|This mosaic in Santiago's Bellavista neighborhood suggests the reverence in which Chileans hold Pablo Neruda.
As a Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda is revered in Chile—even by many who abhorred his outspoken Communist politics. His literary and political fame, though, overshadowed what was often a messy personal life, a topic that Dutch poet Hagar Peeters tackles in her first novel, Malva, named for the handicapped daughter that Neruda neglected during her short lifetime.
|Malva is Dutch poet Hagar Peeters' first novel.
Born in Madrid in 1934 to Neruda and his first wife Marijke Antonieta Hagenaar Vogelzang (known as Maruca), whom he met while serving in a diplomatic post in the Dutch East Indies, Malva Marina Trinidad del Carmen Reyes suffered from hydrocephalus. She died in 1942, spending most of her life with a foster family in the Netherlands after Neruda ignored her and her mother took what jobs she could after their 1936 divorce. Half that time was during the Nazi occupation of Holland, when birth defects denoted genetic inferiority at best.
Peeters tells Malva’s story through a sort of magical realism, with Neruda’s daughter as an omniscient post-mortem observer who, in the afterlife, acquaints herself with the children of other creative fathers who neglected their offspring: James Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter Lucia, Arthur Miller’s son Daniel (born with Down syndrome), and, oddly, Günter Grass’s fictional dwarf Oskar Matzerath of his novel The Tin Drum.
|After the 1973 coup, the Chilean military vandalized Neruda's Santiago home, which is now a museum.
Neruda may have been a neglectful parent, but there’s a bit of autobiography in Peeters’ account, as her own father spent extended periods in South America during the tumultuous 1970s (Neruda died, and may have been murdered, less than two weeks after the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973). Born in 1972, Peeters acknowledges using her father’s diaries in reconstructing Neruda’s last days (as told by Malva). The account of Neruda’s funeral, in the house vandalized by the military, is especially eloquent.
According to Peeters, in fact, “Any resemblances between Neruda and my father, Maruca and my mother, and Malva and myself are entirely and mischievously deliberate.” In the end, there's an ambivalent admiration for them all.