"Memoirs" isn't the right word for Pablo Neurda's paragraphs and episodes. At first I thought the French "pensee" was it. But that's too thoughtful. His recollections don't deliberate. They spring from memory unshaped. "Memorandum" probably does it. "Meomorandum" as in the legal sense: an informal piece of writing containing the outlines of a transaction.
His transaction was with life. Life was to give Neruda the time (1904-1973) and the space (South America, Europe, Asia) to write poetry. From the age of 14 he seldom seriously thought of doing anything else. Neruda's part of the contract was to feel the Latin and other passions, turn the Spanish language on end to express them and to become Poet of the World.
The memorandum leaves out important details of the arrangement. You have to look elsewhere to learn that Neruda's real name was Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. His railroad-conductor father thought writing poetry was silly.So from 16 on he published under the name of an obscure Czech writer picked from a magazine. (He changes his legal name at the age of 42). Bigger details - hardly details at all - aren't even suggested. Amor, amor, yes, but nearly always nameless. And we learn almost nothing about the rise or fall of three marriages, the death of his daughter in Paris, Neruda's beating at the hands of Nazi thugs in Cuernavaca, the cancer that tracked him down at the end. Tragedy takes place on a national, international, or cosmic stage. Coups d'etat at home in Chile. Civil war in Spain. Hiding out in the Argentine. Revoultion in Russia and China. Lectures in Guatemala with machine guns in the wings. Atomic bombs.
In the UNited States we sometimes thought Robert Frost or T.S. Eliot was Poet of the World. So dis they. Neruda probably came closer. His poem were published in some 30 languages. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971; no North American poet has ever done it. By 1961 more than one million copies of his books - some 40 titles - had been published in Chile. In the Soviet Union more copies (250,000) of his Canto general were printed in 1950 than all his books in the United States. At one of his departures from Mexico City, 3000 persons came to have dinner with him. In New York his readings filled halls and were broadcast outside to standing crowds. In Spain people would walk up to him and quote his verse. Nehru received him as an envoy of art and freedom. In Russia and China he got medals, including the Lenin prize, for proper thinking as well about all of this than most os his readers will want to know.
Neruda made up his mind early about what was important and he never changed it. Romantics never do. Their curse. He thought the poor got too little justice, and he would try to remedy that. Poetry was bread, wine, and religion. It was all he needed: "My poetry and my life have advances like . . . a torrent of Chilean water born in the hidden heart of the southern mountains, endlessly steering the flow of its currents to toward the sea. My poetry rejected nothing. . . it accepted passion, unraveled mystery, and worked its way into the hearts of the people. I had to suffer and struggle, to love and sing . . . I tasted bread and blood. What more can a poet want?
And all the choices, tears or kisses, loneliness or the fraternity of man, survive in my poetry . . . I have lived for my poetry and my poetry has nourished everything I have striven for." Neruda often sounds like Walt Whitman.
And in the Memoirs Neruda remains a benign enigma, the lover on a mountain top who comes down from his clouds to struggle for humanity. He led strikes. he brought refugees out of Spain. He served his country as consult in Rangoon, Singapore, Madrid; as ambassador in Paris, as senator and standing Communist presidential and candidate for Salvador Allende.
Yet his worldly education was incomplete; he never learned that politics makes fools of us all. He endorsed Soviet realism in literature. He believed multinational corporations financed Malay whorehouses to corrupt Asians. He celebrates the Russian marksmen who downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers because they read his verse: "The missile which had gone up so high and forces pride to plunge so low, had somehow carried an atom of impassioned poetry." He rejects mystery: "Pasternak . . . saw no further than an enlightened deacon."
Was Pablo Neruda really the jolly Red poet of the Memoirs? Was he, as Ilya Ethrenburg said, "one of the few happy men I have known?" It would be pleasant to think so. The melandcholy striving of "Residence on Earth" and "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" say otherwise. We are poorly informed in Neruda's Memoirs . The world is out of joint. Links are missing. There is no center of gravity. Ironically we are led from the Memoirs back to the poems to find the real Pablo Neruda. There he lives. The contract was fulfilled through the work itself.