“That Man should labour & sorrow,
& learn & forget, & return
To the dark Valley whence he came,
To begin his labours anew”
Santiago Gamboa’s Return to the Dark Valley is a journey into the “dark valley” of hell and back out again. It begins during the 2004 terrorist attacks on the Irish embassy in Madrid where Consul, a Colombian diplomat-turned-writer and the primary narrator of the novel, is mysteriously summoned from Rome, where he’d been living, by a Juana, an ex-lover. Upon his departure to Madrid, we switch narrators to Manuela, a young poet from Cali recounting to a psychiatric Doctor her tale of abandonments and betrayals, first by her father, then by her mother and subsequently friends and lovers. Then, the Argentinian, Tertullian, as he’s called by his followers, narrates to Consul how he became Master of the Universal Republic, a new world order he conceives of, borrowing from Nazi and other principles. Recovering from a bar fight, in the same room in a Madrid hospital, Consul meets Ferdinand Palacios, a fellow Colombian and freedom fighting priest. Palacios becomes the catalyst bringing Consul, Juana, Manuela and Tertullian traveling together back to Colombia, to right wrongs done to Manuela. Rimbaud, the infamous French poet of the late 19th century, known for being explosive, gay and always on the move, whose biography Consul is writing, serves as background to this collective search for revenge and redemption, and inspires the characters’ final adventure.
This is not the magical realist Colombia of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, rather, it explores the modern urban grit beneath the country’s enchanting landscape. There are layers to this underbelly; first is the Madrid terrorist attack, and other bad news, going on in the present. Next, are the individual tragic stories of Consul and his subject, Rimbaud, with whom he identifies, Manuela and Tertullian. In the first half of the book, the heavy story lines of Consul, Manuela and Tertullian are as disconnected from each other as the citizens of Madrid seem to be from the news of the attacks. We have no idea what these characters have to do with each other. Going from one character to the next is like disparate news stories reported one after the other with no connection, no hierarchy of importance. We experience them like an endless barrage of news with no commercial break. Consul’s own chapters get interrupted by headlines: BREAKING NEWS, POLICE ATTACK EMBASSY… BREAKING NEWS, POLICE ATTACK EMBASSY. Through these intrusions in the text, Gamboa suggests that the real intrusion to the story is not the headlines, not the news, but the evasion of the news, the ability to turn it off or ignore it, like the Madrid citizens seem so quickly to forget the attacks and return to their normal lives. “Despite the crisis and embassy siege, there were streams of people in the streets, an incredible hustle and bustle” (95).
Gamboa doesn’t let us turn away from his crew. Instead, he draws us further in. Just when it all seems too much – Manuel’s drama, Consul’s waiting for Juana and Tertullian’s battle cries – Gamboa brings the story lines together in the second half of the book. Through Palacios, the characters all get wrapped up in Manuela’s goal to get back at the source of all her pain. Gamboa’s straightforward prose (the second sentence reads “I wanted to write a book about cheerful, silent, active people”) and informal tone (the characters speak in first person), flies in the face of NEWS, the way it shouts and stimulates. His story compels us to stay with the characters in their search for some kind of closure.
Gamboa’s story subtly criticizes the “Republic of Goodness” Colombia becomes after the peace agreement between FARC and the paramilitary, simultaneous with the group’s arrival in Bogota. As the novel comes to a close, as the characters reach resolution, there’s a discord between the forgiving sentiment abounding in Colombia and the justice our heroes and heroines have served on behalf of Manuela. Is the peace to be trusted? Or is there something to be said for, some security to be found in, fighting and war, like the one Manuela and her advocates waged? The characters have come through hell, but where do they arrive? Like Blake says, the dark valley is where labours begin anew. Consul says “it’s good to write in the middle of a storm” (23). As a diplomat, like Gamboa himself, he seeks the eye of the storm for material, and he finds it in the people he meets during his stay in Madrid. Manuela tells herself, “write to invent another world for yourself, because this one isn’t any good” (111). Traveling in Germany, Tertullian finds a politics rooted in spirituality, ideals rooted in practicality, which often involves violence (257). These characters’ stories incite them, spur them on to action. Their pasts give them a reason to overcome, to keep searching – to create. Rimbaud, in their collective past, provides creative fodder. As a traveller and poet, his yearning for new experiences, whether good or bad, and his constant quest for truth sets an example for the characters and for us, too. Gamboa leaves us with a lifting off point, not an easy landing.