The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Carolina De Robertis, translator & Robertson Dean, narrator)

The Neruda Case is the first book by Chilean author Roberto Ampuero to be translated into English.  It’s in actuality the sixth book of his popular crime series featuring the Cuban private detective Cayetano Brule.  It isn’t unusual for books in a series to be translated out of order – but I always find it unsettling.  In this particular instance, though, The Neruda Case isn’t only a good place to introduce English readers to Detective Brule – it is also the most logical.  The story opens with Brule remembering his first case and how he stumbled into his particular and (in the world outside of novels) uncommon career path.  Pushed by none other than the Nobel Laureate and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Introducing a historical figure into a fictional world is always risky.  Having him or her interact with fictional characters in a believable way is challenging.  Sometimes it works… but more often it doesn’t.  We’ve all seen it tank an otherwise good book.  Because too often the tendency is to use a real person to fill a predetermined spot on the author’s dramatis personae.  Without an authentic relationship between the novel and biography the character becomes flat, homogenous and a caricature of the real man or woman with whom we’re all familiar.

Ampuero’s portrayal of Pablo Neruda is none of those things.  It is, simply, perfect.  He is a man  aware of, obsessed with even, his legacy.  He loves women, yet uses them mercilessly.  They are no more, no less, than fuel for his mythos he has spent a lifetime creating.  Nowhere is this more apparent (and distasteful) than when Ampuero has Neruda speak of the daughter he abandoned.  There’s an underlying note of enjoyment, self-indulgence, in the way Neruda expresses his shameful behavior towards his own blood.

At the other end of the spectrum are Neruda’s interactions with Cayetano Brule.  These are comfortable, masculine, with all the poet’s considerable charisma at work … but there is a sense that even here Neruda is playing a part.  His poetic flights during their conversations come across as both sincere and (just a bit) practiced.  As a three-dimensional character he works on every level.  And Robertson Dean’s narration on the audio version – using a slow, raspy and surprisingly playful voice for the poet – adds yet another dimension to the complicated poet.  He succeeds in bringing Neruda completely to life.  Like Daniel Day-Lewis embodied Lincoln, Dean’s Neruda will forever be the voice of the poet for me.

Ampuero’s Neruda is so good that his hero, poor Cayetano, is overshadowed.  This would be my one criticism of The Neruda Case.  But it’s a small one.  Ultimately, Brule has five other novels in which to win readers over – and Neruda had only this one.

There’s an international flavor to this novel which I’ve read plays throughout the entire series.  The mystery which propels the plot simultaneously propels detective Brule around the globe – following breadcrumbs through Chile, East Germany and Cuba.  All of this occurs against the cultural backdrop of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état.  (10-Second History Lesson:  Salvador Allende became president of Chile in 1970 by democratic election.  He moved the country towards Communism – a position backed by Castro’s Cuba and the Soviets, but viewed with outright hostility by the U.S.  The resulting military coup led to Allende’s death and Augusto Pinochet’s subsequent brutal regime).  It’s a fascinating piece of history that is woven seamlessly into the overarching plot.

(Which is another reason why this was a good place to introduce Ampuero to English readers.  The Neruda Case may be a mystery and an origin story for Detective Brule, but it’s the Chilean history and the depiction of the poet in all his guises – even revolutionary –  that really sells this novel and makes it work as a standalone book).

The plot of this novel forms a roadmap of Roberto Ampuero’s life.  His father’s name was Robert Ampuero Brule.  He (the author) was a member of the Communist party as a young man, left Chile after the coup d’état, spent time in East Germany studying Communism, and then in Cuba.  Ampuero’s life and travels are obviously the basis for the route Cayetano Brule follows as he pieces together The Neruda Case. A wise decision on his part, it allows Ampuero to provide an authentic experience.  He describes places he’s visited, spent time in.  Many of Brule’s experiences and opinions seem to be Brule’s own.  In an afterward to the novel Ampuero even reveals that Neruda was his neighbor as a child (though he was never able to summon the courage to knock on the famous poet’s door).

I wrote earlier that introducing a historical character into a fictional world is risky.  Roberto Ampuero calculated the risk and discovered how to beat the odds.  The Neruda Case succeeds because he didn’t stop with Neruda but included multiple layers of biography:  Pablo Neruda, Chile’s and his own.  If anyone knows when English readers will be treated to – and it is a treat – more of the dynamic duo of Ampuero and Brule please let us know in the comments.  So far I’ve been unable to find which book is slated to be translated next.

Note:  Riverhead is releasing The Neruda Case in paperback this June.  For those who can’t wait the hardcover and audio version (which I strongly recommend) are available now.

Publisher:  Riverhead Trade, New York (June, 2013)
ISBN:  978 1594 63147 4

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Cría Cuervos (1976) – film directed by Carlos Saura *BEWARE! some spoilers!*

The first group scheduled event for Spanish Language Lit Month is to post on the film Cría Cuervos*.  This is an off-kilter and beautiful film starring an adolescent Ana Torrent.  The title translates as Raise Ravens, which refers to a Spanish proverb – “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.” (Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes).  Set in Madrid, during the final days of Franco’s Spain, it tells the story of one dysfunctional family from the perspective of the middle daughter, Ana.

The film opens with Ana finding her father’s dead body in bed, as his lover flees the house.  Her mother has only recently died of cancer – after suffering both physically from the disease and emotionally due to her husband’s infidelities.  Ana blames her father, played by Héctor Alterio, for her mother’s pain and has mixed a powder she believes is poison into his milk.  Now orphaned, an aunt & grandmother arrive to look after Ana & her two sisters.  The earthy housekeeper, who acted as nurse to Ana’s mother, completes the household.

Cría Cuervos is billed as a “psychological drama”.  In the 70’s that must mean minimal dialogue; an indordinate amount of time spent focused on the Torrent’s huge, haunting eyes and abrupt switches mid-scene between reality and Ana’s memories.  Snarkiness aside, those are kinda’ the things I loved about it.  The main plot line is deceptively simple. The girls have no real concept of what death is.  But Saura brilliantly shows how they have absorbed and processed the events taking place around them.  In one scene they dress up and amidst much giggling, re-enact a scene they must have witnessed of their parents fighting.  In another Ana offers to assist her disabled grandmother die by giving her some of the same “poison” she gave to her father.   In a final scene the eldest daughter sums up the feelings of uncertainty, fear and confusion all three are experiencing when she tells Ana of a nightmare from the previous night as casually as if it had no relationship to her real life.

More complicated is what the director is attempting to say about Franco’s regime and its legacy to the people of Spain.  Ana’s father, we learn, fought beside the Nazis in Germany.  There is a sense of decaying luxury within the walls of the family’s Madrid home (where almost all the scenes take place).  The swimming pool is empty and neglected.  We’re told repeatedly that the house is in disarray.  There is Ana’s casual approach to death, which is partly due to her 9-year-old lack of understanding but also serves as a commentary on the atmosphere in which she was raised.  She feels no remorse or guilt, despite believing she killed her father.  And her older self, who appears sporadically throughout the film to attempt to explain the actions of the younger Ana, no longer seems to have a connection to or understanding of the psyche of the child she once was.  What will become of this post-Franco generation, is the question Carlos Saura seems to be posing, who have grown up in strange times with only their parents as examples?

Visually, Cría Cuervos is beautiful – and the remastered Criterion Collection edition I watched was vibrant and crisp.  The film’s color palette and the slight awkwardness to the actors’ performances  reminded me of a Wes Anderson film.  As did the song “¿Por qué te vas?” (Why are you leaving?) which was played repeatedly throughout.  One review I read pointed out that in the film Ana’s mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin (who also played the adult Ana), speaks Spanish with an English accent – as does the singer.  The adult Ana speaks with a “pure” Spanish accent.  The reviewer put forward that the reason Ana repeatedly plays the record is because the singer reminds her of her mother’s voice.  Which, to my mind, makes perfect sense. Cría Cuervos is full of small, subtle touches like that.

My final review? I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to (I’m not really a fan of 70’s cinema).  So much so that I’ve already added El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) – an earlier Saura/Torrent collaboration) to my Netflix queue.  It was, overall, a wonderful way to begin Spanish Language Lit Month.

*I’ve posted my review early because I’m a dope who’s never been good at reading directions.  You should definitely check out Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de recuerdos this weekend for links to everyone else’s brilliant (and on time) opinions of the film.

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Eating Air by Pauline Melville

Eating Air by Pauline MelvilleThere’s something intriguingly slapdash about Pauline Melville’s new novel, Eating Air.  It begins with the narrator briefly introducing himself ,  – and then the curtains raise and for 407 pages we’re jumping from character to character, scene to scene, at a pace that is exhilarating (if slightly dizzying).   Melville has created the literary equivalent of a Cirque de Soleil performance given by middle-aged political radicals who have managed to live long enough to know better.  Her novel is intense, convoluted, serious in its’ subject matter and carefully plotted.  Yet it still manages to feel unrehearsed, capricious and effortless.  Somehow, Eating Air comes across as light and  insubstantial as… well… air.  It’s quite an accomplishment.

The writing, by itself,  is startlingly beautiful.

Many years later, when Hector looked back on the way they all gambled so freely with their lives – tossing cigarette packs, cartridges and grenades between each other as casually as if they were fielding in a ball game – he reflected on how those brushes with death seemed to give the young fighters an airy elegance and lightness that made them almost skyborne – as if they were eating air.  Fleet, breathtaking decisions were taken easily with a light heart and unshakeable certainty.  They were not weighed down with personal plans.  They possessed nothing.  Hector wondered whether that lightness existed amongst them all because they had no future.

Of course, the reader soon finds that this absence of a future has been grossly exaggerated.

Eating Air is told in three parts.  The first and third parts take place in present-day.  We are introduced to a group of former political radicals from the 1970’s, long after the dust their actions once stirred has settled.  Some have been imprisoned,  some fled the country or went on to lead armed and militant factions.  The acts they committed were more blips on the map than the beginnings of the revolution they’d expected.  Most realize that and have gone on to build lives, but a few haven’t let go of their dreams.  All miss the sense of purpose their lives once had.   Gradually fate brings them back together.

Part two of the novel flashes back to London in the 1970’s.  We meet Ella deVries, a half-Surinamese  dancer for the Royal Ballet.  We learn about how she met the love of her life, Donny McLeod, and how they became absorbed into this group of British radicals.  Both are on the fringe, and their participation in events is more of an afterthought  than an act of political engagement.  Ella dances and loves Donny.  Donny creates mayhem wherever he goes.  In theory, they (their class) would be the ones to benefit from the revolution, or so they are told.  But they remain aloof and distrustful.

While Eating Air contains the fairly in-depth stories of multiple characters (I stopped counting at 18) Ella and Donny are central to the book, often the catalysts setting events into motion. Yet their role was difficult to place.  They never quite fit into the big picture I thought Melville was trying to draw – but they continually make appearances in the stories of other characters.  Both actively and passively.  It is the Acknowledgements at the end of the book that gives a hint of what Pauline Melville is attempting to do:

If Euripides were around I hope he would excuse my loose re-working of themes from The Bacchae. I also acknowledge standing on the shoulders of many other authors who have given us versions of Venus and Adonis.

I’ll give you another clue:  Where Donny goes, pandemonium and Ella follow.  Ella is usually dancing.

The classical themes on which the author has based her novel are used with such subtlety that without the Acknowledgement the reader might never have made a connection.  But once you have read those lines, and brush up a little on the classics, it becomes so glaring that you can’t believe anyone could read this book without knowing.  Personally, I adore books that give that extra gift.  That can be read and enjoyed without knowing their secret, but once it is revealed become entirely new books.  Eating Air is the story of revolutionaries and terrorists in two different periods of history.  It is also the metaphorical story of what is at the basis of such acts and of how such acts can occur.  It is  fable, farce (laugh out loud funny) and tragedy all rolled together.

If an author writes well enough, he or she can get away with a lot.  In that sense Melville is fortunate.  Eating Air has flaws, but they can be easily overlooked in the face of such skillful manipulation of language. If the relationships between characters feels too coincidental, almost incestuous, it can be argued that she’s focusing on a specific group of people whose lives are intertwined.  If the book seems to contain too much, that some of the plot lines seem arbitrary and unneccessary to the overall novel, well you can say that had the book been edited with a heavier hand the whimsical rhythm of the prose could have been lost.  In my mind, Eating Air is such a unique and special book that it is necessary to embrace it exactly as it is.

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Pauline Melville has written two other novels, a short story collection, won several awards and has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I’d be surprised if Eating Air doesn’t receive the same kind of recognition.  Unfortunately I don’t think it’s available in the States, and I’m not sure when it will be.  At least I haven’t been able to find it.  I’m almost embarrassed to say (after all the gushing I’ve done about this book) that I received my copy as an ARC from the kind people at Telegram Books, London.  The Ventriloquist’s Tale and Shape-Shifter have both been published by Bloomsbury USA.

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Did you see this? – A Nonfiction Marriage by Jonathan Van Meter, New York Magazine

The Slate Audio Book Club is one of my ipod vices (check out this older post if you’re interested in the rest of them).   Their July 16th Podcast was on Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese.  It led me to THIS article in New York Magazine.

How the heck did I miss this book?!  Granted I was  working my way through Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski in 1981 when Thy Neighbor’s Wife was first published.  And the book is an in depth look at the 1970’s sexual revolution.  (Not something they offered in the Weekly Reader).  Still, I would have expected the controversy it created to have lasted well into my college years.  Talese used immersion journalism to do his research – working in a “happy ending” massage parlor, joining a nudist colony and participating in orgies – all with a wife & two children at home.   During the 10 years it took him to write the book  he was completely open about his research methods with both his wife and the press.  You have to admit that’s a pretty gutsy move, judgments aside.

Thy Neighbor’s Wife was re-published this past April, which means finding it shouldn’t be too hard.  Since it seems to have sold ridiculously well when it first came out a used copy shouldn’t be difficult to get your hands on either.  I recommend reading it (despite never having read it myself)  if only as a prologue to Talese’s next project.

He is currently at work on a book which will explore his 50 year marriage to  Nan A. Talese.  She is the legendary Random House editor and currently a Senior Vice President at Doubleday.  She is also, in my mind, the real hero of this story.  If Gay Talese is considered a radical because of his immersion into the sexual counter-culture while researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife, then how much more so is Nan Talese for staying with him through it?  Not only staying with him, but doing so while maintaining a successful career and seemingly without compromising how she chose to live her own life.  I can’t imagine a more fascinating couple.

There’s no word on the title, but this is  one book that I will be following the press on.  According to Talese’s website it is tentatively schedule to be released in the Fall, 2011.  Again, here is the link to the New York Magazine article:

A Nonfiction Marriage by Jonathan Van Meter

And please keep watching this space for my eventual review of Thy Neighbor’s Wife.