A Passion for Neruda: A Conversation with Adam Feinstein

Adam Feinstein, a British journalist, is the author of the first biography of Pablo Neruda in English, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life (Bloomsbury, 2004). He is also an expert on autism, an interest that emerged when his son Johnny, now 21 years old, was diagnosed with the condition. Feinstein came to Buenos Aires to speak at the second congress on autism, hosted by the Asociación Argentina de Padres de Autistas (APAdeA); I spoke with him at the Bisonte Palace Hotel an hour before he went to dine with Borges’ widow.

The first part of our conversation, about his work with autism (and its connections with Neruda) was published in the Boston Review. Here we discuss his engagement with Neruda’s poetry.

— Jessica Sequeira

How did you become interested in Neruda?

While living in Paris I read his memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, in French translation. I thought they were incredible; some of the descriptions of the places and people are just beautiful. Like all memoirs, they’re also completely unreliable. We know he was married three times, but he doesn’t mention his first wife; he doesn’t mention his daughter who died. Did you know he had a daughter? You wouldn’t. She was called Malva Marina Trinidad and was disabled; she died at age eight.

His second wife, Delia del Carril, was a famous Argentine painter of horses. She died when she was nearly 105, outliving everybody. She lived with Neruda for twenty years, but only gets two or three paragraphs in his book. ¡Machismo! But no, it wasn’t that. I don’t know what it was. Excellent artists are not always ideal humans. There were certain episodes of his life Neruda didn’t talk about. But he was a great friend; he had lots and lots of friends.

I read his memoirs and poetry while at the Sorbonne studying for a year. When I got back I started working as a freelance journalist and foreign correspondent, and forgot them. Then years later, in 1995, I suddenly remembered. I thought, “Here is a wonderful life story. Has anyone written a book about him?” I knew his life was fascinating. He saved all those people on the Winnipeg, over 2000 Spanish refugees, shipping them out on a fishing boat and bringing them to the coast in Valparaíso. A lot of people on that boat became famous, like the Chilean artists Roser Bru and José Balmes. It was remarkable. Not many poets save 2000 lives, do they? Nor do many poets cross the Andes on horseback, which is what he did in 1948-49.

There was one full biography by Volodia Teitelboim, his greatest friend in the Communist Party; Neruda was a Communist. And it had a lot of gaps. It was in Spanish and had been translated into English. It was the only book in English. I thought, “What’s going on? A great poet with a great life and no one’s done it.” I had an agent and asked him if I could write it, and he said, “Go ahead”. I’d translated short stories and written poetry, but that was my first book. Bloomsbury brought it out in 2004, the centenary of Neruda’s birth. There was a mad rush to get it out in time. And it was republished last year because we wanted to add a chapter on how they’d exhumed him, how they dug up his body. The family is split. Most of them think it was rubbish for his chauffeur to come forward with poisoning allegations, but there’s a nephew who thinks there’s something in it.

It’s timely given they’ve recently discovered more of Neruda’s poems.

They did find the poems, which will be coming out here next week. They’re absolutely genuine. Some people thought it was suspect there were twenty, because his first famous book was Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair]. But there weren’t exactly twenty; there were a few more than that. I’ve seen some of them, not the whole lot. They’re wonderful. We don’t know why he left them out. There are some speeches as well; this will be a good little book.

What was your writing process like? Did you visit the same places he did?

Yes, I visited almost all the same places. I spoke to some of the people who hid him when he was avoiding arrest, and to some of the people on the Winnipeg in 1939. Academics, too. I didn’t want it to be an academic book, but I had to talk to some of them.

The thing about Neruda is that his poetry is so interrelated with his life that you have to take care to avoid traps. Neruda wrote a very famous poem while in Buenos Aires called “Walking around”; the title is in English. The first line is well-known: “Sucede que me canso de ser hombre” [“It so happens that I’m tired of being a man”]. It’s the most pessimistic poem in the Spanish language. And yet at the time he was happily married, nor did that seem to stop him from enjoying himself.

Buenos Aires is where he met Lorca for the first time, not Spain. Neruda was in Buenos Aires in 1933-34 as Chilean consul; Lorca was here for the premiere of Bodas de sangre, one of his most famous plays. And they became great friends. Then two years later, Neruda moved as consul first to Barcelona, then to Madrid, where he witnessed the Spanish Civil War and the murder of Lorca in August of ’36. That’s when Neruda’s poetry completely changed. He began to hate his early poetry, the self-obsessed anguished stuff. Do you remember Poem 20 of the Veinte poemas, “Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche” [“Tonight I can write the saddest lines”]? He went back on that, said that’s not what poetry should be. It should not be life negating. When people tried to get him to read those poems, which they did for the rest of his life, he attempted to avoid it. The audiences went on strike. They refused to leave the auditorium until he read them. But they were something he turned his back on, and his late poetry became a weapon for social and political justice.

There’s a famous poem called “Explico algunas cosas” in which he writes, “Preguntaréis: Y dónde están las lilas? Y la metafísica cubierta de amapolas?” [“You will ask: But where are the lilacs? And the metaphysics covered with poppies?”] It starts by talking about how peacefully he’d been living in Madrid with his friends, such as Raúl González Tuñón, an Argentine writer who spent a long time in Spain and who wrote a famous book called La rosa blindada. He was a great influence on Neruda; they had a wonderful time over there. That’s also where he met his second wife Delia, the one I talked about, who was a real influence on him politically and culturally. Delia knew Picasso before Neruda, knew Fernand Léger and other artists.

Anyway, the first half of that poem is about how his anguished poetry had to change after he witnessed the brutality of fascism, how it should be not just about the poet but outward-looking. Towards the end of his life he wrote eight books he was hoping to publish for his 70th birthday, in 1974. He didn’t make it because he died in 1973, twelve days after the Pinochet coup. They were published here in Buenos Aires by Losada, which published all his books, including the eight posthumous ones. They’re books that look back. I suppose that’s what you do when you get old, look back… and they contain gorgeous poems.