In his sweeping and exhaustively researched biography, Mark Eisner plumbs the man behind the legend, a task for which he’s well-suited. Eisner has spent the past two decades working on projects related to Neruda, including a documentary about the poet’s life and work. With such an extensive grounding, Eisner doesn’t so much document his subject as inhabit it ... Eisner earnestly tries to give his subject the benefit of the doubt, and there are times when he indulges gushing elegy, as when he writes that Neruda is 'one great body, still, in all its fullness, stretching across the world, to all its famous and hidden corners.' Such flattering assessments aside, one finishes The Poet’s Calling with a sense that it was better to read Pablo Neruda than to be around him.
Eisner’s prose, moreover, is on the whole, fairly pedestrian, except for a few unfortunate occasions when it strives, unwisely, for a kind of Nerudaesque poeticism ... And his criticisms of Neruda tend to be articulated using what are by now rote, clichéd terms that make them feel like empty, obligatory gestures ... Ultimately, Neruda: The Poet’s Calling is not as satisfying as one might have hoped. Still, Neruda’s life remains a source of fascination, and his work remains vital. Any book that is likely to help bring new generations of readers to it is to be valued for that reason alone.
The book bleeds purple in sections where Eisner’s admiration swells, and he rushes through the poet’s final decade: the 1971 Nobel Prize, a diagnosis of prostate cancer, Neruda’s sad, self-indulgent liaisons with his wife’s niece even as he was dying amid the Pinochet coup. But in meticulously dissecting Neruda’s poems and in mapping out the chronology of a rich if profoundly flawed life, Eisner gives us a definitive work. Neruda: The Poet’s Calling unfolds as a masterful weave of biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, a scrupulous portrait of a genius as vast and contradictory as the continent he loved.