Poetry, Paternity, and the Cold War

The Neruda Case: A Novel, by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis, (Hardcover: Riverhead, 2012; Paperback: Riverhead Trade, 2013)

I fell in love with The Neruda Case when I first saw the cover of the 2012 hardback edition. I couldn’t afford to buy it at the time, but I’ve never forgotten it. So a few months ago, I was delighted to see a copy of it on remainder at my local independent bookstore, Bookshop Santa Cruz.

This is one of the cases when the book itself is every bit as wonderful as the cover, offering a narrative that functions on several levels.

First, The Neruda Case is a darn good detective novel. Cayetano Brulé, originally from Cuba, now living in Chile with his Chilean wife whom he met in New York, is struggling to create himself. His marriage is falling apart. He’s never managed a real career since his move to Chile. Now, he’s trying to set himself up as a detective—and his first client is an aging Neruda, soon to die of cancer. The poet, childless in his 80s wants Brulé to track down a former lover and her daughter—who may or may not be his child.

On another level, The Neruda Case is a novel of the cold war world, and particularly of the failure of the socialist experiment in Chile led by democratically elected Salvador Allende and toppled by Chilean generals with U.S. support. Allende’s presidency lasted three years. The military dictatorship that followed lasted for seventeen.

Brulé’s investigations take him to Mexico, Cuba, East Germany, Bolivia and back to Chile—so we see not only the Chilean experience, but also life in each of these nations during the cold war.

Since I read this novel in translation, I can’t say anything definitive about Ampuero’s prose style, but if De Robertis’s translation is any indication, he is the master of the long, rich sentence. Let me give you one example of these sentences, this describing the current President of Chile and the nation itself:

President Bachelet was a clear sign that this stiletto of land, which extended from the Atacama Desert (the most arid and inhospitable one on the planet) to the South Pole, and which balanced between the fierce waves of the Pacific and the eternal snows of the Andes, always on the brink of collapsing with all its people and goods into the ocean’s depths, was a unique place, inimitable and changing, that swung vertiginously from euphoria to depression, or from soidarity to individualism, like one of those complicated hieroglyphs from the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann that no one could entirely decipher, and that one loved or hated, depending on the circumstances, changes in mood, or color of the season.

Now, that’s a sentence! An entire book of such prose would overwhelm, but Ampuero knows when and how much to serve up. These occasional sentences emerge delightfully every few pages or so—like sips of a good wine accompanying a hearty meal.

Keep your eyes open for a copy of this book and give it a read. You’ll have the fun of a detective story paired with a haunting look back at recent history.


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