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Return To The Dark Valley: Santiago Gamboa Interviewed
Sean Kitching , October 2nd, 2017 10:02

Internationally acclaimed Colombian novelist, philologist, journalist and former diplomat Santiago Gamboa talks to Sean Kitching about the paradox of evil, Michel Houellebecq and the question of the afterlife

“The first thing I realised was that real life was poor compared with the lives in books; in books there was harmony and complexity and the most fucked up things had a sheen of beauty.”
Jose Maturana, Necropolis

Born in Bogotå in 1965, Santiago Gamboa is the author of eight novels and two short story collections. The Spanish novelist, journalist and poet, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, described Gamboa, and his more famous compatriot, Gabriel García Márquez, as “the two most important Colombian writers.” His earlier novels have been translated into French, Portuguese, Greek, Czech and German, and his three most recent into English by the prize-winning translator, Howard Curtis. Combining elements of noir fiction with a sincere love of classic literature and a psychologist’s eye for unique characters and the forces that motivate them, Necropolis, is a beguiling palimpsest of individual lives woven together into a tapestry that perfectly illustrates the book’s opening quote from Charles Bukowski: “It’s not the history of countries but the lives of men.”

An irresistible page-turner, filled with captivating characters, the novel attempts to answer the question of what is left to believe in, in the face of modern history and the loss of religious belief and explores the relation between one’s life as lived and the life as written, or to be found in literature. No less a compulsive read, Night Prayers, tells the story of a Colombian philosophy student arrested in Bangkok for drug trafficking, his love for his sister and the attempts by the Colombian counsel general in New Delhi to reunite the two siblings.

His most recent work, Return To The Dark Valley, intertwines the tales of Manuela Beltran, who attempts to escape her troubled childhood through poetry, Tertullian, a mentally unstable paramilitary preacher who claims to be the Pope’s son, and the life of the poet Rimbaud, with the returning characters of Juana and the consul from Night Prayers. Enormously entertaining and thought provoking in equal measures, Gamboa’s novels are the kind of books that converts to his writing can’t help but recommend to others with an almost proselytising zeal. TQ spoke to Gamboa, via Skype, at his home in Bogotå.

First of all, I’d like to get to the essence of what you write about, for the sake of potential readers who are as yet unaware of your work. I’ve been telling people that Necropolis is the best place to start.

Santiago Gamboa: Necropolis belongs to an idea of literature, a very simple and easy idea. For me, the most interesting thing in the novel are the characters, more than the stories or the plot. To write a novel, is to find someone who is able to tell me something which is comprehensible and which helps me to understand life better. My writing at the end is only that. That’s why also I prefer characters who are outsiders, people whose lives are not comfortable, not normal lives. That’s probably why I like a writer like Ian McEwan, because his characters are the opposite - middle class normal people. That’s fascinating for me, because how can someone write about life from that point of view? He’s very successful at it, but for me it’s the opposite. I’m always fond of characters who are completely the antithesis of that. Most of them have some similar situations, not comfortable lives and in most cases they are ‘saved’ by something. Something which is very close to the art of literature - to poetry. They discover the world of art. Mostly literature, because that’s my personal life. It’s the idea of being saved by something that doesn’t have a physical existence and is related to some sort of spirituality.

It’s like the writer character says in Necropolis: “I do not believe in anything, apart from the classics of literature.”

SG: Exactly. This is something that I feel is a very strong experience in life. The characters that I use for my books are usually variations on that situation. Then there are other ideas also. I like my books to be a re-writing of books that were important to me. Obviously Necropolis is the dialogue of The Decameron by [Giovanni] Boccaccio.The idea of some people gathering in a protected place because outside war is ranging, telling histories to others. The history of literature for me is like a tree. There is a big coherence in all of the branches. So I want to be in that world, to have a connection with the most important [branches], at least for me, because as a reader I am a product of those books. Night Prayers is the very familiar story of love. Two people who want to be together and many difficult situations stand in their way. This is a very common plot in the history of literature. In my book, the originality is in that they are brother and sister, not in love but desperate to escape to another place and be happy together and to live in a different world, which is probably one of the stronger feelings that brings people to poetry, art and literature - the idea of writing another kind of life. Also in Return To The Dark Valley, there is the same argument. In Necropolis, the idea of the people gathered in the same place, with many different bad things going on around them and they are trying to save something by telling stories. I think this is probably an idea of what literature has been for human beings, to give us the possibility of being much better than we are. In Night Prayers, it is the idea of an orphan world where nobody hears or understands, although others are crying out in need. In Return To The Dark Valley, the idea is more social. The idea of Europe as it is now and going back to Colombia and the peace process, the idea of return. I came back to Colombia two years ago after 30 years in Europe. I’d been living in Spain, and Paris for ten years and then for 14 years I’ve been living in Italy, two years in Delhi in India when I worked for the embassy. In all the books I want to give an idea of the world where I live also. Those novels are more or less, the addition of all those ideas. The characters, the literary tradition but also the world where I live, the world I’m trying to understand with the only weapons I have, which are writing and reading.

There are aspects of Return To The Dark Valley that recalled for me the French writer Michel Houllebecq, particularly the parts about Europe and terrorism. How do you feel about his writing?

SG: For me I think he’s one of the most interesting European writers. I think he’s a writer in a way, which is very original in European literature but very much in the French tradition. In French literature they always had a writer like this. Someone who is daring, pushy, saying the things that others feel but that no one else wants to say, driven by a kind of misanthropy. Even the way he looks, I think he works for that, to look more horrible than he really is, sometimes quite disgusting, and 75% of the time he’s drunk - it’s incredible how he writes those marvellous books! Behind his writing there is an idea of the world, an idea of life and literature, of philosophy. He’s very traditional in his way of writing but he’s so strong in the stories and so big. Submission, for example, is for me a great book. I think he’s right, he is touching a point that explains many things that explain the reality of today. For me, Submission, is this. The idea of Houllebecq is today we don’t have any belief, the strong ideas of politics are not there any more but not even the big spiritual traditions continue, so we are coming back to religion because the human being needs submission to feel free, which sounds like a contradiction, but for me is a very interesting point. Also, I think The Map And The Territory, is an amazing book. He is giving a theory of art which is much more interesting than many others, even those from real artists. Then he did something else really incredible - to write and present his own killing. I’ve never read something like that in any noir or thriller [laughs].

I think it’s worth saying at this point, talking about Submission, that it’s actually more critical of French intellectuals than it is about Islam. I know some people who haven’t read the book yet have a reaction to idea of it, just don’t get that.

SG: Sure. There is a lot of talk about whether Houellebecq hates Islam, but I think what he is really doing is just describing what he sees around him. For me, Houllebecq is probably the most deep European writer. There is another one in Spain, perhaps you know, Javier Marias? His work is very different from Houellebecq but he works from the same ideas, or at least the same ideas of literature, which means to consider novels as not only an entertainment but also most important novels should help us to understand different decades of life and the world. This is for me the most important. A Heart So White, I would suggest is a good place to begin, if you are unfamiliar with his work. This is a great book.

Necropolis was your first novel translated into English. Are there any plans to translate any of the earlier ones?

SG: There is a previous novel, which translated into English, would be something like Ulysses Syndrome. It is the story of a young man who wants to be a writer, arriving in Paris and struggling to write and to live, and to recognise literature around him. He is struggling though, because he is an immigrant. He arrives to Paris and then the world where he is living is the world of immigrants, from many other countries. I had a character from northern Korea, two girls from African countries and one from Poland, which did not at that time belong to the European Union, so they were immigrants at the same level as Latin American immigrants, immigrants from Asia etc. One of the difficulties of course, was that they had no legal papers to stay in France. My experience was, when I was in France, I was in that world but I was with people who had no papers, so they were afraid all the time of police. It was not the case for me. I was a student, legally there. Apart from that, I was the exactly the same as those characters. So the syndrome of Ulysses is at the same time an illness, which is the result of being afraid a lot of the time and having this threat of loss of liberty hanging over you. It is the story of a young man coming to Paris, in order to continue the traditions of South American writers coming to Paris to become writers, but when he’s there he is confronted with a new situation, struggling for life and he doesn’t see literature around him. This was the same experience I had. I would say to myself “where is literature?” It was a very hard and tough. Now, many years later, I realise I was in the midst of literature, but I couldn’t see it because of the difficulties I faced. Today, it is the biggest treasure I have, the most important experience of my life. I came from a middle class family in Colombia, I was protected, and I needed to have the experience of being completely alone and starved for myself.

The three novels that are available in English are all told in the manner of disparate strands coming together. It’s very effective, and exciting when the strands align, when the worlds collide, but does it ever concern you that using that same structure may become formulaic over time?

SG: It’s a good point. For me these four novels, including Ulysses Syndrome, are like a tetralogy. In those novels there is much of my ideas of literature, of life, of the world I live in, the troubles I have had. I left my country when I was 19 years old. I went to Spain, Madrid, then I went to Paris, starting from zero, or even less than zero and I stayed for ten years in Paris, then I went to Italy for 14 years and two years in India. So the world I have from those experiences is concentrated the most in those four books. There are older books, previous books with different writing, more light. The other four are more concerned with the shadows, because when you start to see the world in a wider perspective, it’s very hard not be pessimistic.

You seem optimistic in comparison to Houellebecq anyway. Everybody does.

SG: [Laughs] Well, yes. So, the writing of those books matches with this literary idea. Now, I have a new project, completely different. Which is more about me trying to understand what is happening in Colombia, with the peace process and then to think not of Colombia itself, but a single place in the world where the people have been killing themselves for 15 years and suddenly, they don’t anymore; what happens there? So, I’m trying to understand this and it’s incredible, what is coming out is a sort of humorous novel. I’m very curious about where this is going, as I just have 150 pages. I write, not knowing exactly where I’m going. I write to know, what the novel is, starting with some ideas, but then I start to write and these voices, these characters take over. I don’t know exactly where it is going, or when or where it is going to stop. It’s different to what I have been writing previously. It’s one story in the centre and the ideas of many different characters, the hypothesis of many others about something which is happening. It’s like a noir, but not really, much more a description of many different situations of a community of people who have suddenly decided not to kill each other any more.

You have some very strong female characters, and your characters in general are a mixture of some unusual, often contradictory qualities. For example Sabina Vedovelli, in Necropolis, who makes very intelligent, politically revolutionary pornography. Also, Tertullian, who is such an interesting character. His connections with Neo-Nazism, and when you describe his appearance, that he’s addicted to junk food and overweight.

SG: The most important thing for a writer is that the writing is real for a reader, so you must create some characters that are really possible and that the reader feels are real. You know, when we started to talk, you said that many people prefer non-fiction because it really happened, but fiction can give the same idea of reality, and you as the writer are obligated to write strong characters in which the reader can believe. I know, on my table, I have many tools for this and one of them is, as you say, different contradictory elements in a personality. Because this is so real, people are not completely white or black, or yellow. Here in Colombia, we have so many people who have been killing others for years and years but who are loved by their families. You probably don’t know, but now the Pope, Franciscus, is here in Colombia. You can see most of these horrible people asking the Pope for forgiveness and telling the people how his life is and everybody is surprised because they are like us. They are just big killers and horrible people, but 90% of their life is exactly like mine or yours. So I like these contradictions that arise from humanising characters. I think only in cartoons, that I liked when I was a child, that people are only bad or only good [laughs]. In life, it is not like this. So in Tertullian, I was in front of a character that was completely different from any experience from my own life. I’ve never been close to these skinheads or whatever but I was so interested in them - it’s like the attraction to a snake. I’m very afraid of a snake, but at the same time I like so much, when I’m protected from them, to see the snake and its movement. The same with these people. As an immigrant in Europe, I was an enemy for them. If I were in a bar in Berlin or Copenhagen, or Paris, they would probably be coming to kill me. So, I wanted at the same time to build this character with the ideas he has about himself. The Pope is in Colombia, and he says he believes himself to be the son of the Pope, but he is also someone who has some mental illness, so we are not exactly really sure if it is true or not. So this was a part of the world, that I had never touched, but at the same time, he is coming to help the others and he is someone who can organise and for me as a writer is very useful because he can help to organise the continuation of the story. Without him, it would be very difficult to resolve the story.

Early on there’s the story that Tertullian tells concerning the afterlife, which I thought was a very strong thing to have so early on in the book. I would like to ask, not so much is there an afterlife, because obviously we can’t know whilst we’re still alive, but how asking such a question changes the way we live. Is it important that people ask that question?

SG: Well, yeah, I think that in most of my writing, I like the characters like Jose Maturana, or Tertullian, who is like a guru, like a religious leader but at the same time is like a political leader and also has these explanations, the story he tells, which of course comes from [12th Century Persian poem by Farid ud-Din Attar] The Conference Of The Birds. The religion is there for that, to give us an answer about the most important question of life, which is, ‘What happens next?’ I think the origin of all the religions is to give us some kind of answer, which allows us to live, because otherwise it’s very difficult to live with the idea of an ending. That’s why in my writing there is also the kind of people who believe in something which is bigger than themselves. I can connect with the idea of Houellebecq in Submission. The idea that we are afraid of the end of the life because we consider that we are going to be put out of the world that we know, that we are going to be outside and outside is dark and we’re going to be alone and everything will be finished. So religion is there to say, 'No, don’t worry, there’s something after that.' Spirituality in a certain way, tries to give us an answer as to what will happen next and I think that the most important issue related to this, is of course, in the life. Because we cannot ask these questions when we are not alive. It’s like Wittgenstein said, you cannot live your own death. It is a problem of logic. So it’s a question to be asked during life and you need an answer that allows you to live without these bad feelings, this anguish. I think life is short, or long, it depends on the kind of people and the kind of life you have, but in a certain moment you always believe that it’s not enough and then you need something, you need a story.

To end on a slightly lighter note, I wanted to ask if you’ve ever had any interest from film directors wishing to film your work?

SG: All the time, but of course such projects are very expensive. Now there are some people in Los Angeles who are very interested in Night Prayers. I’m about to start a book tour in the US, New York, Portland, Baltimore and at the end, Los Angeles. In LA, the guy who has launched my book works in films, and Game Of Thrones, and he’s already working on a script, so I’m going to talk to him. He’s also interested in Return To The Dark Valley, because he likes the idea of having those two characters carry over from the previous book. I don’t like to see it as a sequel to Night Prayers personally, but it shares two characters. He likes the idea of the continuation between the two novels. Also, there is already a film of one of my earlier novels, my second novel, in English it would be something like The Art Of Losing. It was a good film. It was in Venice in 2005 and had been screened in 37 countries.

Return To The Dark Valley is out now