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Canto general.

This new English edition of Neruda's Canto general highlights the talents of three outstanding individuals. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, is, of course, one of the century's greatest literary figures. Jack Schmitt is a highly regarded translator whose English version of Raul Zurita's Anteparaiso attracted considerable attention when it was published in 1986. Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, who has written extensively on contemporary Spanish American poetry, is one of Hispanism's most respected critics.

The Canto general published in Mexico and clandestinely in Chile in 1950, is a long poetic chronicle of Latin America written from a Marxist perspective. Gonzalez Echeverria points out that the title, which means literally "General Song," harks back to the medieval period. In works such as Alfonso el Sabio's Generale Storia, "general" referred to the vast sum of human experience, both concrete and mythological. In works such as the Chanson de Roland, "song" evokes the idea of "national epic." Composed of fiteen sections, each one of which is made up of several poems, the Canto general relates the history of Latin American from 1400 until the middle of the twentieth century, emphasizing the exploitation of the native populations.

In "cortes," for example, Neruda focuses on the Conquistador's greed, his manipulation of the hostility that existed between the Tlaxcaltecs and the Aztecs, and on his betrayal of Moctezuma's trust. Neruda conveys Cortes' inhumanity through metaphors that liken him to blind forces or lifeless tissue: "rayo frio" ("chilling thunderbolt"); "corazon muerto en la armadura" ("cold heart clad in armor"). On the other hand, the poet associates the Indian with natural, procreative, and cosmic elements.

Neruda sings the praises of the working masses--the farmer, the shoemaker, the fisherman, the miner. He denounces the foreign companies that reaped huge profits in Latin America, while sowing violence and despair. Alluding to the totalitarianism that has plagued Latin America during most of its history, he likens local despots to pashas who surround themselves with wealth, but who cannot camouflage the screams of their victims or the stench of the rot they have created.

One of the best known segments of the Canto general is "Alturas de Macchu Picchu" ("The Heights of Macchu Picchu"), in which the poet contemplates the roots of Latin American history from the famous citadel of the Incas. In this work, past and present are fused into a sole reality. Nature brings continual renewal while the monuments of ancient civilizations evoke a sense of permancnece.

The next-to-last poem is a hymn to the Communist Party, which, like many other Latin American and European progressives, Neruda joined in the 1940s. Gonzalez Echevarria writes that in view of the recent disintegration of the Communist world, Neruda's vision seems obsolete. Nevertheless, he says, Neruda presents a cohesive world-view that is reflected in his poetry and although his political stance now appears naive, this does not diminish the greatness of his artistic accomplishment.

The publication last year of Enrico Santi's excellent edition of the Canto general made this important work more accessible than ever before to Spanish-speaking audiences. Jack Schmitt's brilliant translation now makes it accessible to English-speaking audiences as well.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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