The remains of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) will be exhumed on Monday, April 8 to determine the true cause of his death. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just 12 days after the military coup by Augusto Pinochet against the government of Salvador Allende. It was thought that the poet died of prostate cancer, however, it seems he could have been poisoned.
The exhumation was ordered by Judge Mario Carroza, who is in charge of the preliminary proceedings for murder following a complaint filed in 2011 by the Communist Party of Chile, of which the poet was a member. It was Pablo Neruda’s driver, Manuel Araya, who raised the alarm and dared to contradict the officially reported reason for death.
This is his story.
Pablo Neruda, a brilliant writer and an awkward political activist
Pablo Neruda’s official biography says he was taken from his home in Isla Negra to the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago de Chile, on September 19, 1973, due to his poor health. The poet was suffering from prostate cancer, but according to Manuel Araya and other intimate friends and family, he was not dying. The real reason for the hospital admission was to remove Neruda from the country and send him to Mexico, to avoid reprisal by the Pinochet government.
Neruda, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, was not just a writer. He was a passionate politician who worked as a diplomat and a senator, using his speeches to denounce the abuses and inequities of the system. His literary eminence never prevented him from continuing to be a political activist and his leftist political views drove him into exile in Argentina and Europe. When his friend Salvador Allende became president, Neruda was appointed Ambassador to France, but he resigned due to his poor health and, in February 1973, he returned to Santiago and was publicly honored at the National Stadium.
Neruda’s exile to Mexico was aborted
In his testimony, the driver ensures that the Mexican ambassador in Santiago had chosen this clinic, as he considered it a safe place where Pablo Neruda could wait until the arrival of the plane that would take him to Mexico. But, on September 23, Neruda died of “cachexia as a result of prostate cancer,” according to his death certificate. His inner circle did not believe this version because cachexia is severe malnutrition and Neruda, though ill, weighed 200 pounds at the time of his passing.
According to the complaint, on September 22 the Ambassador visited Neruda at the clinic to talk about the details of the trip, which would take place two days later, and how to translate the manuscripts of his next books. The driver and Neruda’s wife, Matilde Urrutia, traveled to Isla Negra to pick up the last things they needed before going into exile.
But there was an unexpected change of plans.
Neruda called them and asked them to return urgently to the clinic, saying that someone had injected something in his abdomen and he was feeling very sick, according to Araya’s version. Upon returning to the clinic, they found the poet looking swollen and feverish. A doctor asked Araya to go get a drug somewhere out of the clinic. Although it seemed like a strange request, Araya complied. On the way, his car was intercepted by soldiers. He was arrested, shot in the leg and taken to the National Stadium, one of the main detention centers of the time. There, he heard of the death of “Pablito,” as Araya called his boss.
The day after Neruda’s passing, the Chilean morning newspaper, El Mercurio, referred to a detail that seemed inconsequential, but now supports the thesis of the murder. The note which reported Neruda’s death says: “As a result of a shock suffered after being given an injection of painkillers, his gravity became worse.”
The exhumation of Pablo Neruda’s body
The exhumation team is made up of international experts, including Spanish forensic Francisco Etxeberria, who also participated in the exhumation of two other distinguished Chilean figures: President Salvador Allende and songwriter Victor Jara. In an interview with EFE Agency, Etxeberria, has emphasized that the Chilean government, “has not told us what to do. They are letting us work freely with all means and in optimal conditions.”
The work will take about three months and experts will attempt to measure the progress of the prostate cancer Neruda was suffering at the time of his death. They will also analyze his remains for the presence of toxic substances, according to the experts of the Servicio Medico Legal (Legal Medical Service). This organization has a long experience in the identification of the disappeared during the dictatorship and has indicated that samples of Pablo Neruda’s bones will be sent abroad if necessary.
Both the SML and Judge Carroza are aware that there is no assurance of finding potential poison remains 40 years after the poet’s death, but it will be possible to determine whether or not he died of cancer.
Resting in peace in Isla Negra… soon
Pablo Neruda is buried in the garden of his house, now the museum of Isla Negra, on the central coast of Chile, with his last wife Matilde Urrutia. On December 11, 1992, their remains were exhumed for the first time in Santiago and taken to a funeral parlor in the ceremonial hall of the former National Congress. The next day, the wish of the poet was fulfilled: He wanted their bodies to rest forever at Isla Negra.
The tomb has sea views and receives thousands of visits every day. Monday is the day when the museum is closed to the public. A canopy will be set up in the yard, and the workers will use special suits to avoid toxicsubstances.
It will be a day without poetry, but necessary to bring peace to the soul of the poet who once wrote, “There are lone cemeteries, tombs full of soundless bones.”