Friday, September 21, 2012

Review: The Neruda Case ... and More Bits and Pieces


Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis
Riverhead Books (2012)

Rolando Hinojosa once told me that writers should write books, not book reviews. I eventually understood what he meant (at least, what I think he meant) and I cut back on reviews for La Bloga and other outlets. However, every once in a while I come across a book that spurs me to write a few words of praise, despite Rolando’s wise lesson, because the book is special in some way, or several ways.

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero is one such book.

The Neruda Case is the first of Ampuero’s books to be translated into English, although he has long been published worldwide. He is a professor at the University of Iowa and has lived in the U.S. for years. His reluctant detective, Cayetano Brulé, is the protagonist in a series of novels that are immensely popular. Brulé is a Cuban living in Chile. Ampuero is a Chilean who has spent time in several of the countries that serve as backdrops to his stories including Cuba, East Germany, Bolivia, and Mexico, all featured settings in The Neruda Case.

Roberto Ampuero
The book literally spans the globe and decades of time. It begins in 2006 when Brulé fixates on a photograph of Pablo Neruda, which in turn launches him into remembrances of his first case. The reader then steps into the turbulent Chilean crisis of 1973. Allende’s government is on the verge of a violent collapse. The poet is on the verge of dying. But he has one last project to fulfill and he engages the young Brulé to carry it out.

Brulé lives with his activist wife in Valparaíso, although the marriage is on the rocks. He encounters the celebrated poet Neruda at a party, and eventually the two meet privately to discuss Neruda’s quest. He wants Brulé to find Doctor Bracamonte, whom Neruda had known thirty years earlier in Mexico City. Brulé assumes the doctor may be a last hope for the poet, who is suffering from prostate cancer. He doesn’t realize, of course, that he has not been told the entire story and that he is about to embark on an adventure that will throw him into the midst of the Cold War and the international tensions that existed when capitalism and socialism competed for hegemony in Europe, Latin American and Asia. And only later, as he tracks down clues around the world, does he understand that his search is for something much more precious and personal to Neruda than the doctor’s expertise.

Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda
But the book is not a political diatribe. Far from it. This is a fast-moving thriller with a sprawling tableau, satisfying doses of suspense, and three-dimensional characters. Famous and infamous historical figures dot the literary landscape including Salvador Allende, who appears in a wonderful scene with Neruda that dramatizes the last time the two men saw each other. Brulé’s odyssey brings him in contact with several of Neruda’s mistresses, writers, poets and artists of the culturally fertile seventies, Che Guevara’s girlfriend, cold-blooded Stasi agents from East Germany, the jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera, and even the play Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht has a role in the plot.

Georges Simenon
That play is a signal for one of Ampuero’s themes. Brecht’s drama centers on Galileo’s torment when he sacrificed his scientific and philosophical views in order to survive persecution. In a sense, Galileo created another version of himself. At one point in the book Neruda comments how he has re-manufactured himself several times, played several different parts over the course of his life, and it is almost too obvious when Neruda tells Brulé that he should create another persona for himself, that of a detective. Neruda, the poet, the artist-creator, instructs Brulé to use the mystery fiction of the great Georges Simenon as detective training manuals. Neruda believes that Simenon's illustrious detective, Maigret, can transform the young Brulé into the investigator that Neruda needs at that particular time of his life. In this way, fiction and reality intermingle, art and life compensate one another, and the reader is faced with a multi-layered mystery that satisfies on all levels.

One of the main aspects of the book is Ampuero’s fictional glimpse into the complicated, contradictory, and very human character of Pablo Neruda. The five chapters are named after women who played key roles in the poet’s life. Neruda’s womanizing and, frankly, scandalous treatment of his wives and mistresses are essential to the story the author writes. But so, too, are the poet’s artistic accomplishments, his iconic role in Chilean history, and his impact on all those who came into contact with him. 

Ampuero admitted to an interviewer that Neruda made a powerful impression on him when he was a child and lived in the same neighborhood as the poet. He went on to say:

“I wrote my novel about Neruda, 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 neighbor, and because his personal life intersected with crucial moments of 20th-century history.

“But I had another, powerful reason for writing my novel. Sheltered by the license of fiction, I strove to portray the Neruda of flesh and blood, the real human being with his grandeur and meanness, loyalties and betrayals, certainties and doubts—the poet who could love passionately and at the same time leave everything to embark on a new affair, a more feverish and impassioned one, that would allow him to write better poetry. Neruda was a towering poet, a sharp politician, a human being who searched tirelessly for love, and a man who enjoyed the pleasures of bourgeois life. He contradicted himself. It isn’t easy to write a novel that captures the real human being, as Neruda’s fame is so solid and universal that written works about him tend toward the apologetic and adulatory, keeping him on a pedestal. I believe that both his genius as an artist and his authentic side as a man spring from his complex spirit, his light and shadow, and the passion of his human condition.”

You can read the entire interview here.

The quibbles I have with the book relate to a few glitches that probably need to be explained by the translator. Overall, the prose is excellent and one of the author’s main talents is that he never intrudes into the story that is acted out by his characters. But some sentences are awkward and seem out of place. Certain passages appear to be repeated, or at least the narrative thrust of these passages show up more than once. But, these are minor.  I recommend The Neruda Case and eagerly anticipate more from Roberto Ampuero. 

Bits and Pieces
[from Regis University website]
In addition to viewing one of the most interesting and relevant exhibits about the labor guest worker programs between the United States and Mexico, the orchestrator behind Regis University’s two-month hosting of the historic Smithsonian exhibit Bracero Program wants visitors to the exhibit to gain an understanding of the human face behind the Bracero Program.

Regis University, Colorado’s only Jesuit Catholic university, is hosting the Smithsonian Institution’s travelling exhibit called Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program, 1942-1964, through Oct. 28 in the University’s Dayton Memorial Library.

“The Bracero exhibit is intriguing because of the individual stories that comprise it,” said Nicki Gonzales, assistant professor of history at Regis University and the individual orchestrating the exhibit at the University’s North Denver (Lowell) campus “I want people to recognize that each laborer had a story that was just as rich and just as important as the observer’s. I would like those who view the exhibit to come away with a more complete picture of our nation’s history and an appreciation for the contributions that Mexicans have made. The Bracero history is a transnational story, as is much of our history.”

Begun in 1942 as a temporary war measure to address labor needs in agriculture and the railroads, the Bracero Program eventually become the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. Small farmers, large growers, and farm associations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and 23 other states hired Mexican Braceros to provide manpower during peak harvest and cultivation times. By the time the program was canceled in 1964, an estimated 4.6 million contracts had been awarded. 

Bittersweet Harvest, a new bilingual exhibition organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and circulated by SITES, examines the experiences of Bracero workers and their families, providing rich insight into Mexican American history and historical background to today’s debates on guest worker programs.

Consisting of 15 freestanding, illustrated banners, the exhibition combines recent scholarship, photographs from the Smithsonian’s collection, and audio excerpts from oral histories contributed by former contract workers.

Gonzales’s extensive background in history is evident as she discusses in almost reverent tones the individual stories that comprise the Bracero exhibit and the many questions raised by the exhibit.

“On one hand, you have the US desperate for labor during and after WWII, and on the other, you have a group of men who make the decision to leave their homes and families in Mexico for opportunity in the US,” Gonzales explained. “The individual stories behind that decision are fascinating...what were their lives like prior to leaving, what did they give up in making the decision to leave, what were their experiences like in the US--with all of the challenges that brought: racism, classism, exploitation, broken promises...yet, they were able to create a culture, to survive, and to send money home....all meanwhile aiding the American economic machine, contributing in vital ways to our country's victory in WWII...until the mid-1960s, when America would pass a landmark immigration law, partly in response to the results of the Bracero program. And, finally, the question of what effects did their decision to leave Mexico as a Bracero have on the rest of their lives...and the lives of their children and grandchildren?”

In addition to the exhibit, Regis University will sponsoring numerous additional activities in conjunction with the exhibit. Among those are a Bracero Program Oral History Project, a Romero Troupe Theater performance and actor talk-back, and a labor history panel featuring four professors and activists.

The Bracero Program Oral History Project
includes students and faculty who are gathering oral histories from former Braceros and their family members. These interviews, as well as any artifacts will be exhibited near the Smithsonian exhibit. These video interviews will be stored in the archives of Regis University's Center for the Study of War Experience, a nationally-recognized archive of oral histories and artifacts related to war-time experiences. 

The Romero Theater Troupe will perform a short play on the history of the Bracero program through the Bracero laborers' experiences. A panel of speakers will follow the performance. The labor history academic panel is expected to feature experts presenting their work on the Bracero Program and related topics. Several additional supporting events will be conducted during the next two months in conjunction with the exhibit at Regis University.

For more information, on the exhibit or to participate in one of the projects, contact Gonzales at or Sonia Del Real at

Wednesday, October 3 or Friday, October 5 7:00 p.m.

Performance artist James Luna premieres his unique art installation and performance piece, Making Do, created specifically for a limited engagement at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

This special premiere includes a performance by Luna, a chance to view the installation, and an artist’s reception.

In Making Do, Luna explores a “survival skill” developed by his California Indian peoples to endure in a post-contact world. Luna conveys how Indians cleverly “made do” in hopes of maintaining an Indian life while coming to grips with the loss of the “free” lifestyle they once lived.

Luna, a Pooyukitchchum/Ipai native, is a world-renowned performer and artist who has produced a variety of artworks illustrating his artistic, social, and political commentary.

$15/member, $18/nonmember
Ricketson Auditorium
Cash bar reception to follow.

Reservations are required as space is limited. Call 303.370.6000 (M-F, 9-5) or click here to purchase tickets online.

 State Out of the Union at the Tattered Cover

State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream  
Jeff Biggers

Oct 11 2012 7:30 pm Colfax Avenue

[from The Tattered Cover website]

Days after President Obama beseeched his fellow lawmakers in the State of the Union ‘to come together as a people, Republicans, Democrats, Independents,” and “find common ground, even as we're having some very vigorous debates,” the extraordinary effect of Arizona’s sagebrush rebellion had already rippled across the country.

In the alarming and fascinating State Out of The Union, award-winning author Jeff Biggers shows how the Arizonification of America is in full swing. More than 25 state legislatures have already introduced copycat anti-immigration bills of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070. But immigration reform is just the opening salvo—in Arizona, and for the 2012 elections.

With one of the most radical Tea Party factions in control of its legislature, Arizona and its growing bevy of wingnut politicians have not only dislodged Sarah Palin as one of the most popular jokes on late night TV shows, but have set in motion one of the most alarming challenges to federal authority in history. The legislature has passed several bills challenging federal authority on gun laws, Medicaid, and the rights of undocumented children to attend school or go to the emergency room. One bill debated in the state congress proposed prohibiting "courts from considering international law or legal percepts of other nations or cultures when making judicial decisions." Another bill required federal environmental inspectors to register with the sheriff whenever its representatives enter one of Arizona's fifteen counties. One Forbes reporter wrote that the bill could be summed up in three words: ”Stay outta Arizona.” As a precursor to the 2012 election, Arizona defiantly unveiled its vision of a Tea Party America—that may be our future.

About the Author

Jeff Biggers is the American Book Award-winning of The United States of Appalachia, and In the Sierra Madre. He has worked as a writer, radio correspondent and educator across the United States, Europe, India and Mexico. His award-winning stories have appeared on National Public Radio, Public Radio International and in numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, among others. He splits his time between Tucson and Illinois. His website is:

Saturday, September 22, 2012 - 10:00am - Sunday, September 23, 2012 - 4:00pmThis annual event set up by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce features entertainment tents, vendors, and of course, roasting chiles and produce for sale. Cost: $2 entry fee for festival. During the Festival the museum will have the popular Pony Rides along with free admission to the trading post featuring living history presentations and the Native Thundering Voices Community featuring singing, dancing and drumming. The Pueblo Herb Society, Pride City Quilt Guild and Pueblo Handweavers Guild will also demonstrate their crafts. The museum’s galleries will be open with admission at just $1 per person. For more information: 719.583.0453.

El Pueblo History Museum Information
301 North Union
Pueblo, CO 81003


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