If the title sounds like something out of detective fiction, it is—for Ampuero asks us to consider the hypothetical possibility that Pablo Neruda, terminally ill, hires someone to track down a former lover.
This someone—Cayetano Brulé—is not even a professional detective but rather a Cuban who’s casually met the aging Neruda at a party in 1973. Neruda had previously hired several professional detectives to pursue the elusive quarry, and not only have they all failed, but they’ve tried to defraud him as well. Brulé takes up the task in homage to a poet he reveres, and he even starts reading Georges Simenon novels for inspiration. At first Neruda disguises Brulé’s mission by asking him to find Dr. Ángel Bracamonte, who through his knowledge of herbal medicine might supposedly be able to cure Neruda, now dying of cancer. But the real reason Brulé takes up—and fumbles through—his first case is to locate Bracamonte’s wife Beatriz, a dazzling beauty from the 1940s. Neruda not only knew the Bracamontes 30 years earlier, he was also Beatriz’s lover and might be the father of their daughter, Tina. Neruda has Brulé chase down cryptic clues that lead him to Cuba, Bolivia and East Germany. Four of the five chapters in the novel are named after Neruda’s wives or lovers, from the exotic Josie Bliss to the dancer Matilde Urrutia, and within these chapters Ampuero fantasizes a first-person “reminiscence” that Neruda might plausibly have had. The action of Brulé’s discoveries is played out against the growing political tension that leads to the overthrow of Allende and the beginnings of the political oppression of Augusto Pinochet, a coup that Neruda survived by only 17 days.
While Ampuero depicts Neruda warts and all, he still clearly admires his complex and demanding humanness.