Last year I posted on a wonderfully crafted novel called Ties by Italian writer Domenico Starnone (translated by Jhumpa Lahiri) published by New York-based Europa Editions. Another great figure on their list is Santiago Gamboa (born 1965), a Colombian author known for his literary thrillers with an noir atmosphere. Educated in Colombia, Spain and France, he made his debut in 1995. He now (I suppose) lives in Rome.
Yesterday I finished Gamboa’s Night Prayers (other books of his available in English are Return to the Dark Valley and Necropolis). The novel was an utterly immersive experience. Fast-paced, dark, stimulating, deep in its cultural and philosophical references and observations. Plot-wise, it was pretty standard and predictable stuff. The general afflictions of Latin America—drugs and prostitution and crime and corruption—as I have already covered, taking the case of Mexico. Yet there was something very smart and splendid about the way the story was told—in shifting perspectives and voices—that kept me turning the pages without break.
Night Prayers is about a young man called Manuel Manrique, a philosophy student from Bogotá, who finds himself arrested in Bangkok, accused of drug trafficking. Thai law is draconian (Manuel must plead guilty or he will be sentenced to death) and Colombia has no diplomatic representation in this country. So an official is invited from the Colombian consulate in New Delhi to take up the case.
Meanwhile, we learn of Manuel’s childhood, his frustrating and humiliating lower-middle class background. His dislike of his parents, his affection for his older sister, Juana—her resolution to save her brother from the mean and violent streets of Bogotá, to take him to a country distant and safe.
For the sake of her brother, Juana becomes an escort, having come into contact with beauty pageant holders and other power- and money-hungry personalities. She is sent to Japan to work. Thereafter, she disappears. After many enquiries, Manuel goes in search of her, only to get terribly caught and confused. The diplomat must reunite the siblings—a colourful, engaging individual himself, too well-read and perceptive. But is it a task he could accomplish?
Various themes emerge. Most interesting for me was Gamboa’s portrayal of the harshness of fate and human helplessness, and the importance of one’s nation state—no matter how faulty or annoying, its borders do keep us within a patch of land that we could call our own and its (our fellow) citizens do remain the ones we could turn to in times of crisis.
These heavy and serious strands aside, what made the novel entertaining was the author’s knowledge of the world. Take this part: the diplomat talking about Colombian women in India—“adepts of ‘spiritual tourism’, most of them rich ladies who found relief in the teachings of Sai Baba, Satyananda, Osho, and other contemporary philosophers who dispensed advice about life and uttered wise sayings about peace and love…Some gurus are accused of raping Western women, weak-minded women who are easily dominated and give themselves up body and soul. Body above all.”
Other stuff worth contemplation:
Love Exists by Contagion (thinks Manuel):
What love did he get, and from whom? Very little, almost none. Mother despised him silently, and he didn’t really have anywhere else to replenish his stocks; my grandmother was dead and he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. His father had been in a vegetative state for years…Did he ever have a girl on the side? I doubt it. Because of him, I’ve always believed that love emerges only when you get it from others, that it exists by contagion. It doesn’t come about spontaneously, but through another person.
Philosophy had an Answer (thinks Manuel):
For some time now I had liked philosophy. It was the only thing that might have an answer for my failed experience, that frustration that only disappeared with painting, books, or movies. Art and its human stories helped me to understand that I was not alone, but studying literature struck me as unnecessary, and the cinema was a utopia. Juana wanted me to make a movie, but I said to her, for that you have to be a millionaire or the son of a millionaires, don’t kid yourself. Kubrick had a rich uncle who paid for his first film, don’t you remember? And if we find a producer, which is highly unlikely, we’d have to forget about making art. You can’t make the movie you want if the money isn’t yours.
Three Ways to Die (thinks Manuel):
I’ve observed that there are two ways to die. The first is an illness that causes us to deteriorate and submerges us in a slow agony. That’s sad, but in a way it’s good for the relatives and friends, who have time to get used to the idea, although it’s painful to the dying person himself, because of all the pain, decay, and indignity it carries with it. The second is the opposite: a gunshot in the back of the neck, a brain hemorrhage, a traffic accident. Your relatives suffer but you go quietly. You go quickly to the other side. That’s the best way.
But there’s a third way, at least in our country, a way that’s cruel for everybody: disappearance. For everybody? The victim suffers from imagining the anguish of the nearest and dearest. The relatives suffer because they cling to any hope they can, and when it’s lost they suffer even more when they imagine the terrible loneliness of the death: someone kneeling in a patch of waste ground, in the early morning, shaking with fear, pissing in his pants, then two or three flashes and, already, a lifeless body falling into a hole, the earth covering it, vegetation growing over it and hiding it, the long suffering of those who spend years investigating, searching for that place, that horrible, monstrous place, trying to understand the reasons, the still inexplicable reasons, for what happened, why he was killed, to find his bones and clasp them and kiss them, trying to relieve the loneliness, to bathe it with tears.
Why Stay in a Backward, Violent Country like Colombia? (asks Juana):
When the old man, whose name was Monsieur Echenoz, was better, we started talking. I asked him why he had chosen to stay in a backward, violent country like Colombia, a country everyone wanted to leave, and he said, not necessarily, would you leave? I told him I would, if I could I’d go that very moment, with my brother, and he asked, where would you go? and I said anywhere, any corner of the world must be better than this, I’d like to go to Europe, to a civilized country, and he’d look at me without judging me, the sheet covering half his chest, with white hairs coming out through the buttonholes of his pajamas, and he said, a civilized country? you don’t want to leave Colombia, what you want is get away from something you don’t like but which you could find in lots of places…
…what does civilization mean? There’s no future in Europe. A tired, bad-tempered continent that tries to teach other people how to live, but that’s become frozen from looking at itself so much in the mirror…like any affluent society, Europe is going downhill. Just like a person who has everything, who’s in love with himself and full of self-admiration, that’s what’s happening there, but what the Europeans don’t know is that they aren’t anybody’s future. The opposite is true: the future is on the margins. How can you say that this country is backward and violent, as if that were a basic racial or cultural value of one nation and not of another? What’s happening here is that it’s a young country, a very young country, and is still looking for a language.
What you see in Europe, the peace they have today, cost two thousand years of war, of blood, torture, and cruelty. When the nations of Europe were the same age as Colombia they were mutual enemies and every time they met rivers of blood flowed, lagoons and estuaries of blood. The last European war left fifty-four million dead. Do you think that isn’t violence?…so get the idea out of your head that this is a particularly violent country, because it isn’t. But it is very complex and has been beaten down, and worse still, armed. It has riches and a wonderful location, and that always ends up exploding.
Featured: Bogotá, Colombia at night by User “Robert”, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons