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UNCOVER: Necropolis by Santiago Gamboa

Daniel Feinberg

UNCOVER considers reviews that take their center from judging a book’s cover. The first installment is on Santiago Gamboa’s Necropolis, published in Spanish in 2009, and winner of La Otra Orilla Prize. Europa Editions just released the novel in its English translation.

Lured by both the book’s title and an image of a hotel hallway, luxurious and empty, I entered the graveyard frame story of Santiago Gamboa’s newest novel, Necropolis. The Colombian author composes a polyphonic narrative from an unnamed author invited to the International Congress of Biography and Memory in Jerusalem. What unfolds is a spellbinding murder mystery that circumnavigates the conference and bedrooms of the King David Hotel as the narrator listens to a series of extraordinary life stories: the confessions of an Italian porn star, a Latin American paramilitary revenge tale, the saga of a chess-playing duo, and an ex-con Christian drug/sex cult member named José Maturana, who follows a toned and tattooed leader in a messianic South Beach. When Maturana is found dead in his Jerusalem room, traces of the other characters cross and graft, leaving uncertainties and suspicions, setting the narrator into an investigation that turns the entire plot of this phantasmic thriller in on itself with concupiscent empathy and seductive obscurity.

Getty Images comes through with a photograph whose noir nothingness simulates the ghost play of the novel itself. The light of the photo is golden but wooden, carpeted. Doorways recede in a geometric strictness, teasing the complexity of their interiors—the connected isolation of subjectivities. The image is void, but predicative of life, lives. The cover judges itself for its own inviting penetrability: the title erects itself in white uppercase letters like tombstones: NECROPOLIS. Slightly larger, but not emboldened, the author’s name stretches over the title, as if he were the first to present himself to those tombs, like memories, structured here with immaculate yet cryptic purpose. The design seems to provoke a Kantian resolve: our relationship to and perception of the experience of death may prove definitive of the experience of life. Similarly stated by the President of the International Conference on Biography and Memory (ICBM) in the first chapter:

These fateful years that it has befallen us to live through would be more suitable for seclusion and solitude, the intellect must continue its work in the midst of the most horrifying circumstances, it’s always been that way, and today more than ever, when the present is growing ever angrier as if to punish us, it is worthwhile looking at the past, turning to memory…because in memory lies the origin of ourselves and of reality.

In a theory posited by American poet and cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum, the hotel presupposes a home. Likewise, memories presuppose the truth as literature presupposes life. The meta murder mystery of Necropolis, set in a landscape of terror and war (bombs are a regular occurrence outside the novel’s King David Hotel), is a beautifully crafted account of language’s experience as both an autopsy and vital—an obscene paradox that seduces us in fiction. The stories told by Gamboa, via an unnamed author who in turn recounts the stories of the conference’s speakers, are, in the end, survival stories, telling of characters who overcome addiction, the Holocaust, rape, imprisonment, and exile, each survival becoming its own mythic fantasy of the undead. Hotel rooms hold those ghosts, of the guests and the host, whose emptiness is itself a promise of what is to come. This is a literature of redemption and is present in the very absence of the book’s cover image of a haunted hotel hallway: a purgatory flush with possibilities, even the truth’s shadowy survival in myth.