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  • “I have put all I possess at the disposal of the people’s struggle”Pablo Neruda as Collector, Translator, and Poet
  • Kelly Austin

In “Yo, el malacólogo” [I, the Malacologist]—a part of Pablo Neruda’s memoirs, Confieso que he vivido, finished shortly before his death in September 1973—Neruda recounts the day he decided to donate his seashell collection to his alma mater. With over 15,000 shells overflowing from the bookshelves and falling from tables and chairs, as well as enough books about seashells to fill his library, he boxed up his already famous collection and sent it to the University of Chile. He thought he had sealed its fate: “Como buena institución sudamericana, mi universidad los recibió con loores y discursos y los sepultó en un sótano” (228) [Like a good South American institution, my university received my collection with speeches and fanfare and buried it in a basement].1 Neruda saw his self as multiple, split as an author, collector—malacologist and bibliophile—as well as donor; simultaneously a man of public and private pursuits.

Indeed, at a crucial turning point in his life, Neruda declared that he planned to dedicate himself to his seashell collection and politics as poetry no longer interested him:

En México el Partido Comunista Mexicano organizó el 25 de Septiembre de 1941 un gran homenaje a Neruda. Juan Larrea, uno de los participantes, cuenta que la serie de homenajes dados a Neruda en México, llevó a éste a pensar en dedicarse a la política. En una recepción en casa del pintor Carlos Orozco Romero, Neruda le habría hecho una confidencia: “No sé lo que tú pensarás, Juan. Pero te diré que a mí, la poesía ya no me interesa. Desde ahora pienso dedicarme a la política y a mi colección de conchas.”

(Schidlowsky 444)

(In Mexico, on September 25, 1941, the Mexican Communist Party organized a great homage for Neruda. Juan Larrea, one of the participants, recounts that the series of homages given for Neruda in Mexico, led him to think about dedicating himself to politics. In a reception at the painter Carlos Orozco Romero’s house, Neruda divulged in confidence: “I don’t know what you think, Juan. But I’ll tell you that poetry no longer interests me. From now on I think I’ll dedicate myself to politics and to my seashell collection.”

[my translation]) [End Page 40]

Neruda’s sobering statement, reverberating with irony, both announces new pursuits and simultaneously monumentalizes and trivializes them in comparison with the history of his dedication to poetry.2 He made this statement in the very month that he published his translation of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Set against the backdrop of a Chile falling under an increasingly xenophobic government, this claim constitutes a piece of Neruda’s life that frames his acts of collecting and translating in a decidedly political manner. What Hannah Arendt asserted in reference to Walter Benjamin, that “Benjamin could understand the collector’s passion as an attitude akin to that of the revolutionary” (42), echoes sympathetically with Neruda’s attitude toward collecting.

As Neruda reflected on his poetic transitions while living in Mexico as consul general—symbolically bound up with his increasingly official dedication to communism, and during “a moment of intellectual and artistic splendor” in Mexico (González Echevarría 4)3—his approach to his collections and his comments concerning them reveal a poet grappling with the dilemmas of how to reconcile his own private act of collecting with communism’s concept of property, as well as the question of the value—intimate, aesthetic, commodity, and cultural—of books themselves. And when one sees Neruda’s collections housed at Isla Negra, at La Universidad de Chile, and at La Chascona—the headquarters for the Fundación Neruda—it is clear that Neruda’s bibliophilia is one of the constitutive, seminal, and traditional points of departure for literary studies of his oeuvre. Neruda’s collection offers concrete evidence of the primary and secondary volumes that he read and recollected. His library testifies to his status as both a reader and collector of...


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