Pablo Neruda’s exhumation begins
Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda’s remains were exhumed this week, four decades after his death. As we reported in February, the exhumation was approved by Judge Mario Carroza on a request by Chile’s Communist Party. The request rose in response to a magazine interview with Neruda’s chauffeur and body guard, Manuel Araya Osorio, who suggested Neruda did not die of natural causes.
On September 17, 1973, Neruda was admitted to the Santa Maria clinic in Santiago, suffering from prostate cancer, phlebitis, and a hip problem. He died in the clinic on September 23.
General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup began on September 17. In the days after the coup, a Chilean warship was stationed off the coast, its cannons pointed directly at Neruda’s house, and authorities raided his home. Neruda reportedly said to them, “There is only one thing here that poses a danger to you: poetry.”
Neruda planned to go into exile in Mexico, but was admitted to the clinic one day before his scheduled departure. (Santa Maria is the same clinic where, nine years later, former President Eduardo Frei was poisoned while recovering from hernia surgery.)
Chilean Communist lawyer Eduardo Contreras said the cause of death on Neruda’s death certificate was cachexia, or extreme malnutrition and weight loss that left him unable to carry out minimal activities. But according to Contreras and Araya, Neruda weighed more than 220 pounds when he died. “One thing is clear: Neruda didn’t die of cancer,” Contreras said.
Araya attended the exhumation with another one of Neruda’s four nephews. He recalled Neruda’s last day in an interview with the BBC:
“On the morning of 23 September, [Neruda's wife] Matilde and I went back to Isla Negra to collect some of his belongings,” [Araya] recalls.
“While we were there we received a phone call from Neruda in the clinic.
“He said ‘Come back here quickly! While I was sleeping a doctor came in and gave me an injection in the stomach.’”
Mr. Araya says he and Matilde drove back to Santiago immediately. “Neruda died at around 22:30 that evening,” he remembers.
The Independent reports that Dr. Sergio Draper ordered someone to administer an injection of dipyrone for Neruda’s fever. Draper testified that he left the clinic and “Neruda was left in the hands of a doctor with a surname Price, whose existence has not been able to be confirmed by anyone.”
Chile’s investigative police have found no record of any medical graduates named Price.
Mexican ambassador Gonzalo Martinez Corbala visited Neruda in the hospital the day before he died. “He seemed normal to me… nothing could make you think that he was going to die,” he recalled in an interview with The Independent.
Araya was attacked by four men on a previous occasion, when he left the clinic to buy medicine for Neruda. The men shot him in the leg and took him to Chile’s national stadium, where many leftists were held and tortured during the dictatorship, Eva Vergara reported for the Associated Press. Araya later fled into exile.
The Pablo Neruda Foundation does not endorse Araya’s theory about Neruda’s death. The foundation said in a statement in May that Araya has been “insisting without any proof other than his own belief.”
“This is a circus that I do not want to be part of,” said Bernardo Reyes, one of Neruda’s four nephews and also his biographer.
It will be at least three months until the results of Neruda’s exhumation are cleared, if anything is found at all.
“No big or false hope should be made about the exhumation and the analysis of the remains of Neruda yielding a cause of death,” Dr. Luis Ravanal, a forensic specialist, warned The Independent. Neruda was buried in Isla Negra soil that has intense coastal humidity, and Chile’s medical laboratory “lacks basic equipment for the analysis of toxics and drugs that even the most modest labs own… Technically there’s a big limitation; there is no sophisticated equipment to detect other substances, so they’ll invariably have to seek other labs.”
After the one-hour exhumation, Patricio Bustos, head of Chile’s medical legal service, told the Washington Post the casket is in good shape. “The most complex part will be searching for toxic substances that could not only be classic poisons, but also, according to testimonies, could be medical substances at very high doses to harm the poet.”
Contreras adds, “We have world-class labs from India, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., Sweden, they have all offered to do the lab work for free. That is the tenderness that he still provokes in people.”
Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.