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Pablo Neruda, then Chilean ambassador to France, after being named the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Laurent Rebours/The Associated Press)
Pablo Neruda, then Chilean ambassador to France, after being named the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Laurent Rebours/The Associated Press)

Four decades later, Pablo Neruda’s death remains a mystery Add to ...

Pablo Neruda’s birth name would have been hard to fit on a dust jacket. The Nobel Prize-winning poet was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in 1904 to a teacher and a railway worker in the Chilean town of Parral. His nom de plume, and eventual rechristening, was an ode to the Czech poet Jan Neruda. It was a fitting gesture for the worldly literary figure, who would serve in diplomatic postings for his country from Java to Barcelona to Mexico City, and whose long-standing communism gave him an internationalist bent.

But it was Mr. Neruda’s commitment to Chile and its politics that shaped his life – and may eventually have ended it. He was just 19 when he published his first book, Crepusculario (1923), and developed a reputation as a up-and-coming young writer while studying at the University of Chile in Santiago. His homeland was also an early subject for the poet, especially in Canto General de Chile (General Song of Chile), which he later expanded into an epic of South American history.

In 1945, Mr. Neruda won a seat in the national Senate, where he served as a Communist. Just two years into his tenure, his opposition to the sitting president’s harsh policy toward striking miners drove him underground and then into exile. It was only in 1952, after three years abroad, that he was able to return home.

Known around the world for his sensuous love poems, Mr. Neruda was something of a “bon vivant,” says Joan Simalchik, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Toronto who has written extensively about Chile. He split his time between houses in Santiago, Valparaiso and Isla Negra off the country’s coast, where he kept his large collections of butterflies, books and nautical memorabilia. The title of his memoirs translates as I Confess I Have Lived.

“It encapsulates his appetite for life and joy,” Dr. Simalchik said. “He was a lover of life.”

His death, on the other hand, remains a source of rancour and confusion. After campaigning aggressively for Salvador Allende, the Socialist candidate in Chile’s 1970 presidential election, Mr. Neruda was made ambassador to France, where he served until 1972. The next year, while Mr. Neruda was being treated for prostate cancer in a Santiago hospital, Mr. Allende was overthrown in a military coup that led to the President’s apparent suicide and the establishment of a right-wing junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet.

Less than two weeks later, Mr. Neruda died – ostensibly of cancer, though rumours of assassination circulated from the start. The poet’s funeral in Santiago touched off a wave of public grief and became the first large-scale protest against the military regime. Sensing the danger of Mr. Neruda’s memory, the junta set about repressing it. They destroyed his house in Santiago, burned his books in the streets and banned the publication of his work.

“Because he was such a popular, iconic figure, his image had to be destroyed,” Dr. Simalchik said.

There were bodies in the river’

If the question of Pablo Neruda’s possible assassination remains deeply contested, the existence of widespread political murder in Chile at the time is beyond doubt.

Beginning on Sept. 11, 1973, Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of the leftist government of Salvador Allende was brutally violent. Military aircraft bombed the presidential palace and jackbooted soldiers filled the streets of Santiago. After Mr. Allende’s apparent suicide, the junta set its sights on supporters of the deposed government; loudspeakers in the capital called on leftists to turn themselves in and the national stadium became a holding pen for political prisoners.

“The early days were quite horrible,” University of Toronto history and gender studies professor Joan Simalchik said. “There were bodies in the river.”

The military government made a special point of targeting left-wing cultural figures such as Victor Jara, a theatre director and singer-songwriter who had become a hero of Allende partisans with songs such as Prayer to a Worker. Mr. Jara was arrested shortly after the coup and taken to Estadio Chile, where he was tortured and shot to death.

Torture and assassination remained hallmarks of the Pinochet regime for its duration. In 1982, the former president Eduardo Frei Montalva died in the same hospital as Mr. Neruda; an investigation more than 20 years later found that Mr. Montalva had been killed with mustard gas and thallium.

Questions about U.S. involvement in the coup and subsequent human-rights abuses have persisted through the years. Chile had little history of dictatorship, Dr. Simalchik says.

“This was really quite a break from their own history. And it was a shock. The country was shocked,” she said.

The U.S. government was openly hostile to the Allende government, fearing he might establish another communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, along the lines of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. In 1970, the CIA tried to instigate a coup to prevent Mr. Allende from taking office after his election win; the same year, then-U.S. president Richard Nixon ordered the agency to make Chile’s economy “scream,” according to declassified documents.

But the CIA continues to maintain that it had no role in planning the 1973 putsch, and only learned about its imminence days before it happened.

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