February 20, 2013

Exhuming Pablo Neruda: Was he murdered?


Pablo Neruda

This has been quite a year for exhumations: Richard III in the parking lot, Hilary Mantel’s Costa- and Booker-sweeping Bring Up the Bodies … and coming soon, Pablo Neruda. As has been widely reported, the body of the Chilean poet, will be exhumed sometime in the next couple of months to investigate the cause of death, after a judge ordered the unearthing last week. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, twelve days after the coup that ousted Salvador Allende and brought right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.

The immediate impetus for the exhumation seems to have come from an interview given by Neruda’s chauffeur, Manuel Araya Osorio, in 2011 to a Mexican magazine, Proceso, in which Araya voiced publicly what he has been saying privately for years: that Neruda was poisoned. He’d long been ill with prostate cancer, though the official cause of death was heart failure. But Araya suggests that the real story of the poet’s death was something else altogether. From an article in the Washington Times by Laura Sesana:

According to Araya, Neruda was not really gravely ill.  Instead, Araya says he was taken from his home in Isla Negra by ambulance to Santa María hospital as ruse to help him escape into exile after the coup. Araya claims that less than 24 hours before Neruda was set to flee Chile, a doctor who was not Neruda’s regular physician injected poison into the poet’s stomach.  Neruda died within hours.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Neruda’d been on the lam: in 1947, Radical Party politician Gabriel González Videla became president of Chile, initially with the support of the left and indeed of Neruda himself. Once in office, however, he turned on the Communist Party and all its members: when Neruda publicly protested the violent suppression of a Communist-led miners’ strike, a warrant for his arrest was put out and he and his wife went into hiding, staying in the homes of friends for thirteen months, until finally and dramatically fleeing over the Andes into Argentina, an experience he recounted in his Nobel speech:

Down there on those vast expanses in my native country, where I was taken by events which have already fallen into oblivion, one has to cross, and I was compelled to cross, the Andes to find the frontier of my country with Argentina. Great forests make these inaccessible areas like a tunnel through which our journey was secret and forbidden, with only the faintest signs to show us the way. There were no tracks and no paths, and I and my four companions, riding on horseback, pressed forward on our tortuous way, avoiding the obstacles set by huge trees, impassable rivers, immense cliffs and desolate expanses of snow, blindly seeking the quarter in which my own liberty lay.

There’s uncertainty about whether the exhumation will serve its purpose: forensic scientists say that it may be impossible to determine from the remains what substances were in his system, unlike the 2011 exhumation of Allende’s corpse, which confirmed that the ex-president had indeed committed suicide, and had not been assassinated. But beyond the odd timing of Neruda’s death, there may also be a small thread of support for what initially seems like a far-fetched suspicion, and a thin reason for digging an old man’s bones out of his grave. The Guardian dug up the interesting fact that:

Six people, including Pinochet agents, allegedly poisoned a former president, Eduardo Frei, in the same clinic [the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago] in 1981. They were charged last year in connection with his death.

The imagination reels — a professional poisoner’s clinic where high-profile patients are taken to be quietly “cured”? Doctor-villains slipping around the halls in the soft blue slippers of the suppression of legitimate protest?

Luckily, it all comes back to this: Neruda reading “La Poesía.”

Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.