Reading Neruda in 2021: On reading rapists, and constructing writers

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By Anidrita Saikia

On 12th July, while scrolling through the mindlessness of social media, a Facebook post caught my eye. Framed above a striking black and white picture of a distinguished looking senior man with a bald head and a looming gaze, the caption celebrated him with little pink hearts: “Happy Birthday to Pablo Neruda, poet extraordinaire and spirited revolutionary.” This seemingly innocuous post led me to ponder on the legacy of Neruda which we have inherited today. Poet extraordinaire? Most definitely. Spirited revolutionary? Absolutely. A rapist and assaulter? An uncomfortable silence proceeds.

Neruda’s poems are not something that is foreign to the reader of South Asia. While browsing through Amazon India, his most famous compilation of poems, the slim text of Twenty Love Songs and a Poem of Despair holds 694 reviews while Goodreads has a blinding 57,112 ratings – almost all of them glowing, describing his work as sensual, tender, and beautiful. Neruda did write beautifully. During the years when adulthood and teenage blurred out to a foggy indistinction, I had visited his Tonight I can write numerous times, shared Love Sonnet XI and dwelt over the lingering romance of his words. I read lines like “The morning is full of storm/ in the heart of summer” and saw Neruda pensively brooding over a piece of paper with ink-stained fingers, pondering over love and losses. Neruda thrived, in my mind and my bookshelf, like a comforting older friend who would always have wise words that palliated the turbulences of youth.

But these constructions of love and what we make of poets are a far cry from the people who wrote those words. As a callow teenager who was introduced to Sylvia Plath in the Class 10 NCERT English textbook through The Mirror and then discovering The Bell Jar after a few years, Plath seemed like a distant, haunting figure: contemplative and melancholic, beautiful in the ways that distant White women of a black and white era were: carelessly pretty and wrapped in the preoccupation of their foreign lives. I had imagined Plath, brooding, upset, and angry: at the mirror, at how the men in her life have failed her, at a world which confined women who dreamt to be mothers and wives. In my head, Sylvia moved about forlornly, taking solitary walks and sighing deeply over blank notebooks. It was only after I swerved into my twenties with the burgeoning discoveries that unlimited Internet brought that I rediscovered another side to Plath: happy. With platinum blonde bleached hair or sunbathing in her backyard and sipping a drink with flowers in her hair, she looked indistinguishable from the coy American women I had seen growing up in magazines my mother hoarded for embroidery designs. And yet I was also aware at how the deceptivity of photographs might have hidden her despair, and I wondered, while gazing at her frozen smiles and glinting eyes, how much pain she must have harbored in her heart then.

In many ways, the words we write are never ours to keep. The ideas and images we construct of the people we read are often at disparate angles when juxtaposed against the people who write them. We read their words, we relish them, share them, and criticize them. Their struggles and stories strike our hearts with threads of relatability, and in doing so we create a cocoon of closeness. In a class on medieval Indian history, our professor told us how in the 1700s, when Delhi was facing perpetual depredations due to raids by the Afghans and Marathas, life was a precarious account of impending peril. But when the city was at its worst, the poets were at the best. Poets like Mir Taki Mir wrote stirringly, encapsulating the pathos of their generation in Persian and Urdu, lamenting how the days were clouded with anguish. Now, more than 200 years later, Mir’s sorrowful words continue to be widely recited and shared. Reading is often a solitary act, but for its mundanity, it can also be revolutionary – for in times of torment, it is a revelation of solidarity to the suffering to know that one’s pain is never unprecedented – and suddenly, the reader realizes that he is not alone. Words bring us close to the condition of being human, because sometimes words are all that we have. 

But this condition of being human, messy, and complicated, is not a clean slate that allows us to exist within the parameters of what we understand as ideal. If falling in love, losing, and despairing is an enduring reminder of the resilience of being human, so are the dichotomies of domination, thriving on structural parameters conditioned by social norms. Neruda, renowned poet and much-loved politician, was also a rapist. In his visit to Sri Lanka, he had sexually assaulted a domestic worker of the Dalit caste. The woman exists to us like how hundreds of other Dalit women have been present in the annals of history and literature: unnamed, with no other identity than the labour she provides. Neruda, enamored by her beauty, attempted to engage with her, but was met with indifference until, as his Memoirs state:

One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me.

This confessional narrative in his autobiography was published in 1974, a year after his mysterious death and three years after he had been bestowed the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. And in the course of all these years, when his writings continued to be consumed with acclaim and admiration, this small paragraph lay silently, read by many but reflected by few. If Neruda lived today, it would not be too far off the mark to imagine how the repetitive arches of social media would be ablaze of “cancelling him”. A recent DailyO article questions us all, “Do you still read Neruda in 2021? How?” When protests erupted across Latin America in the time of #metoo and the #NiUnaMenos against femicide, the need for reassessing Neruda came to light studying his impersonal male gaze, his objectification of women, and how much of his poetry stems from his masculinist authority. For Neruda life and career has been distinctly masculinist: at the forefront of the communist movement and party in Chile, hiking and hiding across countries, and travelling across the world as a diplomat. Politics and diplomacy, while never being absent of women who have thrived in its books marginally, have mostly always been a man’s affair.

So how does one read Neruda in 2021? Should one read him at all? In my advocacy, yes. It is important to acknowledge that literature and poetry – testimonies to the tangles of the difficult condition of being alive, and thus being human – are also written by rapists, assaulters, murderers, who sometimes imbibe their prose with breathtaking beauty, and remind us that good literature does not pour out from saints. Writers do not wear haloes; readers bestow it upon them. Neruda occupied one of the most important timelines of South American history, and his writings like Canto General, an epic history of oppression and revolution of South America, stands as a classic staple even today.

But how does the world remember the exigencies of what Marquez called “the greatest writer of the 20th century?” For me, reading Neruda is a project rooted with the coldness of analytical observation: gone are the days when I mooned over the tenderness of his verses. Now, reading Neruda is not the same, as I take his poetry, for instance, “Body of a Woman”:

“Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs into you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.”

And I try to understand how he wrote this. Whom did he have in mind while writing this? Did women simply exist as objects of admiration to him – beautiful, desirable objects, without any acknowledgement of consent? Would he have written of raping the Dalit woman like this, too? I think, and I feel sick. As the rhetorical intricacies of his verses unfurl, I take comfort in the monotonous clarity that age can bring – Yes, I read Neruda in 2021, but without the naiveness of youth, and his poetry that unfolds before me are simply words, serving as a reminder in how one of the most illustrious and loved writers in the world was complicit in robbing a woman’s freedom and autonomy away with negligible remorse – and how men in power continue to get away with anything.

Bio:
Anidrita Saikia is an MPhil research scholar at the Dept. of History, Delhi University.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine“Special commemorative issue: 100 years of Satyajit Ray – the indefinable genius”, edited by Roshni Sengupta, Jagiellonian University Krakow, Poland.

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