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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July, 2004, 11:39 GMT 12:39 UK
Fans celebrate Neruda centenary
Pablo Neruda
Neruda won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971
Poetry fans in Chile and all around the world are celebrating 100 years since the birth of Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, on 12 July.

Neruda, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, was born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto in July 1904 in the town of Parral in Chile. He changed his name to Pablo Neruda at the age of 16, in memory of the Czechoslovakian poet Jan Neruda.

His prolific output included many works on love, making his name synonymous with great romantic poetry - it was this side of his writing that was on display in the Oscar-winning film Il Postino.

But he also wrote odes to simpler, more elemental, things, such as lemons and clothes.

"His poetry is ever changing - that's why he tells so many things to so many people," explains Claudio Rojas, the presenter of the BBC World Service's Latin American Masterpiece programme.

"The interesting thing about Neruda was that he was always faithful to his art."


According to Colombia's most famous writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Neruda is "the greatest poet of the 20th Century".

Neruda is particularly renowned for his early poetry, with sales of 20 Poems Of Love And A Song Of Despair stretching into the millions.

Rojas believes it is the "intensity" of this work that has captivated his readers through the years.

Neruda fans in Chile commemorate his birth
In Neruda, you can find a man who's romantic, who's metaphysical, who's political, anything - as many Nerudas as you care to find
Claudio Rojas
"Love, like nowhere else in this poetry, becomes the pain of being truly alive for him," he says.

"Those poems are so intense because they talk about the impossibility of love, they talk about being separate from the person you love - by time, by space, by social barriers, cultural barriers.

"Really, these poems are not about love, but perhaps 'unlove'," he adds.

But although perhaps most popular for his writings on love, it was by no means Neruda's only subject.

While in Burma he wrote Residence On Earth, about time and metaphysics, and the importance of time in human existence. It was his literary breakthrough.

The Spanish civil war in particular had a profound effect on him, as it did many artists at the time.

"When he went to Spain, he was radicalised by this experience, this tragedy," Rojas says.

"He himself wrote a poem in this book called Where I Explain A Few Things, in which he says, 'You are going to miss in my poetry now the metaphysics. I've got more urgent things to tell you about'."

The poem ends with the line: "Come and see the blood in the streets."

Neruda returned to Chile in 1943, but four years later was forced to go into hiding as he had protested against the policy of President Gonzalez Videla towards striking miners.

Exile in Italy

He managed to leave in 1949, and headed to Europe. Among the places he lived was the island of Capri in southern Italy - it is his time here that is fictionalised in Il Postino.

"A lot of women were enchanted by him," Claretta Cerio, who allowed Neruda to live in her house at the time, told BBC World Service's The Ticket programme.

Il Postino
Il Postino focused on the period when Neruda was exiled in Capri
She recalled that he was "not good looking, as he looked older than his 40 years", but that "He was such a spirit, and he had such charm."

She remembered that she was surprised by his manner of settling in their house in 1952.

"We knew he was a fugitive, so we were very surprised when suddenly there arrived people, one after the other, all carrying his luggage, with all sorts of things.

"One after the other they filled the house, and when they unpacked it it was bizarre - there was nothing lacking. There were drawings by Picasso, and mechanical toys. He put them on the floor. The mechanical things jumped, and he lay on the carpet and laughed and laughed."

Neruda's legacy and fame live on even beyond the Earth - he has a crater on Mercury named after him.

But Rojas also believes that Neruda's fame was partly because of his "contradictory" nature, which allowed people of different viewpoints to appreciate him.

"He was a Communist, but he was rich," he points out.

"He was on the side of the poor, but he collected things, he had money, he enjoyed food, he enjoyed all those things.

"On top of that, he wrote thousands of verses about love, but he was never faithful to any meaningful relationship.

"On the other hand, as a poet, he was changing all the time. So really in Neruda, you can find a man who's romantic, who's metaphysical, who's political, anything - as many Nerudas as you care to find."

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