Colombian author Santiago Gamboa is the author of many novels but “Necropolis” is the first (and only as far as I know) that is published for the English speaking audience (by the great Europa Editions). There have been a lot of comparisons drawn between Gamboa and another great Colombian writer, Garbiel García Márquez but after reading this I would have to say that their country of origin is the only thing they have in common. The two writers couldn’t be more different from one another. Whereas García Márquez was known for his Magical Realism, Gamboa is rooted more in reality and “Necropolis”, with it’s themes of love, death, redemption and storytelling, all set among a Jerusalem under siege, he approaches these themes with an eye turned towards the real world.
In the story, a Colombian writer living in Rome is recovering from a long illness. Having just returned from a long stay at a clinic, he intends to return to his writing and get his life back on track. One day he receives a letter informing him that he has been invited to participate in a literary conference in Jerusalem. The conference focuses more on writers of biography and being a fiction writer, he doesn’t comprehend how they even knew of him never mind the fact that he had never written a biography in his life. Nevertheless, he accepts the invitation and he soon heads off to Jerusalem. When he arrives the city is under siege: soldiers stationed everywhere, roads closed off, and frequent shelling taking place. However the conference goes on.
It is here where Gamboa uses the story to showcase the different stories being told by the members of the conference: a former junkie and criminal who finds salvation with a religious cult run by a charismatic, tattooed “messiah” of sorts, a Colombian business man who’s abducted by the paramilitary forces in Bogatá for being a suspected member of FARC, the intersecting lives of two chess champions, and the harsh, brutal life of a Mexican/Italian porn queen. Each of these stories are told within separate chapters, which could (and do) read beautifully as stand alone stories. Each of these stories deal with the themes of love, sex, death and redemption and are powerful stories unto themselves. But it is the story of the former junkie that intrigues our narrator the most. And when he winds up dead in his hotel room at the conference, the narrator decides to delve further into the real story behind his death, thrusting himself into yet deeper and more complex stories from the various characters attending the conference.
“Necropolis” is a big, dense book, wonderfully written and does not shy away from the sometimes awful realities people face in their lives, each hiding out from death as they each tell their stories. It reminds one of “A Thousand and One Nights” or “The Decameron”. For me, it is a novel about the power of storytelling and how everyone has a unique story to tell, that out in the world, each one of us has something to teach us through their stories, which also reminds me a lot of the Moroccan idea of storytelling and how each one of us must “seek the story within oneself.” It is also a tribute to literature as a whole and although its theme of death hangs over everything, there is something oddly hopeful about it all.