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Chile's Golpe & Neruda's Deathbed Poem.

A Charged Season

When they suddenly coincided in the autumn of 1973, themselves utterly discrete, both Chile's golpe/coup d'etat and Israel's Yom Kippur War had gone through years in the making. On me those outbursts hit a deep vein. Six years back I'd had a swerving year in Chile absorbing the language, travelling, teaching American literature in Santiago. And just before those two 1973 disasters coincided, I'd arranged to teach American literature next year at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

The Chilean coup broke out on September 11th, 1973. At that time I was translating Pablo Neruda, musing on a book, so the shock seized and spurred me. Three weeks later, I must have been too en- grossed to switch my energies, grasp the new news when Israel was struck: attacks and retreats from October 6th to 25th, America and Russia supporting their respective allies, deaths galore--2500 Israelis, 16,000 Egyptians and Syrians.

The Swerving Year

Once in 1966 I'd been stunned by a radio voice from New York: "I come from a country that was created by a poet." This was Neruda in English, and he meant Alonso de Ercilla, a Spanish soldier whose 16th-century epic La Araucana esteemed the indigenous southern Araucanos' resistance that kept Spain from taking Chile. "I belong to a piece of poor southern earth verging on Araucania," Neruda liked to say. Around that time my slight Spanish was getting boosted by Nathaniel Tarn's recent welcome translation of Neruda's Alturas de Macchu Picchu, his short but crucial 1948 epic asserting Latin America's stature. All this, plus my own Vietnam-era restlessness and my wife Mary's eye on South America for her PhD research, brought about a venture to Chile.

In June 1967 a young couple goes south, gulping Chichen-Itzai, Uxmal, Chapultepec, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Teotihuacan, Diego and Frida's Mexico City studio, Chichicastenango, Atitkin, the Equator, and Machu Picchu where we're wonderfully alone (though there does seem to be a photo of us two, happily backed by Huaynu Picchu). In July we reach Santiago, recent immigrants to California feeling connected to this other lengthy slender land, its Pacific coast and inland peaks, tremolos, red wine, rapid chat, song. The very evening we arrive, we're taken to La Pena de los Parra, a new song cafe. The fabulous folklorist-singer-painter-potter-activist Violeta Parra has taken her life a few months earlier. That evening we hear her daughter and son, Isabel and Angel, also Victor Jara and Rolando Alarcon.

During our eight months between the Pacific and the Andes, Mary researches Chilean independence and I teach North American literature at the Universidad de Chile, the Pedagogico. Travelling north and south opens us to the land, from Atacama desert 1600 miles down to Pablo's Araucanian Temuco birthplace, the great lakes and volcanos, Puerto Montt, Chiloe Island.

And always the language arises. Twice a week Luz de Eyzaguirre, slim elderly scion of a Basque family, comes to our apartment to teach. When there's a question, she says gently, gravely, DEE-ga-me no mas Senora MAYry, "Just tell me, Missus Mary." In the city, Mary scours archives to find what streets elite revolutionary Basque women lived on in the early 1800s. Meanwhile I leap daily onto rattling buses, micros, to the University, teaching alongside the poet Poli Delano. As often as not, an empty classroom's slate blackboard meets us with a chalked message from Young Socialists: TOCADA/"TAKEN."

Once, when Neruda is travelling Europe, we drive out to Isla Negra, his surf-struck, souvenir-teeming home south of Valparaiso, and on an- other day, roam through his Santiago town house, La Chascona. When his first and only play opens, Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquin Murieta/"Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta," we get a rousing view of a Chilean--or Mexican--bandit meeting racism in the California Gold Rush, showing up Neruda's 1960s anti-imperialism. One evening, Santiago's Nathaniel Stadium fills up as Pablo and his soul mate Yevgeny Yevtushenko swap their sense of poetry and Russia. We've never seen such thousands of families and workers heeding and cheering poets.

Through colleagues I make a friend in Hernan Loyola, literary critic on Chile's Communist paper El Siglo and fervent scholar of Pablo Neruda. This friendship draws me closer to the Picasso of poetry, as I come to see him. Hernan and I stay in touch after my Chile year, he begins teaching at the Universidad, and to my delight, proposes an essay for Anales de la Universidad de Chile. Translated by the poet Waldo Rojas, my piece becomes "La danza inmovil, el vendaval sostenido [Still Dance, Gale Still Runs]: Four Quartets de T. S. Eliot y Alturas de Macchu Picchu." This issue gives homage to Neruda, Salvador Allende's ambassador to France and Nobel laureate, and appears early in 1973.

Several months later, Hernan sends me a 30 x 21 inch brightly colored poster message aimed at artists and intellectuals, created by Pablo Neruda. Having witnessed "the most shameless events of our time," Spain's civil war, he evokes "the present moment's gravity," an "armed combat" that threatens "mourning in every Chilean household," and he ends: "The Chilean way, known and admired by all the world's peoples, will be unflinchingly defended by Chile's people."

That September Herrain Loyola, Waldo Rojas, Isabel and Angel Parra, Poli Delano and countless others flee from Chile into exile.


1973's 9/11 coup or golpe --blow, punch--arose from Chilean military forces plus Nixon's, Kissinger's, and the CIA's cold war desire to "depose" the socialist president Salvador Allende. (That epithet so tagged his three years, you'd have thought "Socialist President" was the position he was elected to.) Also right-wing women strode the streets, brandishing their pots and pans to save their country from Communism. When the golpe struck, Victor Jara was picked up and imprisoned with thousands of others in Santiago's infamous Chile Stadium (now called Victor Jara Stadium). Brutally beaten, after five days he was gunned to death. His wife Joan found his body in the morgue. Before Jara's death, soldiers had recognized him, smashed his wrists with a rife barrel, then handed him his guitar: Canta ahora si puedes, hijo de puta! "Sing now if you can, son of a slut!"

On a Stanford campus still seething with "Vietnam," as that whole tragedy was called, I began alerting my English Department and our University to "Chile." Then, with other academics, we urged the United States government to withhold aid to Chile's military junta under Augusto Pinochet. Though a tenderfoot, I managed a 9/18/73 cable urging the U.N.'s Kurt Waldheim, plus Henry Kissinger, J. William Fulbright, and Edward Kennedy, to make the Chilean military lift news censorship. Then I had other Americans agree to sign on: Archibald MacLeish, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Bly, Muriel Rukeyser, Arthur Miller, Rose Styron, Robert Hass, Roger Straus, John Laughlin, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds.

Pablo Neruda, born 1904, was then under medical care for prostate cancer. Right after the coup, soldiers searched Neruda's Isla Negra home. "Look around," he's said to have said, "there's only one thing of danger for you here poetry." Rumors spread that the army was preventing him from receiving medicine. Given his worldwide fame, I hoped this radical poet would be spared--but how to help that happen?

Deathbed Poem?

A few days after the golpe, deep in a September night, I'm awakened by a phone call with news from Prensa Latina via Asia News Service. Someone in Berkeley, who knows I'm a Neruda person, tells me the poet on his deathbed has violently denounced Nixon, Pinochet, and others. It's spreading worldwide. A bit dazed in bed, I listen and start scribbling word by word of Las satrapias:
Nixon, Frei,
     hasta hoy, hasta este amargo
     mrs de septiembre
     de 1973...,

"this day this bitter/month of September/1973..."I scribble down to the end,
sin otra Icy que la
     y el hambre azotada del pueblo,

"with no other law but torture / and the lashing hungerof the people."

Mary and I want to share this news with the right people, but 3a.m. in California is no decent phoning time, even for the east coast.Finally, far west in Hawaii, we reach a Latin America historian friend,Doris Ladd, who promptly says "Yes, do something withthat!"

First it seems wise to double-check. Luckily my StanfordChilean colleague Fernando Alegria (1918-2005) is there for me.Comrade of Neruda and Allende, he says the poem doesn't ring abell, yet sounds strong. I can't see how someone so ill can havecreated such a concerted burst. And wouldn't proclaiming suchvirulence endanger sooner than safeguard? Well, translators willtranslate.
The Satraps
   Nixon, Frei, and Pinochet
   up to this day this bitter
   month of September 1973,
   with Bordaberry, Garrastazu and Banzer
   hyenas ravening
   our history, rodents gnawing
   at flags that were raised
   with so much blood and fire,
   hellish predators
   wallowing in haciendas
   satraps bribed a thousand times over
   and sellouts, scared
   by the wolves of Wall Street,
   machines starving for pain,
   stained by the sacrifice
   of a martyred people,
   prostitute merchants
   of bread and American air,
   deadly seneschals, a herd
   of whorish bosses
   with no other law but torture
   and the lashing hunger of the people. 

Now the question is, What to do with this?

Soon enough The New York Times agrees to run the poem as an op-ed. Aha! Still I ask myNYT editor, Herbert Mitgang, "What if this will hurt rather thanhelp Neruda?" Finally it's clear we must go ahead. But bythe time "The Satraps" appears on September 26th, Nerudahas died, three days earlier. The poem circulates immediately, carriedin periodicals and used as a poster.

Then comes a blow, one week later: Time magazine discovers that the 1973 Satrapias actually borrows title and parts of a twenty-five-year-old Neruda poem!Instead of Nixon, Frei, and Pinochet, Pablo named "Mr.Truman." Instead of the present Bordaberry, Garrastazu, andBanzer he raged against Trujillo, Somoza, Carias--1948 Central Americanty- rants who were also backed then by the U.S.A. But strangely enough,it's not Neruda. A Ukraine-born Jewish journalist, JacoboTimerman, has used his Buenos Aires daily LaOpinion to adjust the lines and dicta- toys' names.

Anyway, Neruda's funeral releases a wonder: thepeople's first public pro- test against their take-over regime.Facing army presence, mourners march down the street yelling

Call it "Pablo Neruda! Present and AccountedFor!"

Did Pablo Neruda really die naturally on September 23?It's alleged that his cancer was not lethal and he was killed byan injection. In 2011, Chile's Communist Party wanted his bodyexhumed. Finally those tests began in April 2013, and a month latershowed he was suffering from advanced prostate cancer. What'smore, it's said Neruda and his wife were about to escape toMexico. But will a clear answer be possible? In 2009, when Chile wantedto arrest his 1973 murderers, Victor lara had also been exhumed.They'd shot him 30-40 times.

I'm chagrined at not recognizing Neruda's"deathbed" discovery--one poem among his thousands--yetglad that I and others were deceived. The poet's anger gets itsimpact at another moment of Latin American history. Looking up theoriginal poem, I find that one line was garbled over the wires, orduring my nighttime minutes. It's not maquinashambrientas de dolores, but dolares--not machines starving for "pain" but for"dollars." Wall Street! Still, the mistranslation has itsown truth: PAIN. Let it stand.


In Neruda's abysmal absence, Pete Seeger and MalvinaReynolds take on the memory of Victor Jara. Wanting to sing his songs inrhythmic colloquial English--"I remember Amanda,""The right to live in peace'--they tax my translationskill. In October Malvina issues a single with Jara'sLas casitas del Barrio Alto along with a new recording of its source, her "LittleBoxes."

Joan Baez, horrified by the golpe, asks me to translate Latin American songs for a "Spanishalbum," the vinyl record Gracias a la Vida/"Thanks to Life" (1974). Because that title stems fromVioleta Parra, I bring Joan to my living room phonograph for the voiceof Gracias a la Vida, which I'd brought from Chile. Hearing it for the first time,she's possessed, she just listens, then hums, then graduallyjoins along with Violeta's signature song. An inmost sense oftruth runs through me, about what ideal translation may essentiallyentail. "I'll make some notes on the songs in the orderthat they come on the tape," she writes, "the mix is veryrough." About Gracias a la Vida, Joan says "do a goodie in English."

Meanwhile there's a keen need to hear Neruda'svoice, to draw North Americans toward Chile. Eventually, my ongoingreadings and talks throughout late September and October bring on amystery, a strange illusion I will not feel again until my Paul Celanyears. The translated lines strangely seem my own creation, speaking notonly through me but for me. My English wordings from "Heights ofMacchu Picchu," spoken daily and unconsciously memorized, somehowfeel original to me. A foolish kind of occupational hazard.

What's worse, if I turn back to Neruda's Spanishit seems an uncannily good translation of my own poem! Forinstance:
hundi la mano turbulenta y
     en lo mas genital de lo terrestre

Hmm ... That's a nice enough version for "Iplunged my turbulent and gentle hand." But doesn'ten lo mas genital de lo terrestre sound a bit disappointing for "into the genital quick of theearth"?

Basta! In any case, a translator is liable for what his words say.Isn't that plenty enough? After all, Pablo Neruda culminates hisepic Alturas de Macchu Picchu with three calls to the 15th-century city's two generations ofworkers:
   Fasten your bodies to me like magnets.
   Hasten to my veins to my mouth.
   Speak through my words and my blood, 

Hablad pormis palabras y mi sangre, "Speak through my words ..." If lucky, a translator mayventure this. But "... and my blood"?

More Roads Taken

That fraught autumn of 1973 meant ranging around northernCalifornia with Neruda's voice, also teaching on a"Vietnam"--disrupted Stanford campus, and a four-year-old.So it was. The following year, 1974-75, in Jerusalem, besides teachingand otherwise groping for Hebrew, meant nightly neighborhood patrol,meeting poets and survivor-poets, left and right Israelis, secular andreligious, a slimly aware sense of Palestinian presence, plus trips tothe Sinai and Golan Heights, a midnight Molotov cocktail whooshing overour bedroom, and a five-year-old. Then another swerve, returning homewith a leaning for learning Holocaust literature while at the same timegoing on toward what would be Translating Neruda: The Way toMacchu Picchu.

From Neruda's voice in 1966 to that book fourteen yearslater--like a novice rafting whitewater.

JOHN FELSTINER has published The Lies of Art: MaxBeerbohm's Parody and Caricature; Translating Neruda: The Way toMacchu Picchu; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; Selected Poems and Proseof Paul Celan; the Norton anthology Jewish American Literature; and CanPoetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems. John has taught at Stanford since 1965.
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Author:Felstiner, John
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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