Questions about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda

"How did the abandoned bicycle win its freedom?

Is the rose naked, or is that her only dress?

"What's hidden under your hump? said the camel to the tortoise."

Born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, he was known to the world as Pablo Neruda. The people's poet, his twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, published in 1924 when Neruda was 19 years old, established him as the quintessential poet of young lovers. Neruda composed poems of love and desire his entire life while writing from a political perspective on the power that centered the lives and experiences of everyday people. Exiled from Chile for his political views, he died shortly after the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and the rise to power of the US-backed dictator, Agosto Pinochet. He had won the Nobel Prize two years prior, in 1971.

It was initially reported that Neruda died of cancer, but as this New York Times article says, "in 2011, his former driver, Manuel Araya, asserted in an interview with a Mexican magazine that doctors at the private clinic in Santiago where Neruda was being treated poisoned him by injecting an unknown substance into his stomach. Mr. Araya did not witness the injection, but he said that Neruda described it to him from his deathbed when the two men were alone."

In 2013, his body was exhumed, and laboratories in Canada and Denmark conducted the forensic analysis. As reported in 2017 by NPR, "researcher Aurelio Luna told a news conference…that the 16-member panel was "100 percent convinced" the official cause of death is wrong. "That cannot be correct," Niels Morling, Luna's colleague on the panel, told reporters. "There was no indication of cachexia. He was an obese man at the time of death. All other circumstances in his last phase of life pointed to some kind of infection. But that's about as far as they were willing to take their conclusion for now."

The epigraph questions beginning this post are from one of Neruda's eight posthumous publications, The Book of Questions, a series of philosophical and whimsical, ethereal, and other-worldly inquiries asked to the universe. Unanswerable, yet to be answered for sure, these question poems invoke images and imaginaries of linguistic explorations, a request to the reader to revisit the need for a direct, knowable response. Contemplative questions that tickle the imagination and provoke letting go of the need for answers. Buddhist sonnets, to be sure.

In May of 2022, Enchanted Lion Books released a new bilingual edition of these question poems. Illustrated by Paloma Valdivia, "The new edition is meant for everyone in the family. The book is large and contains playful fold-out pages and whimsical illustrations that help bring readers into the imaginative world of the questions. The original book has more than 300 questions that span a wide range of topics: from death and dreams to politics, literature, seasons, and time. But in curating the selection, translator Sara Lissa Paulson and editor Claudia Bedrick wanted to highlight those that would be in the realm of experiences that young children are excited to discover. They chose 70 questions mostly related to the relationship between humans and the natural world."

For a bilingual conversation about the production of the new edition, click here.

For more on Neruda's life, check out the trailer for Neruda, an "anti-bio" biopic. As the New York Times reported, Neruda is "Part fact, part glorious fantasy, it opens in 1948, shortly before the poet Pablo Neruda (a magnificent Luis Gnecco), is forced to go into hiding. A Communist and senator, Neruda has become an enemy of the state, having violently and very publicly condemned the Chilean President Gabriel González Videla. Chased from the Senate and his home, Neruda flees with his artist-wife, Delia (Mercedes Moran), the two slipping underground while chased by a vainglorious cop (played by Gael García Bernal, the star of "No")."