Neruda’s “El gran mantel” (“The Great Tablecloth”)

pablo neruda

I have always admired Pablo Neruda. He was truly un maestro de la lengua — Márquez called him “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language.” He was also a committed communist, devoted to defeating poverty and ending exploitation.

Neruda served as an advisor to Chile’s democratically elected marxist President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and killed in a 1973 US-backed fascist coup. The poetic genius died just days after far-right US-backed dictator Augusto Pinochet took control of the country; it pains me to imagine how his heart must have been broken.

Neruda is most known for his love poems. I, however, am much more struck by his other work. In particular, I feel his c. 1958 poem “El gran mantel” may be one of his greatest works of all. I have included it here, so that others may bask in its wisdom and beauty.


El gran mantel
Cuando llamaron a comer
se abalanzaron los tiranos
y sus cocotas pasajeras,
y era hermoso verlas pasar
como avispas de busto grueso
seguidas por aquellos pálidos
y desdichados tigres públicos.

Su oscura ración de pan
comió el campesino en el campo,
estaba solo y era tarde,
estaba rodeado de trigo,
pero no tenía más pan,
se lo comió con dientes duros,
mirándolo con ojos duros.

En la hora azul del almuerzo,
la hora infinita del asado,
el poeta deja su lira,
toma el cuchillo, el tenedor
y pone su vaso en la mesa,
y los pescadores acuden
al breve mar de la sopera.
Las papas ardiendo protestan
entre las lenguas del aceite.
Es de oro el cordero en las brasas
y se desviste la cebolla.
Es triste comer de frac,
es comer en un ataúd,
pero comer en los conventos
es comer ya bajo la tierra.
Comer solos es muy amargo
pero no comer es profundo,
es hueco, es verde, tiene espinas
como una cadena de anzuelos
que cae desde el corazón
y que te clava por adentro.

Tener hambre es como tenazas,
es como muerden los cangrejos,
quema, quema y no tiene fuego:
el hambre es un incendio frío.
Sentémonos pronto a comer
con todos los que no han comido,

pongamos los largos manteles,
la sal en los lagos del mundo,
panaderías planetarias,
mesas con fresas en la nieve,
y un plato como la luna
en donde todos almorcemos.

Por ahora no pido más
que la justicia del almuerzo.

Aquí, creo que el mensaje de Neruda es obvio:
El gran mantel es el socialismo—la única manera de extinguir el incendio frío de hambre, por todos en el mundo.

* * *
The poem is not as beautiful in English, but here it is in translation.


The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.

The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.

In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his flass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.

Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire:
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;

let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.

For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.

Here, I feel Neruda’s message is obvious:
The Great Tablecloth is socialism — the only way to extinguish the cold fire of hunger, for everyone in the world.