly killed with a lethal toxin in the same clinic where Neruda died.
For Christian in the gift shop, this was all he needed to reach his own verdict, though he stressed again that his employers did not necessarily agree. The Pablo Neruda Foundation, he told me, practically whispering now, was established by the same regime that had burned and banned his work. ‘Some people say that [the head of the foundation] Juan Agustin Figueroa was more a friend of Pinochet’s than Neruda’s.’
After the poet’s death, it took almost 20 years, and the end of the dictatorship, for his body to be moved from Santiago’s general cemetery to a plot outside his dream house at Isla Negra. He was reinterred there in 1992, a wish he expressed in the poem Dispositions:
‘Companions, bury me at Isla Negra/in front of the sea I know, to each wrinkled area of stones/and to waves that my lost eyes/won’t see again …’ Standing over the grave that Neruda now shared with his widow Matilde (who died in 1985) an attendant named Lorena told us that it seemed like a shame to disturb him again. The exhumation hadn’t started yet, and the burial mound looked untouched, but surveyors from the Chilean Legal Medical Service had already been out to measure the depth of the remains. One of Lorena’s male colleagues affected not to care. ‘I’m just glad that they’re not making us do the digging,’ he said.
Neither was employed at the house and museum itself – both were sub-contractors for the company that supplied the new audio guides, and much too young to remember the years of the junta. They had grown up in the new Chile, where every public service is privatised, and education has become more expensive than almost any other country, even as standards have dropped to some of the lowest in the developed world.
This too had been all over the national news, along with rumbles of middle-class discontent, and nascent signs of socialist revival. I wondered what would happen if the forensic team could prove that Neruda was poisoned. Prosecutions? Riots? Revolution? An unsurprised collective sigh? Alexandra Manescu, one of two outside observers from the International Red Cross, did not care to speculate.
‘It’s not our place to talk or think about what the consequences might be,’ she said. ‘We are only here to ensure that the process is carried out with respect for the dignity of the dead, and to represent the wishes of the family.’ Manescu’s background was in archaeology, and she had previously been assigned to African conflict zones, where she helped survivors find and identify their missing and murdered loved ones.
She had never worked a case as high-profile as Neruda’s, whose Canto General she read in her native German long before she ever spoke Spanish. But the essence of the job was the same. ‘What we often see is the great sorrow of people who cannot go on with their lives until they know what happened to their loved ones. Many Chilenos know this feeling very well, because thousands disappeared under Pinochet. And the dead, too, have a right to the truth, whatever it might be.’
In this case, even with a body to examine, a quick or clear result seemed unlikely, as the crashing salt spray from the beach below had corroded the poet down to bare bones. The hope was that those bones would show the extent of his cancer, or telltale traces of poison, where the marrow used to be. In either case, the public would believe what they wanted to believe. ‘That’s politics,’ said Manescu. ‘But it’s also to do with poetry I think. Nobody is indifferent to Neruda. No-one is without … sentiment.’
The exhumation was performed on April 8, the same day that Margaret Thatcher died, and several weeks after we had crossed back across the Andes. A final report is not expected until later in the year, and even then may not be conclusive. Even so, I called Manescu and asked her how it went. She had no complaints about the procedure as carried out by Dr Patricio Bustos Streeter and his colleagues.
But they were thrown for a moment, she said, by the Orchestra of San Antonio, who turned up unannounced and unapproved to play outside the sealed forensic tent around the grave. ‘We were focused on our task of course,’ said Manescu, ‘but I’m quite sure that music had an impact on all of us.’ Then I asked her to describe what was left of Pablo Neruda. ‘It was him, but it was not him. It had nothing to do with the poet. In my opinion, a great writer’s work is independent of their biography. So, however he died, his poetry is separate from his body.’