Friday, 3 February 2017

The Dictators by Pablo Neruda

An odor has remained among the sugarcane:
a mixture of blood and body, a penetrating
petal that brings nausea.

Between the coconut palms the graves are full
of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles.

The delicate dictator is talking
with top hats, gold braid, and collars.

The tiny palace gleams like a watch
and the rapid laughs with gloves on
cross the corridors at times
and join the dead voices
and the blue mouths freshly buried.

The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant
whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,
whose large blind leaves grow even without light.

Hatred has grown scale on scale,
blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,
with a snout full of ooze and silence.


Pablo Neruda, 1904-1973. Photo: Wikimedia
In the opening lines of his poem The Dictators, the Nobel laureate, poet, writer, diplomat and political activist expresses his anguish at the oppression of the Chilean people by dictators as well as democratic rulers who act like dictators. The lines speak of torture, death and decay. Pablo Neruda paints a stark and vivid picture of life under despotic regimes, such as those led by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who is believed to have ordered the poet's death.

Dictators, whether Pinochet, Hitler, Pol Pot or Idi Amin, put down violent and nonviolent resistance by kidnapping, torturing and executing political opponents and innocent civilians, and ruling with an iron fist. Pinochet overthrew the democratically-elected socialist President Salvador Allende in a CIA-instigated coup in 1973 and eliminated thousands of left-wing activists, in his nearly two-decade long misrule.


The cruelty of tyranny had a profound impact on Neruda who recreates the horror in those opening lines where he talks about the stench of dead bodies lying in pools of blood in sugarcane fields, the breezy coconut plantations turning into unmarked graveyards, and spirited voices silenced in the throes of death.

Neruda champions the cause of his people and raises a battle cry against fascism, both unconcealed and disguised, and warns of the vile and destructive powers of totalitarian regimes. His message is: Absolute power dehumanises absolutely.

But does a political leader have to be a military dictator and wear "top hats, gold braid, and collars" in order to clamp down on resistance? Can he not sow seeds of fear, hatred, and confusion wearing a suit and tie, and a facade of decency and decorum?



Note: For more Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Patti Abbott's blog Pattinase.

12 comments:

  1. I discovered Neruda in my late teens when the film Il Postino made a splash in theaters here in the United States. It's impact was deep enough that I read many of Neruda's translated poetry collections. That's for the reminder how much I enjoyed his work, and to answer your question. An authoritarian can come in an wrapping.

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    1. You're welcome, Ben. I rediscovered his work too, though I hadn't read much in the past. I think we already have a few wrappings around.

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  2. Neruda's work is phenomenal, Prashant. I'm very glad you spotlighted it today. And that particular poem truly resonates. Tyrants and authoritarian figures can come in many forms... This is a very timely post of yours.

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    1. It certainly is, Margot — thank you. I love poetry though I don't read it as often as I should. Now I read a couple of them during lunch hour in office. It's disturbing that this poem is as relevant today, even in democracies, as it was in his time.

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  3. It seems that dictators are all much alike. Only their victims are different

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    1. Charles, it bothers me that even politicians we elect to power in democratic elections behave like dictators.

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  4. That's a gory, but true rendering of a dictator. It seems any switch from liberalism or from the far-right results in a claim of dictatorship.

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    1. Oscar, I plan to read more Pablo Neruda including his longer work. Both liberalism and Far Right are two sociopolitical extremes and can pose a threat to democratic values, as history tells us.

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  5. Interesting questions you ask there at the end, Prashant.

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    1. Thank you, Tracy. A lot of people are probably asking the same questions these days.

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  6. A timely work, Prashant. Timely, indeed.

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    1. Thank you, Mathew. Who would have thought that this poem would be so relevant in current times?

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