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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Kent Johnson on Pablo Neruda

The below letter, sent on 2/11/17, responds to a U.S. poet and translator who asked me, in good faith, to expand on certain comments posted at Dispatches related to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Specifically, this person questioned my characterization ( of Neruda’s central role in deciding which Spanish Republican refugees would be allowed to board the Chilean freighter Winnipeg as Nazi forces advanced across France, in 1939. I invited this person to respond to my letter below, but he/she did not wish to enter a public dialogue on the matter. Thus the person’s name is deleted.

– Kent Johnson


Dear X,

No, it's not just the Winnipeg incident. It's mainly that Neruda was a high-level, loyal apologist for any number of Stalinist crimes. He was in close relation with the Comintern throughout the height of the Terror, and was an active operative of the NKVD years before he “officially” joined the Communist Party (his many homes, extensive collections, and lavish lifestyle weren’t financed by poetry sales only). He not only knew about the purges and the mass killings of a whole generation of revolutionaries, but directly participated in the first attempted murder of Leon Trotsky, the leader of the Left Opposition (Neruda likely had some kind of supporting role in the second--successful--raid, too, arriving with diplomatic cover to Mexico not long before it happened). He was a trusted Kremlin crony, and he received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1953 for his services. His later, nauseating “Ode to Stalin” is not some kind of "error" of understanding, much as he self-servingly tried to airbrush it that way.

The Winnipeg matter is symbolic of Neruda’s complicity in the massive, counterrevolutionary (that's the word) crimes of Stalinism. Neruda’s boarding list is not an isolated case of ideological bias, or something explainable as a Sophie’s Choice type dilemma, honorably managed under the duress of material constraints. It is that his careful vetting actions were of a piece with the Comintern's policy of persecution and terror against forces of the anti-Stalinist left in Spain (Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is a good introduction to this, though there are now all sorts of detailed studies on Stalin’s betrayal of Spain). Stalin’s cynical, destructive policies indisputably contributed to the defeat of the Republic, and Neruda openly backed them. He is on record as having said, in days leading up to the Winnipeg evacuation, that he'd never allow any anarchists to travel to Chile. Nor members of the revolutionary socialist POUM, either, to be sure. Orwell would have been left on the dock, if he'd been there.

So Neruda’s denial of passage to refugees of the libertarian left can't be dismissed by arguing that, “Well, there were only a certain number of spaces, so what’s the difference?” It was much more than that. In fact, a bit much as it might sound to fans of Saint Uncle Pablo, there is every indication Neruda was quite happy for the Nazis to finish off the Marxist and anarchist opponents of Stalin. After all, they were the comrades of those being disappeared by the thousands in the USSR, so why not? And anyway, the Hitler-Stalin Pact was in process of being negotiated, at that very moment, something Neruda, as a high-level figure in the Third International, would have been up to speed about (the pact was signed little more than two weeks after the Winnipeg left port, at which point Neruda began publicly praising the new alliance with Nazi Germany, good “fellow traveler” that he was). And actually, yes, since you raise the question: Given the pact, it’s entirely arguable that the CP members might have fared better under the early occupation of France than the anarchists did!

And then – and on a different kind of disturbing dimension – is Neruda’s near-boasting, “lyrical” description of his rape of a young Tamil woman, one who was in near-slave relation to him (his toilet cleaner), when the younger poet was a Chilean Consul in Ceylon. It’s downright shocking that in all the decades-long hagiographic hoopla over Neruda that virtually none of his admirers seem to have noticed this incredible passage in the self-promoting memoir he wrote in his older years. If the political stuff isn’t enough to put a stop to the liberal, blurry worship, maybe this should give people some pause?

Neruda was a Stalinist apparatchik, complicit in great crimes. He wasn’t a nice-guy lefty poet. But I don't deny he was a great poet, any more than I deny the pro-fascist Ezra Pound or the Vichy supporter Gertrude Stein, say, were great poets, as well. While some of his work is on the light side of things, much of it is of indisputable achievement. And such kinds of paradox (bad person/good poet) do seem to accompany nearly all the great ones, admittedly. Still, the Copper Canyon book would be a lot better--a lot more credible and responsible--if it didn't follow the well-trodden lead of Il Postino-like marketing, portraying Neruda as some kind of soft-hearted progressive martyr. Which is good for the sales, but is nothing less than an "alternative fact."




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About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, but have returned to Vietnam, where I live in remote Ea Kly. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), and six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems apparently cancelled by Chax Press from external pressure. I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.