Salem’s Plots : Santiago Gamboa – “Necropolis”

“Lives are like cities. If they’re too neat and tidy they don’t have a story. The best stories come out of destruction and misfortune.”

ABOVE: City of Oddballs

“Neat and tidy” surely doesn’t describe Santiago Gamboa’s 2009 novel, “Necropolis.” Set in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during an unlikely literary convention of “Biographers and Memory,” this novel-made-of-novellas borrows from Bocaccio and Chaucer (and a few other sources). Literary pilgrims try to drown out the noises of terrorism just outside the walls by telling their varied tales. Among them:

The picaresque saga of a former drug dealer/ evangelical pastor from Miami.

The spicy affairs of an Italian porn star who has (obviously and yet unconvincingly) read the Marquis de Sade – or at least Milo Manara.

The variations of two chess players ( Stefan Zweig’s “The Royal Game” is the inspiration).

And, (I know I  mention Alexandre Dumas a lot in here, perhaps more than he warrants) a thrilling remake of “The Count of Montecristo” set in modern-day Colombia.

Gamboa is one of Colombia’s most prominent narrators, (or THE most prominent, now that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead) – and perhaps one of the foremost Latin American writers, (now that Roberto Bolano has similarly ceased to be.) The (late) latter gets a friendly, pre-emptively defensive nod from Gamboa, who is surely aware that “Necropolis” invites comparison to “The Savage Detectives.” Working in a similar vein, he shows off with tonal shifts – but it’s too much showing off. The stories are all entertaining enough but never even remotely convincing. I can’t judge the original Spanish, but the translation flattens the voices of the male characters, whether Colombian or Israeli or Swedish. The females fare even worse: wish-fulfilling literate nymphomaniacs. And, (this could sound like a case of “bad food, small portions”) there aren’t ENOUGH stories to follow up on a Decameron or even a Heptameron.  For all its ambitious heft, “Necropolis” ends too soon. This is the rare 500 page novel that needed 1,000 pages to truly fulfill its promise.



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