In spite of its harsh context—the final months of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile in the 1970s—Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case will put a smile on your face. The publishers have hyped the book as a detective novel, which it is in part, but it’s much more an exploration of the Nobel Prize poet’s private life—especially the many women (wives and lovers) who became the inspiration for his poetry vis-à-vis Neruda’s growing political perspective. Ampuero must have had great fun writing the novel, drawing on parallels between his own life and the poet’s. Prolific writers (Ampuero has published twelve novels though this is the first to be translated into English), both writers have served in Chile’s diplomatic corps.
Cayetano Brulé, the main character of The Neruda Case, becomes a detective quite by chance. He and his wife are both Cubans, recently arrived in Chile. His wife is much more the political animal than Cayetano. One night at a party with influential people, he sees Neruda, the celebrated poet who is old an ill. Tired of small talk, Cayetano retreats into the host’s library, sitting in darkness and collecting his thoughts. Shortly, Neruda enters the room, the two chat briefly, and a few days later the young Cuban visits Neruda at his home.
Neruda sets Cayetano on a quest to track down a doctor he knew in Mexico forty years earlier, a man who presumably had discovered a cure for cancer. Cayetano assumes that it is because of his cancer that Neruda wants him to locate the doctor from all those years ago. He tells the poet that he knows nothing about detective work; the poet’s response is that he should read the novels of Georges Simenon and use Inspector Maigret as his model. “If poetry transports us to the heavens, crime novels plunge you into life the way it really is; they dirty your hands and blacken your face.” Neruda has some of the best lines in the novel, and the way the story is structured—in part with phone calls between the poet and the novice detective—the two of them speak with one another frequently.
During a trip to Mexico City, Cayetano discovers that the doctor is no longer alive, but when he returns to Chile and breaks this news to Neruda, the poet reveals that it is the doctor’s wife who is the real objective of the search. That woman is a much more elusive figure, and in his travels to track her down, Cayetano travels to Cuba and to East Germany and finally back to Chile, though there will still be another permutation as the increasingly adept detective learns that it is still a third person the poet wants him to locate. These wanderings are fascinating because of what they reveal about the ruling elites in Communist countries in the 1970s, particularly the state police in each country, the repression and the precariousness of the lives of ordinary people.
Neruda is a revered poet in all of these countries, his multiple affairs with women earning him the term “serial monogamist.” Yet, as the poet’s health declines, Cayetano’s visits are painful reminders of his own mortality. During his final trip overseas, the detective realizes that he needs to get back to Chile: “Neruda’s health was deteriorating at the same pace as the health of the nation.” It is during one of his final visits to the poet that Salvador Allende is also present in at atmosphere redolent with anticipation of a coup. The forces against him (especially Nixon’s obvious loathing of Allende because he’s a communist) are so powerful that it can only be a matter of time before the Chilean government collapses as still another American proxy war unfolds in Latin America. The scenes of chaos in Valparaíso in the final pages of the novel are more than grim; General Pinochet’s bloody coup and its terrible aftermath bring down Allende’s government and lead, also, to Neruda’s death.
The Neruda Case is a satisfying novel on many levels. Cayetano’s education as a detective while on the job is clever as can be. Neruda brought back to life as an intellectual with an incurable genital itch is wickedness beyond most writers’ imaginations. And, finally, the entire story of Chile’s shift from a humanistic leader to a monstrous dictator (a butcher) is unsettling because of the role the United States government played in this event.
In an author’s note at the end of the story, Ampuero reveals that as a child he could see Pablo Neruda’s house from his bedroom window though he only observed the poet twice. Then there are the parallels between the two writers’ careers. Finally, there is this revealing observation: “I am convinced that the women in Neruda’s life are the ones who hold his secret. The ultimate keys to his personality, and to his work, cannot be found in the academic treatises on him, but in the voices of the women who mattered in his personal life—what they said, and what they kept silent. I believe that only these relationships convey the flesh-and-blood poet, that profoundly contradictory being, so full of light and shadow that I sought and found in order to write this novel that blends fiction with actual history.”
All superbly done, including the translation by Carolina de Robertis.
Roberto Ampuero: The Neruda Case
Trans. by Carolina de Robertis
Riverhead, 340 pp., $26.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.