Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Volver al Oscuro Valle - return to the dark valley - book review

"Volver al oscuro valle" ( Return to the dark valley), the latest novel of the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, explores the Colombian society in the aftermath of the peace process agreed between the government and the FARC guerrillas. While most Colombians are trying their best 'to forget and forgive', it is impossible to do so for some of the victims who had suffered terrible trauma by the violence and crimes committed by FARC and others. 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 more sufferings in school and afterwards. But she manages to finish university studies in philology in Madrid where she has an accidental encounter with the Consul. When Manuela proposes to go back to Cali on her revenge mission, the Consul and his Colombian friend Juana accompany her. Tertuliano, the Argentine pries, tracks down the guerrilla who killed the parents of Manuela and gets 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 and  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 mediation with the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros to release a family member of the rich Bunge family kidnapped by them during the time of 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 finalize the deal for the release of the kidnaped businessman for a hefty ransom. But during the negotiations, the lady stays in the night with Bergoglio. This is how Tertuliano is born. Who knows?  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 through 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. Father Fernando Lugo came to be called jokingly as "the father of the nation". In any other country the President would have been impeached. But not in Paraguay, where they took the scandal as part of life and moved on. Why the Paraguayans did not make a big fuss is ..yes ..another big story. President Lugo was later impeached for a trivial reason by the Congress. 

Gamboa has combined this 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 shocks even the Parisian society given to libertine excesses and experiments. Rimbaud has a torrid affair with an older poet Paul Verlaine, driving him and his wife and family to nuts. Rimbaud gives up poetry for a while and goes to Ethiopia and Yemen to try his hand in coffee and arms trade. 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 also visit Harar after completing their revenge mission in Colombia.

Gamboa's linkage of the Colombian characters with the French poet has made the novel not only colorful but also profound with literary and cultural richness. Gamboa quotes many of Rimbaud's poems and put them in perspective giving the readers the background of emotions which drove Rimbaud at different times. Almost half of the book is devoted to Rimbaud's story. Gamboa has cleverly juxtaposed the violence in the Colombian society with the violence of war in Europe which Rimbaud witnesses first hand. 

There is a side story of Boko Haram terrorists holding the Irish embassy in Madrid as hostage. Gamboa has used this episode to explore terrorism and its shocking impact on the democratic and civilized 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 made an interesting connection between  Colombia and Asia in his earlier novel " Night prayers". My blog on this book http://latinamericanaffairs.blogspot.in/2016/12/night-prayers-colombian-novel_31.html#links. Juana, the Consul and the Mexican diplomat in the novel " Night Prayers"have continued their stories in Volver al oscuro valle.

Gamboa has covered a wide spectrum of the political, economic, social and cultural issues of Colombia as well the rest of the world and has interpreted and analyzed them philosophically and intellectually. He uses the characters of Bergoglio, Tertuliano and another priest Fernando Palacios to examine the 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 having the mindset of the cosmopolitan city of Bogota, which is cool at an altitude of 8000 feet. He does not relate much to the hot and humid Aracataca in the Caribbean part of Colombia where Marquez was born. While the Bogotans are formal, reserved and sober in taste, the Caribbeans are informal, talkative, laugh loud and like bright colors. Marquez has written mostly about Colombia. But Gamboa has explored other countries besides Colombia. His Colombian characters living in and travelling to other countries give their experience of other cultures. He 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 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 characters in the novels of Malcolm Lowry's " Under the Volvano" as well as Graham Green's " Honorary Consul" and Marguerite Duras's " the Vice Consul". It is a pity that Neruda who was a Consul in Rangoon did not write much about his Asian experience.

Having enjoyed the two books of Gamboa, I have just bought another one ' Perder es question de metodo' ( loss is a matter of method). I can't wait to start…