Pablo Larraín’s entertaining new film, Neruda, has come at a serendipitous moment. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Editorial Nascimento, Pablo Neruda’s first publisher, which was established by my great-grandfather Manuel Carlos George-Nascimento (known as Don Carlos) in the Chilean capital, Santiago, in 1917. The film, set in 1948, chronicles the efforts of Neruda, an outspoken leftist, to escape the clutches of Chile’s anti-communist regime.
I grew up in London, hearing my mother talk about Don Carlos and his father, Carlos Lourenço, a whaler from the tiny island of Corvo in the Azores. A harpoonist by trade, Carlos Lourenço was the family’s last whaler in a tradition that had lasted centuries. In the 19th century whaling was one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Picking up a 50kg harpoon in one hand, running along the razor-thin boat edge and plunging the cold iron into the leviathan’s blubber was his speciality. I always heard that in his original manuscript of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville compiled a list of the seamen who claimed to have sighted the albino whale. Carlos Lourenço was among them.
Don Carlos’s uncle João (or Juan) Nascimento, whom he had never met, had emigrated to Chile and opened a bookshop, Librería Nascimento, in Santiago in 1873. At the age of nineteen, coinciding with his father’s retirement from whaling, Don Carlos announced that he was leaving Corvo to join João in Santiago. His arrival at his uncle’s bookshop did not live up to expectations. ‘We don’t need anyone here,’ were his uncle’s words, and he was dispatched back out onto the streets. He took a train 800km south to the city of Concepción, where another family from Corvo gave him work and where he met a young local woman whom he soon married.
Upon João’s death in 1917, Don Carlos became one of the joint heirs to the bookshop. He decided to keep it and, after paying off the other heirs, began venturing into publishing. In 1922 he struck a deal to distribute La Muerte de Vanderbilt, the latest novel by Joaquín Edwards Bello, a bestselling Anglo-Chilean writer, exclusively through Nascimento. In the same year the novelist Eduardo Barrios approached Don Carlos and offered him his latest manuscript, El Hermano Asno, for publication. Don Carlos initially turned it down owing to a lack of funds, but Barrios lobbied his contacts and raised enough money for Nascimento to print his book. With the help of Barrios, Don Carlos started to build a catalogue of talent that would eventually amount to a who’s who of 20th-century Chilean literature.
At the time, most books in Chile were self-published: their authors would distribute them in their immediate circles in the hope of garnering wider attention. Commercial publishing was still in its infancy. A few Spanish immigrants had ventured into this realm, but Don Carlos offered a new approach. He was involved in the management of everything, from the selection of authors and manuscripts to the design of the books and size of the print runs. He also took risks, not least when it came to poetry. ‘Publishing poetry is merely an elegant way of committing suicide,’ he once declared. In time, however, he would disprove this statement.
In 1923 a tall, thin, pale young man walked through the door to ask if Nascimento would publish his first manuscript. His name was Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, pen name Pablo Neruda. Don Carlos took him on and the work appeared under the title Book of Twilights. The following year, Nascimento published Neruda’s second collection, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. It would become the biggest-selling book of poetry in the Spanish language ever: more than one million copies were purchased. In 1932 Nascimento published a second edition, which sold another million copies. By then Neruda had embarked on a diplomatic career, serving in Spain and elsewhere in the Americas. However, he kept up a close relationship with Nascimento. In 1972, a year before the poet’s death, Nascimento published Neruda’s Cuatro Poemas Escritos en Francia.
In the decades after publishing Neruda’s first work, Don Carlos maintained his pioneering approach. He published the works of a number of female writers, among them María Luisa Bombal, Teresa Wilms Montt and Marta Brunet. He also hosted weekly tertulias in the bookshop, where Nascimento writers and academics would discuss their works, literature and politics face to face. Editorial Nascimento’s catalogue went on to contain more than six thousand titles. By the time of Don Carlos’s death in 1966, his writers had won thirty-five of the thirty-seven National Literature Awards dispensed up to that point.
After Don Carlos’s death, my grandfather took over the reins of the operation. However, the failure to innovate, buy new equipment and mitigate against the ever-rising cost of books led to a decline in activity. When General Pinochet’s government slapped a hefty 19 per cent VAT on books, which were already very expensive in Chile (where there was little state sponsorship for publishers, in contrast with some other Spanish-speaking countries), it was the coup de grace for Nascimento. In 1987 the doors of Nascimento closed after 114 years of literary activity. Ironically, Don Carlos was not even a left-winger. Although many of the writers he published had left-wing associations, he himself was a devout Catholic, preferring to keep a low profile and not involve himself in politics. We later discovered that the CIA had kept a file on him and the publishing house.
Many authors suffered following Pinochet’s coup of 1973. Neruda, who had survived the earlier attempt to silence him, was dead within a month of Pinochet taking power. Others, such as the aristocrat-turned-communist Vicente Huidobro, saw their publications banned. Books that Pinochet’s regime considered subversive were often burned en masse. Some Chilean writers went on to find fame abroad, never returning to the country. They include Roberto Bolaño, who moved to Spain and Mexico, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. To this day, Chile has the highest VAT on books in the Spanish-speaking world, an unfortunate legacy of the Pinochet era.
Now, to mark the centenary of the foundation of Editorial Nascimento, I have decided, in a reversal of Don Carlos’s journey, to reestablish the publishing house in Europe. We are also planning to launch the Nascimento Prize for Ibero-American literature, in order to discover fresh talent in fiction and poetry and help build up a new catalogue. I hope we will do justice to the memory of the man whom the poet Raúl Zurita described as ‘the father of the book in his adoptive country’.