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03 May

Santiago Gamboa on travel, translation, his generation and self-referential novels

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Santiago Gamboa Santiago Gamboa

Santiago Gamboa (Bogotá, 1965) is one of the finest Latin American writers of his generation. Last September he was awarded the La Otra Orilla Literary Award for his novel Necropolis. La Otra Orilla is a literary imprint within Grupo Editorial Norma that focuses on Hispanic literature. The prize has been offered since 2005 and it rose from $30,000 to $100,000 in 2009. It is given to an unpublished novel and it guarantees the publication of the work in Latin America and Spain.

The jury –composed by Jorge Volpi, Roberto Ampuero and Pere Sureda– awarded Gamboa this prize for his “magnificent use of language, accomplishing the difficult task of bringing so many different voices to life whilst making each one authentic and unique.”

Before Necropolis, the Colombian writer had already published some wonderful novels and short stories, including Perder es cuestión de método (Losing Is a Question of Method, 1997), Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban (The Happy Life of a Youth Named Esteban, 2000), Los Impostores (The Impostors, 2002), and El Síndrome de Ulises (The Ulysses Syndrome, 2005). Note that the English titles are just for reference, as these books have been translated into French, German, Italian, Czech, Russian, Norwegian, Greek, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Basque, to name some out of 17 languages in total, but never into the language of Shakespeare, in what is, for me, one of the big mysteries of the English publishing business.

I read my first book by Gamboa in Paris. A little bit like his Esteban, I came to France from Ecuador in order to study filmmaking, hoping to learn from University but mostly looking forward to getting a broader sense of life. In the tiny apartment of my best friend I became addicted to Los Impostores. It was a very warm summer in Europe, the famous Heat Wave of 2003, and I remember leaving the wonders of Paris for later, so attached I became to the book.

It is hard to fit Los Impostores into a particular genre without typecasting it. In this delicious novel full of adventures and misadventures, several characters (a failed Colombian writer, an eminent German scholar and a Peruvian professor of literature) end up searching for a Chinese manuscript, the key to the doctrine of a secret and clandestine society since its leaders where annihilated in China.

A summer later, even if it was a previous book, Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban came into my life. I read it in Jerusalem where I had moved because of an impulsive love for a man and his cat. Lying in a hammock, under the air-conditioning and hugging my fluffy pet, I became one with that uplifting fictional autobiography that reconnected me with my Latin American origins and my own life experience through a first-person narration comprising a wide range of stories, characters and registers.

Years later, alone under the shadow of a glorious tree when autumn was beginning in the Black Forest, I felt in love with El Síndrome de Ulises (The Ulysses Syndrome, 2005) and I could not refrain from seeing myself reflected in very similar situations, laughing and feeling a certain sense of nostalgia, pleasure and sometimes pain. In this highly personal account of his days in Paris, Gamboa reencounters Esteban, who had moved there to study literature. The city of light, the dream of so many Latin American youngsters, is a cold, dark and very painful environment where the image of the Champs-Élysées, the Rue de Rivoli and the Eiffel Tower seems nothing more than a myth. Esteban washes the dishes in a Korean restaurant, takes his showers in a public pool and through the days gets to know other immigrants from around the world who share with him, and with us, their own compelling stories. El Síndrome de Ulises is a beautiful novel, where everything is lived with intensity, be it sex, friendship, despair, love, or solidarity.

Now in Necrópolis, qualified by critics as a literary tour de force, Gamboa puts his readers on a different track with a polyphonic novel that reminds the intensity, pace and harshness of The Savage Detectives (Los detectives salvajes, Roberto Bolaño, 1998) and dialogues with classics of literature such as The Decameron, The Count of Monte Cristo and One Thousand and One Nights.
After a long illness a writer is invited to a congress of biographers in Jerusalem, a city besieged by war. This is the beginning of a book woven as a spider's web, where the bizarre lives of the participants melt: a French bookseller and biographer, an Italian porn actress, a Colombian entrepreneur and a former pastor, ex-con and drug addict, redeemed by a charismatic messiah.

Santiago Gamboa moved to Madrid when he was 19 to pursue his studies in Hispanic Philology and since then he has lived outside his home country. He has lived in Paris, where he obtained a doctorate in Cuban Literature at La Sorbone and worked as a press correspondent, Rome and New Delhi, where he worked as a counselor at the Colombian Embassy. “India is a place full of contradictions, strange and beautiful things. It is a place full of life. I needed it after so many years in the old Europe”, he tells me. Now that his diplomatic post has ended he is going back to Rome, after a break in Bogotá and a conference in the US. It seems that he has been taking many planes lately, and it is precisely from the waiting area of an airport, where he talks with me.

From your own Bogotá to Madrid, Paris, Rome, Delhi... Do you need to change settings to keep writing or is it just the circumstances?
I like to change of life. To do it many times is a way to live it more intensely, or at least to try to prolong it, because one life is little life, isn’t it? As literature. To travel and to read prolong for us the wonderful sensation of being alive.
Your novels take place in so many places in the world. In addition, travel is very represented in your work and personal life. What has travel contributed to your literature?

To travel is to become acquainted, to get away from yourself, to see yourself through the eyes of the others. The roots of men are the feet and the feet move. I would not be the same if I had not traveled around the world, and my literature, of course, would be very different. It might not even exist.

You said that "identity is a matter of distance". How do you live as a Colombian away from home?
One cannot be just Colombian all one’s life. Travel has taught me that I am, above all, Latin Americaan. With distance this continental identity is more real. The closeness that one feels, whilst away, with a Peruvian or a Mexican shows me that: I am Latin American.

Do you consider going back to Colombia?
I have never considered to stay forever in the same place. To go back would be that, and I prefer not to think about it. It gives me claustrophobia. I'd rather go a thousand times to Colombia, which is also a country that I like a lot, but to stay is excluded for now.

Is your literature moving away from Colombia? Perder es cuestión de método, for instance, is a very Colombian story, but lately even if you preserve the Colombian characters, your novels take place very far away, they are more globalised.
I think that is an achievement of my generation: to be able to write novels in other countries. The idea that the Peruvian wrote only about Peru, the Mexican about Mexico and the Colombian about Colombia, stayed behind. Nobody asks a French writer to write about France, so to get that freedom as a Latin American is a great achievement. My literature can get away from Colombia in terms of geography, but not emotionally. Many Colombians travel, live things that were not previously lived.

What is your opinion about the ‘McOndo’ concept that has been used to refer to the new kind of literature that emerged in Latin America in the 90s, and the idea behind it?
Look, the thing with McOndo was something paradoxical: if I would have read the preface to the anthology prepared by Fuguet and Gómez, I might not have participated, as it did not quite agree with that North Americanized vision of Latin America that they present. Over time even Fuguet has renounced on that preface. But it is undeniable that the anthology, of 1996, made visible a number of writers, some of whom developed very good literary works. This occurred just two months before the Crack Manifesto, from the Mexicans Volpi, Padilla, Palou and Urroz. Without a doubt a new generation of authors was beginning to emerge.

And regarding the New Colombian Narrative, do you feel that you and the writers of your generation are redefining the already remarkable Colombian literature?
You write what you have to write, without a precise awareness of what others are doing, and then is the critic who brings together the different books, not the authors. As a reader of my colleagues, I can tell you that there is a very solid grid: Abad, Mendoza, Vásquez, among others. It is very different from the previous literature.

What is your opinion about Colombian cinema? Do you follow it?
Cinema has developed a great deal and there are new talents such as Ciro Guerra. I also like a lot Sergio Cabrera’s and Víctor Gaviria’s fims. The relation between cinema and literature has also developed: Paraíso Travel, Satanás, Rosario Tijeras, Esto huele mal, Perder es cuestión de método. It is also important to point out the virtuosity of Felipe Aljure, with his extraordinary La gente de la Universal. I think an avalanche of young directors is coming. Never before in the history of the country there have been so many Colombians studying film.

I am very surprised that your books have not been translated into English whereas it is possible to read you in much less spoken languages. Why? Is there a possibility that your books will be translated soon?
I do not know why. That is only known to English publishers. Surely they do not find them interesting, or maybe I'm not successful enough. I do not know. I have a literary agent who proposes my books in the UK and the US, but they never buy them. They do not say no, either; they simply delay their answer. But I am not the only author who goes through this. From my whole generation there is a small percentage of authors who are translated into English: Jorge Volpi, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Evelio Rosero, now they are going to translate Héctor Abad, but there aren’t many.
Here in the US I was just told that 2% of what they publish is translations. Two books in one hundred from all the languages in the world are translations, and the percentage of what is translated from Spanish language is even smaller, perhaps 0.4%, so there is place left for the very famous as García Márquez, Vargas Llosa and Bolaño and then a few others.
But you don’t write for that. Those are editorial issues. Literature is really something else, the text, the reader and that very strange relation.

Now that you mention so many authors, I think about your books, they are so full of literary references, encounters with real authors, characters who are writers or passionate readers. Just on page 50 of Necropolis for instance, you quote about 15 books…
I like books that are full of literary references and of course you write the way you like books to be. I do not like to quote books just to make evident a series of readings. What one quotes is what is important for the characters, and that is what I do in the end. I write in my books what is important for them, and this is an answer I also give when people ask me why there is so much sex in El Síndrome de Ulises. I say, it is not a lot, it is what characters need to be able to survive. And it is the same with the literary references. But if you pay attention, at the end of the day they are almost always the same. One has a limited number of readings and preferences, of books that are important for oneself.

From your perspective as a writer, what are the singularities of the Spanish language? Is it a pleasure to write in Spanish? And English? What kind of literature suits better the English language?
I think that Spanish is a very exuberant language, full of adjectives, of visual possibilities. Sometimes it is a bit limited in conceptual terms, but it defends itself. Maybe that is why there are no great philosophers in Spanish language. I think the English language is concise and precise. The English-language writers write faster. There are novelists like Anthony Burgess who wrote novels of 900 pages in six months, and they're great! That is very difficult to do in Spanish.

Your novels are very self-referential. Do I make a mistake if I imagine Esteban (the main character and narrator of Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban and El Síndrome de Ulises) and I think of you?
Vida feliz de un joven llamado Esteban is an autobiography, that of Esteban Hinestrosa. Of course there are many things of my life, which is the one I know best. Also his desire of being a writer, his itinerary. El síndrome de Ulises is also very referential of my own experience. I usually say that the biographical part of that book is above all the sad episodes.

What I want to say is that the voice of Esteban became so close to me that I ended up thinking that the narrator and the author were the same person…
Writers like Henry Miller or Alfredo Bryce Echenique produce that effect on me. The first person is so strong that it cancels the narrator because of that feeling of being permeated by the author's experience.
El Síndrome de Ulises is a very important novel for me. My life in Paris was a hard experience that marked me. I met absolute poverty. What the novel portrays is taken directly taken from my own experience. I lived in Paris in every way, I was poor but also rich and I was not happy either way. I was a journalist, correspondent, I had important positions and I never felt good. Maybe what happened is that I had accumulated so many things from the past that Paris generated a huge rejection in me. So I started writing El Síndrome de Ulises, and it was a very lonely writing. I never told anyone what I was doing, and practically the first time someone read it, it was the editor when the book was finished. I thought the book was too personal, that it would not interest anybody. But I wrote it as I needed it, without any kind of previous thought. But everything went fine. It was a publishing success. It is my most sold book.

And how do you cope with this sometimes ambiguous relationship that you as an author with a very self-referential body of work create with your readers? You are almost in a situation of disadvantage in front of a person who has followed your work very closely?
It is difficult, but literature has led us there, and it will have to give us a solution.

The airplane will take off soon and I remain, once again, so inspired by this author whose stories I always carry with me, as my own individual patrimony.



María Campaña Ramia

María Campaña Ramia

MARÍA CAMPAÑA RAMIA was born in Quito, in 1977. She is a documentary filmmaker and a specialist in non-fiction cinema. María is the Artistic Director of Internacional Documentary Film Festival Encuentros del Otro Cine, EDOC, one of the main documentary film festivals in South America. She writes for magazines and journals in Ecuador and keeps her blog. She lives between Durham and Quito.

Website: archibaldodelacruz.blogspot.com/


  • Paloma Granados

    Hola Brandee, fui a un evento la semana pasada con Santiago Gamboa y, si, habla ingles.

    Paloma Granados Friday, 02 November 2012 10:17 Comment Link
  • Brandee Strickland

    Muchas gracias por la entrevista! En la Universidad de Calgary, nos gustaria ver la posibilidad de invitar a Santiago Gamboa a Wordfest, un evento literario que se celebra anualmente en Alberta, Canada. Uno de los requisitos del festival es que los autores sepan ingles (para hacer una presentacion y responder preguntas, etc.). Sabe usted si Santiago Gamboa habla ingles?

    Brandee Strickland Friday, 15 June 2012 21:23 Comment Link
  • Farid Escobar

    Dear Maria Campana,
    I confess it yet again... Before Santiago Gamboa I thought there was nothing of interest to read in Spanish. Such trivial assertion came to the fore perhaps due to my early immigration to the US from Colombia back in 94, or rather because most of the POLSCI readings I did in College were all in English... at any rate a good friend from High School, Carlos Arango, shared with me LOS IMPOSTORES by Santiago Gamboa and said "you shall read it, is a good read from a Colombian living in Paris". I reluctantly took the book in my hands. The next morning I had finished it with enjoyment!. The geographical references of Bogota, Paris, and other cities as well as its difficulties fitting in, the inherent frustration, the mistrust and sense of under development or expendability is evident and reveals as a foggy mirror one wants to cross through and move away from. This syndrome of Ulyses, of missing ones land and really fearing to be tied back to it is extremely revealing. Reading Santiago Gamboa has been very revealing and refreshing... a modern costumbrist, a global writer that perspires all that surrounds him (from its origins to the new lands he's been a part of). Maria thanks indeed for a great summary and valued interview, profound, yet uncomplicated, straight and leveled.....

    Farid Escobar Sunday, 25 September 2011 22:22 Comment Link
  • Patricia Diaz

    Apreciada Maria,

    Thank you for the interview with Gamboa, moving, inspiring and revealing.
    Maybe one of the reasons the Anglos do not want to read our Latino literature is because they are stucked in the Magic Realism Era and we are not an excolony. In Britain, where I lived as a Colombian and Latin American, the most important books are from its former colonies in Africa, India, the Pacific, what is called the Commonwealth. The Americans are expecting that the Latinos in USA, those whose mother tongue is English or are bilingual will write in English which increasingly is the case.

    Patricia Diaz Thursday, 26 May 2011 11:21 Comment Link

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