January 30, 2015

Why Neruda’s death still haunts and fascinates us


Pablo Neruda.

Pablo Neruda.

Last Wednesday, the Chilean government announced it would reopen its investigation of Pablo Neruda’s death. Francisco Ugás, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s Human Rights Department, issued a press release reporting the recruitment of genetic experts to help determine once and for all whether the Nobel Laureate died of natural causes or whether he was murdered.

The poet’s body was already exhumed in 2013, two years after allegations of foul play were first made by Neruda’s driver and aide, Manuel Araya.  But this is the first time the government has gotten involved in the process of trying to determine Neruda’s cause of death. Ugás stated that governmental action had to be taken because “precedents [of poisoning] exist” that suggest this could be “a crime against humanity,” a result of the “intervention of [repressive] agents.”

The first (six-month-long) exhumation found no evidence that Neruda had been poisoned. Chilean Communist Party lawyer Eduardo Contreras and Neruda’s nephew Rudolfo Reyes were not satisfied and immediately asked for more samples. They claim the body was only tested for chemical, not biological agents. New testing will look for inorganic or heavy metals in the remains, specifically searching for cellular or protein damage.

We have been following this story since the exhumation was first ordered, then approved, and then completed on April 8, 2013. We dutifully followed up when the doctor who was supposedly presiding over Neruda changed his story, and Judge Mario Carroza ordered the police to find the alleged killer. Finally, we thought we were done reporting on the subject when the Chilean government insisted that the rumors could be put to bed because the Chilean Forensic Service found no traces of poison and again stated the cause of death was complications due to advanced prostate cancer.

So why is this story still alive? Or, as a column in The Guardian put it, why does the Neruda saga roll on? After all, not everyone believes the conspiracy theory. Not even Neruda’s nephew/biographer Bernardo Reyes or the Pablo Neruda Foundation believe Araya’s account.

Maybe it’s the result of our weird fetish with writer’s bodies, with remains. Maybe it has something to do with posterity and our desire to point to something tangible and conclude that the “greatest poet of the 20th century in any language,” in the words of the great Gabriel Garcia Márquez, is more than bones and dust, is still, in some way, alive.

More likely, it’s because this case is nowhere near resolved. There are loose ends, contradictions, and eerie coincidences at every turn. It reads like an episode of Scandal.

First, there’s the utter convenience of it all. Neruda was admitted to the clinic within a week of the coup, on September 17, 1973. He died a mere 12 days after the military took power, the day before he was set to depart for exile in Mexico. Then there’s the fact that former president Eduardo Frei was poisoned in the same Santiago clinic, Santa Maria, in 1981. Six people, including Pinochet agents, were charged for the crime in 2010. There is so much reasonable doubt surrounding Neruda’s death that the interminable quest for truth does not seem like a grasp at straws but due diligence.

For example: Mexico’s former ambassador to Chile, Gonzalo Martínez Corbalá said Neruda was in good condition a day before his death. There is of course, Araya’s testimony, and the fact he was attacked—shot in the leg and taken to Chilean national stadium/notorious torture center and later had to flee in exile. There’s the appeal for Neruda’s safety from Moscow amidst its praise of the coup, courtesy of Wikileaks. There’s the detail that the official cause of death on the certificate was recorded as extreme malnutrition and weight loss, but Contreras and Araya said Neruda weighed over 220 pounds at the time of his death. Then there’s the ultra-convenient fact that the official hospital medical records vanished. Also, that Neruda’s body has been moved three times so far, and the dictatorship is known to have disappeared and switched bodies.

The simple truth is that Neruda was a communist and political activist under a new right-wing dictatorship eager to exert its control and he had just written an article against the military regime and in support of deposed socialist president and friend Salvador Allende.

And then there is the most unbelievable part of the case (or not): Dr. Sergio Draper’s recantation. First he testified he was with Neruda at the time of his death and later that a doctor named Price was—a blonde, blue-eyed, North American doctor whom the hospital had absolutely no record of and who apparently vanished into thin air. Enter Michael Townley, CIA double agent (here’s where the Scandal reference really shines), whose description matches Dr. Price and who worked with the Chilean secret police under Augusto Pinochet. Although the U.S. made a point to show that there is no indication Townley was in Chile at the time, would there be? Perhaps not, considering he’s a CIA agent.

Finally there’s the fact that Neruda was not dead enough for the regime even after he died (something about the written word lasting forever or something); Pinochet organized the seizing and burning of thousands of books in the streets of Santiago from homes, bookstores and libraries, including Neruda’s.

Put all this in the context that Neruda and Frei are just two of 725 possible murder cases committed under Pinochet and the case for Neruda’s death being a homicide doesn’t seem absurd at all, especially when one takes into account that the total number of people officially recognized as killed or disappeared under Pinochet’s 17 year reign of terror is 3,216 and that the count of survivors of political imprisonment and/or torture is 38,254, according to Amnesty International. And that it took forty years for the amnesty law protecting the perpetrators of these crimes to be appealed.

Neruda’s case has a lot in common with the unresolved murder of George Polk, which was fictionalized in our new book The Scapegoat. They share “[a]n English (ok, American/imperial) secret agent, irregularities committed by the right-wing parastate, the collusion of dark forces who had something to gain from the tumult the country was experiencing.”

More recently, Neruda’s all-too convenient death makes us question Argentine federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s similarly all-too convenient death, which happened last week on the 18th, right before he was to reveal evidence that President Cristina Fernández de Kirschner and other high ranking officials made a deal with Iranian leaders in 2013 to absolve Iran of blame in the 1994 bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association in exchange for cheap Iranian oil. Nathaniel Popkin draws parallels between Greece and Argentina in his review of The Scapegoat, emphasizing how most are doubtful they will ever learn the truth.

The long-standing “corruption” of government in Argentina makes it “almost impossible for the nation to confront its demons,” Popkin argues, and it may have a rival in Nisman’s death. In Greece and in Chile, these high-profile, unresolved cases keep the pain of cover-ups sharp and present. Argentina has a ghost on its hands, a case that will continue to haunt them like Polk’s death haunts Greece and Neruda’s Chile.

These stories are told and retold because they are emblematic of the moral quicksand of political expediency, of the tragedy of government secrecy. These cases hold our attention through decades because they remind us of the great machinations of governance that rule our life and how easily the construction of media, of “truth” falls apart. Most importantly, they highlight the link between literature and power, and how it was their desire to pen their truth—Polk’s journalism, Neruda’s poetry, Nisman’s brief—that made them dangerous.

And the importance of blogging, of course.