Pablo Neruda: a passion for life, by Adam Feinstein

Chile's great poet of love and liberty
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The Independent Culture

The life of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was so filled with incident and people, and played out on so grand a geographical scale, as to be virtually unique among 20th-century writers.

The life of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was so filled with incident and people, and played out on so grand a geographical scale, as to be virtually unique among 20th-century writers.

Adam Feinstein, in a biography to coincide with the centenary of the poet's birth, has produced a magnificently researched work that guides the reader though a potentially overwhelming amount of material. We meet most of the Spanish-speaking world's cultural protagonists, from Lorca to Diego Rivera, from Picasso to Borges. But so gregarious was Neruda that the friendships and encounters extend to Arthur Miller, Nehru and even Trotsky.

Particularly compelling is the account of the critical period in Neruda's youth, spent in obscure consular postings all over the Far East. Lonely, impoverished, waiting for funds, he underwent mental trials that make those suffered by Graham Greene's fictional consuls seem mild.

Feinstein brilliantly elucidates the two main driving forces behind Neruda's life and work: his obsession with women and no less passionate commitment to left-wing politics. Described by one of his lovers as "super- endowed not just as a poet", he had the ability to be simultaneously in love with two or more women. The result was three marriages, a series of jealous confrontations, and some of the finest love poems in Spanish.

But Neruda's political sympathies led to his main moments of heroism, drama and controversy. Active in the aftermath of Spain's Civil War, later a member of Chile's Communist Party, he was forced in 1948 to make a hair-raising flight across the Andes after denouncing the president. His championing of the oppressed was wholly commendable in view of Chile's history of terrible massacres directed against rebel workers. Less easy to appreciate was his unconditional worship of Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Fortunately, any declining sympathy is halted by Feinstein's well-told account of the poet's last days. Dying of prostate cancer at the time of Pinochet's Nixon-backed coup, Neruda confronted the soldiers who burst into his house at Isla Negra with the memorable phrase, "The only thing of danger you'll find here is poetry."

Perhaps it is too much to ask that such a balanced, clear-headed version of Neruda's life should also contain a penetrating assessment of a poet whose complex achievement embraces the conventionally lyrical, the chaotically surreal, the epic and, at times, a staggering simplicity.

What it lacks, too, is any firm sense of place. There is, surprisingly, no proper description of Neruda's stunningly seductive houses, nor any real evocation of the landscapes that were so important to him. For the latter, the reader has to turn to Neruda's Memoirs, reissued by Souvenir Press (£12.99). In their energy, scope, and exceptional vividness, they alone would justify Neruda's exalted position in modern literature.

The reviewer's 'The Factory of Light' is published by John Murray

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