Excerpt of The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero
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Without any knowledge of this tragic history, of this unending decline (which seemed more like a deliberate divine punishment than the result of random fate), and captivated by the delirious architecture and topography of the city and the affable and taciturn nature of its inhabitants, Cayetano decided to settle in Valparaíso when he arrived in Chile, in 1971, on the arm of María Paz Ángela Undurraga Cox, his wife at the time. Those were the days of Salvador Allende and Unidad Popular, as well as of an unbridled social turmoil that would lead not to what the people dreamed of but rather to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. How many years had passed since then, since the start of that period that so many preferred to forget? Thirtyodd years? In any case, the people of this port city, or porteños, ever dignified - and he now considered himself one of them - believed that good and bad luck crouched, waiting, around any corner or just beyond the curve of some stone staircase, and for that reason everything in the world was relative and fleeting. For porteños, accustomed to climbing and descending hills, existence was like their city: at times one soared joyfully, trusting the wave's crest, and at times one lay depressed and unmoving in the depths of a ravine. One could always rise or fall. Nothing was certain, nothing was forever. No circumstance was permanent. With existence came uncertainty, and only death had no room for change. For that reason - and because he was an incorrigible optimist as long as he didn't want for bread and coffee, as well as an occasional cold beer or glass of rum, and despite the fact that work opportunities were scarce for a private investigator in this city at the end of the earth, which had now become a respectable exporter of fruit, wine, and salmon, and where more and more families were acquiring second cars, vacationing in Havana and Miami, or getting into limitless debt - he didn't mind making the owners of AR&A wait.
Sixteen years earlier, in 1990, the Chilean people had regained democracy through peaceful protests, and now, in this supposedly gray and conservative country where, not too long before, divorce was illegal, the president was a divorced woman, a single mother, and a socialist, not to mention an atheist. President Bachelet was a clear sign that this stiletto of land, which extended from the Atacama Desert (the most arid and inhospitable one on the planet) to the South Pole, and which balanced between the fierce waves of the Pacific and the eternal snows of the Andes, always on the brink of collapsing with all its people and goods into the ocean's depths, was a unique place, inimitable and changing, that swung vertiginously from euphoria to depression, or from solidarity to individualism, like one of those complicated hieroglyphs from the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann that no one could entirely decipher, and that one loved or hated, depending on the circumstances, changes in mood, or color of the season.
"Here no one dies forever," Cayetano mused as, from his table, he glimpsed the whitewashed niches, gleaming like the salt flats of Atacama, in the cemetery on Cárcel Hill. "At the first earthquake they'll return in a f lash to the realm of the living."
"What can I get you, sir?" the goth asked him. He requested a double espresso with a dash of milk and the sandwich menu, which he awaited anxiously, preening the ends of his mustache.
Now he recalled it with precision. He had landed in Valparaíso thirty-five years before, after disembarking from the LAN Boeing in Santiago with Ángela, a rather aristocratic Chilean with revolutionary convictions, who was studying at an exclusive women's college in the United States. One night, as they made love beneath the coconut palms on the still-warm sand of a beach in Cayo Hueso, she had persuaded him to join the movement for socialism as led by Salvador Allende in the Southern Cone. Both experiences - with Allende, and with love - had ended for good, in an abrupt and calamitous way, with Pinochet's coup on September 11, 1973. She sought refuge as an exile in Paris with the charango player of a folk band, while he ran aground like an old barge in Chile. He had to hide from the leftists, who spurned him as a Miami gusano, and the right-wingers, who spurned him as an infiltrating Castro supporter. During the dictatorship, he was forced to try his luck at various jobs: he sold books and insurance, promoted Avon beauty creams, and was an assistant for a judicial receiver, traversing the steepest and most dangerous hills of Valparaíso on foot, delivering notices to individuals such as petty thieves, black market merchants, or smugglers. The title of detective, bestowed by a shady distance-learning institute in Miami, would later save his life, as it would attract people who wished to task him with minor investigations - such as tracking a loose woman, the theft of a day's earnings from a soda fountain, or death threats from an aggressive neighbor - which allowed him not just to survive with a certain dignity but also to ply a trade that better fit the independent, funloving spirit of a dreamer like him.
Excerpted from The Neruda Case
by Roberto Ampuero. Copyright © 2012 by Roberto Ampuero.
Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.