Volver al oscuro valle (Return to the dark valley), the latest novel by Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, explores Colombian society in the aftermath of the peace process between the government and FARC guerrillas. While most Colombians are trying their best to forgive and forget, this is impossible for some victims who suffered under the traumatic violence and crimes unleashed by FARC and others.
In Gamboa’s novel, Manuela Bertran, a Colombian who lives in Madrid, cannot get over the cruel way in which the guerrillas killed her father in front of her when she was a child. After this tragedy, Manuela, goes through further suffering in school and afterwards. But she manages to go to Madrid for university, where she gets a degree in philology in Madrid and has an accidental encounter with the consul. When Manuela proposes to go back to Cali on her revenge mission, the Ccnsul and his Colombian friend Juana accompany her. Tertuliano, an Argentine priest, tracks down the guerrilla who killed her parents and has him tortured and killed.
On the trip to Colombia, Manuela, Juana and the consul are overwhelmed by nostalgia and nightmares of their past lives in Colombia; they feel as though they have returned to a dark valley.
Tertuliano, the crazy Argentine priest, claims to be the son of Pope Francis. According to his story, the the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio (before he became the Pope) was requested for a mediation with the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros for the release a member of the rich Bunge family, kidnapped during the military dictatorship. Bergoglio is advised to wait in a hotel room in Cordoba for a call from the guerrillas. One day, there is a knock on the door from the hotel cleaning service. The cleaning lady turns out to be a member of Montoneros. She and the priest finalise the deal for the release of the kidnapped businessman for a hefty ransom. But during the negotiations, the woman stays the night with Bergoglio. This is how Tertuliano was born, according to his story.
This reminds me of the true story of the Paraguayan catholic priest Fernando Lugo, who became the president of the country in 2008. Soon, a Paraguayan woman claimed that she had a son with Lugo. President Lugo accepted the claim and agreed to take care of the family’s financial needs. Later, another woman came out with a similar story. Lugo did not deny or nor accept this. Then there was a chorus of more claims from other women. Lugo came to be jokingly known as “the father of the nation”. In many other countries, the president would have been impeached had this happened. But not in Paraguay, where they took the scandal to be a part of life and moved on. Why the Paraguayans did not make a big fuss is another big story – but a different one. Lugo was later impeached for a trivial reason by the Congress.
Gamboa has combined his fictional Colombian story with the real life story of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Manuela, Juana and the ex-consul are admirers of Rimbaud. Gamboa takes the reader on a fascinating journey with the poet prodigy, whose provincial character and Bohemian life shock even Parisian society, given to libertine excesses and experiments. Rimbaud has a torrid affair with an older poet Paul Verlaine, driving him, his wife and his family nuts. Rimbaud gives up poetry for a while and goes to Ethiopia and Yemen to try his hand in the coffee and arms trades. Consumed by diseases, he dies in France at a young age. The story of Rimbaud’s stay in Harar, a trading post in Ethiopia, inspires the Colombian characters so much that they too decide to visit Harar after completing their revenge mission in Colombia.
Gamboa’s linking of Colombian characters with the French poet has made the novel not only colourful but also profound, with a literary and cultural richness. Gamboa quotes many of Rimbaud’s poems and put them in perspective, giving the readers a background on the emotions which drove Rimbaud at different times. Nearly half of the book is devoted to Rimbaud’s story. Gamboa has cleverly juxtaposed the violence in Colombia with the violence of war in Europe, which Rimbaud witnesses first hand.
There is also a side story featuring Boko Haram terrorists holding people in the Irish embassy in Madrid hostage. Gamboa has used this episode to explore terrorism and its shocking impact on democratic societies. He has also introduced a character from Equatorial Guinea, who works as a nurse in a prison hospital in Madrid and loves Rimbaud’s poems.
Gamboa, who had worked as a cultural attaché in the Colombian embassy in Delhi, had also made an interesting connection between Colombia and Asia in his earlier novel Night Prayers. The characters of Juana, the consul and the Mexican diplomat in the novel continue their stories from Night Prayers and return in Volver al oscuro valle.
Gamboa has covered a wide spectrum of political, economic, social and cultural issues of Colombia as well the rest of the world, and has interpreted and analysed them. He also uses the characters of Bergoglio, Tertuliano and another priest, Fernando Palacios, to examine religious and moral issues.
Since he is a Colombian writer, Gamboa is often asked about and compared to the greatest writer from his country, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gamboa distinguishes himself as coming the cosmopolitan city of Bogota, which is cool at an altitude of 8,000 feet. He does not relate much to the hot and humid Aracataca, in the Caribbean part of Colombia, where Marquez was born. While Bogotans are stereotypically formal, reserved and sober, the Caribbeans are informal, talkative, laugh loudly and like bright colours. Marquez has written mostly about Colombia; but Gamboa has explored other countries too. His Colombian characters living in and travelling to other countries give their experience of other cultures.
Gamboa says he was influenced by the American writer Paul Theroux’s advice to writers, “Read a lot of books and then leave home”. This is the reason why Gamboa has chosen the consul as a protagonist in his novels. The consul lives abroad, moving from country to country, and interacts with other peoples. Gamboa has not given a name to the consul, who narrates his story in the first person. It appears that the romantic, poetry-reciting and gin-loving Consul is the alter-ego of Gamboa himself. Gamboa admits to being inspired by the consul’s characters from the novels of Malcolm Lowry, like Under the Volvano, as well as Graham Green’s Honorary Consul and Marguerite Duras’s The Vice Consul. It is a pity that Pablo Neruda, who was a consul in Rangoon, did not write much about his Asian experience.
After enjoying two books by Gamboa, I have just bought another one, Perder es question de metodo (Loss is a matter of method). And I can’t wait to start.
Ambassador (retired) R. Viswanathan is a Latin America expert.