Talking, telling a story, ought to be a good thing but after reading two novels by Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa you may have doubts. Gamboa is very good at talking, so good in fact that you may reach the point where you think he should just stop telling stories for a while and get a grip on his fiction.
“Necropolis” begins with a Colombian writer being invited to a conference in Jerusalem and much of the novel is taken up with the stories told by various other speakers who have been invited to talk on the topic of biography.
There is a plot: one of the speakers, with an incredibly eventful life to relate, is found dead immediately after delivering his life story to the conference and the narrator seeks to establish if he was murdered or driven to suicide and by whom.
The Jerusalem setting is baffling because at first it seems to be convincing: a time of high tension and violence is in the air but so many explosions are taking place in the city that it cannot be reflecting any realistic episode in Israel’s recent history.
It begins to feel imaginary, there for the sake of a dramatic background, but if so there ought to be a point to it.
Instead, there are just explosions rocking the city; nothing is said about the political situation, who is setting off the explosions or why.
What the reader does get are stories – many, many stories – including a very salacious one by a left-wing porn queen.
Gamboa’s “Night prayers”, his second novel to be translated into English, has a tighter plot, being the tale of three Colombians – Manuel, a philosophy student arrested in Thailand on a serious drug charge, his sister Juana who has gone missing in Bogotá and a diplomat posted to New Dehli who sets out to reunite them. The story moves from India, to Bangkok, Tokyo and Tehran.
The structure of this novel is not as loose and playful as in “Necropolis” and the mini-stories within it are more coherently related to the central storyline. Juana’s troubles with her parents are linked to Colombia’s political situation and this background is more convincingly portrayed.
The same cannot be said for the cliché-ridden sketch of Bangkok, presenting it as a sexual playground, and the depiction of Delhi, which Gamboa should know well, having once served there as Colombia’s cultural attaché, is formulaic.
“Night prayers” is ostensibly a noir-inflected detective story but its novella negra identity is suffused with other elements – one chapter is devoted solely to the gin martini – and readers will either warm to this or be deterred by its relaxed loquaciousness.
It has been described as a blend of magical realism with Asian culture but, as with “Necropolis”, its fast pace is let down by characters who talk too much and leave the reader – this reader, at least – wishing they would just pipe down.
“Necropolis” and “Night prayers” by Santiago Gamboa are published by Europa Editions.