Santiago Gamboa's Necropolis is a hefty, Decameron-like opus, a story-within-story-within-story set in war-torn Jerusalem, told by an unnamed 40ish narrator who, like Gamboa, is a Colombian novelist living in Rome. Receiving a letter inviting him to the International Conference on Biography and Memory, with no idea why he's been invited, the narrator finds himself in a hotel full of eccentric delegates--all storytellers, spinning tales of chess, God and drug addiction.
Gamboa expertly juggles an international cast of characters, including a muscular, tattooed ex-convict pastor of a cult religion, an Italian porn actress, a brave and honorable hotel switchboard operator, an imprisoned 70-year-old priest who knows where a treasure is hidden and a pretty journalist from Iceland with a penchant for shedding her clothes. It's a literate feast, and the reader won't get 20 pages into the story before hitting references to Poe, Mann, Bolano, Balzac and Melville. Hilariously bristling with contemporary references ("I'm not talking about the Lord of the Rings or the Lord of the Flies, but the True Lord, the Boss, the big Enchilada"), Gamboa asks, "Do we ever know much about a life, even after it's been well told?" and sets out to prove his point in serpentine, page-spanning sentences.
With room-rattling explosions creeping closer and closer, the novel dovetails narratives within narratives, like that of the hardworking and honest young auto mechanic who dares to stand up to the paramilitary hoodlums terrorizing his village, or the pregnant woman knitting a sweater incorrectly while a tortured prisoner watches, or the Portuguese poet whose everyday job as an air traffic controller forces him into a conversation with a pilot about to crash into the sea.
Gamboa's strength is an apparently inexhaustible stream of narrative invention, an addictive "and then, and then" quality that, at its best, erupts into flourishes of breathtaking poetry. But his weakness is that the reckless playfulness of his storytelling occasionally settles for second-best solutions in its propulsion forward, littering Necropolis with plotlines that lead nowhere and dozens of characters who are more ideas than flesh-and-blood. It's a dizzying mosaic and stunt-filled juggling act, with plenty of sexual hanky-panky, but with a few exceptions, the book is best enjoyed for its verbal pyrotechnics, because its fancy footwork seldom engages the heart. --Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: Conference delegates in war-torn Jerusalem tell stories-within-stories-within-stories in Colombian novelist Gamboa's dizzying mosaic of narrative invention.