Testimonials from Matilde Neruda, Pablo’s wife, and Joan Jara, wife of murdered Chilean musician Victor Jara, regarding the poet’s death in September 23, 1973, or just 12 days after fascist forces in Chile staged a violent coup to topple the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
Death of a Poet
Matilde Urrutia Neruda
One could say that Pablo was a happy man. This could be perceived in everything he wrote, even when he was forced to keep to his bed.
He had somewhat recovered from his illness, but the day of the coup d’état was a very trying one for him. When we learned of Salvador Allende’s death, the doctor called me immediately and said: “Keep all the news from Pablo, for it could put him beyond recovery.”
Pablo had a TV set in front of his bed. He would send his driver to fetch all the newspapers. He also had a radio that got all the news. We heard of Allende’s death through a Mendoza (Argentinian) station, and this announcement killed him. Yes, it killed him.
On the day following Allende’s death, Pablo awoke in a fever, with no access to medical care, because the head doctor had been arrested and his assistant did not dare to go as far as Isla Negra. Thus we were isolated without medical help. The days were passing and Pablo’s condition was growing worse. At the end of the fifth day, I called the physician and told him, “We must take him to a clinic. He is seriously ill.”
All day he was riveted to the radio—listening to stations in Venezuela, Argentina and the Soviet Union. Finally, he grasped the situation.
His mind was perfectly lucid—absolutely clear till he fell asleep.
At the end of five days I called a private ambulance to take him to a Santiago clinic. The vehicle was thoroughly searched during the trip, which disturbed him greatly. There were other brutalities, and that also affected him visibly. I was at his side. It was terrible for him. I kept telling them: “It’s Pablo Neruda. He is very ill. Let us through.” It was frightful, and he reached the clinic in a critical condition.
Pablo died at 10:30 p.m. and no one was able to go to the clinic because of the curfew. I then had him transported to his Santiago home, which had been destroyed—books, everything. There we kept watch, and many people came, in spite of the times we were passing through in Santiago.
When we arrived at the cemetery, people came from everywhere, all workers with hard, serious faces. Half of them kept shouting, “Pablo Neruda,” and the other half replied: “Present.” This crowd entered the cemetery singing “The Internationale” in spite of the repression.
Hundreds pf people had gathered to honor Neruda, in spite of the soldiers lining the streets, machine guns threatening, at the ready, and the secret police scanning the crowd for wanted faces. Quena and I started off fairly near the front of the procession, but gradually lagged further and further behind because I seemed incapable of walking faster; it cost me to put one foot in front of the other. As we walked through the back streets towards the cemetery, I heard Neruda’s poetry being recited by one person after another in the crowd, verse after verse, defying the menace of the uniforms surrounding us; I saw the workers: on a building site, standing to attention with their yellow helmets in their hands, high above us on a scaffolding; others lined the pavement with the soldiers hemming us in.
“Sube a nacer conmigo, hermano,” (“Arise to be born with me, my brother”) and “Come and see the blood in the streets…” Neruda’s verses took on an even greater significance as voice after voice took them up, confronting the visible face of fascism. As I walked, I knew I was not alone, I knew that this was also Victor’s funeral and that of all those compañeros who had been massacred by the military, many of them flung anonymously into common graves. The presence of dozens of foreign journalists, film crews, television cameras, protected us from aggression and interference, but as the procession reached the last stage of the march at the rotunda in front of the main gates of the cemetery, a military convoy with armoured trucks rounded it in the opposite direction, looming over us. The crowd responded with cries of “Compañero Pablo Neruda: Presente, ahora y siempre!” “Compañero Salvador Allende: Presente, ahora y siempre!” and then breaking into “The Internationale,” raggedly, nervous at first, but then with more strength as everyone started to sing. It was Popular Unity’s last public demonstration in Chile, the first public demonstration of resistance to a fascist regime.
Lifted from Chile The Other September 11: An Anthology of Reflections on the 1973 Coup, 2006 Ocean Press. Thanks to Teo for lending me the book.
For facts about Neruda’s life and death, here is the wikipedia entry about him.