A Passion for Life
By Adam Feinstein
New York: Bloomsbury, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 1582344108 Price: #32.50
The festivities in honor of the centennial of the birth of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda have already exceeded those that surrounded his receipt of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. Although the birthday party will soon end, a flurry of books published in connection with the anniversary will enlighten current and future fans of the life and work of Neruda for years to come.
Foremost among these books is Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life by British journalist Adam Feinstein. The book tracks Neruda’s life in a linear narrative from his humble beginnings in southern Chile to his rise as a world-renowned poet and his eventual death in the aftermath of the Chilean coup d’etat of 1973. Feinstein accomplishes what previous writers have failed to do: he composed a coherent, even-handed account of Neruda’s life. The task is a particularly difficult one, due to mysteries of Neruda’s own making (the frequent diversions from the truth in his memoirs underscores that the book is essentially literary, not historic) and the distorting personal or political allegiances that previous biographers owed to the poet. Feinstein presents Neruda’s poetic brilliance and tremendous energy alongside his occasional pettiness, infidelity to all three of his wives, and long support of Stalin. The book reads well and will appeal to both the casual fan, who will appreciate the large section of photographs, and to the hard-core Neruda nerd, who can devour the copious notes and detailed bibliography.
Feinstein has mastered most existing scholarship, but it is his own original research and recent interviews with friends of Neruda that has allowed him to break new ground in several areas. Most notably, the book relates the sad fate of Neruda’s first wife, Maria Antonieta Hagenaar, and their child, both of whom he abandoned during the Spanish Civil War; the importance of his second wife, Delia del Carril, in his political and poetic development; where he went during the year he spent on the lam from the Chilean police and the progress he made at that time on his major work Canto general; and the successful campaign orchestrated by the United States to prevent him from winning the Nobel Prize in 1964.
The book also does a particularly effective job of tracking the evolution of Neruda’s poetry and placing his books in the context of his life. Feinstein quotes generously from poems well chosen to show Neruda’s stylistic development and his state of mind at crucial points in his life. However, in Feinstein’s single-minded focus on what happened in Neruda’s life, he fails to address the crucial question facing any biographer: what did the subject’s life mean? The book ends abruptly with a description of Neruda’s death, his burial in Santiago, and his eventual re-internment at his home in Isla Negra, forgoing a well-earned chance to define Neruda’s legacy.—Bill Fisher