Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis, which won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award in 2009, is frustratingly good, inventive, and obsessed with story telling. The premise is simple: An author much like Santiago Gamboa himself, is invited to participate in a literary conference about biography—one that will also be attended by a strange array of guests, including a porn star and an ex-con turned evangelical pastor—that takes place in a besieged Jerusalem. During the conference, the ex-con evangelical—who tells one of the most captivating stories in the book—is found dead of an apparent suicide. Maybe.
What’s interesting/frustrating about this book is that that plot point takes place on page 165, then is interrupted, textually at least, for almost 200 pages as other participants in the conference tell their stories, each of which is intriguing in its own right, but which, for a reader of traditional, conventional books obsessed with pacing, plot points, and building climaxes, must be crazy-making. (But those sorts of readers don’t really read these sorts of books, do they?)
I read this way back in the fall and meant to write up a review back then when all the connections between the various stories in the novel—which, in terms of their themes, ideas, and narrative styles, overlap and play off one another in a beguiling fashion—were still fresh in my mind. Now, I’m just left with the memory that, in contrast to say The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, this novel is much more circular in its construction, looping back on itself in a way informed by the best of twentieth-century literature.
A lot of people reading this blog probably feel the same way, but god damn is it a good time for Spanish-language literature. Vila-Matas. Gamboa. Neuman. Labbé. Marias. Chejfec. Prieto. Valenzuela. Dozens of writers I can’t think of.
Every culture seems to have its own set-up for literary awards. In France, there are millions. Literally. Bars give out prizes for the best work by a female author published between January and May. (Or so I’ve heard.) And these aren’t scoffed at prizes, but include ceremonies with glitz and celebrity.
In Spain and Latin America, most of the awards are given out by the publishing companies themselves. The Anagrama Essay Prize. The Planeta Prize. It’s pretty sweet marketing—the book you’re about to publish already won an award. This is what I believe marketing folks call “pre-publication buzz.” Buzz that you the publisher both created and get to reap the rewards of!
This isn’t meant to be facetious, it’s just a different system than our National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. And like with any prize, some of the award-winning French/Spanish books that I’ve read are great, some are mediocre. That’s how it goes.
All this is a long prelude to announcing that yesterday Santiago Gamboa won the La Otra Orilla Literary Award for his novel Necropolis. La Otra Orilla is a literary imprint within Grupo Editorial Norma with an emphasis on Latin American literature. The Prize is awarded by an international jury of famous Spanish novelists (this year, it consisted of Jorge Volpi, Roberto Ampuero, and Pere Sureda), and the winner receives $100,000.
Gamboa is a young Colombian writer that I heard about not too long about, and whose work sounds pretty intriguing. In addition to Necropolis (more on that in a second), he’s the author of Turned Pages, To Lose Is a Question of Method, The Happy Life of a Youth Named Esteban, The Imposters, and Ulysses Syndrome. None of which have been translated into English. Of course. Although they have been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Greek (Greek!), Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Russian, Polish, Basque, Rumanian, and Turkish.
He currently lives in New Delhi as the Colombian cultural attache (intriguing) and is considered one of the most innovative voices in new Colombian fiction. Manuel Vazquez Montalban (pretty impressive in his own right) actually declared that “Gamboa is, along with Garcia Marquez, the most important Colombian writer.” And the jury awarded Gamboa this prize for his “magnificent use of language, accomplishing the difficult task of bringing so many different voices to life whilst making each one authentic and unique.”
And here’s the description of Necropolis:
Following a long illness, a writer is invited to a biography conference in Jerusalem where the accounts of the odd lives of the conference participants come as a shock. These include the case of French bookseller and biographer Edgar Miret Supervielle, Italian adult film actress Sabina Vedovelli, and, above all, José Maturana, a former evangelical minister, ex-convict and recovering drug addict who, employing powerful language acquired on the most squalid streets, tells the story of his savior, a charismatic Latino messiah in Miami. Shortly thereafter, Maturana turns up dead in his hotel room. While everything points toward a suicide, certain doubts lie just beneath the surface. Who really was José Maturana?
In Necropolis, the narrator explores different versions of the same story while simultaneously listening to the shocking tales of the other attendees of the conference.
Always hard to tell what a book is like based on brief agent/publisher copy like this, but I’m personally interested in finding out more about Gamboa’s work. I’ve been reading fellow Colombian Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Informers (masterfully translated by Anne McLean, and a finalist for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), and I’m getting the sense that Colombia has some really interesting young writers . . .
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