Chilean poet Pablo Neruda used words to inspire love, discuss politics, and even address his own death.

And “Burning Patience,” a play by Antonio Skármeta that Borderlands Theater previews tonight and opens Friday, is a celebration of Neruda’s work and of love.Neruda was known for his love poetry, written with passion and eloquence.

But it’s also a story that takes place at the dawn of a murderous time in Chile’s history, when Augusto Pinochet was coming into power, human rights were ignored and those who opposed the government just disappeared.

But that is the backdrop, not the story.

Here’s what you want to know about “Burning Patience.”

The novella on which the play is based

Skármeta wrote the 1994 piece of fiction, an unabashed tribute to Neruda. It’s the story of Mario, a young postman in Isla Negra, a village on Chile’s Pacific coast and where Neruda lived. Mario is naive, not educated, and is a bit like a sponge. As he delivers the mail to Neruda, he soaks up the old man’s words, reads the books he suggests, and begins to create his own metaphors. Mario falls in love with Beatriz, a barmaid who just isn’t interested in him. He thinks perhaps an autographed book from Neruda may sway her; it doesn’t. Mario is tongue-tied in Beatriz’s presence, and Neruda guides him on how to find the words he needs.

The second half of the novella becomes more concerned with the political world and its impact on the characters. Salvador Allende is elected president (1970) and remains in office for three years. In 1973, Allende is assassinated, according to some sources, or committed suicide according to others, and Pinochet’s dictatorship begins. Neruda wins the Nobel Prize for literature in ’71 and is appointed ambassador to France by Allende. The book ends as Neruda is taken in for an interrogation.

Neruda, politics and his death

Neruda was a communist who had long been involved in Chilean politics, went into exile in 1948 when communism was outlawed, and ran for president of Chile in 1970, though he stepped aside when Allende announced his candidacy. He served as ambassador to France from 1970-72. The poet died two weeks after Allende’s death. The cause was cancer, but there was long speculation that he was poisoned by the right-wing government. Last year, Neruda’s body was exhumed and it was found that he had advanced prostate cancer. While the cause of death wasn’t determined, test results reveal that no chemicals that would have contributed to his death were found.

The play

The relationships between Neruda and Mario, and Mario and Beatriz, are central to the play. Gorgeous poetry is spoken, and we watch as young love blossoms. As the story ends, however, it becomes clear that Neruda is dying as he realizes the horror that has fallen over his country.

The movie

“Burning Patience,” a movie based on the book, was released in 1983, but it was the ’94 “Il Postino: The Postman” that gave a higher profile to the story. Some liberties were taken with the ’94 movie — it was transported to Italy, and the setting was 1950 rather than 1970. It snagged five Academy Award nominations and scored one, for Best Music.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.