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Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda, 1963
Pablo Neruda, 1963

Pablo Neruda, 'the greatest poet of the twentieth century in any language' (in the words of Gabriel García Márquez), was born in Parral, central Chile, in 1904. His second collection of poems, Twenty Love Poems of Despair and a Song of Despair, first published in 1924, has become the world's best-selling book of poetry in the Spanish language. He served as Chilean consul in the Far East in the 1920s, Argentina and Spain in the 1930s, and Ambassador to France in the early 1970s. His experiences during the Spanish Civil War, and in particular the murder of his great friend, the Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, in August 1936, brought about a major metamorphosis in his poetry: it became a weapon for social and political justice. In Neruda's remarkable life, actions could be as significant as words. He saved the lives of more than 2,000 Spanish Republican refugees from Franco's fascism, shipping them out from southern France to Valparaíso, in Chile, aboard a fishing-boat, the Winnipeg, in 1939. And in 1948, he was forced into hiding for a year after denouncing the dictatorial Chilean regime of President Gabriel González Videla. During that year, he wrote much of his potent epic of personal and historic betrayal, Canto General, before escaping across the Andes on horseback. Among the riches of Neruda's many other collections, the magnificent first two volumes of Residence on Earth contain poems of hermetic beauty and formidable lyrical intensity. The Elementary Odes are elegant, sensual and life-affirming songs to everyday objects. The profoundly moving love poems in The Captain's Verses, the marvellously witty self-mockery of Extravagaria and the poignant seven books of posthumous verse are all to be relished, as are his exhilarating Memoirs.

Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He died in Santiago on September 23, 1973, just twelve days after Augusto Pinochet's military coup. In April 2013, his body was exhumed to investigate the possibility that he might have been poisoned by his political enemies in hospital. The forensic tests continue to this day. Meanwhile, 46 years after his death, Neruda's lyrical love poetry, humanism and, above all, his infectious passion for life remain as vital and relevant as they ever were.