This week's Sunday Guardian column.
It’s been almost 40 years since Pablo Neruda, "the first great poet of the Spanish language since the 17th century” as Carlos Fuentes called him, died of cancer. Or so they said. Now, after a case brought about by Chile’s Communist Party, there’s speculation that he may have been poisoned at the behest of Pinochet. Following an exhumation, a hunt is on for those responsible -- with the alleged suspects ranging from former Nazis to CIA agents to disreputable doctors.
These events, as the poet’s nephew Rodolfo Reyes said recently, are “worthy of a crime novel”. As it turns out, there happens to be a recent detective novel in which the poet plays a significant role. The Neruda Case, by Roberto Ampuero, doesn’t venture into speculation over the causes of Neruda’s death, but does hypothetise over some of his relationships. It was first published in Spanish in 2008, with a serviceable though sometimes clunky English translation being released last year, and features the intrepid detective Cayetano Brule who’s appeared in other works by the author.
Ampuero, the Chilean ambassador to Mexico and creative writing professor at the University of Iowa, has written of how, growing up in Valparaíso, he could glimpse Neruda’s house from his window. Thus, “I wrote this novel…staying true to the actual history of Chile between 1970 and 1973, because I admire him as a poet, because I was curious about him as a neighbour, and because his personal life intersected with crucial moments of twentieth-century history”. His high regard for Neruda is in evidence, but it’s not that he treats him uncritically throughout – for example, a character tells the detective: “I have nothing against him as an artist. He deserved the Nobel. What I don’t like is the representation of women in his poetry, nor do I like the way he treats us.”
The novel starts with Cayetano in present-day Chile on his way to take up a new assignment. He has the “independent, fun-loving spirit of a dreamer,” plying a trade that involves cases such as “tracking a loose woman, the theft of a day’s earnings from a soda fountain, or death threats from an aggressive neighbor”. Pausing at a café, he reminisces about his first case, which began in 1973 when he met Don Pablo at the Valparaiso mayor’s house. The ailing 70-year-old poet asks him to call upon him the next day, and subsequently urges him to find the whereabouts of a mysterious, missing doctor. Neruda had come across this supposed oncologist in Mexico City decades ago and now has his reasons for wanting to track him down. (The years have taken their toll, he says, in passing, “though they still don’t deprive me of the desire to write, and to love.”)
Cayetano embarks upon this mission, fortified by the novels of Simenon, even as it occurs to him that “Maigret could never accomplish anything in a region as chaotic, improvised, and unpredictable as Latin America”. The case isn’t as simple as it appears, and Cayetano has to journey not just to Mexico City but also to Havana, La Paz and East Berlin, widening his search to include the doctor’s wife and daughter for reasons that become apparent as the investigation continues. Intercut with his sojourns are first person accounts of Neruda ruminating over the women in his life, from Josie Bliss to María Antonieta to Delia del Carril to Matilde Urrutia (who compiled and edited his posthumous memoirs).
Though The Neruda Case isn’t as taut and gripping as one would have liked, there are several sections that are well done. Ampuero creates a satisfying sense of place, with little portraits of the cities that his hero travels through. The recreations of Chile at the cusp of Pinochet’s coup are heartfelt, and Neruda’s appearances in the novel are also compelling, with his pronouncements on poetry, dreams and love. Whether the poet was poisoned, or simply succumbed to the ills that flesh is heir to, it’s undeniable that his lines will live on.