Every now and again a literary novel brings you such pleasure, you can’t help but look at the others that have come across your desk or nightstand or e-reader recently — perfectly serviceable, well-intentioned books — and feel a little resentful. Why couldn’t they have been more fun? Would it have been so terrible to bring in a gin-swilling detective? How about a murder, or at the very least some intrigue in a foreign capital? As it turns out, there’s no reason at all why a novel of the highest quality, packed with insight and subtlety and crafted in an ambitious style, shouldn’t also be thrilling, and even a little bawdy. Or anyway that was the feeling I had after finishing Night Prayers, the latest book from the Colombian writer, Santiago Gamboa.
Gamboa is the author of eight novels, two of which have now been translated into English and released in the US by Europa (Night Prayers, along with Necropolis). Gamboa’s work is a part of the novela negra tradition — noir, as it’s practiced in Spain and Latin America — but not the hard-boiled variety. His ‘detectives’ tend to be literary figures or diplomats or both. (Gamboa served for a time as Colombia’s cultural attaché in New Delhi.) They travel to conferences or consular missions and find themselves ensnared in a web of organized crime, sex, drugs, political corruption, guerrillas, paramilitaries and a few more-or-less innocent romantics.
In Night Prayers, Gamboa tells the story of Manuel and Juana, siblings from a modest family in Bogotá who get involved with an international drugs-and-prostitution ring. One ends up in a Bangkok prison, the other in a yakuza brothel, and so the Colombian consul — Gamboa’s avatar — is summoned to stave off the scheduled execution. The story is as dark as it sounds and much stranger, with demons taking over the narration from time to time and a niggling sense of corruption that infects even the most innocent scenes. This is international noir of the most ambitious kind. Add Gamboa to the ranks of Javier Marías, Patrick Modiano, and Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
I met Gamboa briefly when he was in downtown New York for the release of Night Prayers. It was a hurried introduction, and we agreed to chat further by email, once he had returned home to Colombia. With the help of a translator (Philip K. Zimmerman) and a few drinks (bourbon on my end; actually I have no idea whether Gamboa enjoyed a drink as he responded, or whether he drinks at all, or perhaps that’s only his narrator’s indulgence), we discussed lonely cities, la novela negra, and diplomats as detectives.
Dwyer Murphy: I thought we could start by talking about cities. In particular Bangkok and Bogotá, which are at the heart of your new novel, Night Prayers. Did you find some affinity between those two places? In the story, they’re linked in a few pretty chilling ways: the drug trade, organized crime, sex trafficking. But was there something about the character of those two cities that bonded them in your mind?
Santiago Gamboa: Cities are the classic setting for novels because cities are where strangers live and meet. There’s an air of anonymity and solitude that upsets some people, and things happen that may be memorable. Sometimes strange encounters, but also crimes and injustices. Literature almost always deals with anomalous situations. For me, Bogotá and Bangkok are opposite cities. I was born in Bogotá, I grew up there and spent my adolescence there; Bangkok I’ve only been to three times, and I have no ties with it. But when I evoke them, both cities give me an unsettling feeling of solitude. Bogotá with its familiar, gesticulating people, Bangkok with its curious urban rituals. Also, when I think of them, I always picture them raining.
Murphy: Are you comfortable with your novels being read as crime fiction? Many of the elements are there — a transgression, an investigation, copious drinking, a journey across the underbelly. But then again there are also concerns one wouldn’t normally find in crime fiction, at least not in the U.S. — matters of diplomacy and political ideology, for example. In Night Prayers, Manuel, from his prison cell in Bangkok, is adamant about this being a love story, not a crime story.
Gamboa: I suppose in our times the novel has gained sufficient freedom to cross genre borders and break with all models, which is also the way the contemporary novel is adapting to a fragmentary and chaotic reality. That’s the kind of book I like to read: a book that can contain, for example, essay, biographical chronicle, mystery novel and romance novel in the same pages.
Most novels that are simply noir seem predictable to me because the protagonists generally make mistakes that the reader wouldn’t make. That’s why I prefer to write novels that contain more, and that above all have memorable characters. But it doesn’t bother me that my books are seen as noir novels, on the contrary. The novela negra factor ensures that the reader keeps reading and becomes more and more immersed. As long as he doesn’t wake up, you can tell him whatever you want to.
Murphy: Can you tell me a little about your professional life outside writing? I understand you served as cultural attaché. I won’t ask you to clarify all the distinctions between you and your narrator, who is a diplomat working in consular affairs and is also a well-known Colombian novelist, a friend of several other authors readers may recognize. Horacio Castellanos Moya, for example, shows up in Tokyo for a few pages, tags along to a bar, then disappears into the night. It’s all quite dizzying for the reader. Anyway, you were a diplomat? You write journalism?
Gamboa: Yes, I was a diplomat, and I write a little journalism. My narrator does resemble me quite a bit, and I ought to confess that he’s something of an alter ego. But he’s more of a loner than I am, and a lot more daring; his personality is introverted, intense. Sometimes I’ll sit alone in a café or bar and try to pretend I am that character. At times I can pull it off quite well. I like to interrogate my own life through him, although that’s something most readers don’t see and don’t have any reason to. It’s above all a creative limitation: I wouldn’t be capable of writing a novel with a principal narrator who does something completely unfamiliar to me, because I don’t think I’d be able to find his voice. And that’s what I care about most: the characters and their voices.
Murphy: How did it first come to you that a consul would make for a good noir hero?
Gamboa: Years ago, when I read Lowry’s Under the Volcano, I understood that the consul is a romantic figure. I felt it again in the novels of Graham Greene and Marguerite Duras, especially the stories that take place in Southeast Asia or Africa. The image of the consul as someone transplanted into a strange world, a world he never fully understands but where he’s called upon to be strong and provide relief to others. The consul is there to listen to the people who are searching for that relief; he represents a certain order that the characters have lost. And so despite being nothing more than a man, the consul represents a hope, and even if he doesn’t share in it himself, he can engender that hope in others, much in the way one can transmit certain diseases without showing symptoms.
The consul is there to listen to the people who are searching for that relief; he represents a certain order that the characters have lost.
Murphy: You — and many of your characters — grew up during a period of armed conflict in Colombia. The tangle of political sympathies and corruption and infighting are an important backdrop for your work. Is the cease-fire between the government and FARC a watershed moment? Do you foresee it affecting the kinds of stories you may tell in the future? Forgive me if those questions betray a lack of understanding of the situation.
Gamboa: I think that a writer is always writing, in a lateral way, about his own country and about himself, even if his fictions are set in the Roman Empire. Colombia was and continues to be my first universe, and as a result, all the other ones I know have been in some way interpreted and assimilated through it. It’s normal for me, as a writer who grew up in that reality, to be more sensitive to the type of story that involves the problems of my country.
In one of the narrations in my next novel, I look at Colombia under the effects of the peace process, and the truth is it looks like a patient who’s been suffering from schizophrenia and has finally been given psychiatric drugs: it smiles and appears calm, but it has a faraway look in its eye and its smile is disturbing. It will take some time for normalcy to reestablish itself.