On April 8, 2013, the Chilean authorities exhumed the body of the revered poet Pablo Neruda at his former seaside home in Isla Negra. Neruda died on September 23, 1973, just twelve days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende‘s socialist regime. Neruda was a close friend of Allende. Both his widow, before her death in 1985, and his driver were convinced that he was murdered by lethal injection in a hospital in Santiago. Was the poet assassinated during those chaotic days of the military coup that brought the much-feared General Augusto Pinochet into power? Or did he die of natural causes (he was believed to be suffering from prostate cancer)? We may not know for quite a while, as the Nobel laureate‘s body undergoes all kinds of tests. We may never know. But coincidentally, the passionate poet is the central figure in a novel that I just finished reading – and enjoyed so much I wished I had not finished.
As its rather plain-vanilla title suggests, this novel involves a mystery too, and an investigation. But the mystery is of the highly personal and romantic variety. The investigation is an adventure, deliciously laced with romantic dalliances and a certain amount of political intrigue and Cold War ideology along the way. The quieter, more subtle and tragic undercurrents are slow and well beneath the surface of the flowing narrative. But the quiet tragedy of the times does emerge in the latter part of the book.
The investigator is Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban who had settled in Valparaíso with his Chilean wife. This is his first case as a private detective, and the ailing poet is his first employer. As the story begins, Cayetano is sitting in a café in the coastal city. The reader spends a lot of time with Cayetano in cafés, restaurants and bars. A great deal of coffee, tortillas, crepes and sandwiches are consumed, as Cayetano considers his next move. So, too, is alcohol in many forms – including lots of whiskey, and a concoction offered him by the poet himself (“Don Pablo”) on their first meeting: “It’s good enough to make you suck on your mustache,” says Neruda. The reader is even introduced to some examples of Latin American cuisine – clams in parsley sauce, for example.
Inspired by the fictional, pipe-smoking Belgian detective Inspector Maigret, Cayetano learns on the job. His assignment is to find a certain Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, a Mexican oncologist – and he must keep his quest a secret. But it’s not as simple as that; before Cayetano has even figured out Don Pablo’s real purpose, he is already involved in an intriguing and complex journey that takes him from Chile to Havana, Cuba, Mexico City, Bolivia and even as far as East Germany. As he goes, he seeks to unravel a story that is like a tangled ball of string, full of knots and occasional loose ends.
Sometimes Cayetano gets distracted, and often these distractions come in female form. A parade of fascinating women float in and out of the narrative – including his estranged wife Ángela, who leaves him to do “political work” in Cuba but has a lingering fondness for Hermès scarves and Coco Chanel perfume. There are the two beguiling German comrades, Valentina and the “emancipated” Margaretchen, and there is Laura, a Chilean student with “deep-set eyes, like those of someone who slept very little because of insomnia or an excess of work or sex.” Like his employer Don Pablo, Cayetano has a deep appreciation of women, and he gets on well with them. Some of them help him along the way; others lead him down cul de sacs.
The women of Pablo Neruda’s past – some living, some dead, most lost – move through the story like ghosts, coming and going. During the interlocking conversations with Cayetano, Don Pablo takes erotic excursions, resurrecting memories of past sexual encounters and passionate love affairs, occasionally with regret. Many of these relationships inspired his poetry.
“The Neruda Case” is more than just a detective story, although it is one to keep you on your toes in the best Agatha Christie tradition. It is a sensual journey through Latin America in the Cold War. It is not only the characters who fascinate (they each have their own interesting story). As he moves from city to city on his quest for the truth, Cayetano moves from the decaying hills of Valparaíso, wreathed in sad sea fogs; to dusty offices in Mexico City; to the vibrant Caribbean island of his birth (where he meets a Jamaican called Sammy); to East Berlin, where much drama ensues; and to La Paz, Bolivia, where he is afflicted with altitude sickness.
“Detectives are like wine like wine, rum, tequila or beer, children of their own land and climate, and anyone who forgot this would inevitably fail.” Cayetano reminds himself of this as he sets off from Chile – grounding himself, so to speak. But many surprises and unexpected occurrences await him. He often finds himself far outside his comfort zone – and never more so than in Santiago at the time of Allende’s fall – a city echoing with gunfire, where the sun glints off soldiers’ helmets, as the military coup gathers pace.
At the core of the novel is the restless and regretful figure of the poet, sitting in his house floating high over the Pacific Ocean, fretting over his past and impatiently waiting for Cayetano to report back to him. During the author’s childhood, the poet was actually his neighbor in real life; while writing the book, he sat in Neruda’s living room, so evocatively described in the novel. The writer has, I believe, succeeded quite well in bringing the Nobel Laureate to life – not as a diplomat, a political figure or a poet, but simply as a human being.
“There are times when I simply tire of being human,” Neruda observes irritably. But I found enormous humanity in this novel. I understand there is a series, and look forward to meeting Cayetano Brulé again in the near future. I could really get to like him.
Roberto Ampuero has published twelve novels in Spanish. “The Neruda Case” (2008) is his first novel published in English. It is translated by Uruguayan-born Carolina De Robertis, herself the author of two novels, including the best-selling “The Invisible Mountain.” Ampuero was born into a middle-class family in Valparaíso, Chile in 1953; he attended a German school there, and then studied Social Anthropology and Latin American Literature at the University of Chile in Santiago. He became a member of the Chilean Communist Youth and received a journalism scholarship to study in East Germany in 1973. He met his first wife there and they moved to Cuba, where Ampuero lived until 1979; he left disillusioned with what he saw as a dictatorship in Cuba and returned to East Germany, where he studied Marxism and enrolled in Humboldt University to do postgraduate studies. He moved to West Germany in 1983, where he published his first two novels in German, and married the Guatemalan Ambassador to Germany. Returning to Chile in 1993, he published his first novel in Spanish, introducing private detective Cayetano Brulé, for which he received the Book Magazine Award of El Mercurio. During a three-year sojourn in Sweden he wrote two more novels, including a harsh criticism of the Cuban regime, “Nuestros Años Verde Olivo” (Our Green Olive Years) He is a graduate of the prestigious International Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he currently teaches literature and creative writing. He also serves currently as Chile’s Ambassador to Mexico, sharing his time between Iowa City and Mexico City.
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/10/opinion/disturbing-pablo-nerudas-rest.html?_r=0 Disturbing Pablo Neruda’s rest: New York Times
http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/05/tests-cofirm-pablo-neruda-had-terminal-cancer.html Tests confirm Pablo Neruda had terminal cancer: nature.com
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1971/neruda-bio.html Pablo Neruda biography: NobelPrize.org
http://www.marxists.org/archive/allende/1973/september/11.htm Salvador Allende: Last words to the nation: marxists.org
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/20/salvador-allende-committed-suicide-autopsy Salvador Allende committed suicide, autopsy confirms: Guardian UK
Longing with Pablo Neruda (petchary.wordpress.com)
On May 15, I participated in a Writers’ Forum (and two workshops) organized by a relatively new organization in Jamaica, Katalyxt. To say that I was enriched, mind and soul, is an understatement. It was an extraordinarily fulfilling experience for me. I am a humble writer with aspirations to get published – sooner rather than later. It has certainly helped me along that road.
We started off bright and early with a poetry workshop, conducted by Professor Mervyn Morris. Now, I am no poet. I have never even attempted to write a poem. But I do love reading poetry, and always have at least one poetry book by my bedside. Currently, it is a Robert Frost collection; and a slim volume of poetry by young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson (who now seems to be a New Yorker – I wrote about him in an earlier blog). I grew up adoring romantic poets like Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; French poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine; German poets like Heinrich Heine (yes, I did languages). And later, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden - and Bob Dylan. “A poet is a maker,” said Professor Morris. But does the poet always have control over his/her theme? “You don’t always know where you are going” when you start to write, Professor Morris reminded the enthusiastic group. Of course, this is true of prose, too. But there is an important distinction, Professor Morris pointed out: The difference between prose and verse is that the creator is in control of the line.
And one of the joys of writing is indeed this: A poem (or a short story, or a novel) does not have to stay in one place, in the place where you, the writer, anchored it. It will get restless, and move away. It will take a sharp turn, or a slow one, and you will find you are heading in a different direction. And often, to use a rather flippant modern expression, the poet/writer should just “go with the flow.”
The group of Jamaican poets around the table discussed their work, presented in a file for us. The poems were incredibly varied in style, language and form. Their creators were courteous, chatty and at times argumentative. We had fun.
By the way, Professor Morris recommended two books for aspiring poets: “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop” by Steve Kowit; and “The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.” I also loved a poem he directed us to by Guyana’s Ian McDonald, called “Any Poem.”
Speaking of poets: At the Forum I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Margaret Lim, a petite and perceptive Jamaican poet whose first book, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” will be launched next week at Bookophilia, on Old Hope Road, next Tuesday, May 22 at 6:00 p.m. The book is published by Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean literature.
Then it was on to the prose workshop (specifically, short story writing) with Dr. Velma Pollard, author of poetry and prose and a wonderful mentor and teacher of young writers. We delved deeply into the work of Jamaican Olive Senior. Ms. Senior’s advice, obtained for us workshoppers by Dr. Pollard, is that there must be “conflict, crisis and resolution” in a short story for it to work. Dr. Pollard read passages from Senior’s collections: “Arrival of the Snake Woman” and “Discerner of Hearts.” From the latter, there was an especially interesting, detailed description of an obeah man’s yard – like a camera slowly panning around the space. I must revisit Ms. Senior’s wonderful work.
We tussled with questions: “Is it the teller or the tale that is important?” Whose voice – first person, third person? How much dialogue, how much narrative? How important is dialogue in the short story? We pondered, and we laughed.
One oddly jarring – but interesting – point emerged when we were discussing reading. We had generally agreed that it is important for a writer to read widely – as widely as possible, and not to limit him/herself. One participant demurred. As a Christian, he said, he limits himself to reading works that are morally correct. This was difficult. He would not be convinced otherwise. How sad, I reflected, that one can narrow one’s horizons so tightly. I told him about my steeling myself somewhat before reading Nick Cave’s profane, helter-skelter novel “The Death of Bunny Munro,” which I expected to hate – and how, by the end, despite its leering, misogynistic anti-hero, the sexual exploits, corruption and greed – I was deeply moved and glad that I had read it.
After lunch a remarkable event took place. Mr. Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate was there, to talk to us about “making writing sustainable.” He was in the company of an excellent panel: our two workshop teachers, Professor Morris and Dr. Pollard; esteemed poet Edward Baugh; and Professor Carolyn Cooper, of the University of the West Indies’ Department of Literatures in English. Remember that the aim of the afternoon’s proceedings was to turn to the business of writing, now that the pleasures of the workshops were out of the way.
However, Mr. Walcott began with a discourse, interrupted by readings, on his particular craft. He spoke a little on the aspects of a “Caribbean style” of writing, noting that it was more about “the meters of the Caribbean,” not the sounds. There had been attempts to reproduce the sound of drums, etc., in poetry – but this was more akin to music than to writing, he suggested.
He then began to discuss the poet’s sense of “belonging,” or not belonging, when traveling; when in the present his feet rest on foreign soil, but his sensibilities may be elsewhere, back home. He gave the example of how he (to coin a cliche) “fell in love” with Italy, and was not sure how, as a poet of the Caribbean, he should respond to its landscape and culture. “How much passion is there in writing about a place that is not yours?” he asked. “How sincere is it?” I later asked him if he viewed that landscape of terra-cotta, monuments and Tuscan villas and vineyards and cypress trees through the prism of his own West Indian experience; or whether he created something from it, and made it his own. He had really, already, answered the question. During his visit to Italy, his admiration turned to possession; it was “created for me to claim.” He was able to make “every fragment of every landscape” his.
His readings resonated, despite the rather-too-large room at the hotel and the occasional distraction of voices in a nearby kitchen. I wanted to get closer, to focus better as his voice slowed and became more gravelly, as if with tiredness. I was held with my breath also slowing and my mind sharpening as I listened.
Mr. Walcott read from his fourteenth collection of poetry, “White Egrets,” published last year, when the poet turned eighty years old. I will not comment on what the critics have said; you can read them for yourself. But for me, as the lines were applied, almost like the strokes of a painter’s brush, I experienced the poet’s nostalgia, a kind of longing, and a kind of resignation. The poet gives himself to the landscape, but it is a mutual giving; and it is simultaneously the landscape of the Caribbean, of his native St. Lucia.
A couple of odd little things rang a chord with me. With a touch of irony, Mr. Walcott commented that in Italy he became one of those “idle old people” who sit in hotel lobbies watching people. This reminded me of the film “Death in Venice” which I saw again recently (see my recent blog post). In the film, the aging Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) sits in the lobby, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper, leaning back in his armchair, watching the guests moving around.
And the white egrets reminded me of one of the first very short pieces that I wrote, on a cold winter’s day in southern England, in the leftovers of the year. I wrote it in sorrow, after several walks down a windswept lane during visits to my father; he was living the last few days of his life in an over-heated nursing home down the road. Once, I saw a white egret fly up from the brown winter field, and it reminded me of Jamaica. I wrote about it.
Mr. Walcott was gently steered back to the topic of the “sustainable” (in other words, the “money”) aspects of writing. He was not able to enlighten us a great deal, apart from references to literary prizes – and his own burning desire, from an early age, to see his work in print. When this happened, he said, it was amazing to have “the letters you have written looking back at you.” (In an aside, he and the panel discussed the sensuality, the physicality of letters, referring to a passage from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” based almost entirely on the letter “e”). He also spoke about the importance of building a reputation as a writer – others in the know will start talking about you, and the publishers will show interest.
How does creative writing move between other endeavors? Or, in Professor Morris’ words, “Could a decent poet ever abandon his day job?” His colleague, Dr. Pollard, thought not. But Mr. Walcott told us that his desire to see his work printed sparked his decision to self-publish initially, after borrowing money from his mother for the purpose - “a lot of money.” He also spoke of his indebtedness to Alan Ross, who supported and advised him as his agent. “Every young writer is told not to send any book out unless they have an agent,” Mr. Walcott observed.
We were also happy to have an extremely gifted Jamaican poet, Ralph Thompson, in our midst. Mr. Thompson said he started off as a “fairly prosperous businessman,” and is still one. He spoke of the need to share his work – something which had come up earlier in the day - “You have to have that feeling of wanting to share. It’s altruistic. It’s beautiful,” declared Mr. Thompson.
Ann Margaret Lim asked a question that we writers often ask ourselves: “Who do we write for?” Mr. Walcott responded simply, “I am not sure if there is an audience in our mind when we write.”
This took us to the nuts and bolts section of the afternoon, which I found extremely useful. Once I had descended from the small cloud on which I had been floating with Mr. Walcott’s voice, I refocused on a presentation by Carlong Publishers’ Dorothy Noel, a no-nonsense lady who emphasized, “Publishing is a business.” For a writer, she said, the first step is to hone your craft; then to sell your skills. Publishers, she said, are more adventurous than we may think; and they will invest in a quality product.
Ms. Noel gave us some helpful advice on how to approach the publisher (with confidence, of course). Do your research, she said: market research, trends, gaps in the publisher’s list that they might like to fill, or another direction they may be considering. She pointed us to a helpful paper by one of Carlong’s authors, Ms. Kelly Magnus, on the Book Industry Association of Jamaica’s website. She explained how to “market oneself and market one’s expertise” in one’s proposal to the publisher.
We then had a bracing – and indeed, somewhat sobering – talk from an International Property Rights attorney. There are rights, and rights, and rights. Your idea is not protected; but once you have written it down and shaped it into something, it should be. At a certain point, the topic got a little fuzzy around the edges. For example, there is no real objective measurement for the term “fair use” and our knowledgeable adviser said we should avoid what seemed to be a very grey area. Nevertheless, this was also good, practical advice to have under one’s belt.
Ms. Corine La Font, a virtual events specialist then talked to us about online publishing – a topic that has increasingly fascinated me. There are various types of e-publishing: there is the Kindle (I now own one myself); and there are iBooks (Apple); eBooks (Smashwords); and Nook (Barnes & Noble) that are all e-readers. Of course, all these books are cheaper than going out and buying a hardcover book off the shelf, but we learnt that you can actually earn more from Kindle publishing. Also, you can grow your reach and market your book electronically.
We learnt that you should also think strategically when marketing yourself. Try a virtual book tour or a blog tour. Try Amazon bestsellers. Think of your book as a business card. Watch the video “The Business of Writing” on helpdeskja.com/blog: “Serving the Needs of Authors and Coaches – Write, Publish, Market” and follow Ms. La Font on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook too. She also recommended theselfpublishingcenter.com/registration to register for more useful seminars and training (free).
The young adult author Amanda Hocking is a classic example of a highly successful author who built her reputation entirely online. Ms. Hocking began with her blog and a MySpace page. From there, she moved into e-publishing, and is now publishing traditionally as well. Her marvelous blog includes tips on self-publishing and is a fine showcase for her books.
Finally, Bookophilia owner Andrea Dempster told us about what a traditional bookseller looks for – and as with everyone else involved in the business of books, it is quality that counts. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from – those in the business of books – as in any other business – are looking for a quality product. For Bookophilia, the look and “feel” of a book in your hand is very important – the design, the color, the “tactile experience.” Bookophilia is also involved in the marketing of books – mainly through special events, readings and book launches at the store, advertised through the social media. Ms. Dempster advised writers to pay for a professional editor; to have a PR plan; and to have a social media plan. Self-publishing sounds great, she says; but don’t forget, you, the writer, will have to do all the legwork – marketing, advertising, collecting money, writing receipts, even delivering your books.
Ms. Dempster noted that for her store, Caribbean titles are the biggest sellers. This is largely as a result of her successful marketing techniques. In fact, she says there is a huge untapped demand for Caribbean children’s books. Any more children’s book authors out there?
The final word was from Stefanie of Katalxyt, who had guided us through the day with great professionalism. With her accountant’s training, she advised us to always start out with a budget; and why not include a business plan in your book proposal to a publisher? Try new things – perhaps some merchandizing – to make extra money from your book. If you are in the happy position of having a surplus, you can reinvest. Wise words.
I must heap praises on Katalyxt (even if I have problems typing the name!) The forum was well organized by friendly people, who were clearly enthused and knowledgeable on the topic of writing, and writing as a business. They were efficient but unfussy, did not order us around, and everything started bang on time – how unusual is that! Kudos to Katalyxt, and I am sure their subsequent Business Conference was a huge success also.
Here are some last words from Mr. Walcott:
I am astonished at the sunflowers spinning
in huge green meadows above the indigo sea,
amazed at their aureate silence, though they sing with the inaudible hum of the clocks over Recanati.’
Do they turn to face the dusk, just as an army
might obey the last orders of a sinking empire,
their wheels stuck in one rut before the small studs
of stars and the fireflies meandering fire,
then droop like exhausted meteors in soft thuds
to the earth? In our life elsewhere, sunflowers
come singly, but in this coastal province
there can be entire fields of their temporal powers spread like the cloak of some Renaissance prince, their banners will wilt, their gold helms fill the void,
they are poems we recite to ourselves, metaphors
of our brief glory, a light we cannot avoid
that was called heaven in Blake’s time, but not since.
From “White Egrets”
RELATED LINKS AND WEBSITES
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=14625 The Poetry Archive: Mervyn Morris
Jamaican Poet Ishion Hutchinson Interviewed by Leanne Hayes (repeatingislands.com)
http://petchary.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/abeng-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/ Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day
http://www.peepaltreepress.com/author_display.asp?au_id=63 Velma Pollard biography
http://www.olivesenior.com/ Olive Senior website
http://www.amazon.com/White-Egrets-Poems-Derek-Walcott/dp/0374289298 White Egrets: Poems by Derek Walcott
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/220 poets.org: Derek Walcott
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-poetry.html The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992: Derek Walcott
http://www.bookindustryja.com/ Book Industry Association of Jamaica
http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/ Amanda Hocking’s blog
https://www.facebook.com/Bookophilia Bookophilia on Facebook