The Tragic Story Of Pablo Neruda's Abandoned Daughter

The Nobel Prize-winning poet was a renowned defender of humanitarian causes through much of the 20th century. Yet he had no time or interest for his only child, who was born with hydrocephalus.

Neruda in 1966
Matilde Sánchez

BUENOS AIRES — There is a dark blot in the life of Pablo Neruda that none of his many prizes and honors could ever efface. It is the secret story of his daughter, Malva Marina Trinidad Reyes, who suffered from hydrocephalus and died at the age of eight in the Netherlands. The child — the Chilean poet"s only offspring— was the product of his first marriage, to María Antonia "Maryka" Hagenaar.

Neruda, or Ricardo Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, to use his legal name, is as much remembered in his native Chile for his socialist political ideas as for his writing. And yet, he denied Hagenaar money needed to care for a child he stopped seeing when she was just two years old. Later, he refused to arrange their safe passage out of Europe during World War II.

Should knowing this make us think differently about Neruda, a man who exerted himself to help save Republicans fleeing Spain after the Nationalist victory in 1939? Antonio Reynaldos, a Chilean journalist living in the Netherlands since the 1980s who helped locate Malva Marina's tomb, doesn't think so. It isn't fair, he believes, to judge Neruda with a modern yardstick.

My dear pig ...

Facts on Neruda's hidden daughter began emerging some 15 years ago, and online social networks have since boosted public interest.

The story began in Indonesia, on Dec. 6, 1930. A youthful Neruda was then Chile's honorary consul on the island of Java. His conditions were almost of penury, but his ambition already limitless. He met Maryka Hagenaar, the daughter of Dutch colonists long established in the region, at a tennis club. She was living with her mother. Her father and two brothers had all died. And she was presumably charmed by a diplomat's promises to expand her horizons. But the charm evaporated fast.

Book about Neruda's daughter, written by the author's grandson Bernardo Reyes

Maruca, as Pablo called her, would always communicate with him in English (as she did when she would later write for years in vain, asking "my dear pig" to send her daughter food rations). The only kind words Neruda seems to have written about Maruca were to his friend the poet Héctor Eandi, whom he informed of his marriage to Maruca and the life they shared in Indonesia, where they lay "on the sand, looking at the black island of Sumatra, and the underground volcano, Karakatau (Krakatoa)."

Maruca moved to Chile with Neruda, to the capital Santiago, but did not fit in. They traveled to Buenos Aires where Neruda was an attaché, a position that allowed him to meet Spaniards like the poet Federico García Lorca.

In June 1934, Neruda traveled to Madrid where he was to be Chile's cultural attaché. He published some of his works there, and met Delia del Carril, a wealthy, freethinking Argentine communist who would become his second wife. But in August of that year, Maryka gave birth to a girl. She looked so much like her father, except for her bloated, hydrocephalic head.

The poet Vicente Aleixandre would later describe how Neruda was initially proud to present his daughter. But he began to distance himself emotionally soon after the birth, and within a month or so, described Malva Marina to an Argentine friend Sara Tornú as a "perfectly ridiculous being" and "three-kilogram vampire." He and Maruca, he wrote, had spent weeks trying to feed the child and put her to bed, or buying "ghastly" orthopedic shoes and medical contraptions. "You can imagine how much I have suffered," he wrote.

Malva Marina Reyes's tomb in Gouda, Netherlands — Photo: Agaath

Malva grew, but was not destined to survive. She could neither walk nor speak, but quietly hummed to herself. Lorca described her in a poem the Madrid daily ABC discovered in 1984:

Malva Marina, who could see you

Dolphin of love on old waves,

When the waltz of your America reveals

A mortal dove's poison and blood!

Civil war erupted in Spain in July 1936. Bombers began to pound Madrid, Lorca was murdered, and communist brigades arrived to help civilian militias defend the Republic. Neruda was inspired to write España en el corazón (Spain in Our Hearts). On Oct. 12, 1936, He attended an homage in Cuenca, where he read his Canto a las madres de los milicianos muertos (Song for the Mothers of Slain Militiamen). The work was admirable and moving — unlike his indifference to his wife and child.

Neruda was too busy fighting for humanity to care for one girl.

On Nov. 8, Neruda and Hagenaar separated, and he saw Malva for the last time. With Delia del Carril, he left for Barcelona, then Paris. Perhaps that is where the lengthy years of denial, subtle deceit and secretiveness began, to be maintained in subsequent years with the complicity of literary admirers and Chile's communist party. Neruda was too busy fighting for humanity, the argument went, to care for one girl in particular. And it wasn't easy, of course, wiring money in times of war.

In reality, though, there's no evidence that he even tried.

Maryka and her daughter settled in The Hague. Antonio Reynaldos told Clarín that, with the help of Christian Scientists, she found Malva a nursery there, putting her in the care of Hendrik Julsing and Gerdina Sierks, who had two other children. Neruda never replied to Maryka's request for money: $100 a month. A nurse who helped the Julsings told Reynaldos in 2003 that Maryka paid entirely for the child's care, and visited every month.

Students of Neruda see rancor in his poems toward the mother figure and interpret one in particular — Maternidad ("Maternity") — as blaming Maryka for their daughter's condition.

Malva Marina died on March 2, 1943. Neruda was informed in a telegram he received in Mexico, to which he did not respond. The child is absent in his memoirs, and he never devoted a single line of poetry to her bar the self-pitying allusion made in one poem, Enfermedades en mi casa ("Illnesses in My House").

Maryka, for her part, gradually faded from records as she was no longer writing to Neruda for help. Reynaldos says she "lived the rest of her life in loneliness and anxiety. I tracked all her letters, all dated in rented rooms and bed-and-breakfasts." She died in The Hague in 1965.

Reynaldos attributes Neruda's indifference to a slightly childish cowardice, and lack empathy for Maryka. The marriage "was doomed," he says. "It was no great love nor even a great romance." Neruda, the journalist adds, should neither be lionized today nor despised. He was just a man, an ordinary man.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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