The death has been announced of President Hugo Chávez Frias. Chávez was the most recent of the Central and South American leaders whose left-wing policies and popularity seem to evoke such fear amongst western governments.
By chance, two Irish film-makers, Kim Bartley and Donnacha Ó Briain, were filming a documentary about Chávez and filmed events during a failed right-wing coup in 2002. This was first broadcast on RTÉ as Chávez: Inside the Coup, then in feature-length as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. There is something evocative in the David and Goliath stand-offs between large corporate interests backed by US foreign and economic policy and the impoverished and embattled, if flawed, Central and South American states.
In that regard, Chávez’s death brought this piece to mind. It was written by Ricardo Garibay (published in various places), from a tape recording by Carlos Ortiz Tejada of the funeral of Pablo Neruda, only days after the right-wing Chilean coup and the death of President Salvadore Allende:
The funeral procession begins at the poet’s house, where the corpse was lying in state attended by his widow and sisters. The wake is held in the middle of a muddy, flooded room that was once his library. Books and documents are floating in the mud along with furniture. The day before, a stream was diverted into the house by the military who smashed everything in sight with their rifle butts and left the house flooded. The coffin has been removed and is being carried by some friends of the poet. Only a few people are present accompanying his widow and sisters and the Mexican Ambassador, Martinez Corbala.
Someone inquires and is told, “Pablo Neruda? “What? “Yes, sir, Pablo Neruda. And quietly the word spreads, and the name opens doors and windows, it begins to appear at half-closed shops, it descends from telephone poles with the workers who worked on them, it stops buses and it empties them, brings out people running from distant streets, people who arrive already crying, still hoping it is not true. The name keeps emerging, like a miracle of anger, in hundreds and hundreds of people – men, women, children almost all poor, almost all people of the shantytowns of Santiago – each of them becoming Pablo Neruda.
We hear a grayish noie of ordinary shoes, we smell the infinite dust, we feel on our eyes the strained breathing of thousands of throats that are ready to explode. Then we hear a sound: shy, half choked, prayed in secret – “Comrade Pablo Neruda? – and we hear an answer of someone who is saying, “Don’t tell that I said it, here now and forever. A voice shouts, “Comrade Pablo Neruda! and there, already in anger, “Here! – already throwing a hat, stepping firmly and facing the military who are approaching and surrounding the crowd.
And here begins something that we imagined ancient and monumental, something from the realm of great literature, something incredible, necessarily fantastic, because it belonged to pure thought and would never appear in the flesh at a street corner. Some kind of giant litany for who knows how many dead. Who knows how many more murdered people this litany is for? A remote voice, shrill voice, howls in a bestial, heartbreaking way, “Comrade Pablo Neruda! And a choir watched by millions of assassins, by millions of informers, sings “Here, with us, now and forever!
There, farther, here, on the right, on the left, at the end of the marching column, a column of three thousand, the Chilean cries rise up, twists of an inexhaustible womb of sadness, twinges of light: “Comrade Pablo Neruda! “Comrade Pablo Neruda! “Comrade Pablo Neruda! “Comrade Salvador Allende! “Here! “Here! “Here, with us, now and forever! “Chilean people, they are stepping on you, they are assassinating you, they are torturing you! “Chilean people, don’t give up, the revolution is awaiting us, we’ll fight until we finish with the henchmen!
Swirls of crying, swearing, threats, wailings, of darkness at noon, of voices choking with anger. Hellish vocabulary, crazy, heavenly words. Three thousand overwhelmingly defeated people are howling.
And suddenly, howling powerfully, a woman begins to sing Neruda’s verses. Her voice grown suddenly alone, “I have been reborn many times, from the depths of defeated stars . . . and all shout, all, they shout from their memories . . reconstructing the threats of eternities that I populated with my hands . .