Return to the Dark Valley by Santiago Gamboa

Translated by Howard Curtis

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies

I found a molten quality in this novel (if it is a novel). It burns off the page, as they say. It is very much a demonstration of the melting-down and intermingling of styles, genres, discourses, fact and fiction, dream and distanced analysis etc., that in South America and elsewhere has muscled its way into a confident position alongside more traditional modes of prose fiction. In short, if it’s not the mainstream it’s no longer strictly elitist or marginal. It certainly needn’t be intimidating. Whatever else this book is, it’s an international adventure story, and if you don’t get the more recondite bits and can’t be arsed to Google them it doesn’t matter. Stick with the characters, crazy and disjointed as they mostly are, and enjoy the author’s confident rhetoric that intellectualises passion and enjoys ecstatic love affairs with ideas. No Anglo-Saxon attitudes here.

The story unravels itself wildly, and it’s hard to talk of a ‘centre’ or ‘basis’ (or even a smooth, parabolic ‘arc’) to it while everything is moving and the foundations of reality – and therefore identity – are questionable. Characters wander, are driven by urges, get into fights or beds accidentally on purpose. Without a secure, agreed project, there is no firm destination, no Google-guaranteed quickest route, more drift and collision. But the drift that gathers momentum into a surprising dénouement is parallelled, or shaped, by a series of interleaved chapters narrating the history of Arthur Rimbaud, the great 19th-century enfant terrible of French literature, now a counter-cultural icon and T-shirt statement. Having turned French verse upside-down in his teens, Rimbaud deserted poetry for adventure and exploration, and France for Africa – his ‘dark valley’ as the author sees it. Rimbaud loved to shock. He was rude and foul-mouthed, lied and stole, didn’t wash enough. But no one who knew anything about poetry doubted that he was a genius. He walked away from everything that had made his reputation, as if change itself were the dynamo of his ambition.

In Return To The Dark Valley the reader meets a posse of twenty-first-century characters in near-perpetual motion, the displaced human elements of a volcanic melodrama, all straining to break free from the trap of circumstance, to rediscover themselves: ‘the Consul’ – his narration opens the story – called from a retirement in Italy to a rendezvous in Madrid, a city hit by a (fictional) terrorist attack on the Irish embassy; Juana, who has sent for him, a call he feels unable to refuse; Manuela, a Colombian poet with a traumatised and haunted personal history; ‘Tertullian’, an Argentine still eclipsed by a grim past who claims to be the Pope’s son and has blood-curdling techniques of revenge. Indeed vengeance becomes a major concern as the novel progresses and when it comes it is enacted and described in unsparing detail. The conclusion includes two very different returns – firstly to Colombia, a nation now recovering from years of violent internal conflict, then to Hara in Ethiopia, Rimbaud’s own hoped-for return which never happened. He died in Marseille dreaming of Africa.

Gamboa’s preferred source for Rimbaud’s life and career seems to be Enid Starkie’s biography, first published in 1938 and significantly revised for later editions. It is Starkie who conjectured Rimbaud’s anal rape by Communard troops, as Graham Robb (Rimbaud, Picador 2000) and other scholars have pointed out. There is no independent evidence for it, and Robb additionally finds Starkie too close in her judgements to the poet’s narrow-minded, pietistic mother. However, Gamboa is not writing history, so the reader can reasonably infer that with a novelists’s opportunism and keen sense of literary purpose he has selected a version of Rimbaud he can credibly merge, thanks to its roster of pain, violence, horror and striving, with the roles cast for the other wayfarers.

Yet in choosing his title he has gone to the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, not A Season In Hell, an English rather than a French visionary.

That man should labour & sorrow,
& learn & forget & return
To the dark valley whence he came,
to begin his labours anew.

‘Ambivalence’ is a word both poets easily evoke. Detached from their context, do those words of Blake’s suggest a creative rebirth, possibly including the avoidance of original sin, or a Sisyphean removal to the same old uphill struggle?

On the final page of Gamboa’s book the Consul sits in a dull Ethiopian bar while ‘a humble duo: a female singer and her organist… perform romantic songs… trying to enliven an audience of ghosts.’

They finish and the mediocre singer ‘makes a solemn bow to the gallery’. Bathos and banality, you might think. End-stop the plot with a dying fall à la Hemingway or Graham Greene. But drinking his beer in a place far from home the Consul reflects ‘I think it’s the saddest, most heartbreaking, but also most beautiful gesture I have seen in my life.’

Why?

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Santiago Gamboa, Return to the Dark Valley (Europa Editions, 2017). 978-1609454258, 461 pp., paperback.

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