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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiography


Pablo Neruda

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To purchase Memoirs

Title: Memoirs
Author: Pablo Neruda
Genre: Autobiography
Written: (1974) (Eng.: 1977)
Length: 350 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Memoirs - US
Memoirs - UK
Memoirs - Canada
J'avoue que j'ai vécu - France
Ich bekenne, ich habe gelebt - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: Confieso que he vivido: Memorias
  • Translated by Hardie St. Martin
  • First published in 1974, after Neruda's death. Mathilde Neruda and Miguel Otevo Silva prepared the manuscript for publication.
  • Includes a Chronology of Neruda's life

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Our Assessment:

B+ : amiable, sprawling account of an interesting life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Commentary . 5/1977 Mark Falcoff
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/3/1977 Jose Yglesias

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The complete review's Review:

       About midway through his memoirs Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto describes how he came to adopt the pen name by which he is known the world over. Recounting his time in Mexico during the Second World War he mentions a few exiles from the Nazi regime, including Anna Seghers and the German-Czech writer Egon Erwin Kisch. Kisch, he writes, "showed incessant curiosity" about why Neruda had adopted such a prototypical Czech name, but the poet never revealed it to him -- because the answer was "so simple and so lacking in glamour":

When I was fourteen, my father was always at me about my literary endeavors. He didn't like the idea of having a son who was a poet. To cover up the publication of my first poems, I looked for a last name that would throw him completely off the scent. I took the Czech name from a magazine, without knowing it was the name of a great writer loved by a whole nation, the author of elegant ballads and narrative poems, whose monument stood in Prague's Mala Strana quarter. Many years later, the first thing I did when I got to Czechoslovakia was to place a flower at the foot of the bearded statue.
       The passage is typical of these Memoirs: though presented largely in chronological order significant facts such as this are often found tucked in almost incidentally in a chapter describing events that occurred much later. Throughout the book Neruda also uses personal encounters (generally with well-known figures) as springboards for anecdotes and recollections such as this one. And he is also a bit fuzzy about the exact details: the Chronology at the end of the books states that his first published poems appeared in 1918 (when he was fourteen) under the name "Neftalí Reyes", that poems published in 1919 also appeared "under various pseudonyms", and that only in October, 1920 did he adopt the pseudonym Pablo Neruda.
       This presentation has its drawbacks, but it is also part of the great charm of this volume. Memoirs is not meant to be a comprehensive and precise (auto-)biographical document. These are memoirs, a remembered life presented as life often is remembered, a jumble of incidents and anecdotes. Breezily and entertainingly presented, these Memoirs give a wonderful impression of Neruda the man without getting too bogged down in detail and dates and facts.
       Neruda's life was a fascinating one. A prolific and highly regarded poet, he also served his country in its consulates across Asia, Europe, and South and Latin America in the 1930s and 40s -- and, from 1970 to 1972, as Ambassador to France . He was politically active, running for and winning a seat in the Chilean Senate in 1945, joining the Communist Party, being removed from the Senate, and eventually (in 1969) being designated as the Communist Party candidate for the presidency of Chile (though he withdrew in deference to Salvador Allende, for whom he then actively campaigned).
       Neruda travelled extensively throughout his life, and was a truly international literary figure long before the jet-setting authors of the current day. He was immensely popular in both East and West, and comfortable in the Soviet Union as well as in Europe and the Americas -- especially if surrounded by nature, poetry and poets.
       From early on he was a poet, writing constantly, and achieving success relatively quickly. He "sought refuge in poetry with the intensity of someone timid". For all his supposed timidity Neruda constantly sought out new experiences and places and people, with poetry remaining a broad refuge that could sustain and drive him.
       He seems to have known all the major literary figures of the time, particularly in the Spanish-speaking world: from compatriot Huidobro to César Vallejo to the young Octavio Paz (when "no one knew him yet"). He writes of his friendship with and admiration for García Lorca, and of travelling "disguised as the eminent Guatemalan novelist", his friend Miguel Angel Asturias, in order to escape South America for Europe. Various figures, from Julian Huxley ("much more quick-witted and genuine than his well-known brother, Aldous") to Ilya Ehrenburg (with whom he drank wine from Goebbels' excellent cellar -- Soviet war booty) to Nazim Hikmet pop up, all friends of the eminent poet.
       Neruda rambles through his life in his memoirs, from his childhood in beloved Chile to first poetic successes and international adventures. Appointed consul in first Rangoon (now Yangon), then Colombo, Batavia, and finally Singapore, the young poet wasn't kept very busy by his diplomatic duties but did manage to see much of the world. Most of these episodes are only sketched out, with only a few incidents highlighted, but it is still compelling reading. From Rango the orangutan (in Medan, Sumatra) who would share a beer with Neruda, to his possessive Burmese lover (who used the name Josie Bliss in public, wearing "her secret Burmese name" only in the privacy of their home), to the servant he brings along to his next postings to care for his pet mongoose, Kiria, each little vignette is a striking piece of the vast mural that is this memoir.
       Appointed consul in Spain in 1934 he became politically more involved with the outbreak of the Civil War there. Dismissed from his post in 1936 he nevertheless remained politically active, and much of his poetry is coloured by this. His descriptions of the times are fascinating, as are his description of his own forays into Chilean politics as he campaigns for, wins, and loses a Senate seat.
       Throughout the book there is relatively little anger. Neruda comes across as genial and forgiving (with a few exceptions), frustrated especially by Chilean politics but always looking to the richness of countries, nature, peoples, and poetry.
       There is surprisingly little purely literary talk here. Neruda devotes some space to the writing of this or that volume of his poetry, but rarely is there more than a paragraph about any particular collection. He always comes across as a writer, but considerations of the actual output are kept at a minimum, the poetry presented as if it were almost incidental. Similarly, he does not go on at much length about the works of other authors, focussing on personalities and experiences rather than the written records.
       Neruda's politics are not popular in all quarters, and he was certainly relatively soft on the Soviet Union. His belief in the resilience of both people and art are no doubt partly responsible for this attitude: he visited the Soviet Union often and admired it greatly ("the feeling of immensity it gives (...) the huge forests so miraculously unspoiled, the great rivers, the horses running like waves across the wheat fields"). He does not defend Zhdanovite policy but argues that "there were rebuttals from every quarter, and we know life is stronger and more obstinate than precepts." And, travelling to Maoist China after the revelations of the Twentieth Congress he is disturbed by "Mao-tsetungism" -- "I mean Mao-Stalinism, the repetition of a cult to a socialist deity." Despite admiring the man himself he finds "I could not swallow that bitter pill a second time."
       Neruda describes his 1971 Nobel triumph nicely too, admitting it was a longed-for honour and certainly pleased by it, without taking it all too seriously.
       Neruda lived to witness yet another horrible betrayal in Chile, dying less than two weeks after Salvador Allende (in 1973) but still including his own thoughts about those troubled times here. The Memoirs closes with Neruda's description of the encouraging rise to power of Allende and then its tragic end. Neruda himself did not edit the final version of the Memoirs, but the volume comes to an appropriate abrupt end here.

       Memoirs is presented basically in the form of many vignettes, generally (though sometimes loosely) connected, grouped together in chapters that divide up the main parts of his life. Many details are missing, but it does give a good sense of the man and his life. It is an agreeable meandering volume, a bit much to read at one go but enjoyable to slowly make one's way through. There is rarely a page that doesn't offer surprises, adventures, unexpected or unlikely encounters and occurrences: Neruda led a very interesting life, and met many interesting and illustrious people. His tone is amiable, and his love of life, nature, poetry, and especially his homeland shine through throughout.

       (And the Czech author Neruda took his name from was, of course, Jan Neruda -- as surely even Egon Erwin Kisch must have guessed. See this page for more information.)

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Memoirs: Reviews: Pablo Neruda: Other books by Pablo Neruda under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto) lived from 1904 to 1973. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.

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