Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero

Riverhead, Books 2012
originally published as El Caso Neruda, 2008
translated by Carolina de Robertis
352 pp
ARC -- via LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program and Riverhead Books -- thanks!!

Had I done my homework, as I usually do when I come across a new author, I would have learned that Roberto Ampuero is the author of an entire series featuring  detective Cayetano Brulé.  Beginning in 1993 with ¿Quién mató a Cristián Kustermann? (Who Killed Christian Kustermann?) Brulé has been involved in several cases; The Neruda Case is the latest to be written but it seems to be a prequel that explains how Brulé got his start in the detective biz.  To be brutally honest, as I sat down to read this book, I was concerned that having Pablo Neruda as a character in a detective novel might be a cheap ploy.  Although the main character spends a lot of time and energy traveling around and pursuing answers on Neruda[s behalf,  the  book turns out to be an homage of sorts to the Nobel-winning poet rather than your standard detective novel.  It's also a commentary on the betrayal and death of ideals.

The author notes that as a boy he lived near Neruda's home La Sebastiana in Valparaíso, where

"on three separate occasions, I went to La Sebastiana, in my school uniform and carrying my briefcase full of notebooks, and stood at the door to the poet's garden..." All I wanted to do was to talk to the poet. But all three times I was petrified...not daring to knock and ask to enter the realm where Neruda dwelt with his secrets."

Now, Ampuero’s Cayetano Brulé has the honor of entering that house, where the author’s “boyhood shyness” kept him from doing the same.

Sitting in the Cafe del Poeta in Valparaiso one day in 1990, Cayetano Brulé sees a photo of Pablo Neruda on the back of his menu and flashes back to his very first case back in the 70s, “the most closely guarded secret of his life,” that began at party his wife Ángela had made him attend at the home of the city’s mayor.  Not feeling like mingling with the bigwigs, Brulé hides out in the library. His peace is shattered when another man walks into the room and they  begin talking.    It is only when  Ángela comes in to tell the stranger that he’s wanted at the party that Cayetano realizes he’s been spending time with Pablo Neruda, who invites him to his home at La Sebastiana.  It isn’t long until Brulé is welcomed into Neruda’s home that the poet gets to the point of the invitation: he is dying of cancer,  he’s seeking an oncologist, Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, and he wants Cayetano to do some detective work to locate him.  After a trip to Mexico city that produces more questions than answers, Neruda explains the real reason behind his search: it seems that Bracamonte’s wife, Beatriz, was once one of the poet’s many lovers; he needs to know  if the daughter she gave birth to is his.  Time is running out -- and Neruda, plagued by his memories of all the women he's betrayed in the name of poetry,  wants to know for sure before the end comes.  Cayetano’s search will take him from Mexico to Cuba, to East Germany and Bolivia where he realizes that the utopian ideals promised by  revolution  have all but collapsed and have become something else entirely.  It will also place him in the company of some well-known figures of the times, including Neruda’s friend Salvador Allende, whose tenure as  president of Chile is on its last legs.

If you want to look at this book simply as the series prequel that explains how Cayetano Brulé first got into the private eye business, there are a couple of  entertaining  moments: Neruda’s advice to Brulé about using the novels of Georges Simenon as a guide to becoming a detective, his “Maigret del Caribe,”   Brulé’s narrow escape from East Germany, and a few other scenes featuring the hapless newbie detective.  But of greater interest to me was the political backdrop against which this book is set, during the last gasps of the Allende government prior to the US-backed coup that placed Pinochet in power.   And aside from the sillier moments where Brulé is initiated into the detective trade, there is a much more serious exploration of different idealistic visions that got lost somewhere along the way.

Very much recommended, especially if you are interested in Latin American history or revolutionary history in general. I hope this book does well; perhaps it will create some interest in translating Ampuero's other novels into English.

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