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Night Prayers

Newspaper: The Times Literary Magazine
Date: May 26 2016

For more than five decades, novelists in Colombia have been confronted with two legacies: that of Gabriel García Márquez (who, as his compatriot Jorge Franco remarked to the New York Times, established a precedent for “flying grandmothers and other magic” in the minds of foreign literary agents) and the country’s bloody internal conflict, which, since 1964, has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people. As one of the narrators of Santiago Gamboa’s Night Prayers puts it, Colombia has “more displaced persons than Zaire and more executions than Liberia”, and the country’s brutal encounters with FARC guerrillas and lavishly financed cartels have hung over fiction much the way memories of the dictatorships do in Argentina and Chile. Things have shifted somewhat in recent years – “Gabo” died in 2014, and the conflict calmed following the election in 2002 of the former president Alvaro Uribe – but the after-image of violence remains in Colombian fiction, threatening a kind of compassion fatigue for those who have grown accustomed to reading about it, and those compelled to address it in their writing.

In Night Prayers (Plegarias nocturnas, 2012) a diplomatic consul who moonlights as a novelist reflects on this while sitting on a panel about Colombian literature. “For many”, he says, “being a Colombian seemed to oblige us to deal with certain themes and above all to deal with those themes in a particular way, which was why my generation and the ones after us were trying to escape all that, trying to just be writers.” The consul is based in New Delhi, where Gamboa once served as Colombia’s cultural attaché, and his view is one that echoes throughout the novel. He doesn’t so much engage with “Colombian” themes (violence, memory, second chances) as embed them in the background, deriving from them the motivations of his characters. Night Prayers, his second novel to be translated into English (this time by Howard Curtis) is an impressive quasi- detective story built on international intrigue, careful omissions and sophisticated playfulness: an obituary of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze makes an appearance, as do a handful of real-life novelists, including Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who also sits on the panel.

In place of political reckoning, Gamboa offers literary genre fiction. Many pages earlier, the novel opens on a rainy night in Bangkok with the consul surveying the city from the fourteenth floor of a high-rise hotel. Through alternating monologues, we learn that he’s in Thailand because a Colombian philosophy student has been framed for drug trafficking. As the story unfolds, the narrative shifts towards the student’s sister, who vanished from Bogotá one day without warning, prompting her brother to set off in search of her. Gamboa’s talent for cultivating suspense and manic energy makes these accounts compulsively readable, even as the novel feels increasingly lopsided. The most compelling sections belong to Juana, who escapes her conservative lower-middle-class family through forging a double life as a sociology student and high-end escort. Juana gains access to the power brokers of Colombian society, justifying her choices through selective readings of the Existentialists and a desire to support her younger brother, until circumstances force her to flee the country. She is not a reliable narrator, but what’s true or false stays a mystery as Gamboa chooses to leave his loose ends untied.

The contours of memory are explored more thoroughly in Vásquez’s Reputations (Las reputaciones, 2013), an affecting, carefully paced work of psychological realism that is his fifth novel to be translated into English (and the fourth by Anne McLean). Vásquez earned international accolades for The Sound of Things Falling (El ruido de la cosas al caer, 2011), a novel about the lingering traumas of the Pablo Escobar era, and in Reputations he focuses on an influential political cartoonist whose career is called into question when he realizes that one man’s principled stance can be another’s act of terror. Javier Mallario is “a moral authority for half the country, public enemy number one for the other half, and for all of them a man able to cause the repeal of a law, overturn a judge’s decision, bring down a mayor or seriously threaten the stability of a ministry”. The novella opens with the cartoonist on his way to a ceremony in his honour, a reward for years of satirizing the powerful with comfortable anonymity. At the event, a chance encounter causes him to revisit a decision he made decades earlier, which culminated in a senator’s death. Before long, the rest of his life is cast into doubt.

With Vásquez, we’re squarely in the realm of the “certain themes” alluded to in Night Prayers – the vagaries of memory, the abuse of power, the uncertainty of truth and the idea that the author (or illustrator) is somehow responsible for the fate of the patria. It’s all too much for Mallarino, and ultimately he embraces the idea that the person who remembers everything is unable to do anything. “Forgetfulness”, he thinks, “was the only democratic thing in Colombia: it covered them all, the good and the bad, the murderers and the heroes.” In forgetfulness comes freedom, and insofar as Night Prayers and Reputations share a belief system, it lies in discarding the notion that writers are an extension of national memory. This idea, anyway, when it comes to these two authors, is a fiction in itself – Gamboa lives in Rome (and before that, Spain, Paris and India) and Vásquez recently moved back to Bogotá after years in France, Belgium and Spain. These men are Colombian, but they’re also more than that; in turn, they’ve moved the so-called “national literature” past magical realism and towards something less defined and, in today’s context, more dynamic. As Colombia ceases to be associated with violence in the minds of international readers, one hopes that they’ll play a role in shaping its future.