The Brilliant Fictionalization of Pablo Neruda: Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case
The Neruda Case is the first novel by the prolific Chilean author, Roberto Ampuero, to be translated into English. Wide in scope, the story encompasses politics, literature, poetry, and love. Set in Chile during the turmoil of Augusto Pinochet's coup, the political backdrop adds a layer of complexity to the standard intrigue of the detective genre.
When Cayateno Brulé is summoned by the beloved Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, he is mystified. An unemployed expat from Cuba, Brulé followed his politically radical Chilean wife back to her home country. After years of unemployment, he is isolated, filled with frustration, and has no background as a sleuth. But when a Nobel Prize winner asks for your help, you don’t say no. Neruda gives Brulé detectives stories by Georges Simenon and sends him off to Mexico in search of a doctor named Bracamonte.
The novel is a blend of historical fiction and mystery, and Ampuero stays true to the circumstances of the early 1970s: Chile is in upheaval as President Allende's government is threatened with a coup, and Neruda, a friend of Allende and a steadfast communist, is in his late sixties and dying of cancer. The instability of the country worsens Neruda's condition and makes Brulé's mission all the more urgent.
The conversations between the poet and Brulé are fascinating, especially for fans of Neruda. Ampuero brings the poet to life as he talks about his past loves, the women he betrayed, the sick daughter he abandoned, and all the regrets of a dying man. Brulé assumes that Neruda hopes to find a cure through this mysterious doctor -- but when he discovers Bracamonte is dead, Neruda reveals that it is actually Bracamonte's widow, Beatriz, whom he is desperate to find.
Brulé's search for Beatriz sends him to Cuba, East Germany, Bolivia, and back to Chile. As his hunt intensifies, so does the political upheaval in Chile. With each leg of his journey, Brulé finds himself gradually molded into the detective that Neruda envisioned he could be. And as the standoff between Allende and Pinochet is brought to its zenith, Brulé unravels the mystery of Beatriz and finds himself caught up in the middle of the coup, determined to reach the dying poet.
This novel also explores what it means to be a foreigner, both abroad and on one's native soil. The character of Brulé is never truly at home, having left Cuba at a young age for America, and later moving to Chile. Author Ampuero is the Chilean ambassador to Mexico as well as a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, and no doubt draws on his own experience in portraying what it means to live as an expatriate.
A stunning portrait of Chile, and an irresistible detective story, The Neruda Case will leave you impatient for the next Cayetano Brulé mystery to be translated.