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Was Pablo Neruda Murdered?

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Pablo Neruda once wrote, "We all arrive by different streets, by unequal languages, at Silence." But just how the great poet arrived at his ultimate silence is the subject of heated debate in his home country of Chile.

It has long been accepted that Neruda died of heart failure at the age of 69 while being treated for prostate cancer at a clinic in Santiago. His death came just days after Augusto Pinochet's regime seized power from Chile's Communist Party, which was led by Neruda's friend, president Salvador Allende. Many have speculated that emotional stress born from the bloody coup, and Allende's resulting suicide, played a part in Neruda's demise. (Notably, new evidence points to Allende having been assassinated).

But Neruda's former secretary, Manuel Araya, is now claiming that Pinochet's agents murdered the poet. Araya, who was at Neruda's bedside, insists that Pinochet's men visited Neruda and injected poison into his stomach on the day he died. He also claims that Neruda was interned at the clinic for security reasons -- not due to worsening health.

Araya's claim is at least plausible. Neruda possessed a powerful and globally respected voice at the time of his death (he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature just two years prior). As a friend of Allende and an ardent communist, he was highly critical of the Pinochet regime, and Pinochet's regime seems to have had their eyes on him. Adam Feinstein's book Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life notes that Pinochet's troops searched Neruda's Isla Negra house shortly after the coup. Neruda told the soldiers, "Look around -- there's only one thing of danger for you here -- poetry."

The Pinochet government surely knew how dangerous that poetry was. During the Spanish Civil War, Neruda wrote powerful verse condemning General Francisco Franco's conservative regime. His fiery poem "I'll Explain Some Things" answered critic's questions about his recent focus on Spain -- where he was living at the time -- rather than on his home country. In it, Neruda condemned Franco's forces as "bandits" and spoke powerfully of revolution:

I have seen the blood 

Of Spain rise up against you 

To drown you in a single wave 

Of pride and knives

The poem ends with the brutal repetition of the phrase "Come see the blood along the streets."

Similarly, in the poem "Curse," Neruda lashed out at Franco's "bandits" for bringing war to Spain. He shed light on their actions as only he could:

...Bring, bring the lamp,
see the soaked earth, see the blackened little bone

eaten by the flames, the garment

of murdered Spain.

One can imagine that Neruda felt similarly, if not more strongly, about Pinochet's coup, as Spain's tragic story was now playing out in the poet's homeland. In what was perhaps his last poem, "Right, Comrade, It's the Hour of the Garden," Neruda wrote of the fate he feared would befall Chile.

Ours is a lank country

and on the naked edge of her knife

our frail flag burns.

The Neruda Foundation, which handles the poet's estate, rejects Araya's murder claim, and has issued a statement citing "no indication and no proof whatsoever that suggests that Pablo Neruda died of causes other than the cancer, at an advanced stage, that he had suffered from." They added, "It does not seem reasonable to construct a new version of his death solely based on the opinion of his driver."

Chile's Communist Party, which demanded the investigation, claims that many of Neruda's former staff members corroborate Araya's story, and that the Mexican ambassador to Chile met with Neruda on the morning of his death and found him to be in good health. And the Guardian notes that Pinochet's agents were convicted of murdering another former Chilean president in the same Santiago clinic in 1981.

Time will tell if the investigation uncovers anything definitive. Regardless of the outcome, Neruda will stay silenced and his poetry will continue to speak.