Book Review - The Neruda Case

During his lifetime Pablo Neruda, the Chilean Nobel Laureate, held various diplomatic positions abroad and served as advisor to President Salvador Allende. Neruda was hospitalised at the time of the coup d'état led by Augusto Pinochet and died of prostate cancer shortly afterwards, on 23 September 1973. As well as his political and historical poems, Neruda was renowned for his love poetry.

This is the backdrop to Roberto Ampuero’s engaging detective novel, the first of his books to be translated into English by Carolina De Robertis. It opens in 2006 with Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban émigré from Miami, discovering Neruda’s photograph on the back of a menu in a café in Valparaíso, prompting him to recall his brief relationship with the poet, over three decades earlier.

In 1973 Brulé is unemployed and worried about his marriage to Angela, “a rather aristocratic Chilean with revolutionary convictions”. Allende’s presidency is also increasingly unstable. Brulé meets Neruda at a party and agrees to act as his private detective. At first he thinks Neruda wants him to find Angel Bracamonte, a Cuban oncologist and medicinal plants specialist, so that he can help treat his cancer. Then Brulé realises that the poet’s real concern is a past lover.

Brulé is sent on a mission to find Bracamonte’s wife, Beatriz, with whom Neruda had an affair in the 1940s. Neruda arms him with a selection of Georges Simeon’s Maigret novels; suggesting the transformative power of books. But Brulé, coming from Latin America where “improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day”, soon realises that he lacks the advantages of the French police detective. He travels to Mexico, Cuba, East Berlin and Bolivia, destinations brought vividly to life by Ampuero, and has to learn how to circumvent the politics and bureaucracy of each country.

At first, Neruda arouses our sympathy and admiration, as he shares with Brulé his considerable wit and literary insights. The book is divided into sections – each one named after a different woman in the poet’s life. Although told largely from Brulé’s perspective there are short interludes where Neruda meditates on the women he loved and left and his desertion of a hydrocephalic daughter. These serve to remind us of his less humane side. Neruda was an ardent communist and yet he owned three luxury houses. Gradually the reader, like Brulé, begins to question the poet’s integrity.

It is some measure of Ampuero’s talent that, while interweaving fiction and biography, he keeps us rooting for Neruda, despite his many contradictions. We are eloquently reminded of how the poet defined an era. Neruda died just as Pinochet seized power but, for a brief moment, art triumphed over politics. Despite a curfew, Neruda’s death was publically mourned; His friend Allende’s could not be.

Originally published by The Tablet