Never meet your heroes—you’ll only be disappointed, or so they say. For Cayetano Brulé, the mild-mannered protagonist of the Chilean Roberto Ampuero’s sumptuous new novel, that maxim is put thoroughly to the test when his path unexpectedly crosses with the Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s. An unusual meld of history, biography, and fiction, The Neruda Case reveals Neruda to Brulé, and to us, as all too human—and conveys with great acuity how it’s not just the famous who are subject to others’ unrealistic projections.
The story opens in 2006. Brule, a middle-aged Cuban émigré living in the Chilean port city of Valparaíso, is dawdling at a café on his way to a meeting. Noticing a photograph of Neruda on the back on a menu, he is instantly transported more than three decades back to the winter of 1973. Chile was in political and economic turmoil; there were widespread food shortages and strikes, and President Salvador Allende’s socialist government was about to fall to a coup and give rise to Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Against this backdrop, Brulé—jobless, his marriage on the rocks, somewhat nostalgic for his native Havana—meets the elderly Neruda at a party.
“You’ve got the makings of a detective, young man,” Neruda decides, based on a few minute of conversation. He assigns Brulé his first job as a private investigator: to track down an old acquaintance, a Cuban doctor named Ángel Bracamonte. Brulé, understandably, is daunted. “I have no idea how a detective behaves,” he protests. But Neruda provides a solution; the fledgling P.I. can read the novels of Georges Simenon, and thus become au fait with the techniques of mystery solving.
Neruda is terminally ill with cancer, so Brulé assumes that Bracamonte, an oncologist who apparently once specialized in experimental plant treatments, is the poet’s last hope for a miracle cure. It soon emerges, though, that the person whom Neruda actually wants to trace is Bracamonte’s wife, Beatriz, with whom he had an affair in the 1940s and whose daughter might be his. Brulé’s intrepid and often perilous quest takes him to Mexico City, to Cuba, to Bolivia, and to East Berlin. But Beatriz, whose identity seems ever-evolving and fatefully tied to history, remains elusive, in accordance, naturally, with the mystery plot. As for the guidance of Simenon, Brulé reflects frequently that while he’s on his way to becoming a “Caribbean Maigret,” the rules of European sleuthing aren’t worth much in Latin America, where instead of clear law and logic, “improvisation, randomness, corruption, and venality were the order of the day.”
Although the search for Beatriz and her daughter propel the novel forward, the pacing often sags, no doubt intentionally on the part of Ampuero, who is less concerned with maintaining detective fiction-style suspense than with emphasizing the unpredictability and danger of life. “The fates that reigned over the universe were crueler than the flesh-and-blood writers who composed novels,” realizes Brulé. “It was easier to be an excellent detective in a crime novel than a mediocre detective in implacable reality.” Closely aligned in Brulé’s story, nonetheless, are the generative powers of writing and of human desire: an explicit parallel is drawn between Neruda’s poetic talent and his “creation” of people like Brulé, who comes to view himself as “simply a character born and molded out of the poet’s fantasies.”
The same might be said of the many lovers in Neruda’s past, who are brought back to vivid life by his dying memories. The book contains a virtual compendium of his checkered relationship history, through which we gain intimate knowledge of the man and his romantic crimes: each of five sections is named for a different woman, and occasional chapters are given over to Neruda’s elegantly rendered first-person reminiscences of the women he loved and left, whether because of sheer whim or the absorbing needs of his poetry. He remembers how the first woman he ever abandoned fell to her knees, begging him to stay, and when she “lifted her beautiful face up from the ground, I saw something painful and indignant that I’ll never forget: her cheeks, forehead, and nose were completely smeared with the polish of my boots. She cried in silence, distraught and tremulous, as pale as a sick ghost.”
The prose in Brulé’s chapters is often gorgeous: the smells, sounds, colors, and atmosphere of Chile, in particular, are unforgettably evoked (Valparaíso, Brulé observes, is “lost every morning in a thick fog that erased outlines, softened echoes, and wrapped its inhabitants in sorrow”). Carolina de Robertis’s translation, while mostly transparent and skillful, occasionally loses control of Ampuero’s multi-clausal and baroque sentences, resulting in syntactical awkwardness and, occasionally, a reversal of intended meaning. But such flaws are insignificant in light of the originality and ambition of Ampuero’s vision, which weaves together an entertaining fiction, a deft conjuring of one of Chile’s most turbulent eras, and an engrossing portrait of Neruda. De-mythologizing the hallowed poet stands as a broader metaphor for the speciousness of ideologies both personal (“the road to personal happiness is paved with the pain of others,” he tells Brulé) and political (although he was a “disciplined member” of the Communist Party, Neruda owned three luxurious houses).
During one of his many fact-finding coffee dates, Brulé encourages a PhD student who is writing her thesis on Neruda to include her scathing opinions on his callous womanizing. “Don’t be ridiculous, Cayetano,” she retorts. “You know that if I include that in my graduate work, they’ll deny me a degree. When have you ever seen the church defrock its own saints?” The Neruda Case, which is Ampuero’s sixth novel but his first to be translated into English, doesn’t quite “defrock” Neruda. But its determinedly unhagiographic yet compassionate depiction of “the great man” is an audacious achievement, and one that should earn the author many new fans in the English-speaking world.