If nothing else, a private investigator who has learned his trade from the works of Simenon stands out from the crowd. Cayetano Brulé, the hero of The Neruda Case, sets himself a course of Maigret novels on the advice of his first client, Pablo Neruda. ‘If poetry transports us to the heavens,’ the aged poet remarks, ‘crime novels plunge you into life the way it really is.’
Brulé, a Cuban exile in Chile, has now appeared in six detective novels by Roberto Ampuero, a Chilean professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa. The Neruda Case is the most recent; it is also the first in the fictional chronology of the series and the first to be translated into English.
The novel is set in 1973, when Brulé was a young man unhappily married to a fashionably socialist socialite, though the narrative is topped and tailed with chapters showing him looking back on the start of his career from the vantage point of middle age. He becomes a private investigator by accident, and at Neruda’s instigation. The old man, laden with honours and riddled with guilt, is dying of cancer; he wants Brulé to trace a Cuban oncologist. Money is no object. Without unseemly haste, Brulé pursues his investigation in Mexico, Cuba, East Germany and Bolivia. Glamorous women and secret policemen dog his steps.
While searching for the doctor, Brulé digs deep into his client’s past. Ampuero makes clear in an author’s note that the novel is primarily designed to explore Neruda’s elusive personality, the ‘grandeur and the meanness’, and the women he loved and betrayed. But Neruda is more than a poet: he has political significance. This leads to the second item on Ampuero’s agenda, which is Chile itself, ‘the beleaguered Titanic of the Pacific’, with Allende at the helm. As Neruda is dying, the country lurches into chaos, culminating with the right-wing military coup and the rise of the Pinochet dictatorship.
On the evidence of The Neruda Case, Brulé is not the sort of detective you would hire for an investigation that was at all urgent. There’s always time for another cup of coffee or a lengthy meditation on something or indeed for both. The narrative soon acquires a dreamlike quality, slipping from place to place and from time to time. The prose saunters along, following serpentine sentences to uncertain destinations. There are touches of elephantine humour and all-too-brief quotations from Neruda’s poetry.
Brulé himself meditates at length on the genre and its detectives. In doing so, he produces an indirect defence for his unorthodox forensic methods, arguing that ‘the North’s logic simply didn’t apply in Latin America’.Poirot, Holmes and Marlowe are detectives for ‘stable and organised nations’, and their techniques would therefore be doomed to failure in Brulé’s world.
Taken as a whole, the novel is rather less than the sum of its parts. It is a literary hybrid that combines the artificiality of the crime genre with none of its narrative tension. This is a pity, because Ampuero gives his readers some fascinating glimpses of both Neruda and the world he lived in. But what exactly does the private investigator format add to this, apart from a touch of whimsy? The Neruda Case leaves you with the impression that this is not so much a Latin American crime novel as a Latin American shaggy-dog story. It’s not all bad, by any means, but perhaps your time would be better spent with a slim volume of Neruda’s poetry.