This is proving to be a bumper year for centenaries. So far, we have had the entente cordiale, Beatrix Potter's Benjamin Bunny and the ice-cream cone. It would be a pity if the 100th anniversary of Pablo Neruda's birth were to be overshadowed by such momentous occasions. Happily, we now have the first full English-language biography of Chile's Nobel-winning poet.
Adam Feinstein has done an excellent job of wrangling Neruda's complex life into the confines of a reasonably manageable span of pages. The early life gives an indication of Neruda's ferocious personal entanglements, with its knotted skein of step-siblings who are passed off as uncles, and illegitimate sisters hidden away in the country. After Neruda leaves home and family behind at 16 for the life of a bohemian poet and journalist in Santiago, the story becomes ever more dramatic: we learn, for example, of his bravery during the Spanish civil war, when he ferried 2,000 republicans out of Spain on an ancient fishing boat; and of his flights from the Chilean authorities across the Andes and from arrest by the Italians in Venice.
Then there is the intense political engagement (he was a more or less life-long Stalinist); the career as a diplomat and politician manque (nominated for the presidency of Chile, he stood down in favour of Salvador Allende); the world-wandering; and, above all, the endless succession of marriages and fleeting affairs, sometimes two or three at a time (his first wife sued him, unsuccessfully, for bigamy). It all makes for a remarkably colourful life, and Feinstein tells it well.
One of the pleasures of a proper biography is the wealth of incidental detail. It is delightful to learn that Neruda once kept a pet mongoose in Singapore, and that he had a badger called El Nino. As most people's point of contact with Neruda will be through Il Postino, I was surprised not to find any mention either of the film or of the novel on which it was based, Antonio Skarmeta's Burning Patience. But Adam Feinstein's main concern, naturally, is the poetry itself, and for the most part he discusses this sensitively, even if he does fall into the biographer's habit of reading the work primarily in the light of the life story.
With Neruda, however, this isn't quite the drawback it might be with other writers. For one thing, it allows the expansively life-loving nature of the poet's character - the word "magnanimous" could have been coined for Neruda - to shine through, as it does in much of his poetry. The downside, perhaps, is too great an emphasis on Neruda's relationships with women. The truth is that he loved sex, and had an awful lot of it with an awful lot of women. This much is evident from one of his first published pieces, for the student magazine Claridad, in which he writes of the archetypal male youth: "Young and strong, he is an animal simply looking for an outlet for his natural power . . . The streets are full of hundreds of eager, vigorous women, and man goes off on his quest again . . ."
The theme is explored at length in the collection Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (1924), newly republished by Cape. This was Neruda's second book published, and it instantly made his name. Its earthy imagery and direct appeal to the emotions make it still the most popular of Neruda's works (along, perhaps, with the Elemental Odes). These 21 poems, of varying length and style, are a thorough exploration of sexual love from a male point of view. The women in the poems, Feinstein argues, are complex creations that mirror the poet's desperate, unfulfilled yearning. "A woman," he writes, "is variously an object of sexual pleasure, a place of refuge, a dominator and dominated, a cosmic force and a very real physical presence." Feminists might be inclined to argue that, on the contrary, these women are seen precisely as objects of lust, that they are defined by the poet's desire for them. But then, in its vision of woman as a beguiling, almost godlike other, infused with all the urgent force of the natural world, Twenty Love Poems is a marvellously sustained exploration of youthful male sexuality - the poet, remember, was barely out of his teens when he wrote the collection.
W S Merwin's translations are as proficient as one would expect. However, Spanish-language poetry has a tendency to sound a little flat in English because the natural rhythms are so different. Neruda's lyricism can seem overdone and the tendency to apostrophise - "Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs,/Oh the hungering teeth" ("A Song of Despair") - sounds at best archaic, at worst ridiculous. Thankfully, Cape has provided a bilingual edition, so the reader can easily see how faithful to the original the English is.
Even a relatively straightforward poet such as Neruda poses significant problems for the translator. Take, for instance, the start of the poem "The Discoverers of Chile" (from the 1950 collection Canto general), which imagines the arrival of the conquistador Diego de Almagro. In Robert Bly's standard version, this runs:
Almagro brought his wrinkled
lightning down from the north,
and day and night he bent over
between gunshots and twilight,
as if over a letter.
The poet Anthony Kerrigan rendered it:
From the north Almagro brought his
And over the territory, between
explosion and sunset,
he bent, day and night, as over a chart.
Even allowing for the different choices of grammatical structure, there are obvious differences of simple vocabulary here.
The great pity, in this centenary year, is that more of Neruda's work is not being made newly available in this country, as it is elsewhere (the only other volume to appear is Isla Negra, to be republished by Souvenir Press in September). Enjoyable as his love poems are, it would be unfair to see him purely as a poet of sexuality, a kind of Barry White of the poetry world. Still, we have here an excellent biography, thoroughly researched and well referenced, and for that we can be grateful.
Adam Newey is poetry editor of the NS