Neruda's art was part of the struggle for social justice. His body is being exhumed over claims Pinochet's regime murdered him
Forty years after his death, the body of a poet will be gently disinterred from his grave at Isla Negra, on Chile's Pacific coast. The hope is that Pablo Neruda's remains will answer a question that has exercised Chileans ever since his sudden death. Was he murdered by the military regime that killed his old friend, Salvador Allende, on 11 September 1973? Or did he die of natural causes, or of sorrow, just 12 days later?
Neruda's funeral procession was delayed by Pinochet's regime for two months; but in the end, it was the only public demonstration the military dictatorship could not suppress. Ten thousand people marched through Santiago, chanting "Neruda presente" – "Neruda is with us" – and linking his name with the dead president and the Popular Unity government he headed.
Neruda was to have been a Communist party presidential candidate in the 1970 elections, but he stood down when his party joined Allende's coalition. Yet he was a figure of enormous political significance.
He was that rare thing – a public poet, and a great one, held in deep affection by every layer of Chilean society. For the skill that earned him such esteem was his ability to find beauty in ordinary things. The Elementary odes he began to write in the early 50s captured the poetry of the everyday – in old suits, warm woollen socks, onions and the rich juicy tomatoes that grace every Chilean table. Yet at the same time he recorded and responded to historical events with his trademark theatrical rhetoric. At times it led him into ill-timed hymns of praise, like his odes to Stalin. But his politics are not to be found in these "official" expressions, but in his passionate, emotional responses to events that changed his own life.
Much of his early work was intimate and personal. His wonderful 20 poems of love, published in 1924, have convinced several subsequent generations of young women of the urgency of love. And it is a rare Chilean who cannot quote quite large sections of the little book. Later, as he travelled the world in minor diplomatic posts, it is his solitude and the sense of a world in crisis that dominates.
The turning point came in Spain, when the joy he felt in the company of Lorca and Buñuel and others in Madrid was destroyed by Franco's coup in July 1936.
It was a moment of personal transition. In his poem I Explain a Few Things, he asks a rhetorical question – "Where have all the lilies gone?" His answer is repeated in mounting anger – "Come and see the blood in the streets!" From that moment on, Neruda became a witness to history, his art placed at the service of the struggle for social justice.
A General Song is an epic retelling of Latin American history. It was written in hiding, after the Communist party was banned in 1947 and Neruda, then a senator, was forced to flee. He was given protection in the homes of peasants and miners, as he moved from house to house. The book-length poem that emerged was a celebration of the Indian America that existed long before it was conquered and claimed by Spain. Neruda watched the iguanas emerge from the primal sludge, and pays homage to the anonymous hands that built the great civilisations of the south. It was, perhaps, his gesture of gratitude to those who had sheltered him – the ordinary, nameless people who built the roads and cities of an earlier society.
It was the same people who crowded into his public readings in football stadiums and factory canteens. Neruda was a powerful and moving reader of his own work; his slightly high-pitched voice half spoke half sang his words, their rhythm resonating with the soft music of Chilean speech. He could seduce crowds; but he was a renowned flirt, and his love poetry continued to attract and fascinate women throughout his life.
By the late 1960s he was spending most of his time at his beautiful home at Isla Negra, on Chile's coast. Despite his fear of the sea, his home is full of nautical references – ships and shells and figureheads – and he usually wore a captain's cap.
Unusually, his Nobel prize for literature in 1971 was celebrated in every Chilean household. He had broken the silence, and Chile's name was sounded across the world. And his speech, coinciding as it did with the beginning of Allende's presidency, spoke of patience and hope. In some sense it anticipated the Pinochet coup two years later, but it also spoke to those who in coming days would be watching his exhumation.
"I wish to say to the people of good will, to the workers, to the poets, that the whole future has been expressed in this line by Rimbaud: only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind."