Neruda in a Maltese court
On November 27, 1947, a Venezuelan paper published what came to be known as the Intimate Letter To Millions Of Men by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). The future Nobel Prize laureate accused Chile’s President Gabriel González Videla of having reneged on his electoral promises of badly needed radical social reforms and of having betrayed the progressive parties that had supported his candidature.
The President brought charges of contempt against Neruda for having insulted his own head of the state abroad. Unrepentant, the poet repeated his accusations of the “Chilean Judas” in a speech in the senate, of which he was a member. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the charges against Neruda and issued a warrant for his arrest. At this point, he went into hiding to complete his great poem Canto General.
In the larger picture of the Latin American universe, Chile’s González Videla is a minor character, as Neruda himself later observed. “In the fauna of our America, the great dictators have been giant saurians, survivors of a colossal feudalism in prehistoric lands. The Chilean Judas was just an amateur tyrant and on the saurian scale would never be anything but a poisonous lizard.”
We Maltese, familiar with mediocre politicians infinitely less inspiring than the innocent lizards of our garigue, can well appreciate Neruda’s reptilian imagery.
Originally conceived as an epic poem about Chile, Canto General grew over a period of 12 years into a book of verses about the whole of Latin America – the “great motherland”, as my good friend Fr Ġwann Xerri OP (now back in his beloved Brazil) is fond of calling it. When you read the second canto, Alturas de Machu Picchu (Heights of Machu Picchu) – parts of which have been translated into Maltese by Antoine Cassar, a Latin American literature specialist who is presently working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Alcalá, Madrid – you observe how literally Neruda soars, condor-like, above any possible parochial small-mindedness.
But González Videla must at least be credited with having provoked Neruda to compose this “solemn celebration” of a continent betrayed by its ruling classes, creating a veritable “poetics of betrayal” (Roberto González Echevarría). In this poetic logic, the treason committed by these rulers (and their lackeys) is not an inevitable consequence of their smallness. Rather, it is their betrayal of their peoples’ aspiration to a dignified existence that makes them abjectly small.
On November 29, 2010, 63 years almost to the day after he denounced his President, Neruda appeared in a Maltese court. Mr Justice Lawrence Quintano, handing down an appeal judgment in a case involving the intentional running over of a dog, called for respect of the life and well-being of animals. The judge appended Neruda’s Un perro ha muerto (A dog has died) to his sentence. An unprecedented gesture in our courts.
It is a moving poem but not soppy or sentimental. Far from it. Recalling his dog’s friendship, the poet states almost laconically that “it was the friendship of a star, aloof, with no more intimacy than was called for”.
It is, nevertheless, a friendship so precious that it tempts the writer – generally assumed to be an atheist – to muse about an afterlife for his dog:
“I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for this dog and all dogs,
where my dog awaits my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.”
The conclusion, gruff and abrupt in its lapidary matter-of-factness, jolts us awake:
“So now it’s gone and I buried him,
and that is all that there is to it.”
Only a month earlier, on October 14, the same judge delivered what this newspaper described as an “inspiring and emotional” inaugural speech, focusing on his six-year experience, as a magistrate, of drug cases. Mr Justice Quintano argued for the need to attempt to understand the persons involved, insisting that rehabilitation ought not to be limited to the administration of methadone but to give the subject concerned a reason to live.
The idea of a reason to live appears to have been central to the judge’s oration. I quote from this newspaper’s report: “If one did not believe in God then one should at least have something special in one’s life to give one sense and meaning, he added.” A statement clearly intended to reach out to all in an increasingly secular society. A statement we would have expected from a reader of Neruda, an eminently secular poet, whose verses suggest that even a dog can contribute “to give one sense and meaning”. Disrespecting a dog’s life and dignity diminishes the sense and meaning of our life, it weakens our reason to live.
Compassion is at the heart of Mr Justice Quintano’s approach, the need to empathise and sympathise with the suffering of the other. Wantonly killing a dog or not caring if it lives or dies is indicative of a diffuse absence of compassion, even in a small society that proclaims itself devout. No wonder that in such a society, one can justify the holding of a village festa immediately after a fireworks tragedy in a nearby locality on grounds that the dead belong to another parish. If we could only soar high above this society – as sparrows, in the absence of condors – to observe our hypocritical smallness! But then we’d probably get shot at.
The original of this article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column in The Times of Malta on December 6, 2010 and may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20101206/opinion/neruda-in-a-maltese-court