The Neruda Case
Riverhead, June 2012
Pablo Neruda has a problem: he’s ancient and dying of cancer, but he yearns for an ex-lover who may—or may not—have given birth to a long-lost daughter. As he faces death (“the old woman with the scythe”) he enlists Cayetano Brulé, a hapless exiled Cuban, to track the woman down.
Cayetano’s subsequent sleuthing constitutes the plot of The Neruda Case, Roberto Ampuero’s first novel to be translated into English and one of five featuring Cayetano, which have all found a following in Latin America. The Cayetano novels splice literary fiction with noirish detective yarns—but what makes The Neruda Case particularly interesting is its nuanced portrait of the Nobel laureate poet.
Ampuero himself, a Chilean who now teaches both Spanish and creative writing at Iowa, was formerly a neighbor of Neruda’s. He appended to the book a short essay about growing up in Valparaiso, not far from one of Neruda’s homes, La Sebastiana. Much of The Neruda Case takes place in that home, which, Ampuero writes, “was mysterious and solitary, and no one was ever seen to exit.” While the author grew up idolizing the poet—he regrets his childhood inability to knock on Neruda’s door—the Neruda in this novel isn’t lionized. He’s reckless and aloof, bourgeois and grandiloquent (he quotes his own poetry a few times). But he’s also remorseful that he never had the opportunity to be a father (aside from, ahem, the hydrocephalic daughter he abandoned), and that he has deserted every significant woman in his life.
Indeed, interspersed throughout Cayetano’s travels—he heads to Cuba, East Germany, Mexico, and Bolivia—are several Neruda-narrated chapters, each covering a woman scorned. “I cross thresholds and more thresholds,” Neruda narrates in one, “but I always end up in a dark room.” (Seemingly an echo of the poem “Ode to Sadness.”) “There are times,” he says, “when I simply tire of being human.”
If these Neruda sections are the novel’s strongest, the rest is fairly standard detective fare, with Cayetano talking to one person who shuttles him to the next, and so on. And the result is that, despite the satisfying denouement—Cayetano rushes to inform Don Pablo of his discovery during the Pinochet coup of 1973—one ends up wishing that Neruda had been doing all the sleuthing himself.