Cayetano Brulé, one of the most respected private investigators in Valparaíso, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.
This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.