Review: “The Neruda Case”

Cover of The Neruda Cse by Roberto Ampuero.In 1972, or so, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, dying of cancer in Valparaiso while Allende’s government falls apart, hires Cuban exile Cayetano Brulé to find a woman he knew 30 years before, in the hopes that the daughter she bore was his, rather than her husband’s. Because Cayetano, as he’s called throughout, has no detective skills, Neruda gives him, and insists he read, some Inspector Maigret crime novels by the Belgian author George Simenon, for training.

Cayetano travels to Havana, Mexico City, East Berlin, La Paz, and Santiago detecting, before ending up, again, in Valparaiso, unfortunately at the exact time, September 11, 1973, of Pinochet’s coup. Things don’t go well, although he finds out what he was sent to find out.

This story is framed within present-day events, to set up the possibility of a literary future for the now-experienced investigator. At least it seems that way to me, since the framing doesn’t make a lot of literary sense by itself.

Although blurbed as one, this isn’t a detective story in any way North American readers usually understand the genre. Instead, it is a mixture of Chilean history, a fictional reflection on the historical Neruda’s relationships with women, some bits about the protagonists interacting with women, with none of it holding together real well, except, I thought, for the Valparaiso street scenes. I found the character of Cayetano perplexing, getting detective-ish results in his investigation by people doing things for him and providing him information without any justification in his background, training, or demeanor that explains why people, mostly, just tell him what he wants to know.

The book isn’t awful – I did read it all the way through – but I sure can’t see what’s “delightful” about Cayetano Brulé (as one jacket blurb said) nor can I see why Ampuera is such a hit in Latin America. But he is, and not just for this book, so if another book in the series is translated, I’ll give it a shot and hope there’s more detecting and less reflecting.

The Neruda Case by
Riverhead Hardcover
352 pages
(3 / 5 stars)
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