Repressive regimes tend to be unimaginative. They persecute and censor their opponents, herd them into concentration camps, torture and execute them in ways that rarely vary from country to country, era to era. As the outrages pile up, public opinion becomes exhausted.
Once in a while, however, a story surfaces that is so startling, so malicious, so unheard of, that people are jolted out of their fatigue.
Recent news about the mysterious 1973 death of Pablo Neruda, the Chilean Nobel Prize winner and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, has created such an occasion. According to Neruda’s family, a new forensics report conducted by a group of international experts has concluded that he was poisoned while already gravely ill—a victim, most probably, of the Chilean military he had politically opposed. Even the most jaded onlookers should feel disturbed enough to pay attention—not just for what this development reveals if it is in fact true, but for how it might shape the legacy of one of history’s most complicated and most talented poets. Neruda’s own reputation is already blemished, his considerable moral failings as a person having overshadowed the once-universal acclaim for his art.
For many years, I believed that Neruda had died of prostate cancer in a Santiago hospital on September 23, 1973, 12 days after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Neruda’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, had told me that this was the cause of his death, even though she’d emphasized that the destruction of democracy and of the peaceful revolution her husband had so enthusiastically embraced had hastened his passing.
Even then there were rumors that he had been killed by an agent of General Augusto Pinochet’s secret police, but I dismissed them over the years as unfounded, because, I asked myself, why would the military go to the trouble of assassinating someone who was already dying? Why risk something that scandalous being discovered and further soiling their already foul international image?
In retrospect I wonder if perhaps I was so tired of tales of torture and disappearances, so full of death and grief, that I could not deal with one more affront. I preferred to shield the sacred figure of Neruda from the violence. This became even truer when Chilean democracy was restored in 1990 and my fellow citizens had to retrieve from sand dunes and caverns and pits so many remnants of men and women who really had been slaughtered by the state. Why not let Neruda, at least, rest in peace?
I began to change my views in 2011, when Manuel Araya, Neruda’s chauffeur, announced that he was sure the poet had been poisoned, that the cause of death was a substance injected into his abdomen. The Communist Party to which Neruda had belonged demanded an inquiry, which led to the exhumation of his body two years later. A first examination certified that Neruda had died of cancer, but a second panel of experts in 2017 rejected cancer as the cause of death and determined that his demise was probably because of a bacterial infection, without establishing whether its source was endogenous (having originated from within his body) or exogenous (introduced into his body externally, by someone or something else).