Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was the pen name and, later, legal name of the Chilean poet and politician Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He chose his pen name after Czech poet, Jan Neruda. He is best known for the erotically charged love poems in his collection Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair. In 1971 Neruda won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” Neruda always wrote in green ink as it was his personal colour of hope.
During his lifetime, Neruda occupied many diplomatic positions and served a stint as a senator for the Chilean Communist Party. When Conservative Chilean President González Videla outlawed communism in Chile in 1948, a warrant was issued for Neruda’s arrest. Friends hid him for months in a house basement in the Chilean port of Valparaíso. Later, Neruda escaped into exile through a mountain pass near Maihue Lake into Argentina. Years later, Neruda was a close collaborator to socialist President Salvador Allende. When Neruda returned to Chile after his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Allende invited him to read at the Estadio Nacional before 70,000 people.
The Book of Questions was written at the end of Neruda’s life. In November 1972 he resigned his diplomatic position in Paris and returned to Chile. The democratic government of Salvador Allende was plagued by politically motivated strikes, facing shortages of vital foodstuffs and supplies and with the threat of a coup from the right-wing military. Neruda was hospitalized with cancer at the time of the Chilean coup d’état led by Augusto Pinochet. Three days after being hospitalised, he died of heart failure. Controversy continues to this day over the circumstances of his death. Whether he was mistreated by soldiers and died afterwards from a heart attack triggered by the mistreatment, as one rumour suggests, is uncertain. Already a legend in his own lifetime, Neruda’s death reverberated around the world. Pinochet had denied permission to transform his funeral into a public event. However, thousands of grieving Chileans disobeyed the curfew and crowded the streets.
The Book of Questions
The Book of Questions (El libro de las preguntas) is a posthumous work consisting of 316 questions posed by Neruda just months before his death. The book consists of a series of rhetorical questions divided up among 74 untitled poems (each poem contains from 3 to 6 questions). Neruda asks questions about a dizzying range of topics. Some are funny, some are disturbing. All are thought-provoking unanswerable questions in the koan tradition (question/statement in the form of a paradox that disciples of Zen ponder).
For the purpose of this blog and to make the poems tweet-sized, I have discarded the structure of the 74 poems but maintained the enigmatic and intriguing questions.
Brief Poems by Pablo Neruda
Why do leaves commit suicide
When they feel yellow?
When the convict ponders the light
is it the same light that shines on you?
Tell me, is the rose naked
or is that her only dress?
Donde termina el arco iris,
en tu alma o en el horizonte?
Where does the rainbow end,
in your soul or on the horizon?
Why do trees conceal
the splendor of their roots?
Who hears the regrets
of the thieving automobile?
Is there anything in the world sadder
than a train standing in the rain?
What do they call the sadness
of a solitary sheep?
If the flies make honey
will they offend the bees?
Do we learn kindness
or the mask of kindness?
Who assigns names and numbers
to the innumerable innocent?
Is it true that a black condor
flies at night over my country?
How did the abandoned bicycle
win its freedom?
What do they call a flower
that flies from bird to bird?
Si todos los rios son dulces
de donde saca sal el mar?
If all rivers are sweet
where does the sea get its salt?
Where is the center of the sea?
Why do waves never go there?
Do you have room for some thorns?
they asked the rosebush.
Que aprendeu a árvore da terra
para conversar com o céu?
What did the tree learn from the earth
to be able to talk with the sky?”
Where can you find a bell
that will ring in your dreams?
Are they birds or fish
in these nets of moonlight?
Reprinted from The Book of Questions published by Copper Canyon Press, written by Pablo Neruda, and translated by William O’Daly. Copyright © 2001 by William O’Daly. All rights reserved.
Translator William O’Daly reads selections from The Book of Questions.
Australian poet M.T.C.Cronin has written a series of responses to Neruda’s questions.
The home page of the translator of Neruda’s poems, William O’Daly.