PABLO NERUDA: A Passion for Life

By Adam Feinstein

Bloomsbury. 497 pp. $32.50

MY LIFE WITH PABLO NERUDA

By Matilde Urrutia

Translated from the Spanish by Alexandria Giardino

Stanford Univ. 279 pp. $27.95

For many decades the only full-length biography of Pablo Neruda available was by Volodia Teitelboim. Published in English translation in 1992 as Neruda: An Intimate Biography, it is a second-rate, hagiographic job, utterly uncritical of its subject. This isn't surprising: Teitelboim was one of Neruda's close friends and comrades. Which sets the stage for Adam Feinstein's ambitious Pablo Neruda, a multifaceted portrait that arrives amid the worldwide centennial celebrations of Neruda. (July 12, 2004, would have been the poet's 100th birthday.) I met Feinstein some years ago in London, where he was a correspondent for the Spanish daily El Mundo and a BBC broadcaster.

His research is scrupulous. He has explored every aspect of Neruda's life with care and attention to detail, talking with countless friends, acquaintances and specialists (he is especially influenced by the Oxford don Robert Pring-Mill, one of Neruda's unheralded champions). He records the poet's bohemian years in the '20s, his immersion in poetry as an adolescent and the writing of his popular Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (which Neruda himself believed was mediocre), his diplomatic service in Burma and Sri Lanka, his witnessing of the Spanish Civil War as well as his misguided Stalinism and support of Fidel Castro. Also brought to light are details time has managed to eclipse, such as his fascinating relationship with his half-sister Laurita, his ambivalence toward his daughter Malva Marina Trinidad (whom Neruda infamously described as "a kind of semi-colon, a three-kilo vampire"), and his love of the early-17th-century Iberian poet Quevedo. Feinstein's is the type of biographical job the British have mastered: unadorned, straightforward, making sure the observer is kept at a distance.

The result doesn't amount to an antithesis of Teitelboim's adoration. Feinstein fails to deliver sustained analytical insight. Neruda's poetry as a whole (he left us thousands and thousands of poems) is reduced to a mere map of his life, which, unfortunately, diminishes its depth. Feinstein doesn't distinguish between the good and the bad, and is so cautious in his approach, so impartial, that he describes ideological confrontations as if they were mere brawls outside a bar. Still, it is a much-needed, methodical picture of a poet who was at once witness to and participant in some of the major events of the 20th century.

Also to coincide with "la fiebre Neruda," as one Santiago newspaper has described the current fervor, the autobiography of Neruda's third wife, Matilde Urrutia -- a Chilean musician and the inspiration of one of my favorite books by the poet, The Captain's Verses -- is being offered to English-language readers in a "doctored" version. Ironically, Alexandria Giardino has done to it what Urrutia and another of Neruda's friends, Miguel Otero Silva, did to the poet's memoir, known in Spanish as Confieso que he vivido ("I confess to have lived"): They cleansed it, condensing and editing it heavily. It is well-known that at his death, Neruda left a lyrical manuscript: What it lacked in sense it compensated for in sensibility. To make it palatable, Urrutia spent months refurbishing it. That was during the time when Pinochet's regime sought to utterly eradicate Neruda from Chile's collective memory. The manuscript needed to be smuggled out of the country. Urrutia, visibly depressed by the overall bleakness that surrounded her, delved into its pages in search of therapy. But did she purge indiscreet and unwelcome passages? Is Neruda the one doing the remembering, or is her hand in control of the material? Until the end, she defended her editorial effort. Her strategy, she repeated, was simply to give order to chaos.

My Life With Pablo Neruda first appeared in 1986, the year after her death. She wasn't a writer, which is evident in the style and structure. In rendering it in English, Giardino has synchronized verb tenses, eliminated repetition and supplemented information harvested from historical sources. Happily, she hasn't altogether re-dressed the mannequin: It appears to have the same clothing, only color-coordinated.

Urrutia's version is important in that it offers an insider's view of Neruda's last 25 years. They met at a concert in Santiago in 1946, she was his lover in the '50s (he built a house for her, La Chascona), and she was at his side when he died on Sept. 23, 1973, at his home in Isla Negra, only days after the Pinochet coup. One thing is clear: She isn't a Vera Nabokov. Her role is passive, obnoxiously domestic. The reader is surprised by how unliterary and apolitical she is: She blindly follows her husband, uninterested in offering her own political opinions. Of course, their habitat was the Hispanic world, where the feminist revolution is still in the making. Or maybe it was simply Neruda's taste for a certain kind of woman that explains her -- he liked them tame.

Widows of canonical writers play a major role in Latin American public life: They are at once sufferers and keepers of the flame. Urrutia doesn't tell us everything. She fails to acknowledge Neruda's relationship with her niece, Alicia Urrutia, who was in her thirties when she and her daughter came to live in Isla Negra. (She was the inspiration of The Flaming Sword.) This pushed Matilde to the verge of desperation. After she returned from a trip to Buenos Aires to have plastic surgery, she threw her niece out and threatened to leave Neruda. But she stayed around: It was 1970, and Neruda was about to find out he had prostate cancer.

Her decision was a crucial one. For one thing, the early stages of Neruda's afterlife depended substantially on her. In the Chilean imagination, Urrutia became a symbol of endurance. Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it right when he said of Neruda that he was loyal to Matilde, rather than faithful. *

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the editor of "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda." His next book, "The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature," is due out in January.

Matilde Urrutia with Pablo Neruda in La Chascona, their home in Santiago (May 1964)