Thursday, 26 July 2012

The City of the Dead

It's week four of Spanish Lit Month, and that means that I have the fourth of my reviews to delight you with today - and it's another intriguing one.  When I requested a review copy of Lorenzo Mediano's The Frost on his Shoulders from Europa Editions, I was lucky enough to be offered another Spanish-language book to review, Santiago Gamboa's Necropolis (translated by Howard Curtis) - an offer I couldn't refuse ;)

Necropolis begins with a famous writer living in Rome, who is recovering from a lengthy illness.  One day, he unexpectedly receives an invitation to speak at a conference in Jerusalem, from an organisation he has never heard of, on a topic on which he is far from being an expert.  His interest is further piqued by the generous remuneration offered and the fascinating variety of invitees, including an ex-con, a porn star and a stamp collector (now why don't I get invited to conferences like that?), and before long he is on a plane making its way to Israel.

When he arrives, Jerusalem is a city under siege, and the conference is held against a constant backdrop of gunfire and explosions.  In the middle of the chaos, the delegates continue with their talks on the theme of words and biographies, with one of the most successful being that told by José Maturana, a former convict and murderer who turned to religion after an encounter with a charismatic preacher.  However, just hours after his contribution to the conference, he is found dead in his hotel room - suicide?  Possibly...

The previous two paragraphs give you a rough idea of the background of Necropolis, but they don't tell you just how extraordinary the book actually is.  While the story starts plainly enough in the words of the writer (presumably a variation on Gamboa himself), it then becomes intermingled with chapters detailing Maturana's life story.  Once we get into the second section, one third of the book is devoted to three more stories told by the delegates, none of which appear to move the story on at all.  It's only when we get to the final section that some of the relevance of these tales become apparent - but only some.

The conference is all about life stories, and a major theme in Necropolis is the twisting and intermingling of stories and life.  This idea is foregrounded right from the start when the writer is choosing some books to take with him to the conference:
"...I started to wonder if those written lives were real or if their only reality was in the writing itself, the fact that they had been turned into words, into filled pages destined for people almost as desperate as themselves..." p.29 (Europa Editions, 2012)
His musings about the blurred line between real life and what gets written down about it set the scene for the way we need to approach the many stories we experience later in Jerusalem...

The one story that we have to analyse in detail is that of the unfortunate Maturana.  When we first hear it, spread over three chapters sandwiching the writer's experiences at the conference, it sounds plausible enough, the story of a man redeemed by a modern saint who himself turned out to be fragile and only too human.  However, once he is dead, the writer (and the reader!) is able to hear several different sides to the story, forcing him to use his judgement as to how 'true' each of them is. 

The only thing we can be sure of is that when a story is told, we are learning what the storyteller wants us to hear.  Some of the stories are deliberately shocking, using brutal 'honesty' to win over the audience; others are deliberately underplayed, hoping to make the reader respect the speaker's intelligence; others, perhaps, are not quite as based in reality as they are made out to be - the line between fiction and biography is a rather unclear one...

Necropolis is another excellent, fascinating piece of Spanish-language literature, but I did have a couple of issues with the book.  While the various stories were excellent, and an integral part of the book, I did find that they distanced me a little from the core narrative.  On finishing a chapter (and most of them were fairly lengthy), I rarely felt like immediately pushing on with the book - the self-contained nature of the sections often left me treating Necropolis as a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

A much bigger issue though was one which, in some ways, is coming to typify my Latin-American reading experience.  Throughout Necropolis, there is a sense of machismo which is hard to ignore, no matter how related it is to the story.  Women only appear to exist as sexual objects, with none of the female characters (with the possible exception of the porn star...) coming across as real people, and the stories contain references aplenty to prostitutes, orgies and rape.

While some of the context justifies it, I thought that it went a little overboard at times, and the character of Marta, a highly-sexed Icelandic journalist who is a walking cliché of Nordic sexual attitudes is one that pushed things a little too far for me.  There's no doubt that there is a purpose behind the sensationalism, and I'm sure that the idea of making the most of life in a city where bombs are falling would explain some of this away, but I'm not sure that everyone would buy into these excuses.

Despite these misgivings though, I thoroughly enjoyed Necropolis and would recommend it.  Just as in last week's offering, Dublinesque, the expected separation of life and fiction is playfully tampered with, forcing us to look forwards, backwards and outside the text to fully understand it.  What we come away with is an understanding that each story is special in its own way, regardless of who it's about or what that person has achieved.  As Gamboa says:
"What there is at the end of a life is irrelevant, it isn't the result that makes a life exceptional, but the path trodden..." p.162
Something to ponder as we go about making our own life stories...