A Meditation on a Poem by Neruda

The chileno perhaps most internationally celebrated, Pablo Neruda, was born in southern Chile, where much of the action of Arauco takes place.  As a man, Neruda loved his native land, and as a poet he wrote about its beauty, its people, and its bloody origin.  His massive poetic summation of his native land–Canto Generalhas at its heart the Spanish invasion of the South American Continent, culminating with the war recounted inArauco, including some of its principal protagonists.  You will find Pedro de Valdivia there as a greedy villain and slaughterer of innocents, Inés de Suárez a bloodthirsty harpy by his side.  You will find Lautaro there also, as noble warrior and heroic martyr….

In his Canto General, in a poem titled Valdivia, Neruda distills the central action of my novel into a scathing diatribe so full of suffering and anger that I personally find it difficult to read.  Here’s my hasty translation of it….

Pablo Neruda

Valdivia (1544)

But they returned.
(Pedro, he was called)
Valdivia, the intrusive captain,
cut my land with the sword
of thieves: “This is yours,
this is yours, Valdés, Montero,
this is yours, Inés, this the site
for the town hall.”
They divided my  land
like a dead donkey.
this fragment of moon and greenery,
devour this river in twilight,”
as the enormous Andes
elevated bronze and blankness.

Arauco appeared.  Adobe, towers,
streets, the silent
master of the house awakened smiling.
He worked with his hands soaked
by its water and its mud, brought
clay and poured mountain water:
but could not be a slave.
Then Valdivia, executioner,
Attacked with fire and death.
So the blood began,
the blood of three centuries, oceanic blood,
the blood atmosphere that overspread my land
and endless time, like no other war.
The irate vulture emerged
from his funereal mourning
and bit the Promauca, broke
the pact written in the silence
of Huelén, in the Andean air.
Arauco began to boil its dish
of blood and stone.
Seven princes
came to parley.
They were imprisoned.
Before the eyes of Arauco
they cut off the noble heads,
the executioners goading each other on.  Completely
soaked by entrails, screaming,
Inés de Suárez, soldier,
supported the imperial necks
with the knees of an infernal harpy.
And she threw them over the palisade,
bathing herself in noble blood,
covering herself with scarlet clay.
So they thought to dominate Arauco.
But here the shaded unity
of tree and stone, spear and countenance,
transmitted this crime in the wind.
The tree on the frontier knew
the fisherman, king, magician,
Antarctic workman knew,
the sources of the Bío Bío knew.
So was born our native war.
Valdivia thrust a dripping lance
Into the rocky entrails
of Arauco, sunk a hand
into its pulse, tightened
his fingers on the heart of Arauco,
spilled the sylvan veins
of the workers,
the pastoral dawn,
ordered the martyrdom
of the kingdom of the forest, put to fire
the master of the forest’s house,,
cut off the hands of the cacique,
returned his prisoners
with noses and ears cut off,
impaled Toqui, assassinated
the girl guerrilla,
and with a bloodied glove
marked the stones of our land,
leaving it full of dead,
and solitude and scars.

Powerful, yet based on more than one paradox.  Implicit in Neruda’s argument there is an edenic side to the rhetorical coin which censures the Spanish invasion of Arauco–a yearning for a past and a people that had no written language, a people who were melded to the land as the poet yearns to be through incantatory language … a “canto,” or song.  In poetry yearning for a time before language–strangely wishing to erase itself–a Chileno attacks the Spanish invasion that ultimately created the native land he celebrates, and his very being as a poet writing Spanish, in strange and failed suicide….

At the time of the Spanish invasion, there were those who thought Eden to be in South America.  And some, then, thought the “Indians” were what later times would call noble savages.  Ercilla, author of La Araucana, was one of them, Neruda following in his footsteps….  And Thomas More drew inspiration for his Utopia from the accounts of the Americas.  To utopians like these the Americas were a kind of returning to the beginning, giving Europe a version of a time machine that afforded an opportunity to begin again–Europe’s second chance at getting things right.  So the Juan Lobo of my novel believed until he discovered, by experiencing conquest, his mistake.  Given the chance to travel back in time to Eden, Europe used technology devised by the Fall of man to turn the return into a bloodbath. And Neruda falls into this utopic tradition, demonizing the invaders, in a magnificent act of compassion rooted in a sense of rootlessness.

But of course, Eden was never in–say–the present Venezuela.  And neither were the natives of the Americas “noble,” the very word Neruda uses in his poem, both ironically and anachronistically, since the Mapuche had no landed nobility, not to mention the “imperial necks” of his poem.  Indeed (in celebrated if not necessarily factual acts) the Mapuche are said to have made Valdivia swallow molten gold as part of the torture leading to his death, and “tasted” of his heart, after….  In “El corazón de Pedro de Valdivia, Neruda–poetry his periphrasis–imaginatively joins the Mapuche in this legendary tasting of Valdivia’s heart by beginning the poem in the second person plural: “Llevamos a Valdivia bajo el árbol.” (We took Valdivia under the tree.)  And with highest euphemism it concludes with Neruda in the first person (“Yo hundí…) sinking in his teeth into, not a heart, but the many metaphors produced by the not mentioned heart….  So, the Neruda who decries Spanish torture in other poems, here identifies with native ritual savagery through poetic circumlocution.  In short, Neruda definitely takes sides….

I write all this in order to situate my novel in a gamut of opinion as to what actually happened when the Spaniards invaded.  My own (impossible) attempt was to represent the times in Arauco as they were, and both peoples as they were, without demonizing or ennobling either.  That is, in my opinion, what makes the best historical novels what they are–-the hard-won sensation fiction can create of being there, as if narration were the transparent air afforded to one emerging from a time and space machine