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  • The Secret of Pablo Neruda’s Dis/Avowed Daughters
  • Grant Farred (bio)

Pablo Neruda, Don Pablo, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, autoimmunity, David E. Johnson, Roberto Ampuero, “The Neruda Case;” the secret, Salvador Allende, socialist democracy, socialist experiment, the pharmakon, writing, Plato, life-death, life-in-death

Writing is no more valuable, says Plato, as a remedy than as a poison.

—Jacques Derrida, Dissemination

It is only his impending death that reveals to “Don Pablo,” as the poet is referred to by Cayetano Brule, the rookie private investigator of Roberto Ampuero’s The Neruda Case, precisely what is “at stake” in his life. It is his impending death, from cancer, that compels to Don Pablo to approach the unthought of his life, a process that turns, that returns us to, and has significant consequences for Neruda’s relationship to—his thinking of, his valuation of—his writing. This is not to suggest that Ampuero’s Don Pablo has not thought about his writing; indeed, the very opposite obtains. As his death looms nearer, and the collapse of Salvador Allende’s socialist democracy seems ever more certain, Neruda becomes ever more desperate to [End Page 163] take the measure of his life, an act he can only undertake in relationship to his own writing. Staring death in the face, Don Pablo recognizes the symmetry between his own imminent demise and that of Allende’s socialist experiment, “I’m screwed, Cayetano. There’s no cure. Not for me, not for Chile” (Ampuero 2012, 97). There was never a moment when writing did not define Neruda.

For Neruda, death, which has been enjoined from the very beginning, can only be properly thought through literature and the practices it engenders. These practices, among which reading and literary discrimination are critical, jaggedly abut Neruda’s own writing. Don Pablo hires Cayetano to “find someone,” Dr. Ángel Bracamonte,

an oncologist. He studied the medicinal property of some plants that the natives of Chiapas used to treat cancer. Bracamonte should be about my age, or maybe older. I lost track of him in 1943, after returning to Chile with Delia del Carril, my wife at the time. He might still live in Mexico.


“1943,” which marks Don Pablo’s point of loss—“I lost track of him”—is the poet’s secret. “1943” marks an intimacy, a critical piece of information, shared among those privy to the event. The secret, encoded as a number that connects several narrative strands, turns out, properly, to be the key to the investigative work that Cayetano undertakes for Don Pablo. Contained within the number is information that Neruda can withhold only for so long; even from the uninitiated Cayetano, an unemployed, diasporic Cuban thrust into the role of private investigator. Once Neruda reveals the event of that year, three decades before Cayetano begins his work and in the weeks before the coup is about to brutally end Salvador’s tenure as Chile’s president, the secret is loosed upon the world in its fullness. Don Pablo’s “1943” is a secret full of resonance, finding articulation in several registers, both expected and surprising, and yet, the nature of the secret is such that it cannot retain its integrity (its “wholeness,” its singularity; any unto—itselfness—autonomy?—is an impossibility for the secret).

In his discussion of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Ethnographer” (El etnógrafo), David E. Johnson argues that “one affirms the secret by telling it [End Page 164] and keeping it. This means that one never simply decides to tell or keep the secret. The decision is not simply one’s own. Consequently, the necessary repetition of the secret is not subjectively determined” (2012, 221). The effect of “1943,” because it cannot be “subjectively determined” (the source of the secret cannot control the secret), is that it must be repeated to come into its incomplete own as a secret. The secret is not Don Pablo’s own, not his to own; it is not even, as much as he imagines things differently, his decision to “tell or keep the secret” because the secret is the “effect neither of the will nor of desire” (Johnson...


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pp. 163-182
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