Whenever I'm on the road, after a 12 to 14-hour day spent updating my Moon Handbooks  to the Southern Cone countries, I need to read to get to sleep. After a late dinner - rarely ending before 11 p.m. in either Argentina  or Chile  - I normally prefer something escapist like a detective novel, usually in English. I rarely read literature, even genre literature, in Spanish; although my Spanish is fluent, I learned by doing it - I've taken less than a year's instruction, and it's neither a native nor a literary Spanish. Rather, it's a combination of traveler's and academic Spanish that I learned on the road and in graduate school. I read Spanish-language newspapers, as well as history, anthropology, geography and the like.
I've acquired my vocabulary in several countries, and often use idioms whose origins I cannot recall - some are mexicanismos, others chilenismos, other argentinismos. After first meetingmy wife’s brother, I once told him I was going out but would return al tiro which, in Chilean Spanish, means "right away" (literally, "like a shot"). To an Argentine, the same words would suggest I was going to the shooting range. Over the years, my accent has morphed from fairly generic Mexican to that of an Aymara  llama herder to standard Chilean to what my wife calls "Porteño  de Avellaneda ," after a working class suburb of Buenos Aires . It can change, though, depending where I find myself.
Given my hybrid language skills, I've mostly refrained from fiction but, several years ago, I read Roberto Ampuero 's mystery El Alemán de Atacama  ("The German of Atacama") on the recommendation of a friend from Pucón . Its setting in and around the tourist Mecca of San Pedro de Atacama  gave it obvious appeal, and Ampuero's straightforward dialogue made it an ideal choice for a reader for whom literary Spanish was a challenge. His Valparaíso -based Cuban detective, Cayetano Brulé, is a private eye who bears a superficial resemblance to Raymond Chandler 's Philip Marlowe , if not so noir-ish.
Until now, none of Ampuero's novels has appeared in English but his latest The Neruda Case  has just appeared on the US market. It begins in the early 1970s, when Brulé - then a novice who reads Georges Simenon 's Maigret  novels as a primer - agrees to track down a missing woman for ailing poet Pablo Neruda , whom he has met fortuitously at a party. The trail takes Brulé on a continent-hopping journey from Chile to Mexico, Cuba and East Germany before ending up back in Chile during the turmoil of the 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende .
Unlike El Alemán de Atacama, The Neruda Case is not a genre novel in the strictest sense. In an afterword, Ampuero - who teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa - admits it's also a regretful homage to Neruda whom the young novelist, growing up near the poet's Valparaíso house in the 1960s, was too timid to approach. Anyone traveling to Chile, or interested in Neruda's life, will find much to enjoy here - even as you fight off a well-deserved night's sleep after a full day of sightseeing and a seafood dinner in Valpo.
A word on the translation, or rather the translator: Carolina de Robertis , a fellow Oaklander of Uruguayan origin, is also the author of Perla , a ghostly novel of Argentina in the aftermath of the Dirty War . She provided me an uncorrected proof of The Neruda Case as well as a copy of her own novel, which I plan to review soon.