DURHAM, N.C. — I can still remember my shock and sorrow the day I heard that Pablo Neruda, Chile’s greatest poet and one of the towering figures of 20th-century literature, had died. It was Sept. 23, 1973. Two weeks earlier, the Chilean military had staged a coup against President Salvador Allende and installed a dictatorship that would last 17 years.
Fearing for my life, like so many intellectuals and supporters of Allende, I was in hiding in a safe house in Santiago when the news reached me that, along with losing our land to fascism, we were losing the major wordsmith of that land when we most needed him.
Even if there were reasons to doubt every syllable that emanated from the junta as they tortured and murdered, persecuted and exiled Allende’s followers, it did not occur to me that they could have been stupid enough to assassinate Neruda himself.
I knew that he was bedridden and had been suffering from prostate cancer. It seemed natural that the horror of watching Chile’s democracy being destroyed and the grief at so many deaths of comrades from his Communist Party and other left-leaning organizations would have hastened his demise.
Over the years, along with most Chileans, I dismissed the rumors that an agent of the dictatorship had poisoned Neruda during his internment in the Clinica Santa Maria. Testimony of friends who were by his side during his last days and hours reinforced that skepticism. The writer’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, told me that in effect, cancer was the cause of death, though her husband’s overwhelming distress at the fate of our country had been the final blow.
I was wary of wild tales that could not be corroborated and did more harm than good. Faced with numerous real and undeniable atrocities, it was futile to postulate crimes that appeared to have no foundation and could be construed as propaganda.
Nevertheless, decades later, denunciations from Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, mentioning a lethal injection administered to the poet hours before his death led a Chilean judge to exhume the author’s body and seek help from foreign forensic organizations to determine the true cause of death. And now 16 experts have announced that Neruda died of a bacterial infection rather than of cancer cachexia, as fraudulently stated on his death certificate.
Although they offered no evidence of foul play, their research has caused a certain amount of speculation. Contrasting with the inevitable circumspection of the forensic professionals, many Chileans — pundits, politicians, intellectuals, joined by one of Neruda’s nephews — take it as a given that an execution took place.