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Santiago Gamboa: Necrópolis (Necropolis)

According to Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Santiago Gamboa es, junto con Gabriel García Márquez, el autor colombiano más importante [Santiago Gamboa is, along with Gabriel García Márquez, the most important Colombian writer]. I am not competent to judge the accuracy of this statement but this novel is certainly a very fine and complex novel. This is one of only two of his novels translated into English.

I do not know whether novels set at literary conferences represent a literary genre but I do have two others on my website: César Aira‘s El congreso de literatura (The Literary Conference) and Ivan ThaysLa disciplina de la vanidad [The Discipline of Vanity]. This one claims not to be strictly speaking a literary conference. Indeed, the narrator viciously mocks literary conferences, even though he has participated in many.

The narrator is not named. Towards the end of he book, he gives his initials as E.H., which suggests that he might be Esteban Hinestroza, hero and alter ego of Gamboa, whom we meet in Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban [Happy Life of a Young Man Called Esteban]. What we do know is that he has written novels, short stories, travel works and, in particular, lots of journalism. We also know that he has been very ill – a hantovirus infection – which has required a long stay in a mountain clinic. And, yes, he does make the connection with Hans Castorp. He is now only just getting back into shape, though not back into writing. We also know that he is Colombian but lives in Rome, on his own.

The novel starts with a letter he receives from the International Congress on Biography and Memory (ICBM) to attend a conference in Jerusalem. He has never heard of the organisation and is surprised that they have heard of him and invited him, as he is not a biographer. As he has written nothing, not even a letter, for over two years, he decides this will help get back into writing and writes a letter of acceptance. Initially, he hears nothing for a while then he receives a detailed questionnaire to fill in, as well as a more detailed description of the conference. This will involve discussions on the many forms through which we remember, evaluate, understand, and convey a life. The main theme of the conference was to be The Soul of Words. We are also given a detailed list of the other participants.

The participants (unlike participants at a previous conference he had attended, which he mentions) are all fictitious. Some, such as Leonidas Kosztolányi and Edgar Miret Supervielle, share the last names, if not the first names, of other (quasi-)famous writers. Other such as Sabina Vedovelli and José Maturana do not. One, the only one he knows, is Rashid Salman (a play, of course on the name Salman Rushdie), the only Palestinian at the conference. (Interesting note: apart from a mention of an old Palestinian man in a story told at the conference, the words Palestine and Palestinian are never used, though, as we shall see, the Israel-Palestine conflict is key to this novel. Salman is called an Israeli Arab). Detailed biographies are given of the people and, as he says, The delegates and their bizarre lives seemed straight out of a play by Tennessee Williams, one of those waterfront dramas where everyone is drunk and desperate, women and men endlessly lust after each other, and everything is profoundly tragic.

His background reading for the conference is truly amazing, with a detailed bibliography of both known and obscure world writers. He uses these to prepare his own talk, entitled Words Written in the Cave of Silence. The books he takes with him to the conference are also fascinating though perhaps less obscure.

The way the conference is organised is that the various participants tell their tales. Their tales are other autobiographical or tell stories of other people. We are given the first one before he sets off for the conference or, at least, the opening part of it, though why we should get it at this juncture is not clear, as there seems to be no evidence of his having received a copy in advance. This story is by José Maturana, former and reformed (probably) criminal. It is the only one of the presentations that is key to the plot of the rest of the novel.

Maturana tells his story in several episodes. At the start of the story he is in Moundsville Prison, West Virginia, serving time, where he meets Freddy Angel aka Walter de la Salle. Freddy had been a drug user but had changed and had visited the terminally ill in a local hospital, giving them comfort and helping them. He became friendly with one terminally ill old man – Ebenezer de la Salle. As Freddy was an orphan, Walter decided to adopt him. The only requirement was that he change his surname to de la Salle. At the same time, he changed his first name to Walter. The old man died soon afterwards, leaving him seven million dollars.

With the money Walter set up a ministry, including prison visiting, where he met José. Walter recruited many people to help, including José and also Jessica, a former drug user and prostitute. We get José’s story here and Jessica’s later and, not surprisingly, the two stories contradict one another. The ministry was very successful but things went wrong. There was a shoot-out with the police. José and Jessica escaped and Walter disappeared.

EH meets José and talks to him. At this point the novel turns (partially) into a detective novel. José is found the next day in his room, with his wrists slashed and dead. EH is convinced that it was not suicide. EH, together with Marta, an Icelandic journalist who is covering the conference, investigate.

Two other things are going on at this time. We follow the course of the conference. EH misses his scheduled session as he is investigating the death of José but later talks about the Portuguese poet ivo Machado and how he helped a dying man. We hear from an Italian performance artist in a piece which has more sessions of oral and anal sex than I have ever read about before in my sheltered life. We hear from Elmord Limpopo one of the great post-colonial African poets, two Israeli chess players who could have been world champions, the old Palestinian who kept having to change documents as the authority he lived under changed, and two different stories from Colombia, one about a family that stood up to the guerrillas and another about a man who stood up to the paramilitaries.

The other key issue is the conflict that is going on. Jerusalem is under attack but this is not the standard Palestinian attacks we are used to reading about. Indeed, as I said above, the Palestinians are not mentioned. The attacker are known merely as the enemy. They have planes and bombs. The hotel they are staying in – the King David no less, famous for the terrorist attack on it by the Irgun – seems to be under constant siege, as, indeed, is the rest of the city. The hotel is frequently hit or nearly hit. The lights go out all the time and, by the end of the book, Jerusalem has become a necropolis (this city, basically, is made for death. Everyone’s death).

As you tell from this very brief account, this is a complex book. It ranges from a (fairly) standard detective story to an intellectual examination of life (and, of course, death). Sex, literature, war, creation, dying, poetry, surviving, finding oneself – pretty well all the major themes are there. It has been suggested that this is one of the major Latin American novels of the twenty-first century and I certainly would not disagree with that assessment. Fortunately, it has been published in English.

First published in Spanish 2009 by Editorial Norma
First English translation by Europa Editions in 2012