November 12, 2013

Exile, assassins, and a probable answer behind the death of Pablo Neruda


Pablo Neruda.

Just as it turns out that Yasser Arafat may have been killed by radioactive poison, new evidence indicates that celebrated Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda may not have been the victim of poisoning by the Pinochet regime, despite persistent rumors to the contrary.

The circumstances surrounding the literary luminary’s death have never been fully clear. The official cause of death was prostate cancer, however testimony from Neruda’s personal assistant fueled rumors that he had been assassinated by agents of the Pinochet junta.

The assassination rumor sounds like a political noir: as Neruda received treatment for prostate cancer he was making arrangements for exile in Mexico following Augusto Pinochet‘s rise to power. At the Santa Maria Hospital in Santiago he was given a stomach injection which produced extreme nausea; he died several days later on September 23, 1973. He only told his assistant, Manuel Araya, about the injection.

Dr. Sergio Draper, who originally claimed to have been present at Neruda’s deathbed, is now insisting that he was not present at all, and that an American called Dr. Price was the true attending physician. “Price” is assumed to be a pseudonym, and the real identity of the doctor remains unclear, though the description bears resemblance to suspected CIA double agent and assassin Michael Townley. Townley was convicted in 1976 of assassinating Orlando Letellier, the former Chilean ambassador to the US, and is suspected of involvement in the deaths of at least three other high-ranking diplomats.

In June of this year a Chilean judge ordered the American doctor be found and brought in for questioning; unfortunately Townley is in the witness protection program and there is no indication that he was in Chile at the time of Neruda’s death anyway.

Now the Chilean government is insisting that the rumors can be put to bed. According to the results of forensic tests carried out by the Chilean Forensic Service, there were no traces of poison in Neruda’s body, and the cause of death appeared to be complications from advanced prostate cancer, exhibiting “metastatic lesions disseminated in various segments of the skeleton that correspond exactly with the disease for which Mr. Pablo Neruda was being treated.” This answer has not been accepted by many including Neruda’s nephew, Rudolfo Reyes, and calls are being made for further testing.

Pablo Neruda won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971 for his body of surreal, emotive poetry. Thousands of Chileans broke curfew to commemorate in the streets upon news of his death in 1976.


Amy Conchie is assistant to the publisher at Melville House.