‘The Neruda Case’ chips away Chilean poet’s myth

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This book cover image released by Riverhead shows “The Neruda Case,” by Roberto Ampuero. (AP Photo/Riverhead)

“The Neruda Case” (Riverhead Books), by Roberto Ampuero

The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about Latin American history and landscapes, the simple beauty and depth of ordinary objects, but perhaps most memorably, about love.

His inspiration drew from his life, and in Roberto Ampuero’s novel “The Neruda Case,” the poet reminisces about the women in his life during his final days, as the threat of a coup d’etat against socialist President Salvador Allende builds and Neruda grows increasingly weak from the cancer that would soon take his life.

In pursuit of his craft, love was often a casualty, and Ampuero’s imagined Neruda is tormented by his past: The wife he abandoned with their dying daughter in Spain for an Argentine woman, whom he’d leave years later for a Chilean woman hired to help care for the poet while he was sick in Mexico. But the woman who haunts him most is one with whom he had just a fleeting affair and who, decades later, has the answer to a question that could help him die in peace.

At a gathering among leftist friends, Neruda meets Cayetano Brule, a Cuban living in Chile after marrying his wife. He is disgruntled, unemployed and disenchanted with his marriage. Neruda convinces Brule he has the makings of an excellent detective and hires him to track down an oncologist friend in Mexico who had been studying herbal remedies for cancer and who, unbeknownst to Brule at the time, will lead him one step closer to the woman he needs to find.

To equip his novice detective with the tools needed to solve the mystery, Neruda gives Brule tomes of Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon, whose Inspector Maigret is to serve as a guide of sort, though Brule finds his example lacking for a private eye in Latin America.

Ampuero grew up in Valparaiso, Chile, a seaside town where the poet had a home, and he deftly lures readers into Brule’s search, which takes him to Mexico and Cuba, shortly after Castro’s revolution, and East Berlin. As he journeys from one country to another, he goes about unraveling the poet’s past, struggling at times to reconcile the public and private image and life of Latin America’s greatest poet.

“He was pained by the surprising contempt he felt for this man whom he had, until now, admired more each day,” Ampuero writes of Brule. “Better to set up a boundary and keep the bitter portion from eating up the sweetness, from devouring the whole cake.”

In his lifetime, Neruda’s works inspired lovers, politicians, the working class and revolutionaries. In death, the poet himself has been the subject of fictional works, films and music. “The Neruda Case” is an important contribution, one that shows Neruda, albeit in a fictional light, as a man who grapples with the decisions of his past, and who, more than an admired poet, was an intensely flawed human.

While many Neruda biographies have been written, few have captured the complexity of his character and relationships the way Ampuero has accomplished in a fictional work. His writing is atmospheric and evocative, the pace steady and compelling, the portrayal of Neruda detailed and convincing. Brule’s exhaustive journey loses some of its steam after so many twists and turns, but picks up again and leaves readers turning to the final page.

Ampuero, the current Chilean ambassador to Mexico and also an instructor of creative writing at the University of Iowa, grew up in Valparaiso, a seaside town just north of Santiago, where the poet had a home. Brule has been featured in five other Ampuero novels. “The Neruda Case” is the first to be published in English, a translation long overdue for an author whose works have already been read widely in Latin America and published in eight other languages.

In an essay released at the same time as the book, Ampuero writes that his motive in writing “The Neruda Case” was to, with the shelter of fictional license, portray the poet of “flesh and blood.”

“It isn’t easy to write a novel that captures the real human being, as Neruda’s fame is so solid and universal that written works about him tend toward the apologetic and adulatory, keeping him on a pedestal,” Ampuero writes. “I believe that both his genius as an artist and his authentic side as a man spring from his complex spirit, his light and shadow, and the passion of his human condition.”

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