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Visionary Violence: Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa
Chris Feliciano Arnold
The novel begins when the Consul— an avatar for the author, a Colombian who has traveled the world as an academic and diplomat—is mysteriously sum- moned to Madrid to meet with an old partner, Juana. (Both characters appear in Gamboa’s novel Night Prayers, but no familiarity with that novel is necessary to dive into this new story.) Years of travel and writing have left the Consul jaded by global consumerism and inequality: “The cult of the superficial, inherited from the end of the last century, was now triumphant,” he says of contemporary Spain. “Look at my long eyelashes, look at my decorated nails, look at the muscles of my abdomen, appreciate my vulva shaved with a pink laser, like Darth Vader’s light saber; admire my body, tanned in the middle of winter, isn’t it all lovely? Life is beautiful, very beautiful. That’s why I want to show it, why I want the world to see me and know! I want lots of likes on my Facebook page.”
In Madrid he witnesses another feature of late capitalism: terrorism. Boko Haram has aligned with ISIS, taking over the Irish embassy in Madrid and threaten- ing to slit throats if their demands for U.N. representation aren’t met. “Both movements are born out of twentieth-century colonization and the greed with which whole nations were exploited and their resources plundered,” explains one TV news pundit. “This may be the first payment due on what was done in the twentieth century.”
In this new century, scores are being settled, borders are dissolving, and new forms are taking shape. As the Consul meditates on contemporary Europe, he ruminates on the past in the form of a long narrative essay about the young poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose life and work are taking shape in 19th century France and beyond. “Everything has to be demolished for the world to bloom again, perhaps from the new seeds of poetry!” the Consul writes, channeling Rimbaud. In war-ravaged Paris, the young poet is subject to an act of violence at once senseless and generative. “Out of that pain he heard a strange rhythm, a crazy tomtom beat that he had never known before.”
Gamboa skillfully braids the Consul’s story and essay with the histories of two other characters: a troubled young poet Manuela, and the supposed son of the Pope, a fanatic named Tertullian. The stories converge when “the strange quartet” aligns to return to their own dark valley on a mission of revenge in post-war Colombia.
While the Europe of this book is plagued by terrorism, economic instability and xenophobia, Colombia is a nation intoxicated by the ethics of forgiveness. “Welcome to Colombia, where the only thing you risk is wanting to stay!” reads an airport sign greeting the expats on their arrival to Bogotá. “Thanks to peace the country had stopped being what it had been for half a century: some 450,000 square miles in area, whose rivers and lagoons had been turned into dumping grounds for dead bodies.” In Gamboa’s imagined Colombia, the churches feature free wi- and offer confession by Skype. The military opens its barracks for civilians to practice sports and “exercise alongside the soldiers of the Fatherland.” Reality TV has introduced a new program, The Forgiveness Hours, where war criminals seek forgiveness from their victims in front of a live crowd. “The ethic of forgiveness has replaced the old local Darwinism and become a kind of policy.”
Yet the past is never far behind. Through the eyes of a country priest, Gamboa probes the dark years of the war where militias hunt guerillas through rural villages. Now, even as the country finds peace, soldiers from that old war are drawing new battle lines over the burgeoning market for rose cocaine, a synthetic that “produces dizziness, a feeling of flight, hyper-confidence, a love of oneself and others and over-estimation of one’s own ideas.”
Fans of Roberto Bolaño will feel right at home in this globetrotting tale of misfit poets and ultraviolent drug lords. Like Bolaño, Gamboa is sensitive to the movement of people across borders and how those waves of migration ripple across individual lives and entire continents. The intoxicating translation by Howard Curtis is by turn panoramic
and intensely focused on moments of extreme violence. Yet the acts of violence in this book—think Dexter meets Pulp Fiction—transcend sensationalism to raise profound questions about betrayal, revenge and whether it’s possible to forgive or forget.
“You may think a priest with a gun is a strange thing,” says a country priest who finds himself helping hunt down guerillas in the jungle. “But the archangels were militiamen, haven’t you seen them in paintings, with swords, harquebuses, and spears? You have to adapt to the times.”
Gamboa is a novelist who has adapted to the times. Return to the Dark Valley is a page turner that is fiercely contemporary and wickedly funny in its analysis of the forces tearing at the seams of the world. Like the young Rimbaud, Gamboa has harnessed violence into “the talon that lifted him in the air and dropped him on the high seas, where the most dangerous monsters swim, where you not only have to look evil in the face, but sustain its gaze.”
Chris Feliciano Arnold is the author of The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon, forthcoming from Picador USA in March 2018.