Study Guide

The Book of Questions, III

The Book of Questions, III Introduction

Are you familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda? If you answered "no," don't be intimidated by Bart's big brain, Shmoopers. We're here to sort it all out of you.

Neruda was a Chilean poet. Well, let us rephrase that: he was the Chilean poet. While his day job had him serving as a diplomat in various Chilean consulates around the world, he was best known for his sensual and introspective love poetry, at one point drawing an audience of 100,000 people to a reading. That is some One Direction-level popularity.

Born in 1904, Neruda was writing and publishing from an early age. His first book of poems, Crepusculario (The Book of Twilights) came out when he was just 19. (So what have you been up to lately?) He continued to write poetry for the rest of his life, only taking his diplomatic job to pay the bills. Among his biggest hits are Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair and 100 Love Sonnets. The guy was so into poetry that "Pablo Neruda" is not even his real name. He changed it in honor of Czech poet Jan Neruda.

Poetry was definitely his passion, but Neruda was also known for another P-word: "politics." In reaction to the horror of the Spanish Civil War, Neruda became an ardent and outspoken Communist, which—depending on who was running Chile—made him either a hero or a target of the government. Just recently, in fact, Neruda's body was exhumed. It was thought that he'd been poisoned for political reasons. As it turns out, no evidence of that was found, but even still his poetry continues to overshadow his political legacy.

Take The Book of Questions, for example. The book features 316 short, evocative, and open-ended questions (contained in 74 poems) and was found as a manuscript after Neruda's death in 1973. They were published in Spanish the very next year, and poetry publishing giant Copper Canyon press put out an English translation in 1991. To this day, it's a best seller, and it's not hard to see why. The poems in this book read more like little riddles, designed to get us to think about our world in ways that push beyond the borders of what we might call "reality."

In the third poem of the book, Neruda asks, "Who hears the regrets/ of the thieving automobile?" At first, we might be tempted to shrug and walk away. How can a car be a thief, anyway? But that's where Neruda has us. These questions aren't designed with simple answers in mind. Like a Zen koan, they're designed to get us to mediate on the world around us. What might lurk beyond the things that we call "normal," that "make sense"? Neruda pushes his readers past the envelope of daily (read: boring) perception, and that's what makes his Book of Questions so intriguing.

What is The Book of Questions, III About and Why Should I Care?

What's the sound of one hand clapping? If you did this, then that's the wrong answer, Shmoopers. That question is at the crux of a Zen koan, which is a riddle-like story or question that is designed not to solicit an easy answer, or even any answers. Instead, it's a meditation prompt. It's designed to focus the mind, to get us to dive deep and think hard about our world and the stuff that we've decided to call "real." Here we'll show you:

What's the sound of one hand clapping? Well, you need two hands to clap, to make a sound. Without the second hand, there is no sound. So then the sound of one hand clapping would be silence. But then, can silence be properly called a "sound"? Isn't silence the absence of sound? Or is there, perhaps, a substance to silence that might make it a sound? Could it be something that we might be able to listen to, like we could any other sound? And if we could, then what sound would silence make for us? What should we be listening for?

Okay, okay—we could go on for hours like this, but we'll spare you. The point is that a koan is not an exercise in "right" or "wrong." It's a chance to mediate on the world around us, to question the very nature of our surroundings. In a world of multiple-choice tests and high-speed internet, though, this is not something that we get a chance to do very often.

Luckily, we have our old buddy Pablo Neruda to help out. The third poem of his Book of Questions is, much like the other 73 poems in that book, a series of strange questions that he wants to consider, but not necessarily answer. "Great," you might be saying. "What's the point of asking a question with no answer?" And to that, Shmoopers, we would say "What's the sound of one hand clapping?"

No, seriously—what is the nature of our reality? What makes up this thing we call "the world" and how does it work? We're not fishing for a scientific explanation here; we're after a more philosophical truth. And even if we never find it, Neruda's poems give us a chance to stop and ponder life, the universe, and everything. When you think about it, that's a rare treat. Most of us are chained to a treadmill, sprinting as fast as we can just to keep up with the Joneses. Do you even wonder what it all means? No, you don't, because you have to keep running, right? Well, thanks to poems like this one, you can take time out to sit back, reflect, and wonder.

The Book of Questions, III Resources

Websites

Neruda Among the Poets(.org)
This site includes a great bio and links to his work.

Foundational Neruda
Enjoy more links to articles and poems. This overview goes into more depth about Neruda's writing career.

A Nobel Deed
Did we mention that our guy won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Well… we just did.

Video

The Poet's Calling
This page includes a documentary and videos of other poets sharing their thoughts on our man himself.

Allende on Neruda
Check out acclaimed novelist Isabel Allende sharing her experiences with Neruda.

Neruda and Marquez
This is a pretty awesome bonus vid, but it's just for our Spanish speakers out there. If you don't speak Spanish, grab someone who does. You won't want to miss Neruda in conversation with another giant of Latin American lit: Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Audio

O'Daly Reads Neruda
Enjoy the English translator of Neruda reading from The Book of Questions.

Images

Neruda with Pipe
Or is it a pipe? Yes… it's a pipe.

Dapper Neruda
We dig the scarf.

Neruda the Younger
Here he is as a younger man.

Articles and Interviews

The Paris Review
Here's an interview with the poet in the granddaddy of all literary magazines.

Towards the Splendid City
This isn't quite an article, but we'd say that Neruda's Nobel Prize address qualifies as recommended reading.

Books

The Book of Questions
Enjoy all 316 brain teasers right here.

Essential Neruda
Get this, because this guy's collected works would probably weigh about 500 pounds.