Monday, August 27, 2012
The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero
Chile. The 1970s. The beloved but flawed Allende government falls to the infamously repressive Pinochet government. But just before this, Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet-in-residence, tasks Cayetano Brulé, Cuban exile, to find an early lover…to see if the child she bears shortly after their Mexican love affair is indeed Neruda's own. This 2012 translation of a work published in 2008 gives us an intimate, if fictional, portrait of Pablo Neruda. Author Ampuero, in an afterword to the novel, speaks of his idolization of the artist in Santiago as a child, which grew into a fascination with Neruda’s life. Ampuero wanted to show Neruda as he was—a complicated man of great contradictions.
I favor a nuanced view of great artists and leaders. Ian McEwan wrote of a fictional Nobel Prize-winning scientist in Solar, and managed the nuance mixed with much ribaldry but did not base his work on just one man.
An interview with Ampuero in the online magazine The Daily Beast states that Neruda was in fact a serial monogamist, just as he is depicted in the novel. Neruda actually had, and left, three or four wives. I think it is safe to assume that a man who can write movingly about love has experienced it in spades. Great men often have great appetites. Ampuero wanted to show the man as he was, not just as he is imagined to be.
My interest in this novel is the South American-ness of it: the point of view, the seasons, the food, the language. The literature and music spoken of in the book, for whatever reason, is generally what Europeans and North Americans were reading or listening to at the time. Occasionally Ampuero speaks of bolero and carimba, but as now when we read of detectives based in Europe or Africa, oftentimes they are listening to something America or Europe has produced.
Towards the end of this novel, my mind began to wander. I wanted things to progress faster, but I think Ampuero was intent on placing Neruda’s life in its historical context. Perhaps it is my forward American womanhood contrasting with the slow seduction of Ampuero's Latin American maleness that was slightly out of sync--able to enjoy the dance, but not fully relax. Despite my impatience with the slow unfolding of the mystery, I appreciated the fullness of the story by the end. I read elsewhere that there are five books in the Detective Cayetano Brulé series, of which this is not the first. Ampuero apparently now works out of the University of Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Workshop.
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