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He's known as Chile's greatest poet, but feminists say Pablo Neruda is canceled

A writing desk at one of Pablo Neruda's homes, now a museum, in Isla Negra, Chile, on Aug. 31. The museum attracts a steady stream of visitors, despite recent denunciations of the Chilean poet, who died in 1973.
Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
A writing desk at one of Pablo Neruda's homes, now a museum, in Isla Negra, Chile, on Aug. 31. The museum attracts a steady stream of visitors, despite recent denunciations of the Chilean poet, who died in 1973.

ISLA NEGRA, Chile — There's a steady stream of fans visiting the museum that once was the home of Pablo Neruda, widely considered Chile's greatest poet. It's located on massive black cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It's also the spot where Neruda is buried.

The poet died 49 years ago, yet his reputation remains a work in progress.

Neruda has always been a polarizing figure in Chile, mainly for his left-wing politics. But now he is being called out by Chile's growing feminist movement as a male chauvinist and sexual predator.

"He's been canceled," says Lieta Vivaldi, a human rights activist and member of Chile's Feminist Lawyers Association.

The latest controversy over Neruda, who in 1971 became the second Chilean awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, sprang up in 2018 with the rise of Chile's #MeToo movement against sexual abuse. Activists singled out some of Neruda's verses as sexist and focused new attention on several disturbing episodes from the poet's past.

Neruda abandoned his only child, Malva Marina, and her mother. His daughter was born with hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid within the brain that can lead to swelling of the head — and died at age 8.

What's more, Neruda wrote about his rape of a cleaning woman in his hotel room in 1930, in what is now Sri Lanka.

"I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist. ... The encounter was of a man with a statue," Neruda wrote in his memoir, published in 1974, a year after his death from cancer. "She was right to despise me."

Initially, his admission went almost unnoticed. But Chile's feminist movement — newly energized by a series of sexual abuse scandals at the country's universities and by the global #MeToo movement -- has called attention to the episode, and disdain for Neruda is spreading.

Salvador Young, who buys online books for Chile's National Digital Library, says that for the past several years, he was instructed by his supervisors not to purchase Neruda's books. Otherwise, he says, "Readers would demand to know: 'Why are you promoting a rapist?'"

A message in graffiti reads, "Let's not forget that Neruda with his love poems confesses to us that 'anecdote' of rape with impunity" at one of Pablo Neruda's homes, now a museum, in Isla Negra, Chile, on Aug. 31. The museum is enclosed by a fence where visitors write their names and leave messages and poems.
/ Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
A message in graffiti reads, "Let's not forget that Neruda with his love poems confesses to us that 'anecdote' of rape with impunity" at one of Pablo Neruda's homes, now a museum, in Isla Negra, Chile, on Aug. 31. The museum is enclosed by a fence where visitors write their names and leave messages and poems.

Some Chilean universities and high schools are steering clear of Neruda. One high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized by his school to speak to NPR, says many of his female students despise Neruda. He now teaches him less than he did a few years ago.

By contrast, he says, "When I was in school, we had to learn Neruda and recite his poetry. There are verses that students of my generation still recite and analyze."

Among them, he says, is "From the Heights of Machu Picchu," which Neruda wrote following an inspirational trip to the ancient Incan mountaintop site. The poem has been put to music by the Chilean group Los Jaivas.

Rejection of the poet by feminists is so strong that in 2018, Chile's Congress scrapped a proposal to rename the country's main international airport after Neruda. Meanwhile, anti-Neruda slogans were spray-painted on several walls during #MeToo marches in Santiago, Chile's capital.

It's easy to misread Neruda's works, warns Kemy Oyarzun, a poet and professor of gender studies at the University of Chile. Yet even she is less enthusiastic about Neruda these days.
/ Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
It's easy to misread Neruda's works, warns Kemy Oyarzun, a poet and professor of gender studies at the University of Chile. Yet even she is less enthusiastic about Neruda these days.

Kemy Oyarzun, a poet and professor of gender studies at the University of Chile, says this was a response to one of Neruda most famous verses, an ode to silence called "Poem XV."

It begins: "I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent."

Oyarzun says some feminists interpreted this as Neruda telling his lover in the poem to keep her mouth shut. They responded with graffiti proclaiming, "Neruda, now you shut up!"

At a #MeToo demonstration in Santiago in August, high school student Laura Brodsky, 18, said her instructors are not teaching Neruda. Referring to the rape confession in his memoir, Brodsky emphasized that she and her fellow students "have no interest in learning about him."

All this is a startling reversal for one of the world's most famous, prolific and bestselling poets, who has often been compared to Walt Whitman. Neruda's masterwork, Canto General (General Song), is an epic history of Latin America, recounted by way of 231 poems.

In a country where poetry had long been composed by and for the well-to-do, Neruda was known as the poet of the people, often writing about the working class and Indigenous groups, as well as Chile's natural wonders.

In addition, Neruda won praise around the world for his humanitarian work in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, following his diplomatic service as consul, he helped bring more than 2,000 Spaniards — who were fleeing Gen. Francisco Franco's newly installed military regime — to Chile.

Pablo Picasso (left) embraces Pablo Neruda at the end of the Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris in 1949.
/ AP
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AP
Pablo Picasso (left) embraces Pablo Neruda at the end of the Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris in 1949.

"Many working people and progressive activists — not just in Chile, not just in Latin America, but all over the world — adopted him as their hero, proclaimed him as their own," wrote Mark Eisner, author of Neruda: The biography of a poet.

Still, Neruda has fallen from grace before.

In 1947, Chile's government outlawed the Communist Party — of which Neruda was a member — and accused him of treason. To avoid arrest, he went underground; then, in 1949, he escaped by horseback across the snow-capped Andes Mountains to Argentina.

Neruda eventually returned. But in 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power and his right-wing military regime burned Neruda's books while promoting poet Gabriela Mistral, another Nobel Prize winner, who was viewed at the time as apolitical.

As during those past anti-Neruda crusades, many writers and academics say the current campaign has gone too far.

Fernando Saez, executive director of the Pablo Neruda Foundation that oversees the late poet's estate, points out that many writers, painters and musicians have had stormy personal lives, and says reproachable behavior should not negate their artistic contributions.

Doing so, he says "is tremendously dangerous."

Author Isabel Allende has also defended Neruda's literary legacy. "Like many young feminists in Chile I am disgusted by some aspects of Neruda's life and personality," she told the Guardian in 2018. "Unfortunately, Neruda was a flawed person, as we all are in one way or another, and Canto General is still a masterpiece."

Scenes of Pablo Neruda's Isla Negra home, now a museum, including a small hut that was one of his writing locations (left).
/ Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
Scenes of Pablo Neruda's Isla Negra home, now a museum, including a small hut that was one of his writing locations (left).

Neruda "is a very, very important poet and you cannot just cancel him because of his personal life," Vivaldi says. "In that case, we would be judging everyone."

It's also easy to misread Neruda, says Oyarzun. Take "Poem XV," the one some interpret as a plea for his lover to shut up.

"That's not what he meant," Oyarzun says. "He meant to learn from women. He says: 'I love it when you're in silence because silence is my favorite dimension and I learn from your silence.'"

The Isla Negra museum was one of Neruda's three homes.
/ Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
The Isla Negra museum was one of Neruda's three homes.

Yet even Oyarzun is less enthusiastic about Neruda these days. She says so much fuss over Neruda for so long has ended up overshadowing the work of female poets in Chile, where many of them remain largely unknown.

"I myself have chosen to teach young women's poetry that was denied for so many decades," she says. "So if you tell me — 'Will you teach a course only on Neruda?" — I will not do that."

At the Neruda museum on Isla Negra, many fans brush off criticism about the poet. Among them is Santiago storekeeper Jorge Díaz, who says many Chilean men of Neruda's generation behaved the same way.

"Neruda had a dark side," he says. "But everyone has a dark side."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A visitor and staff member at the Neruda museum in Isla Negra on Aug. 31. Many of Neruda's collections in the house are nautical-themed, including ships in bottles, seashells and a narwhal tusk.
/ Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
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Paz Olivares Droguett for NPR
A visitor and staff member at the Neruda museum in Isla Negra on Aug. 31. Many of Neruda's collections in the house are nautical-themed, including ships in bottles, seashells and a narwhal tusk.

John Otis