Memory, meaning and mortality
This ambitious literary work centers around a mysterious death at a conference in Jerusalem, but frequently embarks on side trips that reveal the lives of a porn star and a cult founder, among other lecturers at the event.
Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa (translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis). Europa Editions, 464 pages, $18 (paperback)
With “Necropolis,” Colombian writer and journalist Santiago Gamboa has created an ambitious literary work, one that deals with the complex interplay among memory, meaning and mortality. The novel’s central storyline is narrated by an unnamed writer who visits Jerusalem to attend a conference arranged by the International Congress of Biography and Memory (ICBM), Gamboa’s wry spoof of an academic conference.
Numerous speeches from the conference are presented throughout “Necropolis.” Either delivered in the first or third person, they describe the lives of an extraordinary range of individuals: a has-been Scandinavian chess player, a leading Italian porn star, and the founder of an American religious cult, to name a few. As these speeches are usually included in their entirety, the novel demonstrates a polyphonic quality that may remind some of “The Brothers Karamazov” or “The Arabian Nights.”
As the conference progresses, however, the narrator’s interest shifts from the proceedings toward the mysterious death of a conference participant, one Jose Maturana.
By so frequently interrupting his narrator’s plotline with side stories, Gamboa takes the risk that his work will strike readers as fragmented, or even confused. The success of such a novel depends upon the strength of its major themes and their continued development from vignette to vignette. This is not to say a book whose many ideas fail to come together is necessarily boring, unenjoyable or even bad. It just fails to justify all the effort it took to tie the stories together.
Fortunately, Gamboa does succeed in uniting the novel’s many strands. Indeed, within the first few pages, he signals what two of the most important themes will be. He does so first by introducing the topic of the conference: “the relationship between language and the past ... [focusing] on the many forms through which we remember, evaluate, understand, and convey a life.” A second theme, chronic illness and its effect on perception, rears its head when the narrator first introduces himself:
“[The conference invitation came] at a time when my life had slowed down completely. The hands of the clock kept turning, but that meant absolutely nothing to me. ... I had just recovered from a long illness that had separated me from the life I had lived until then, the life of a working writer moderately well known in the small world of letters. ... Illness creates a vacuum, and with time this becomes our only relationship with the world.”
This last insight by the narrator, about the transformative power that suffering can have over everyday experience, is borne out by a number of the biographies presented at the conference. One speaker tells the story of Ramon Garcia, a Colombian mechanic who was kidnapped and tortured by the paramilitary organization FARC. When Garcia escaped his captors, the sensible thing would have been to flee Colombia forever. And flee he did, but he was unable to grieve for his loss. Instead, he turned to plotting and executing his revenge against those responsible for his exile.
Another conference presenter, Sabina Vedovelli, describes how she moved to Paris as a young woman. Soon after she met Kay, a Norwegian photographer in his early twenties with an unfortunate fondness for heroin. The two conducted an intense, mutually destructive relationship, during which both became increasingly dependent on drugs. To support their addiction, Kay began producing nude photographs of Sabina. For her part, Sabina secretly began working as a prostitute. When Kay found out, he attempted suicide. Although he failed to kill himself, Kay locked himself in a coma that lasted for many years. In the interim, Sabina started her career in pornography by working for a studio run by Romanian expatriates, swiftly becoming one of the most sought-after actresses in the field in France. Throughout her entire climb to the top, she remained wedded to the memories of the life she once had with Kay, thinking of him and visiting his bedside constantly, even though there was no hope their romance would resume.
Both Garcia’s and Sabina’s stories describe how their worldview changed after an unexpected loss of a part of their life they had taken for granted. Just like the narrator’s illness, their loss created a vacuum, which in time became their “only relationship with the world.” Many of the stories presented in “Necropolis” deal with obsession over a lost capacity or connection. The extraordinary range of experiences that converge upon this common theme gestures to a larger point about the human condition. Every person can relate to the feeling that they may soon lose a prized ability or relationship. Life is, ultimately, a terminal condition. Although the characters in “Necropolis” do not talk directly about death, they are constantly concerned with issues related to it. The ICBM conference is about how we remember a life; its speakers tell stories about how we experience loss, illness, incapacity or impermanence. Even the title of the book itself, “Necropolis,” is a synonym for cemetery. I believe that the novel is, at its core, intended to be an exploration of the way death tends to warp our understanding of the world. Like a vacuum, one can hardly point and say “there it is.” Yet its influence seems to affect everything.
Of all the hopes for overcoming mortality, the perennial favorite remains religion. This alternative is explored in “Necropolis” through the story of Jose Maturana, a disciple of Walter de La Salle, the founder of a for-profit church/personality cult based in Florida. Like the ICBM conference, de La Salle and his “Ministry of Mercy” are wholly fictional. As Maturana tells it, he was an inmate in a West Virginia jail when he met de La Salle, who was there to teach a class on religion. Maturana, a heroin addict who could hardly recall why he had been incarcerated, attempted to physically assault de La Salle. Acting in self-defense, de La Salle hospitalized Maturana. When Maturana eventually woke up, he found de La Salle praying by his bedside. Moved by this gesture, Maturana realized it was his calling to help spread de La Salle’s message. After serving his prison term, Maturana became de La Salle’s right hand, personally writing many of the ministry’s best-selling self-help books.
With increasing success, Maturana became ever more uneasy. More unsettling still, de La Salle began spending evenings with a cohort of teenage boys, for whom he would throw cocaine-drenched parties. Rumors of pederasty and criminal possession at the Ministry attracted the attention of the Miami police, who soon raided the Ministry compound. Refusing to turn himself over, de La Salle started a shoot-out with the police. When the smoke cleared, the religious leader had mysteriously vanished. No body was ever found and rumors of de La Salle’s divinity spread rapidly.
Maturana’s story does not end with his talk, however. Shortly after he tells his life story to the conference, he is found dead in his room at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, a presumed suicide. While Maturana mentioned several earlier suicide attempts in his speech, the narrator has difficulty believing that such a vigorous and dynamic man would have killed himself. Even if he did, the narrator suspects there must be a more to what happened than a penchant for suicide. The narrator’s investigation leads him to Jessica, Mary Magdalene to de La Salle’s Jesus, who describes the history of the ministry in very different terms. She says Maturana was the one embezzling church funds, and also the reason for de La Salle’s use of controlled substances.
The difference between these accounts invites the reader to reflect upon the indeterminacy of memory and, more importantly, on the possibility for opportunism that results. Jessica and Maturana’s accounts agree about what happened and when. They differ only in explaining why those events happened and who was responsible. Significantly, both Jessica and Maturana wash their own hands of responsibility for de La Salle’s downfall.
The other two episodes I’ve described also raise the issue of opportunism. For example, Ramon Garcia’s story was presented by a Colombian-Jewish businessman whose family fled Colombia after FARC began extorting their businesses. This same businessman later tells the narrator that Ramon’s story never happened: It was a parody of the Count of Monte Cristo. Or, to take another rags-to-riches story, Sabina Vedovelli makes it seem as if poverty and the loss of her boyfriend forced her into a career in pornography. Yet the narrator, through his depiction of Sabina’s behavior before and after her lecture, portrays the actress as unusually attention-seeking. Was her telling of events accurate, or was it a drug-addled Horatio Alger story calculated to arouse as much pity as possible? Indeed, later on she presents a totally different justification for her career, couching her motivations in more philosophical and political terms.
“We made a new series of twelve movies to illustrate the theory of left-wing porn, and they were very successful, although as often happens we were soon attacked by those envious of us, who said that our esthetic approach was opportunistic, that we were jumping on the bandwagon of the new currents then transforming European socialism, and other nonsense like that. As often happens, instead of damaging us these diatribes gave our work a stronger impetus and helped to spread it. Some even started working in the opposite direction to ours, for example, a Danish production company introduced ‘center-right porn,’ although the concept wasn’t very clear, because in the end it was all just routine humping ... with no real significance.”
As this passage illustrates, Gamboa has a deft touch. Indeed, his wit is evident even in the title. “Necropolis” is a word that may be translated literally as “city of the dead.” Just as the title “Bright Lights, Big City” is often taken as a description of the city in which it is set (New York), one might infer that “Necropolis” is meant as a commentary on Jerusalem. And yet “Necropolis” the book seems to go out of its way to avoid describing the holy city. The characters hardly ever leave the hotel where the conference is being held, and when they do, it is to visit Tel Aviv. Even the venue is described only just enough to infer that it is the famous King David Hotel. Gamboa’s Jerusalem is a bit like Kafka’s castle, alluded to everywhere but appearing hardly anywhere at all. The only real clue as to why the novel is set in Jerusalem appears at the end, when the conference is interrupted by a missile attack of unknown origin. Just as his rescue airlift is taking off, the narrator thinks to himself:
“Many stories had died and others were just beginning. It had always been that way in this city. The plane rose into the air and we were off, leaving behind that battlefield where I had been on the verge of recovering part of what I had lost. I looked down and saw the rocks, the aridity. From the air the city seemed to merge with its surroundings. A vast ocean of sand.”
In this first view the narrator really gets of the city, he spends most of his time thinking about how difficult it is to see. Thus, he returns to the idea that our incapacities dominate our relationship to the world. Jerusalem, a city that seems to embody meaning more than any other, is perceived in a way that is wholly transitory and inadequate. If the narrator’s trip had lasted longer, would his understanding of Jerusalem be any more satisfactory?
Unclear. Perhaps Gamboa is suggesting that in Jerusalem one cannot help but feel transitory and inadequate. The dead are absent from Jerusalem, long buried beneath the ground. It may be hard to avoid thinking that we shall one day join them. On the other hand, it is possible that Gamboa invokes Jerusalem to say something quite the opposite. No matter where one goes in Jerusalem, one confronts things that the dead have done. Maybe what is so special about Jerusalem is that there, and possibly only there, death’s relationship to the world isn’t just in the mind, but is actually something one can touch.
Brian Libgober is a novelist and book critic. You can find links to more of his writing at brianlibgober.com