Author Corner: Roberto Ampuero at the Cervantes Institute

We were delighted to welcome Roberto Ampuero, author of bestselling The Neruda Case, to London, where, on Tuesday 26th May, he delivered an insightful, inspiring speech to a sell-out audience at the Cervantes Institute.

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Available now in paperback, The Neruda Case spans lies and truth, travelling between uneasy peace and political coup, from life to death. Cateyano Brulé, a daydreamer and reluctant detective, is lost among Latin America’s uncertainties, venality and corruption, desperately trying to fulfil Neruda’s final request amid the brutal beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Among the pleasures of The Neruda Case is its provocative fictional portrait of Pablo Neruda, as the poet re-evaluates his life and begins to question abandoning those he loved for his poetry.

You can read the author’s Afterword on the Foyles Book Blog here.

Figuring that you’ll all be needing something to help pass the time on your extra long commute this Thursday evening, (thank you #TubeStrikes) we’re very pleased to re-produce the first of three parts of Roberto’s speech for you on the Souvenir Press blog, entitled “Why Do I Write Fiction?”

We’ll be publishing the next two parts in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, we’d love to hear what you think about Roberto’s speech in the comments section below.

Tuesday 26th May, Cervantes Institute, London: Reality and Fiction in The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

“Good evening, I’m delighted to be here and have this opportunity to speak to you about one of my first books to be translated into English in GB: EL CASO NERUDA.

“I normally speak in my mother tongue Spanish, which some say tends to have longer sentences compared to English.  So I will do my very best to keep this brief!


“So, with the first question: Why do I write fiction?

“My relationship with fiction began with my childhood experience in Valparaiso, Chile, my birthplace fronting the Pacific Ocean.  Even though my parents were not Germans, they put me in an exclusive private German school, which in 1960, was known for the importance it placed on discipline, academic rigor and the teaching of the German language.  That school, where each teacher –except the Spanish one- was German, formed a small German enclave within the City.  World War II was finished only 15 years earlier, and in the Deutsche Schule, teachers were from socialdemocrat, Christiandemocrat and liberal denominations and some were ex-Nazis, which I hope were truly repentant.

“Since we did not speak German at home and all classes were in German, in Kindergarten I did not understand the Brother Grimm stories they used to read to us.  At the end of the day, my parents would ask how I had done at school and ask me to recount these stories.  I never once dared to confess that I had only understood the beginnings, so I added the rest with the figments of my imagination.   These few things struck me from this: (1) my fruits of fiction would make my parents happy; (2) my imagination may manage to justify the hefty school fees; (3) fiction is democratic – it didn’t have to come from a famous writer; (4) fiction is something quite serious, not just for children but also for adults; and (5) I too, could be a writer.

I suppose that I write fiction because I am not satisfied with reality, which explains why I was attracted to politics from a young age.

“Writing fiction is an attempt to rewrite what we perceive from reality.  It implies a magical vision of reality because it presupposes that reality can be invoked, conjured and transformed via its projection in words.  I don’t believe in writing novels to change the world.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s several distinguished Latinamerican writers believed in that, and that they could change Latina America through their writing.  Like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Luis Fallas, Otto Rene Castillo or Volodia Teitelboim.  I, on the other hand, became a writer in the ‘80s, which gave rise to a new generation of Chilean writers called the ‘Nueva Narrativa’ (New Narrative).  This group of writers has more modest expectations of what they can achieve through the novel.  We separate fictional literature from politics, like Jaime Collyer, Alberto Fuguet and Gonzalo Contreras.

“In my opinion, politics and novels handle similar subjects about life, power and human passions.  You all clearly appreciate that these are different disciplines.  However, the striking difference for me is the form in which these subjects are approached and narrated by these disciplines. The politician has to be a leader showing the road, but a novelist shows the circumstances and leaves the readers to exercise their greater judgement.

“When novels are subordinated to politics, it is the novel that loses.  Such subordination can be imposed by a writer’s political conviction or by an ideological coercion from a left or right-wing diktat.  Very little is left from socialist realism crafted by some in extinct communist states such as Mijail Sholojov, Erik Neutsch, Manuel Cofiño. In contrast, there is an impressive string of names that survives and which went against the prevailing views of the time, such as Mijail Bulgakov, Stefan Heym or Guillermo Cabrera Infante. So the embracing of politics and literature can be fatal for a writer, but it can also prove to be very fertile territory.

“There is a vast crossover between fiction and politics, and the following must be taken into account: novels advance mainly on two axis: the axis of human passion and the axis of power. If Claudio Magris states that each novel is a journey, about someone who leaves or arrives, it is also possible to suggest that each novel is built upon a human passion and some relationship with power, each threatened by the loss of equilibrium.

Karl Marx said that to read Honore de Balzac would teach him more about the “structure of feelings” or Zeitgeist than any books written by French historians.  To write about love, hate or jealousy, a novelist must know something about human passions, just like the spaces he or she describes or the prevailing powers, be they political or economic.

“So how can a writer separate passions from political views when a novelist clearly inserts character’s feelings into a political dimension? The writer has to look out from the balcony and take in the political landscape in the broadest sense, to see the movement of the polis, politics and passions.

“Let me reflect for one moment about the relationship between novels and the journey.  The Odyssey is a voyage and a story; linked to memory and displacement, and with the awareness that this journey will be retold to somebody back home in Ithaca.  The Odyssey is a fascinating example because it’s not only fantasy or legend or mythology, but also a journal of real historical travel through the Mediterranean in that age.

This is relevant to me because my 14 novels have the journey as a narrative impulse.  The journey transforms the protagonist, the hero who returns to Ithaca is not the same individual who left.  And this principle of displacement, of the journey, works in many of my novels.  I divide my novels into 3 themes: the first, the saga of the Cuban-Chilean detective Cayetano Brule, who lives in Valparaiso and travels the world investigating cases; the second: the novels about cosmopolitan heterosexual couples, like the Lovers of Estocolmo, Greek Passions or The Other Woman; and thirdly, the semi-autobiographical novels Nuestros anos verde olivo y Detras del Muro.  In the three types of novel, the displacement of the characters around the world is key for the plot development.  “The journey is a journey through time and against time: states Magris in THE INFINITE TRAVEL, and in this sense my protagonists explore in time with the goal of arriving to their Ithaca, which symbolizes a final and definitive answer.

“I mentioned I was born and grew up in a port – a place of constant flux.  From my childhood home you could see the bay with its ships and flags from remote and unknown places; in Valparaiso one could hear exotic languages.  Many of my classmates were German descendants, and many of my teachers had arrived from Germany.  My father worked in the legendary Pacific Steam Navigation Company, where the working language was English; British officials would come to our house for dinner; my maternal grandmother was born in Normandy and arrived to Chile as a little girl; and my grandparents, who lived in Valparaiso, were born in the distant and rainy south.  Nobody seemed to come from the place where they lived.  They all carried a story with them – a story that spoke of other places, other times and other souls; that spoke of war and displacement.  On one front, the Pacific lay before me; behind stood the insurmountable Andes; to the north the Atacama desert, and to the south the Patagonia and South Pole.

“I grew up vividly aware of distant horizons, the existence of other worlds and ways of living, other races and languages, other values and customs, and I imagined the bay of Valparaiso as a waiting room of infinite waters that invites you to travel.  The stories and black and white films I came across in school about the Wanderjahre (years of nomad apprenticeship between the middle ages and German industrialization) only heightened the impression I had of a world rich with far flung places and different peoples.

““All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room” said Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher.  I would like to paraphrase him: all my novels come from one thing: not knowing how to sit quietly in a room in Valparaiso!

I think there are two broad ways to write: at a desk and by displacement.  I define myself by this second category.

“Travelling and moving has yielded me both pleasure and mortification.  Like memory, especially poor memory, it’s a form of fiction because it does not describe things as they are but, instead, modifies them and recuts them.  The story of displacement is also a form of fiction because it must be recounted to those that wait back in Ithaca.  Memory, poor memory, imagination, travel and literary fiction interweave and overlap in a mesh of confusing Palm tree roots.

“On the subject of Palm trees, please allow me to continue with a few more metaphors: since my writing is associated to displacement, I define myself as a Bedouin or nomadic writer. I’ve lived in a number of countries (Chile, Cuba, East Germany, West Germany, Sweden, Mexico and the USA), and my fictional nutrition comes from displacement. I try to record on paper the ever changing and diverse scenery that passes me by. For some writers, their heritage is their birthplace, perhaps the library, or even their own language — for me it is simply displacement, the people, places, towns and cities of my journey.

“In this sense, there’s an excellent book by the philosopher Fernando Sabater.  The Cities and The Writers (Las ciudades y los escritoes) in which he analyses the links between Edinburgh and Stevenson, Buenos Aires and Borges, Lisboa and Pessoa, Florence and Dante Allieri.  In other words, he vividly illustrates how the cities we are born in or develop intellectually mark one’s life, and determine to a large extent what the writer will be.

Without Ithaca and without his Odyssey, Ulysses wouldn’t be who he is; on a smaller scale, I, without Valparaiso or my displacements, wouldn’t be the writer I am today.  At the end of each journey, there’s a novel.  As per Ernst Bloch said in Prinzip Hoffnung, at the end of the journey lies Ithaca, the birthplace, the profound Heimat.

“People write for many reasons – some for very valid cathartic exercises.  I’m simply fortunate to be one of those who write for pleasure, and hope to continue doing this as long as that remains the case.  I’m lucky to have never suffered from writer’s block or the torture of a blank page.  To the contrary, a blank journal is an invitation for me to write a story.  Having said that, I do need A SPECIAL PLACE, a protected place, a refuge in which I can have that daily encounter with writing.  It can be a tiny and sparse room like I had in La Habana; the room lent to me in East Germany; a mansard roof in Stockholm over cold waters; a study in Midwest USA; or my splendid space, which I call ‘El Cielo’ (the sky) that I managed to build in Olmue, a quiet town between Santiago at the foot of the Andes and Valparaiso on the Pacific rim.  The place where you write is relevant.

“There are several reasons why I write – and I’ll mention two in the main:

I write because it is a way to explore the world.

“When I returned to live in Chile a second time, in 1993, 20 years after my departure, I discovered that writing the private detective novels of Cayetano Brule – who investigates THE NERUDA CASE – was a way to investigate my country.  In two decades, I had changed a lot and so had Chile.  The only possible dialogue I could have with Chile was through the novels.  And I was lucky: from his first novel, Cayetano Brule struck a chord with thousands of loyal readers, that read the books probably to see their world from a different point of view.   If fictional literature is a form of knowledge, so is the writing of fiction. I explore human circumstances while I write, and so do readers, I suppose.

“Secondly, I also write because it’s a way to explore what is nested in me, that which has marked and made me through journeys, dreams, loves, disenchantments and disappointments. I can explore a kind of sediment left in some corner of my soul.    It’s that sediment that constructs something that is not mine and yet still belongs to me, and comes out again as a novel, a story or written reflection.

“I write daily; I dedicate a large part of my life to something that is modest; which lives initially in the air, goes through my mind and ends up in the imagination of others.  To write is a job and a ritual, but above all else it’s a personal resignation: to throw messages in bottles at the world, as Julio Cortazar said.”


Just a reminder that the next section of Roberto’s speech, entitled “What is Fiction for Me?” will be posted up soon. We’d love to hear what you think of the first part of Roberto’s speech in the meantime. Comment below or email me at

Reproduced with permission from the author, Roberto Ampuero and the Cervantes Institute, which can be visited at


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