-1Literature of the Americas Gruesz Heroism in Neruda’s Canto General ADM 30 September 1994

In his Canto General, Pablo Neruda poetically renders the history of Latin America and all but abandons conventional historiographical technique, choosing instead to develop a new mythos for his people. The narrative’s poetic form allows Neruda to emphasize certain abstract themes that would be difficult or impossible for a traditional historian to stress convincingly. One of the most prevalent of these themes is that of fertility and germination, a motif Neruda employs to highlight not only the literal fecundity of Latin America, but also the way in which certain “seeds” were planted in history that gradually grow into figures or events in the history of his people. A seed may grow into a person, an idea, a crowd, a movement, a hero. And each of these, before disappearing, will yield a seed of its own. Neruda traces the seeds to a river and a single tree, each in a way “nourished by naked corpses” of Latin Americans (71). Neruda suggests that each Latin American who dies for the future of Latin America contributes to the growth of that realm, that each death is another step toward a stronger continent. Somehow, Neruda writes, each death helps create a hero, an individual who will struggle harder than most for the future of the countries. As the tree grows, “its heroes rise up from the earth,/ as leaves from the sap” (71). Apparently, though, not every death is a hero. Special properties seem distinguish Neruda’s heroes from the masses, who may die frequently as martyrs, but only rarely as heroes. Although an avowed Communist, Neruda unapologetically pays homage to those who have stood apart from the crown and pushed Latin America forward. As its title indicates, the poem generally is the story of a people, but on a particular level, especially in “The Conquistadors” and “The Liberators,” the poem is the story of individual heroes. But these heroes appear all the more heroic because of their entirely selfsacrificing nature. They give everything to the people, and the people in turn offer everything to them. One might observe that the revolutionary armies of Latin America were not made of generals and soldiers, but

rather heroes and martyrs. The development of the hero in Canto General outlines the distinction between heroes and others, and suggests certain salient traits that every hero, at least for Neruda, must have. Most significant in this regard, it seems, is the ability of the hero to have an impact on not only the present, but the future; the hero must serve as inspiration for future heroes. Such inspiration is a form of Neruda’s germination theme. Also, as mentioned above, the Neruda’s heroes willingly sacrifice everything for freedom. Thirdly, the heroes commit themselves to using the enemy’s ways against him. In other words, the heroes, whether Indian or Spanish, adopt the strengths of the opposing force, and exploit the weaknesses. Sadly, by the end of “The Liberators,” we see that some liberators perhaps have learned too much from the enemy. As the poem moves forward, each of these characteristics becomes increasingly important and evident, and the heroes grow increasingly heroic. For Neruda, history, and the heroes’ role in history, is at once cyclical and progressive. The liberators gain freedom, and Latin America moves forward, but the nations still do not reach synthesis, or even stasis. The continuing emergence of heroes, perhaps, will lead to some form of an ideal Latin America. The cycle of Latin American history in Canto General begins with the river and the cordilleras in “Lamp on Earth.” As Neruda’s story moves slightly further from Nature to Man, we still see a strong connection between man and earth, at least as far as the Indians are concerned. The third book of the poem, “The Conquistadors” features Spanish conquerors taking land, minerals, and sovereignty from the Indians. Neruda almost entirely removes the link between the Conquistadors and the earth. The conquerors are animals who devour the earth and each other, or atmospheric phenomena removed from the land, except to damage it. From the earliest stages, we see the Spanish as bestial and greedy. As the Conquistadors move through the Latin America, “everything falls into the wolves’ treasure chests” (47). “A seed” not of organic material, but “of lightning bolts” (50) accompanies Balboa as he explores South America and moves into the Pacific Ocean. Later, “from the north, Almagro brought wrinkled lightning” (59). The lightning bolt’s only contact with the ground is to scorch it. By contrast,

the people and elements of the Indians are organic; not ravenous, but passively growing. This becomes increasingly evident as the Canto continues, but already Neruda’ narrative “I” feels the need to return to the earth, as though he could regress in the poem to opening stanza where there was no strife or blood. “I’ll descend through the earth, until I reach the jaws of gold” (58). The Indians at this point are so passive, Neruda can appeal only to the natural world. The earth has not yet imbued the natives with enough aggression to fight back. The tree does not yet have enough blood in its roots to pass on to the present population. Despairing of this, Neruda implores nature for help. “The ships are here, stop them river, close off/ your ravenous banks./…strike them with your fiery stinger,/ your bloodthirsty vertebrates” (52). Because, as one might guess, the river does not fight off the invaders, the conquerors begin killing natives and taking their gold without pause. As yet, no hero has emerged, only a sea of martyrs who dies, maybe unconsciously, for the future of their country. “The wheel of gold turned, night after night./ The wheel of martyrdom day and night” (56), Neruda remarks, noting the industrial genocide and robbery that took place in his homeland. As the cycle continues, Neruda’s homeland, Araucania, begins to prepare an opposing force. The force derives, at least in part, from the power of the Araucanian’s land, which the Conquistadors treat as poorly as they do the people who live on it. In the poem “Land and Man Unite,” we see that man could “ask the earth for his standard” and the earth “loved him and defended him” (61). Prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors, the land was “unanimous” and there was “unity before combat” (61). The heroes in Neruda, it seems, continue to take their standard from the earth, emphasizing their continued connection to and unity with the land. When the Conquistadors come, they attempt to separate the natives from the earth, and work towards dispelling the unity which the Araucanians rely on. Neruda’s heroes, consequently, are those who seek to regain and perpetuate that unity, whatever the cost. As the inspiration of nature proves not enough to conquer the conquerors, and more and more Indians are martyred, their blood augments the force of nature, which in turn reinvigorates the soon-to-be liberators. Neruda portrays this cycle with his use of the tree-

metaphor. The poem’s fourth book, “The Liberators” opens with a representation of the people of Latin America as parts of a tree, the “tree of the people” which “feeds on martyrdom’s nitrate” (71). In the opening stanzas of the book, the tree of the people is drawing power from those who lost their lives in the action of the third book of the poem. At this point, for the time in the poem, Neruda mentions the possibility of heroic action; of figures who, as individuals, will make enormous sacrifices for the good of present and future generations. Importantly, the tree is still a fixed structure, not yet actively fighting off the conquerors, but simply offering some resistance while at the same time nursing leaves and branches which will come to develop seeds of their own. There is in the tree a promise for the future, a promise which Neruda clearly anticipates before the action of the fourth book begins. The universal nature of the tree indicates the connection between all those who are or will be colonized or repressed. The tree sprouts seemingly infinite arms, infinite branches that puncture barriers of time and geography to offer, in much the same way as the Canto, a sense of optimism for the future. “This is the tree of the emancipated,…[of] countless arms, the people,…This is the tree/ of all the people/ of all the peoples struggling for freedom” (72). Neruda is careful to distinguish “all the people” from “all the peoples,” as he is aware that certain individuals will rise to prominent places on the tree, and other will occupy less substantial places, even though both will be necessary to the integrity, or unity, of the tree. Also significant is that the tree represents a “struggling,” although it does not struggle itself. With this representation, Neruda indicates the potential energy of the tree, which at this early stage, is still drawing energy from the earth and corpses. As Neruda moves from the metaphor of the tree into discussion of the figures, we continue to get a sense of the approaching hero. Neruda calls up a figure who though dead, “is not extinct” (74). In other words, his force and grandeur will run through the roots of the tree and inspire those “leaves” still sprouting. His species survives after him. Neruda here also gives the first indication that one of the secrets to liberation is learning to emulate the conquerors so as to defeat them. In the same step, Neruda also moves the natives away from

having the stationary tree as the sole representation of their strength. The poet gives Moctezuma the scorching power of Balboa and Almagro, while retaining the beauty and organic quality of the Aztec. Moctezuma, Neruda writes, “is armored lightning… [and a] flower of the people” (74). This characterization of Moctezuma helps to establish Neruda’s belief in the simultaneous beauty and force of the Indians. The former trait is noticeably absent in discussion of the Conquistadors, who to Neruda are maggot-ridden swineherds.1 In these still early stages of budding liberation, Neruda turns to Bro. Bartolomé de Las Casas as perhaps the poem’s first human hero. De Las Casas is the first to stand up to the Spanish successfully, in part because he is himself Spanish, and is not subject to the same kind of imperial condescension that the Indians are. In reading what Neruda says of de Las Casas, we begin to get a picture of what a hero is to Neruda. First, de Las Casas will have an impact on both the current and future generations. His decisions and actions inspire the natives around him (even those whose lives were once empty of joy and optimism) and will touch those heroes who come after him. “From the limits/ of agony, you engender hope” (75), Neruda says, referring to de Las Casas work on behalf of Indian slaves at Hispañola. As for the future, Neruda asks his progenitor to “bequeath to my heart the errant wine/ and the implacable bread of your sweetness” (77). This is one of Neruda’s first mentions of the possibility of one groups or person directly passing a spiritual element through the generations. Although it is merely a passing reference, it is significant, especially when the liberators begin to confront directly the Conquistadors. Also, de Las Casas retains contact with the spirituality of the Indians; he is by no means (at least according to Neruda) heartless or vengeful. As “the eternity of tenderness” whose “reason was…titanic material,” de Las Casas resisted the influence of the Spanish leadership, but showed continued kindness to slaves, even at great personal cost. “The conquistadors [were] saying: ‘There goes the agitator’” (76). De Las Casas’ use of reason to fight his battle is also emblematic of a liberator learning (or knowing) the tactic of his enemy, and exploiting it. Since he was dealing with the Spanish political leadership in the issue of emancipation, there was no need for him to take up arms. Using persuasive reasoning, perhaps

the strongest currency of all in these times, he was able to take some of the most important early steps in the project of liberation. The next big step for liberation and the progression of heroes is in “The Men Rise Up,” in which Neruda discusses the developing opposition in Chile, or Arauco. Neruda takes a special pride in Arauco’s status as being the fiercest of those who opposed the Conquistadors, and so it is to his homeland that he turns to watch the seeding of the liberators. As part of his mythmaking project, Neruda establishes a sort of genesis for his heroes. He again calls to mind the close association between the fertile land and the people who will free the land. Arauco, he writes, “is where the chiefs germinated.” “From that black moisture,/ from that rain fermented/…majestic breasts emerged.” This passage marks a big transition from previous sections of the poem, because for the first time, Neruda mentions the possibility of violent force fighting back. The force is still organic and involved with the trees and the land, but his language takes a threatening turn as it mentions “bright vegetal arrows, teeth of savage stone, inexorable crops of stakes.” The elements of the force come together to bring back to Latin America “glacial unity” (78). Neruda’s tone is at once threatening and optimistic. The discussion of organic weapons spells imminent violence, but his “inexorable crops of stakes” indicates that the Conquistadors must face the growing opposition. The shift from stationary tree to flying arrow indicates the force strongly enough, but Neruda does not close the section until he portrays the totality of Arauco’s shift from only a tree, resisting and expanding to a live, animate being. Now, Arauco will be like a “red puma…a hunted beast” (78-79). At last, The Indians have made the transition from passive plant to active animal. In the poem’s very next stanza, Neruda develops further movement on the part of the Indians, in his discussion of Caupolicán, who organizes and wins a major battle against the Conquistador, Valdivia. In writing of the Araucanian chief, Neruda captures the hybrid of the vegetal and bestial. As Caupolicán assembles his force, he so inspires even the dead, who rot beneath the tree of the people, that “the tree walked.” The Spanish see “the terrestrial trunk becoming people” as though all of the martyrs since the Conquest had risen to fight this battle, under the leadership of their hero, Caupolicán, who “raises his mask of lianas”2 and reveals a

“woodland face…a head with vines” (79). The Chief takes on the aspect of the Conquistadors who were followed by lightning; Moctezuma, who took it from them; and the hunted beast that is all of Arauco. Caupolicán’s face features the “deep-set/ look of a mountainous universe,/ the implacable eyes of the earth/ scaled by thunderbolts and roots” (79). From Caupolicán, Neruda moves to the Chief’s Araucanian compatriot, Lautaro, who goes through a hero’s training, a training which encompasses the traditions of both the Indians and the Spanish military. “He ate in every kitchen of his people./ He learned the lightning’s alphabet” (82). Neruda indicates through this litany of training that Lautaro has an obligation to his people to represent them as effectively as possible, to sacrifice everything for them and the future. The poet’s pride in his people is evident when he lists the incredible tasks that the hero performs, the last of which was “to temper his blood,” and then adds, “Only then was he worthy of his people” (83). The masses, though they cannot accomplish what he did, are still, as a people, deserving of great heroes. There is an obligation of the father of a country toward the children of that country, Neruda says, and Lautaro accepted the obligation. Even after the training, Lautaro continues to learn about the Conquistadors, so he may use their strengths against them, the mark of a true hero. “He marched with their inscrutable gods./ he divined their armor./ He witnessed their battles./ as he entered step by step/ the fire of Auracania” (83). The assuming of the enemy’s strength reaches it’s peak after Lautaro and Caupolicán team to defeat Valdivia, when Neruda’s narrative “we” cuts out the Conquistador’s heart, offers it to the tree, representing the past, present, and future of those who struggle for freedom, and then “fulfills the rites of the earth” as he “sinks [his] teeth into that corolla,” the heart of Valdivia. The chant that begins “Give me your coldness, evil foreigner./ Give me your great jaguar’s bravery” highlights the ferocity the Indians hope get out of the Conquistadors, and the desire for unity and serenity. The chant ends with a plea for “the homeland without thorns…[and] victorious peace” (86). From this stage of heroism, in which the Indian hero has become animated, fully in touch with the past and future, and self-sacrificing, Neruda jumps ahead three hundred years

to the Spanish colonies in South America in the 19th century. The liberators now are Spanish descendants who wish to remove their countries from Spanish control. These new liberators still fit into Neruda’s conception of the hero, although they may be a little less in touch with the history of their people. Men such as O’Higgins Riquelme, San Martín, Miranda, and Carrera, all share certain ideals regarding the independence of their respective nations. In some cases, they seem to be the father or hero of several countries, spreading their fever for sovereignty across a continent. Appropriately, Neruda dispenses with much of the plant/animal dichotomy, but still draws a tight bond between the men and the land, defining the identity of several of them as “the land you gave us” (97). The poet continues however to stress the masses, the will of the people, as something to which even these revolutionaries have an obligation. This relationship, as with Lautaro, is mutual, and Neruda asks that the people “preserve his name in the hard dominion of…the struggle” (108). These men also have a peculiar method of learning their enemies strengths and weaknesses: for some time, they were the enemy. Most of the revolutionaries Neruda mentions in “The Liberators” learned their skills while serving in the Spanish military. As the liberators engage the project of liberation, it seems they become less tied to the land and increasingly tied to borders, a movement which parallels their shift away from the bestial nature of the later Indians and the Conquerors into the realm of politicians. By the time Neruda narrates to his contemporaries, betrayal and treachery are rampant. Lincoln and Sandino are killed, , Morazán (like Balboa) is “crawling with maggots” (117), Balmaceda kills himself (122), and there seem to be few, if any heroes, left. As with the first arrival of the Conquistadors, Neruda’s “I” retreats into “the uterine originality of the womb” in search of “man” as he was, when still part of the dust. Out of this wasteland, Neruda finds his new heroes, Recabarren and the Communist Party. These give him the unity he thought he had lost. “It was called People, Proletariat, Union—it had person and presence.…This unity of sorrows was called Party” (137). He asks, once again, for his people to look to history, to the tree—to Lautaro, de Las Casas, Caupolicán, Lautaro—for inspiration. With a mind conscious of

history, the future, the masses, and the earth, this inspiration come for the new heroes, who will “join roots” and recapture the unity lost with the arrival of the first Conquistador. 3274 words 1With the notable exception, perhaps, of Balboa, who gets from Neruda an almost sentimental, or tragic, “Homage.” 2Lianas are vines that grow in the ground and wrap around tree trunks.

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