Manuela is a woman haunted by a troubled childhood that she tries to escape through books and poetry. Tertullian is an Argentine preacher who claims to be the Pope’s son, ready to resort to extreme methods to create a harmonious society. Ferdinand Palacios is a Colombian priest with a dark paramilitary past, now confronted with his guilt. Rimbaud was the precocious, brilliant poet whose life was incessant exploration. Along with Juana and the consul, these are the central characters in Santiago Gamboa’s “complex, challenging story that speaks to the terror and dislocation of the age” (Kirkus Reviews).
“Action-packed plotting . . . examines the movement of people across the shifting geopolitical landscape, the impossibility of returning and the potential redemptive power of poetry.” —The New York Times Book Review
“An unsettling and brilliant document of contemporary life; highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Gamboa possesses considerable talent at creating energetic scenes that spiral off in intriguing directions.” —San Francisco Chronicle
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About the Author
For Europa Editions, Howard Curtis has translated five novels by Jean-Claude Izzo, including all three books in his Marseilles trilogy, as well as fiction by Francisco Coloane, Canek Sanchez Guevara, Caryl Férey, and two previous books by Santiago Gamboa.
Read an Excerpt
These were still the difficult years. I was very tired and wanted to write a book about cheerful, silent, active people. That was my intention. I had spent time in India, about two years, and when I got back to Italy I found everything had changed. Sadness was everywhere now. An unexpected storm cloud hovered in the skies of Europe, and nothing was the way it had been. From the doors of the old Roman buildings hung overlapping "For Sale" notices, a kind of collage that dramatized the anguish of owners having to leave or at least to withstand the blows. The highways and byways of the city swarmed with people who hid their eyes or looked at each other with guilty expressions.
Being there, just hanging about, with nothing specific to do on a working day, wasn't the best letter of introduction. Nor did it demonstrate much social usefulness. Especially if you spent the hours in some corner café observing the transformation of the city and taking brief notes, making incoherent doodles, or drawing little men scaling mountains. That's why it was best to change places frequently, in order not to attract attention and immediately be classified as a slacker or a piece of riffraff. When faced with a crisis, people are obsessed with respectability.
It's understandable. When masses of people seek work without the least hope of finding it, when businesses reduce their personnel and the fashion stores announce sales out of season, the best thing to do is become a man without a face. The Invisible Man, the Man of the Crowd.
I was that man. Always observing, attentive to the slightest vibration, perhaps waiting for something, with a cup of tea or coffee in my hand, letting myself be swept along by the frantic activity of the passersby, the way active humans come and go and fill squares and avenues, like shoals of fish driven by the tides. A movement that allows cities to go on living and produce wealth. To be healthy and respectable conurbations.
This story begins the day my quiet life as an observer was shaken by a small earthquake. It was something very simple. I was sitting on a café terrace on Corso Trieste, watching the stream of pedestrians pass by in the direction of the African quarter, when my cell phone vibrated on the table.
A new message, I told myself. An e-mail.
"Please go to Madrid, Consul, to the Hotel de las Letras. Book into Room 711 and wait for me. Will be in touch. Juana."
That was the whole message, not a word more. Enough to unleash a modest storm inside me, like galleries collapsing. Juana. That apparently harmless combination of letters that had occupied my life for a brief time. My mouth still open, uttering her name. It had all happened some years before.
I looked at my watch, it was eleven in the morning. I reread the message and felt an even greater sense of sadness, as if a current of air or a tornado were lifting me from my chair, above the avenue and its tall pines. I had to hurry. To run.
"I'll be there today, await instructions," I replied immediately, signaling to the waiter for my check.
Before long, I, too, was in movement, energetic and active, heading for the airport.CHAPTER 2
It was drizzling, it was hot. Sitting in a Roman taxi, I watched Via Nomentana pass by, as far as Stazione Termini, then Merulana and, eventually, Cristoforo Colombo. The longest and perhaps most beautiful route to the airport.
Arrivederci Roma, I thought — remembering an old song — as I looked out at the beloved city. Something told me it would be a while before I returned, as the name Juana, with its incredible power of evocation, kept coming back, ever more distinctly, insistently, violently.
How long had it been? Seven years? Yes, seven years since I'd met her, when I was a consul in India and had to deal with the case of her brother, who had been arrested in Bangkok. In all this time, I hadn't had any news of her or her son, even though I had written to consulates in many countries, who in turn had asked for information from the respective immigration authorities.
"Juana Manrique. Pas d'information liée à ce nom."
That was the response from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, the last place from which Juana had been in touch with me. There were similar responses from a further twenty foreign ministries.
It was a mystery: a woman and a child who had vanished into the congested air of the world. One more disease of our dizzying era. I had never quite understood her during the few days I had spent with her in Delhi, which might have been why her image had come back to me frequently over the years, always in the form of a question: what strange things was she fleeing so stubbornly? When I finished my consular mission, I returned from Asia to my previous life, a life of writing and reading and watching. The same life I was now about to abandon because of a brief message from her.
The taxi made its way through the traffic jams of the EUR district until it reached the freeway leading to Fiumicino. Now I too was leaving, like that breathless multitude I had spent so much time observing and had always thought so remote from my own life.
Rome was struggling manfully to continue as an active, energetic city, but it wasn't an easy battle. A strange economic indicator called "spread," which was not supposed to go above 300, was approaching 500. Greece and Spain had already broken through that limit and were close to ruin. The Italian news bulletins began with the daily spread figure flashing up on the screen, its rise referred to in anguished tones: "470!", "478!" Terrified people raised their hands and exclaimed: "What will become of us?" "Will we reach 500?" The most absurd hypotheses were heard in the cafés. It was said that the Mafia wanted to bankrupt the country in order to remove it from the Eurozone and continue to exploit it free of the control of Brussels.
The newspaper La Repubblica reported that fifty-two entrepreneurs had committed suicide in less than a year. The Italian banks, setting a fine example of solidarity and compassion, preferred to capitalize their money in fixed-limit European funds instead of lending it to their long-term customers, thus preventing them from working. And the average business needs credit the way plants need light.
But the world crisis had first arrived in symbolic form, with a major shipwreck just off the Tuscan coast, opposite the island of Giglio. It was an omen of what was about to happen to the whole country, like some ancient oracle saying:
"Something serious is coming. Run to your houses."
What exactly happened? A poor devil named Francesco Schettino, captain of a luxury cruise ship belonging to a company called Costa Crociere, thought to send a nautical greeting to the island of Giglio, something known in Italy as "the bow"— a custom practiced by ship's captains, consisting of passing very close to a harbor and sounding the siren — but he got too close and hit a reef. It was the company's largest ship, with 1,500 double cabins, five swimming pools, a casino, discotheques and restaurants, a theatre on three floors, and 6000 square meters of gymnasiums and spa.
Like running a five-star hotel at high speed into a mountain of stones!
Crippled and taking in water, the ship remained afloat for three hours before tipping over onto its side and half sinking. Thirty-two passengers died, trapped in the elevators or in their own cabins. Only three of the bodies were recovered, a year later, when the rusted carcass of the ship was raised from the water. Captain Schettino, who according to witnesses was drunk, had been the first person to abandon ship.
The Italians followed the shipwreck live, with bated breath, and once again the voice of the oracle echoed through the air:
"Oh, Death terrible in misfortune! Oh, house fecund in disasters!"
Soon afterwards, like a plane smashing into a skyscraper, the crisis began. A violent economic storm struck the fragile peninsula and left it to drift, with half its body sunk in the water. What to do? Some threw themselves into the sea and tried to swim to other coasts, but where? Young Italians, most of them unemployed, did not hesitate. They packed their bags and headed north to work as dishwashers and waiters in Germany, Norway, Holland, or Switzerland.
Fleeing north, ever north.
There they found welfare states with social security and generous benefits. After all, they were part of the community, children of the same Europe! The taxpayers of these generous, hyperactive, and responsible countries scratched their chins a little and looked suspiciously at this unexpected white migration. Before long, without making too much of a fuss, they asked if the entry of their poor cousins from the south might be restricted slightly, or if these people could at least search in their own wallets.
But if the youth of Italy was fleeing the shipwreck by going to Berlin or Copenhagen to wash dishes, what could be said of that other wave of servants who had come from farther away to wash the Italians' dishes? Those tens of thousands of Peruvians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Colombians, and Ecuadorians, where could they go? There were too many hands wanting to grab a scouring pad or a broom and too few hours of work available in the houses of Rome or the trattorias of Trastevere. Some undertook the pilgrimage northward, in the wake of their former bosses, but got there without help or subsidy. They were the lowest class of working immigrants. Some had arrived in Italy fleeing the collapse in Spain, which came first. The young had time and spirit, they could wait a while longer, but those who had been there since the mid-nineties or before had no strength left.
"It's time to go back," they said.
And so began the long return: reunions, disillusion, a homecoming without glory, empty-handed.
As my taxi plowed on through the rain, I registered, as if for the last time, the fields on either side of the freeway, vast sheds containing discount supermarkets, industrial parks. I felt a strange sensation of farewell or defeat in the atmosphere, but I alone was anxious.
When I got to the airport, I had to make my way through noisy crowds. The numbers of people who were leaving! Up until that moment, I had preferred to stay, since in my case emigrating to another country would not have meant the slightest change. I don't know if I've mentioned the fact that I'm a writer, and it's good to write in the middle of a storm, although that may not sound very sympathetic to the country in which I live. It may even be immoral, despicable, but it's genuine. Literature is also written when the streets are running with blood, when the last hero is about to fall, riddled by a hail of bullets, or a child smashes its little head on the asphalt. What is good for writing doesn't always benefit the defenseless population around it. That at least is what I thought, not knowing what was to happen later. That's why in my most recent notebooks I hadn't been writing about fugitives or shipwrecks, but about another time, a time not so distant. A journey into the life of one of the greatest fugitives of both East and West. The life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, my most constant companion in all those years of traveling between Asia and Europe. All the rest had remained in the past, linked to other periods of my life. But Juana, coming from that same disturbing place in my memory, had upset that precarious balance. It was her voice that had made me leave Rome in a hurry for something new that, I sensed, might even be seen as a slow return.CHAPTER 3
Dr. Cayetano Frías Tellert, Psychologist Patient: Manuela Beltrán
Strange as it may seem to anyone who knows me, Doctor, I'm a very ordinary person. I may be tired or badly dressed, my hair may be sweaty from just getting up, my T-shirt may be creased, my shorts threadbare or stained with strange liquids, those damn stains! But if you let me tidy myself at the mirror for a while and then take a closer look at me, a really close, affectionate look, I might surprise you. Sorry, Doctor, if I'm talking to you like a typical girl from Cali, and in such familiar language, could it be I'm falling in love? why should I have wanted to start by saying these things, things that, when it comes down to it, have nothing to do with me? Anyway, I'm going to repeat it just once: I'm one of those girls that any of you disgusting alpha males, with five whiskeys inside you, maybe even fewer, would already be itching to take into the back room, without even knowing or caring what I have inside me. I'm like those zombies you see sitting early in the morning on the first buses or in subway cars, who keep yawning because they were working until late the night before, waiting on tables or looking after children or cleaning houses. Not like the rich girls who only yawn if they've been out on the town or fucking their rich boyfriends.
Unfortunately, I wasn't lucky enough to be one of those.
Nor am I like the Caribbean girls you see in bad movies or read about in bad novels, with their red lips and their bodies vibrating in rhythm, of course not, but if you talk to me for a while (not strictly about my appearance!) you'll realize, to your surprise, that I'm interested in indie movies, world politics, and the debate on the end of history. Sociology, too, and especially literature, because as it happens, I'm a student of letters in Madrid, and that's why it isn't a man's tan, or his convertible, that turns me on the most, but novels and poetry collections and anything that's printed and is halfway decent, you know what I mean? I'm a lousy intellectual, Doctor, although I wasn't always. Plus, I lost it all. Let's get this over with, once and for all.
I must be crazy.
I say this not for you to like me, let alone pity me, Doctor, not even for you to understand what I've been through and that terrible thing that happened to me that until now I've never dared tell anybody. I'm writing this to give myself courage.
It's just a sad, wretched declaration of principles.
I'm going to tell a story. One of the many stories I could tell, though this one's the story of my life. I'll skip over my childhood, which is the most boring part of all lives and the memories that interest me. People get all symbolic when it comes to childhood, and who can stand that? There's no symbolism, but sometimes childhood produces a lyric tone that doesn't sit well with the prose of confession and life.
All right, now, Doctor. Let's go there.
After my Dad left home and deserted us, over there in Cali, and my mother wept a while for her life and her daughter, but above all because she hadn't done anything to keep him, anyway, after that, tired of waiting, upset and very lonely, my Mom shrugged her shoulders and went out on the street with a kind of neon sign on her forehead saying "Female Available," or if you prefer, "Desperately Seeking Man," I don't know, what's certain is that, as often happens to single mothers, she thought of it as a lottery, someone would turn to look at her, and that's how it was that, very quickly and without the slightest quality control, she brought a guy home to live with her, a foul-smelling man who came clumping into the house, creating all the obvious problems you can imagine for me, her preadolescent twelve-year-old daughter, which is why as soon as I saw him come in and then unpack some horrible cardboard boxes containing his clothes, I said to myself, something nasty's going to happen, this isn't good, be careful, and I knew that sooner or later I had to get out of that hellhole.
But I was still very young, Doctor, and I delayed leaving for about two years. What could I do? That was my one mistake, not getting out of there soon enough.
As was to be supposed, Mother's boyfriend was a coarse, violent, ignorant son of a bitch, a drunk and a popper of pills and whatever they put in front of him, a cokehead, a crack smoker. He even sniffed glue. I got tired of him spying on me in the bathroom and hearing him fucking Mother, screaming and cursing. Once I caught him jerking off with his hand wrapped in a pair of my panties, can you get your head around something like that, Doctor?
The man made me nauseous.
After something very nasty happened — I'm planning to tell you about it later, when I'm strong enough, although you can already imagine it, can't you? — driven crazy with pain and humiliation, I made up a story that God had called me and that I wanted to go to a convent school to pray for the sins of the world. Obviously I didn't believe in anything, no way! What I wanted was to get out of that fucking house.
There was a convent near Palmira called Santa Águeda, run by nuns from the Order of St. Clare, and Mother agreed to take me. So did her disgusting boyfriend, who thought he'd be safe that way. The guy was a partner in a motorcycle dealership in district three, and in Cali that's a more lucrative business than selling coke, so he had money and that was the source of his power over Mother. She boasted that we were in the middle class now. Middle class, forget it, she was still working as a waitress in a chicken rotisserie in La Flora. The man didn't trust me because I could denounce him and so for him it was a relief to know I was going. He even gave money to the nuns so that they'd take me quickly before I could change my mind. And so it was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Return to the Dark Valley"
Copyright © 2019 Santiago Gamboa c/o Schavelzon Graham Agencia Literaria.
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