Your first thought on picking up Necropolis, the latest from Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa, is that it has a rather awesome title. Your second thought, though, is a question, namely: An awesome title for what, exactly? What kind of novel is this title introducing? Is it genre pulp? A body-filled noir? A zombie horror or slasher romp? Is it existential lit ("the necropolis of our souls")? Or social commentary ("the necropolis of late capitalism")? Or even speculative fiction ("the necropolis of the post-apocalypse")?
Or, more promisingly, is Necropolis, à la 2666, a novel of the contemporary global city? The growth of cities over the last few decades has transformed human life about as much as it can be transformed. Yet, compared with stories about wizards or S&M or being young and privileged in New York, the global city remains woefully under-written. Novels, of course, hardly ever try to narrate human life as it exists for most actual humans, but it is astonishing when they do. We can always cross our fingers.
For now, though, we're out of luck: Actual human life is MIA in Gamboa's Necropolis, a wonderfully readable but often quite silly novel. The action begins in Rome, in our nameless narrator's apartment on “Via Germanico in the Prati Districts, not far from the Tiber and Vatican City.” Here, he reads the European canon, writes novels and listens to “the snoring of an elderly alcoholic with cancer of the trachea...the moaning of my young upstairs neighbor having sex with her boyfriend, which can be quite maddening, especially when you are trying to read the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus.”
Yes, well, I suppose it would be. While our narrator tries not to listen to his neighbors, an invitation arrives to the International Conference on Biography and Memory, a Prestigious and Highly Literary event held in Jerusalem. Among the attendees are Edgar Miret Supervielle (“bibliophile... great lover of chess”), Sabina Vedovelli (a socialist porn actress), Moisés Kaplan (“Historian, philatelist, stamp collector”), and José Mataurna (“former evangelical pastor, former convict, former drug addict”).
This salacious yet highbrow list is very good news for the writer of Gamboa's dust-jacket, but its id-tickling quirks should give the rest of us pause. A socialist porn star? A tattooed evangelical preacher? And then the faux scholars, coupled with the absurd title of the conference itself? This list is the first sign of Gamboa's habit for wackiness, a habit that speaks to Gamboa's basic desire to keep his readers both entertained and unashamed (hence the novel's slew of literary references and dropped names).
To put that another way, Necropolis has all the hallmarks — the cliché 'hallmark' being all too appropriate — of a marketable literary novel. Unfortunately, this seems to dictate far too many of Gamboa's artistic choices, including the ludicrous quantity of hot sex, which I'll touch on below. For now, though, it's worth pointing out that while marketability has seemingly become, in the world of book reviews, the central determination of praise, there are other values; as scandalous as this might seem, there's more to literature than a good, quick read.
But let me return to the plot. The stories of these various and variously intriguing attendees, nominally presentations at the International Conference on Biography and Memory, form the bulk of the novel. Gamboa, seemingly aware of just how punchable his narrator can be, immediately jump-cuts from the apartment in Rome to the first piece of testimony, that of Jose Mataurna, which forms the novel's major competing thread.
Over two parts, Mataurna talks about his time with the Ministry of Mercy, a cult of drug addicts and criminals led by a rich, messianic Adonis. The story follows the cult's rise and fall and traces Mataurna's gradual realization that his leader is not as pure as he seems. The story ends with a police shoot-out.
After Mataurna, we hear from Edgar Miret Supervielle, who talks about chess, sex and betrayal (choice quote: “I've been here for three days and we've made love 22 times”); Moisés Kaplan, who talks about mafia, sex, drugs, and betrayal; and Sabina Vedovelli, who talks about sex, drugs, porn, and betrayal.
You get the picture. Necropolis isn't just fictional, it's cinematic — or, more to the point, it's like the movies. Everyone's screwing, snorting coke, getting rich, flying across the world, screwing—and not just screwing, but screwing over and over again. While there's a lot of talk about poverty and drug addiction, most everyone is awash with cash at one point or another; there seems to be no such thing as everyday life, or human life, or life in any recognizable form.
This is precisely the opposite of how Gamboa wants his novel to be read. He takes his epigram, worryingly enough, from Charles Bukowski, who claims that “[i]t's not the history of countries but the lives of men.” While the general sentiment — people over the state apparatus — is a fine one, it misses the greater part of the way we live today, which is inevitably caught up in the institutions of the state (or corporations, which are notably absent from Bukowski's comment).
This matters all the more when we consider how Gamboa treats the conflict in Israel and Palestine. The novel ends with the intimation that Israel — or at least Jerusalem — has lost its war. With its troops on the retreat, our heroes flee. There are, however, no details, no context: the falling shells provide some easy tension, some bomb-shelter conversations, nothing else. This isn't war, it's War (the concept) or war! (the plot device). Representing an all-too-familiar libertarian ethos, human lives in Necropolis are only ever tossed around by power; they are never shaped by it.
It only gets worse when we consider how Gamboa treats the women in his novel. This has all been said before, but let us take a deep breath and point to just one example.
The principle female character in Necropolis is an Icelandic reporter named Marta. Our old, male narrator meets Marta at the conference and she is soon sleeping naked in his bed — because it's more comfortable for her, you see, and she can't go all the way back to her hotel. Later, noting his erection, she says “you won't be able to rest, let me help you.” After giving him a quick hand-job, she masturbates in the bathroom.
Earlier, to get access to a body in a morgue, Marta tells a hospital doctor she has a pain in her uterus. She then removes her underwear and raises her “pelvis a little...I had already realized the doctor wanted to fuck me.” Towards the end, (spoiler alert), she decides to quit her job to pursue Amos, a married man with “pink fingers and sweet cock... I'm staying here and I'm in love with Amos, I love him with all my heart and with my vagina, both throb for him, my chest is bursting, I'm wetting my panties, everything is happening because of him.”
So it goes, I guess. There's plenty more where that came from: Gamboa, like the postwar American male writers he so clearly admires (Bukowski, Updike, etc), seems compelled to write about perversity. The example of these male writers, including their convenient belief that writing about older men fucking lots of young women is an act of political rebellion, is a dismal inheritance, and one we would all do better without. If we are to give Gamboa the benefit of the doubt, we would say that Necropolis is about whether 'perversity' is actually perverse, anymore — whether or not those acts of vital rebellion have become deadened or reified, like most everything else. The second way to interpret Necropolis is to see it as commodified rebellion as such: not a commentary on the thing, but the thing itself — not the avant-garde, but the garde — in all its pleasurable, regrettable glory.
Matt McGregor lives in Wellington, where he works for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. He has written reviews for The Monthly Review, The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions and The Literary Review.