The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

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, CubaMexico 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.

La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's former home in Valparaiso, is now a museum. (Photo: Santiago Llanquin / AP)
La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s former home in Valparaiso, is now a museum. (Photo: Santiago Llanquin / AP)
Chilean novelist Roberto Ampuero. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)
Chilean novelist Roberto Ampuero. (Photo: Daniel Mordzinski)

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. 

Related articles:

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)

3 Comments

  1. After reading your description of the book I am immediately checking out whether or not my local library has it! If not I’ll get it from Powell books for sure – thanks so much for the recommendation…one of my best memories from a visit to Chile a few years back is the visit to Pablo Neruda’s beach house on the Isla Negra- amazing!

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