It was whilst a consulate in Madrid at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that Neruda underwent his political awakening. The murder of his friend and fellow poet Federico Garcia Lorca at the hands of Franco’s fascists had a particularly profound impact, and Neruda henceforth became a lifelong communist. As his deepening political commitment emerged, Neruda’s oeuvre moved away from its earlier surrealism towards the new form of ‘socialist realism’ with its emphasis of class struggles and injustice – culminating in his masterpiece, Canto General. Much of it written whilst in exile during one of Chile’s many power struggles, this epic collection of 231 poems is a Whitmanesque homage to the whole South American continent: its nature, heroes, indigenous leaders, history and destiny. And, like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Canto General found its most appreciative audience beyond the intelligentsia, establishing Neruda as the People’s Poet of Latin America.
By September 1973, Neruda had been ill for some time with terminal cancer when General Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup overthrew the poet’s friend and political comrade, President Salvador Allende. Within days, and as Neruda lay bedridden, Pinochet’s soldiers came and ransacked his home. “The only weapons you will find here,” Neruda told them, “are words.” In the wake of the trauma, and said to be heartbroken after hearing of Allende’s death under suspicious circumstances, Neruda’s condition worsened and he was transferred to hospital. And so it happened that – with what can only be described as impeccable poetic timing – Pablo Neruda died less than two weeks after Pinochet’s coup.
As the news swept across Chile that the legendary poet was dead, Pinochet refused permission to grant Neruda a public funeral. But in the first public display of protest against Pinochet’s regime, thousands of grieving Chileans boldly disobeyed the order and defiantly took to the streets to pay their respects to their beloved hero.