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(4.5 stars) A literary conference in the King David Hotel, Jerusalem, is operating by candlelight after bombs kill the power there. Attending this conference is the novel's unnamed speaker, "E.H," now living in Rome after a two-year convalescence from a serious illness. He has no idea why he has been invited. The list of other participants offers him no clues: an expert in Jewish religious texts and a passionate lover of chess; a stamp collector from Colombia who has written a grammar book; a Miami-based, former evangelical pastor and drug addict who has written only religious texts; and the lone woman, a porn actress and the founder of the highly successful Eve Studios, who has been the star and producer of hundreds of porn films. Each of these participants will tell a novella-length story during this conference on biography and memory, and as their stories unwind, the reader begins to wonder if the conference itself is a kind of necropolis, a memorial to mankind's complex past and its yet-to-be-buried horrors, attended by speakers, each of whom inhabits a personal "necropolis" by revisiting the past.
The novel that follows is packed with non-stop action even as it considers some of life's biggest subjects: life and death, God (the Big Enchilada) and Satan, love and sex, truth and lies, poverty and wealth, memory and reality, language and the past, and assorted related subjects such as the need for solitude and for hope, the irresistible urge for revenge, and the inescapable violence which is responsible for the declining civility of modern life. Despite the extraordinary number of these "heavy" metaphysical themes and the sometimes allegorical connotations, however, Colombian author Santiago Gamboa, creates a can't-put-it-downer of a novel, filled with excitement and unusual characters leading unusual lives.
The first and longest story is told by Jose Maturana, a former bank robber and drug addict, whose violence has landed him in Moundsville Prison in West Virginia. After being beaten up badly by a visiting evangelical preacher, Jose becomes a convert. Eventually, the ministry they share becomes huge - and extremely wealthy - and Jose begins to suspect financial misdealings. The second story is the tale of two chess champions from Poland and Sweden, their marriages and later widower-hood, and their long friendship. The third story tells of hardworking Colombian Ramon Mela Garcia, a shop owner who is unwilling to pay extortion to paramilitaries, who then accuse him of collusion with FARC in drug-running. He plans a terrible revenge for his betrayers. Sabina Vedovelli's story is as graphically pornographic in its telling as her film career, with no holding back here in the descriptions of every move she makes to please her partners and her film fans.
Literary ironies and humor fill the novel, and reading this book is a total experience. I still find myself thinking back, trying to connect all the stories and themes into a coherent whole, and I'm still working on reconciling some of them. The novel's conclusion raises even more questions about the dark direction in which the author sees civilization moving. Often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his choice of themes, Gamboa does not veer into Marquez's magic realism, but contains those elements within the context of a particular character's story and not the arc of the plot. Challenging, thoughtful, and loads of fun, this is the most ambitious new novel I've read in a very long time.