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Op-Ed: What Exhumation Means For A Legacy


But now to The Opinion Page. A week ago today, Chilean authorities exhumed the remains of Pablo Neruda, a poet, politician and diplomat who penned thousands of works, some of them like "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" almost ubiquitous in Hispanic culture. For nearly 40 years, it's been generally accepted that Neruda died of cancer, but some still insist Neruda was actually poisoned just days after General Augusto Pinochet came to power.

In an op-ed in last week's New York Times, Professor Ilan Stavans argued that digging up the poet is largely pointless. He wrote: Neruda, it seems to me, is beyond such trifles. He is the poet of the eternal present. He revealed to us the best antidote to oppression - and its most noxious companion, oblivion - poetry. So Chileans out there, is it important for you to know how Pablo Neruda died? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, or you can go to the website, npr.org, and just join the conversation by clicking on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ilan Stavans is professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He joins us from New England Public Radio, our member station in Amherst, Massachusetts. Ilan, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

ILAN STAVANS: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: You know, why not solve this mystery? What if it turned out that Neruda was poisoned, wouldn't that change his biography?

STAVANS: So we think that death is death. Death is the end. And I think that Pablo Neruda has been resting for the last 40 years, resting in bones, but not resting in spirit. I understand perfectly the need of the present to revisit the past, particularly when the past was so violent and so subjective. The forces of Augusto Pinochet took over the country on September 11, 1973. And in doing so, they also took over Chilean history and decided how to remember it. The effort now is to dig out the bones and try to see if there is another version of Chilean history.

But it strikes me that that other version has already been accepted, and that is the version of the people, the people that have embraced Pablo Neruda and that know that oppression might conquer the present but will not ultimately be triumphant overall. And that if you remain steadfast, if you are committed and more than anything if you are devoted to the truth and the truth as presented through words, ultimately, you will prevail. I can see this as an effort at reconciliation...


STAVANS: ...at - if figuring out the past in a different way, but I don't believe that digging up bones in general and particularly those of such an important poet will change history in any dramatic way.

HEADLEE: You write in your op-ed the exhumation is motivated by - and I'm quoting here - present day desire to bury the past by paradoxically digging it up. That sounds like what you're talking about now. But you are not Chilean, right?

STAVANS: I am not. I am Mexican.

HEADLEE: So maybe for the Chileans, having the answer would help them in some case knowing the past helps us with the future, right? Or with the present?

STAVANS: Well, maybe. But the question is always who is allowed to undig, to bring out, to exhume the bones of an individual? The individual obviously doesn't - no longer has those rights. The family in this case, the nephew, has declared himself against the effort, the Pablo Neruda Foundation, that is - the estate that administers...

...the family in this case, the nephew, has declared himself against the effort. The Pablo Neruda Foundation - that is the estate that administers Pablo Neruda's work - is also against it. So who is in the right to do such an effort? Is it the country as a whole? The country itself, Chile, is divided. Many people think that this is a worthy endeavor.

Many other people think that this is pointless, that the - that a new version of the past has already been established. And, in fact, that - through forensic studies, we might never be able to know if he was poisoned or not. It's 40 years. He was administered all sorts of medicines in the clinic where he was dying in the days 21st, 22nd, 23rd of September, and that such a project might be much more symbolic, metaphorical, than actually offering a concrete proof that he was poisoned.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take a break here from this talk of poison and exhumations. You've brought one of his poems with you to listen to, "I Explain a Few Things." Maybe you could help us get Pablo Neruda's voice into our head by reading from it. Would you?

STAVANS: Absolutely. And that is ultimately what the - what Pablo Neruda is all about, his own poetry. This, to me, "Explico Algunas Cosas," "I Explain a Few Things," is arguably one of the most beautiful poems that Neruda ever wrote, certainly one of the most beautiful poems, one of the most lasting ones of the Spanish language.

It is a somewhat long poem, and I am going only to read the second part. It was written when he was witnessing the burning of his house in Spain where he was a witness of - to the Spanish Civil War.

And in Spanish, the second part of the poem goes like this: (Reading) Y una manana todo estaba ardiendo, y una manana las hogueras salian de la tierra devorando seres, y desde entonces fuego, polvora desde entonces, y desde entonces sangre.

Bandidos con aviones y con moros, bandidos con sortijas y duquesas, bandidos con frailes negros bendiciendo venian por el cielo a matar ninos, y por las calles la sangre de los ninos corria simplemente, como sangre de ninos. Chacales que el chacal rechazaria, piedras que el cardo seco morderia escupiendo, viboras que las viboras odiaran. Frente a vosotros he visto la sangre de Espana levantarse para ahogaros en una sola ola de orgullo y de cuchillos.

Generales traidores: mirad mi casa muerta, mirad Espana rota: pero de cada casa muerta sale metal ardiendo en vez de flores, pero de cada hueco de Espana sale Espana, pero de cada nino muerto sale un fusil con ojos, pero de cada crimen nacen balas que os hallaran un dia el sitio del corazon. Preguntareis por que su poesia no nos habla del sueno, de las hojas, de los grandes volcanes de su pais natal? Venid a ver la sangre por las calles, venid a ver la sangre por las calles, venid a ver la sangre por las calles.

HEADLEE: Whoo. Blood in the streets. Could you translate? I mean, we - I mean, that's a - I mean, that is a perfect example of Neruda, just because his language is so vivid. I mean, what a way of putting you right in the moment. Maybe you can translate that for...

STAVANS: Sure. This is a translation by the extraordinary poet and translator Galway Kinnell, and it says: (Reading) And one morning it was all burning, and one morning bonfires sprang out of the earth, devouring humans. And from then on, fire, gunpowder from then on, and from then on blood. Bandidos with planes and Moors, bandidos with rings and duchesses, bandidos with black friars signing the cross, coming down from sky to kill children. And in the streets, the blood of children ran simply like blood of children.

Jackals the jackals would despise, stones that the dry thistle would bite and bit on and spit out, vipers that the vipers would abominate. Facing you, I have seen the blood of Spain rise up to drown you in a single wave of pride and knives. Traitors, generals: look at my dead house, look at Spain broken: from every house, burning metal comes out instead of flowers, from every crater of Spain comes Spain, from every dead child comes a rifle with eyes, from every crime bullets are born that one day will find out in due the sight of the heart.

You will ask: why doesn't his poetry speak to us of dreams, of leaves, of the great volcanoes of his native land? Come and see the blood in the streets, come and see the blood in the streets, come and see the blood in the streets.

HEADLEE: Poetry from Pablo Neruda, read by our guest, Ilan Stavans, who's reacting to the exhumation of Pablo Neruda's remains. And we're hoping there's some Chileans listening who have a response for or against the exhumation of the great poet. Is it important for you to know how Pablo Neruda really died? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org.

You know, Ilan, this is not the only high profile exhumation that we have had in that part of the world. I wonder, what's been the reaction? Has there been anything fruitful that's come from an exhumation of so many, like former Chilean president Salvador Allende?

STAVANS: Celeste, you are right. This is part of a pattern, and in - to me, as a Hispanic, or as a person that comes from Latin America, that pattern is troubling in the last five to seven years. A number of iconic figures like Salvador Allende and Federico Garcia Lorca and now Neruda, and also Simon Bolivar, have been exhumed with political agenda - in the case of Simon Bolivar, to see by Hugo Chavez, the previous president of Venezuela. If it was the Columbians, the oligarchy in Columbia who had poisoned the Libertadores, and it was a strategy by Chavez to put Simon Bolivar at the forefront of his own Bolivarian revolution. The case of Federico Garcia Lorca had also much to do with trying to find a particular site where he was killed and where he was - where his body was buried.

And there's something more of it. In my estimation, there's something creepy about this attempt to unearth the bones of iconic figures, of - or anybody else, and try to re-decipher the past. It seems to me that death is death, and I, again, understand the search for truth and the desire - particularly as a scholar - to set the record straight. But there are limits.

HEADLEE: All right. Well, let's get some reactions, here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We have one email here from Enrique in El Cerrito, California, who says: It's absolutely important to find out if Neruda died of natural causes or was poisoned. It's crucial for Chileans to establish the truth. To ignore the possibility of an assassination is to become an accomplice and to ignore the crimes against humanity committed by the dictatorship in the dark years of their regime. And we have a call here from Bernard in Gainesville, Florida. Bernard, thanks for calling. You're a Chilean?

BERNARD: Yes, I am. I live Gainesville, Florida for 10 years already. But I'm very familiar with all that happened in Chile. (unintelligible)

HEADLEE: Well, what do you think? Is it important for you to know exactly how Neruda died?

BERNARD: Absolutely, because this happened just after the coup. It was like a few days after the coup. And, actually, what happened from years after, is that our former president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, died in a mysterious way also in that from years after when we're trying to recoup our democracy, and years after his death was discovered that he was poisoned by the regime, by Pinochet's regime. So that was a big eye-opener for many people in our country.

And then, now, to know if Neruda was poisoned, also killed in some way - because this was chemical poisoning, what happened with Eduardo Frei Montalva. If it happened with Neruda, would be very important for our history. And for me, it would be particularly - I would really want to know what really happened. (technical difficulties) again, was another page of our (technical difficulties).

HEADLEE: OK. Thank you very much for calling. We're kind of losing your call - your signal there. That's Bernard in Gainesville, Florida, a Chilean who says it's very important. Let's a call here from a very different view, also from a Chilean, Gabriella, calling from Concord, Ohio. Gabriella, thanks for calling.

GABRIELLA: Hi. I'm calling because I believe that the question is: What is the truth? And, to me, the truth comes by honoring someone in life. So I would say, let's read his poems. Let's enjoy what he has to say. He honor human beings by talking about them. Let's talk about him, not about his death. I believe there's more truth in what he did in life, in the same way that Jesus Christ died for us and gave us abundant life, I think that is more honoring to talk about people in life.

And I am a second generation of people who suffered through Pinochet. My parents were against him. But I think that we're trying to put that in the past, and we're trying to live an abundant life. I think that digging bones does not solve any issues. I think that we just need to speak truth and live abundant life.

HEADLEE: That's Gabriella. Thank you so much, calling from Concord, Ohio, kind of echoing exactly what you're talking about, Ilan.

STAVANS: Yes. I should say that all these other efforts, that exhumation that I was talking about, they have been inconclusive, that it's - we have not been able to prove if Federico Garcia Lorca, if Simon Bolivar was poisoned or not, or Salvador Allende was indeed the - died of, you know, his own hand, from suicide, or he was killed. It is a desire and a legitimate desire out of our curiosity to understand the test. But in the end, I agree with the last caller. It is about life, and particularly in the case of Neruda. Neruda is a poet that he spent his entire life finding pleasure in love, in friendship, in travel, and it is about that that I think that we should focus on and perpetuate his message.

HEADLEE: All right. So you're basically saying, I mean, I would imagine that if it was discovered that he was poisoned, that would change the story of his end. You say it doesn't matter.

STAVANS: I don't think the story of his end is relevant. I think the story of his life is the one that significant. I understand that there have been a number of claims, one of them by his own wife, his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, who said that a day or two before he died in the hospital in Santiago, that he was given an injection. This is the same injection that his former driver mentions, that after that injection, having been in a state of anxiety, he went into a deep sleep, maybe even a coma, from which he never woke up, and that there is a suspicion that that injection was indeed some form of fatal and some form of poisoning. And in that clinic, as the previous caller mentioned, as well, there have been other cases of poisoning.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Questionable things.


HEADLEE: Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, "Disturbing Pablo Neruda's Rest." You can find a link at out website. He joined us from New England Public Radio, our member station in Amherst, Massachusetts. Ilan, thank you so much.

STAVANS: It's been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: Tomorrow, as the Gang of Eight prepares to unveil its immigration legislation, we're going to talk about the bill and its odds for passage. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.