On this day in 1904, Pablo Neruda was born in Parral, Chile, as Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. When he began to publish poetry in his teens, Neruda chose a new name in order to hide his authorship from his father; he liked "Pablo," and saw the name of Jan Neruda, the 19th century Czech writer, while glancing through a literary journal. Neruda's Memoirs (1977) tell us of a father who warned of his return from the railway yard each evening by blowing his whistle, and who greeted Neruda's first poem, written when he could barely read, with "Where did you copy this from?" But his stepmother was "the guardian angel of my childhood," and the headmistress of his hometown high school was Gabriela Mistral, Chile's other Nobel winner. Sixteen-year-old Neruda knocked on her door, handed over his poems, and came back three hours later to receive her judgment that he was "indeed a true poet."
Repeated in Memoirs is a story that Neruda told in his 1971 Nobel acceptance speech about his flight from Chile in 1949 (into the exile upon which the 1995 movie Il Postino is based). The government had taken a quick right turn, and though a statesman and senator, Neruda was being hunted down for his Communist beliefs. He fled by packhorse over the Andes to Argentina, a smuggler's trail marked by cataracts, rockslides and gravesites. Neruda's description of the group's safe arrival conveys the same love of country, countryman and life that marks the poetry:
There was something awaiting us in the midst of this wild primeval forest. Suddenly, as if in a strange vision, we came to a beautiful little meadow huddled among the rocks: clear water, green grass, wild flowers, the purling of brooks and the blue heaven above, a generous stream of light unimpeded by leaves.
There we stopped as if within a magic circle, as if guests within some hallowed place, and the ceremony I now took part in had still more the air of something sacred. The cowherds dismounted from their horses. In the midst of the space, set up as if in a rite, was the skull of an ox. In silence the men approached it one after the other and put coins and food in the eyesockets of the skull. I joined them in this sacrifice intended for stray travellers, all kinds of refugees who would find bread and succour in the dead ox's eye sockets.
But the unforgettable ceremony did not end there. My country friends took off their hats and began a strange dance, hopping on one foot around the abandoned skull, moving in the ring of footprints left behind by the many others who had passed there before them. Dimly I understood there by the side of my inscrutable companions, that there was a kind of link between unknown people, a care, an appeal and an answer even in the most distant and isolated solitude of this world.