Writer’s end

Neruda's exhumation conjures up the myth of a heroic death

Pablo Neruda, singer of bread and artichokes, writer of lines at night, did not die. He was killed, or so the story goes. The poet's family and his death certificate say he died of prostate cancer. But Chilean authorities are exhuming his body after rumours surfaced that he was poisoned within days of General Pinochet's coup. Neruda, whose work reflects his leftwing sympathies, had reportedly been on his way to Mexico, where he would have joined the opposition to the Pinochet regime. A poison injection, a sinister political conspiracy, an escape plan — the story paints a much more fitting end for the poet than mere mortality.

Like originary myths or the myth of creativity, the death of a writer is part of the lore that surrounds him. Neruda is not the first writer who is thought to have died for his political or ideological beliefs. In the reader's imagination, a delirious Edgar Allen Poe collapses in a Baltimore tavern, muttering the name "Reynolds". Poe, variously believed to have died of rabies, alcoholism and a brain tumour, might have been killed by corrupt political operatives. Federico Garcia Lorca is dragged into a dark wood in Granada and shot by General Franco's supporters on that fateful night in 1936. A gay, modernist poet had no place in Franco's fascist regime. Even Ernest Hemingway's shotgun suicide has been attributed to persecution by an American government obsessively hunting down leftwing intellectuals.

They were heroes, all, political outliers who died for their beliefs, or so we would like to think. In the public imagination, the writer is the sum of his words. So the physical end becomes something more — the death of an idea. Perhaps that is why we cannot reconcile ourselves with, "graves full of bones that do not make a sound", as Neruda put it.

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