LORCA MEMORABLY SAID that Pablo Neruda was 'closer to blood than to ink'. The Chilean Nobel laureate was a lover of wine ('it is impossible to drink just one bottle'), women (three wives, myriad mistresses) and song. However, he was unable to sing even moderately in tune and had a thin voice, ill suited to speaking to the masses whom he championed later in life. Neruda believed that poetry was like bread and should be shared by everyone. This put him at odds with his contemporary Boris Pasternak, who suggested that a poet ought to behave like a tree, which 'stands still and rustles its leaves'. Neruda never stood still (during his career as a diplomat he served five years in the Far East and three years in Mexico, ending up as Salvador Allende's Ambassador in Paris), and the only rustling he did was for women. He would either bang the drum of social injustice or remain as silent as a Trappist monk - criminally silent in the eyes of his critics. He did not raise a murmur when the Kremlin banned the publication of Pasternak's Dr Zhivago in 1958, he never spoke up for the victims of persecution in Russia, and there wasn't a squeak out of him when Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1953. Even in his later years he had a sentimental attachment to the Georgian, an expert on wine and many other things'.
Adam Feinstein quite rightly doesn't let him off the hook over Stalin. Nor is his standing as a writer unimpeachable, despite his right-on reputation as a poet of the masses: some critics believed he was too prolific, Borges called his work 'uneven', and it seems telling that he didn't know