The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero; translated by Carolina De Robertis, book review

A Latin American 'Da Vinci Code' gets lost in translation

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The Independent Culture

The Neruda Case wants to be many things: a biography of Pablo Neruda; a portrait of pre-coup Chile; an international thriller. Alas fact gets in the way of fiction and we're left with a muddle of none of them.

The plot sees Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, commission Cayetano Brulé, a Cuban, to track down Angel Bracamonte, a Mexican. Brulé's quest takes him from Chile to Mexico to Cuba to East Germany to Bolivia. It becomes clear along the way that the person Neruda really wants to locate is not Bracamonte, but Bracamonte's ex-wife.

We're offered a warts-and-all portrait of Neruda, a man able to write beautiful love poems to women, while treating them despicably. It's refreshing to see a mythical figure laid bare, but he's never quite brought to life and so it's difficult to engage with Brulé's mission, a final request from the terminally ill poet. The stakes remain low.

It's also difficult to latch on to the narrative thrust due to all the circumstantial detail. A typical piece of dialogue runs like this: "To Cuba? Long before the revolution?" "Even long before the Granma, the yacht Castro bought in Mexico to transport his tiny army to Cuba, set sail toward the island with its eighty-two voyagers, in 1956." It's like a Latin American Da Vinci Code, minus the page-turning.

The above exchange also touches on the problem of translation. Here's another example, from a chapter supposedly penned by the Nobel Laureate himself: "Was I ever truly in love with her? I ask myself this now, seated in La Nube, breathing the sad sighs of this Valparaíso, which various earthquakes have conspired against, one after the other, as well as the opening of the Panama Canal and the centralism of Santiago."

There are essentially two schools of thought in translation: the translated text should be reworked until it is flawless; the translated text should be raw and awkward, to remind the reader that it's a translation. Carolina De Robertis is clearly in the latter camp. I found vast swathes of The Neruda Case virtually unreadable, but some people might like the sense of other that comes from being able to see the mechanics of the original.

To help Brulé become a detective, Neruda gives him a collection of Maigret novels. Ampuero has much fun with the notion that a logical detective like Maigret would flounder in illogical Latin America, but the comparison does him no favours: Simenon was a master craftsman who used taut prose to create suspense and a sharp sense of place, and his translators were careful to replicate his style. Give me a Maigret over a Brulé any day.