214 West 29th St., Suite 1003
New York NY 10001
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Santiago Gamboa c/o Guillermo Schavelzon & Asoc., Agencia Literaria www. schavelzon.com
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation by Howard Curtis
Original Title: Necropolis
Translation copyright © 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
Translated from the Spanish
by Howard Curtis
To Analía and Alejandro in Jangpura
Surviving is, in the end, an act as praiseworthy as
searching for the truth until it wears us out.
It’s not the history of countries but the lives of men.
The letter inviting me to that strange conference, the International Conference on Biography and Memory (ICBM), arrived along with a whole lot of unimportant mail, which is why I left it on my desk, without opening it, for more than a week, until the cleaning woman, who sometimes takes it upon herself to tidy my things, said, what should I do with this letter? throw it in the wastepaper? It was only then that I had a good look at the stamp, the Hebrew writing, and the ICBM logo. I opened it, thinking it would be something unremarkable, but as soon as I started reading it I was hooked:
Dear writer, in view of your work, we have the pleasure of inviting you to the International Congress on Biography and Memory (ICBM), to be held in the city of Jerusalem from 18 to 25 May. If you accept, we would ask you to participate in a round table on a topic still to be decided, and to give a talk or lecture either on the vicissitudes of your work and the way you approach it, or on your life or the life of any another person worthy, in your opinion, of being retold. The costs of transport and accommodation, plus your expenses during your stay, will be met by the ICBM, and you will, in addition, receive a fee of 4,000 euros. Please reply to the above address, enclosing as complete a résumé as you see fit, as well as a photograph.
Secretary General of the ICBM.
I was not only surprised but also, to tell the truth, flattered and euphoric. Questions came flooding into my head: who had given them my name? what kind of conference was this? what was my connection with the world of biography? I’ve written a number of novels and short stories, a travel book and thousands of pages of journalism, none of which, as far as I know, could be called biographical in nature; what made them think of me? how did they find my address? By the time evening fell, I was still wrestling with the same questions, and not finding any answers.
I should point out that this happened at a time when my life had slowed down completely. The hands of the clock kept turning, but that meant absolutely nothing to me. I would spend hours staring at a photograph in a newspaper, or at the cover of a book without opening it, aware of the emptiness and my own inner sounds, the beating of what Poe calls the “tell-tale heart,” the bloodstream, the tension of certain muscles. I had just recovered from a long illness that had separated me from the life I had lived until then, the life of a working writer moderately well known in the small world of letters. What happened was that my lungs had been invaded by a malignant virus, something called a hantavirus, which filled the alveolar sacs with liquid and flooded the capillaries, generating pools of virulent infection, infested with white cells. The illness condemned me to a long stay in hospital, until somebody decided to move me to a sanatorium in the mountains that specialized in respiratory and pneumological diseases, and there I was to remain for just over two years, far from all that had been mine but that, in the end, turned out to be nobody’s, since it all faded away the higher up the mountain I climbed (like Hans Castorp).
Illness creates a vacuum, and with time this becomes our only relationship with the world, a relationship that never seems to end. The patient walks along the edge of a crater where there may once have been a lake or even a city, and asks himself questions like, what happened here? why is it so deserted? where did everybody go? Then we are filled with a great stillness, and the past, all that we were before, dissolves like sugar in hot coffee. It is a very strange feeling, but quite a pleasant one, and I really mean that. Some time later, when the pools in my cells dried up and stopped secreting pus, I felt enormously weary. I had invested all my strength into getting well. During that time, I had read a lot, but stopped writing, since it is easier to do without things that do not yet exist, that have not yet taken shape. That was what I had learned in those years of stillness and silent observation.
As we are on the subject—and observing the strict laws of narrative—it might be useful at this point to say something more about myself. I have worked in public radio, especially on nighttime news shows; I have been a newspaper correspondent, written half a dozen novels that have had a modest success in a number of countries; I have taken courses in literary studies and, above all, I have read the classics, not very systematically, as well as my contemporaries, some of whom, of course, should be severely censured, but then it is well known that literature is a barren terrain to which anybody can stake a claim. As I myself did.
As for my private life, there is not much to say. I have been living in Europe for more than twenty years. Currently, I live in Rome, on Via Germanico in the Prati district, not far from the Tiber and Vatican City, in a comfortable apartment that is unfortunately also somewhat noisy, absorbing as it does both the sounds of the street and those from inside the building, which are varied in nature, from the snoring of an elderly alcoholic with cancer of the trachea and six bypasses to his credit, to the moaning of my young upstairs neighbor having sex with her boyfriend, which can be quite maddening, especially when you are trying to read the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus.
But let me get back to the letter.
The next day, at about eleven in the morning, I switched on my computer with the intention of answering the ICBM and accepting their invitation. But first, I went to the window and looked out: that old itch had come back, the itch to put off writing and do all kinds of little tasks that suddenly seemed urgent. Finally, though, I sat down and said, solemnly: the first letter I type will be the first in twenty-seven months, which one shall I start with? I pressed the x three times, by way of a trial, and then the l. I stretched my fingers then contracted them, rubbed my forearms, bounced up and down on the armchair to test the springs, and kicked off my slippers. I was ready. There was nothing to do now but write.
Dear friends of the ICBM, it is both an honor and a surprise to receive this invitation, which I hasten to accept. I await further details on the logistics of the conference and on whatever procedures need to be followed. In the meantime, I have a small request to make. Perhaps you could clarify for me how it is that such a prestigious institution heard of me and why it has been so gracious as to invite me to its conference, given that I have never written any book that was openly biographical in nature, even though I am a passionate reader of the genre. As that is my one question for the moment, I should like to thank you again, and I look forward to hearing from you at the earliest opportunity.
PS: résumé enclosed.
I went back to the window, to clear my head before rereading the letter, and looked out to see what was happening on Via degli Scipioni. That is one of my main occupations: looking down at the street and watching the people who pass, wondering who they are, what they are doing here, what has driven them to leave their homes, what keeps them going. A pizza delivery boy parked his motorbike near the corner, talking all the while on his cell phone. A girl student crossed the street, went into a building opposite, and slammed the door. At the far end, the owner of the convenience store stood out on the sidewalk, waiting for customers and giving instructions to his son, who was piling crates of mineral water. Things were slowly coming back to life, so I went back to my desk and reread the letter. Then I printed it, put it in an envelope, and walked three blocks to the post office.
On the way back, I dropped by the Caffè Miró on Via Cola di Rienzo, one of the places in the neighborhood that I use as a kind of office, but by the time I was on my second cup of coffee I realized that I could not think of anything but the conference. It was the same on the days that followed. The thing kept growing inside me, like a cry echoing between the walls of a ravine. I started spying on the caretaker as he sorted the post, hoping against hope that I could see all the way from the fourth floor whether one of the envelopes was from the ICBM.
The days passed and I started to resign myself. They must have realized their mistake, I thought. After all, I had, in a way, dissuaded them myself. Well, I would just have to resume doing what I had been doing before, slowly getting my life back, even though I sensed that something surprising was about to happen, which was why I waited at the window or sat on benches in Roman squares, played solitaire on my laptop, or watched old football matches on TV.
But “everyone gets everything he wants” (it’s a line from Apocalypse Now that I quoted in one of my books), and so, one fine day, the long-awaited envelope arrived. I did actually recognize it from upstairs and rushed to the elevator, convinced that I had to open it before anyone else laid eyes on it: that damned caretaker, for example, whom I had long suspected, not only of being a Fascist, but also of opening the tenants’ mail. So I grabbed the bundle of envelopes and hid it under the flap of my jacket, a move to which the caretaker reacted with a disapproving scowl.
I heaved a sigh of relief when I got back inside my apartment, and settled down to look carefully through what had arrived. With a certain morbid curiosity, I put aside the envelope that interested me the most and opened my other mail, which turned out to be an advertisement for a gym and two letters from my agent enclosing royalty payments (one for 26.50 euros and the other for 157 euros). I needed the letter from the ICBM to restore my enthusiasm, even though I was sure they had withdrawn the invitation. I held the envelope up to the light. They’re going to apologize, I thought, and tell me they’ll send me something by way of consolation, the book with the proceedings of the conference or something like that, so imagine my surprise when I opened the envelope, saw the heading, and read the following:
Dear Mr.—, thank you for confirming that you are able to attend our conference, please fill in the enclosed forms and send them back to us, specifying if you wish to stay in Jerusalem for the duration of the conference (which we would greatly appreciate) or if you prefer to limit your stay. By return of post, you will receive a code for obtaining your airline tickets, the themes on which we will ask you to speak are in the enclosed booklet, once again we are grateful for your interest.
Secretary General of the ICBM.
I felt a kind of primitive joy and my eyes filled with tears (since my illness I have found that I am easily moved to tears, which can be somewhat ridiculous). In gratitude for the letter, I looked out at the turbulent Roman sky. I do not believe in anything apart from the classics of literature, but I felt like shouting out: if anybody up there is listening, thank you! Inside the envelope was a form, with thirty-six questions, so I sat down to answer them. I needed to weigh each word carefully. As it was certain now that I would be going to the conference, I was no longer afraid of saying anything inappropriate, but I did want to give the best, or indeed the most impressive, answers I could.
Firstly, I made it clear that there were no subjects with which I thought I would have any problems or about which I was especially sensitive, from a political, religious, sexual, or moral point of view (questions 1 to 25); then I gave a brief account of my intellectual interests and aesthetic stance (questions 26 to 34), which I found quite useful, as it was something I had never done before; and, finally, I summarized my health problems and physical condition (questions 35 and 36), a subject I was pleased to see on the form, the way a student who knows the answer to a question is pleased when that question comes up, since it allowed me to mention my illness, the one thing that had dominated my life over the past few years. Then I looked at the booklet. I saw that there were going to be a number of round tables dealing with the relationship between language and the past, and that I was invited to take part in one of them, which would focus on “the many forms through which we remember, evaluate, understand, and convey a life.” I was also asked for a talk of a biographical nature “on any literary, sociological, human, or archetypal topic that has a connection with the main theme of the conference: The Soul of Words.” The wording was so vague that I was sure I could use one of my old lectures. That did not worry me, whereas the round table, I thought, might present more of a problem. In my experience, such discussions often throw up a variety of subjects that are not always easy to anticipate.
I started searching for books that dealt with the theme of memory and the life of words, and spent the afternoon looking through essays by Borges and Adorno and poems by Cavafy, even checking out some of Deleuze’s ideas, though I have never quite understood Deleuze, and adding a few ideas of my own, although not many: I have never been strong on theory or abstract thought. During those hours, I would not say I was happy, but I did feel quite content. I was occupied with intellectual labor, and I was making something happen. I had been given a second chance.
Some time later, reading by the light of an old lamp—it must have been three in the morning by now, the hour of the wolf, the hour when hospital patients are most in pain—I realized that there was something basic that I had not yet done, which was to look at the list of the other people invited to the conference. In the past, that had always been the first thing I had done, and it had often been the thing that had determined whether or not I would accept the invitation.
I remembered a fog-shrouded conference in the city of Gothenburg, in the middle of the northern winter, with the eye-catching name Current Narrative Tendencies, or the Dark Music of Cities. When I looked at the list and saw that Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Roberto Bolaño were among the speakers I immediately accepted, and set off in a Swedish plane that left behind the clear Italian sky to enter the gray atmosphere of the north and had to break through a layer of ice before setting down on a frozen runway. Then there was a hotel called the Osaka, with wooden stairs and striped carpets, and Rey Rosa and Castellanos Moya, their bodies stiff with cold and their faces glum, announcing that Roberto Bolaño had not arrived on the expected flight and that he would not be coming on any other, having cancelled at the last minute, which was very typical of him: he always gave the organizers of such events the jitters. A sense of disappointment settled over us. We felt alone, like three teenagers lost in the inhospitable streets of an industrial zone. The next day, when we had to discuss literature and cities in the fog in front of an audience shrouded in scarves, all we could come up with was a few vague ideas, and I do not know if I am saying this with hindsight because of what happened later, but when we said goodbye to each other in that desolate airport, which was more like a morgue or a gothic cathedral, Castellanos Moya, Rey Rosa, and I had red-rimmed eyes, as you do when you are trying desperately to avoid talking about something tragic, a feeling that, I am sure, was connected with Bolaño
But let me return to the list of delegates.
Of course, as was only to be expected, I did not find any of my friends, but I did see a series of names that drew my attention, and I copied them into my notebook:
Leonidas Kosztolányi. Hungary, 62 years old, antiquarian, specialist in 17th-century rolled plate glass and marquetry. Lives in Budapest. His most recent works are The Life and Achievements of Baron Sarim Bupcka, The Calends of Ptolemy, Return from Tasmania, and a Dictionary of Brevity.
Edgar Miret Supervielle. France, 64 years old, bibliophile, specializing in Jewish religious texts. Has spent much time in Israel, Lithuania, and New York. A great lover of chess, he is the author of Life of Boris Alekhine and From Nabokov to Stefan Zweig: Writers and Chess. On other subjects, he has published The Essential Thought of Ben Yehuda and a three-volume biography of Herod Antipas.
All of them had sent extensive résumés, full of details of travels and stays abroad. Mine by comparison was fairly concise, just a list of books and the few jobs I had done.
The shortest was the following:
Kevin Lafayette O’Reilly. Island of Santa Lucia. Author of Memories of the Purple Ghost. I am black.
And the most eye-catching:
Sabina Vedovelli. Italy. Porn actress and founder of Eve Studios. Among her many films are The Graveyard of Lost Sex and the trilogy Screw Me, Screw Me, I Don’t Want This to End! (sketches for a “Pornography of the Left”). Author of Kevin McPhee: The Legend, Marcello Deckers or the Modern Priapus and Aaron Sigurd, the Twelve-and-a-Half-Inch King.