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‘Truth is merely our perception of the truth’ [book review]

A review of The Night Will Be Long by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg

Santiago Gamboa’s The Night Will Be Long takes its title from a line by Spanish poet José Ángel Valente. Gamboa has chosen it as one of two epigraphs for his novel – the other is a line by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick – and it appears in a slightly extended version at the front of the book:

Close the door tight, brother;

the night will be long.

It is interesting, this, as Gamboa’s novel, a dense thriller, does pretty much the exact opposite of closing a door tight. Instead, it throws it wide open – the windows, too – inviting the reader to step right in to a cast of colourful characters, a maelstrom of events, and an ever-changing backdrop of lush landscapes and teeming cities located largely in Colombia, but also other parts of South America (notably Cayenne, capital of French Guiana). More than this, though, it uses its twist-filled plot as the stepping stone for an exploration of modern-day Colombia, with all the thorny social and political challenges it faces. At times highly critical, often revelling in a bittersweet kind of affection, Gamboa has written a novel that is both a love letter to his country and a song of despair.

Cover image - The Night Will Be Long

‘What happens after a crime?’ wonders the narrator of The Night Will Be Long, before concluding on the following line:‘It depends—sometimes nothing.’ The same cannot be said of this particular novel, which sparkles in Andrea Rosenberg’s bright, clever translation, though it does indeed begin with a crime – a brief, violent shoot-out on the banks of the Ullucos River in Colombia’s south-western region of Cauca. The only surviving witness is a young teenager who we will later come to know as Franklin, but news of the shooting still makes its way to the Office of the Prosecutor General in Bogotá. Enter the novel’s three main protagonists: Edilson Justiñamuy, a hard-working, highly structured prosecutor who can’t always maintain the lofty moral standards or rigorous lifestyle to which he subjects himself; Julieta Lezama, a brilliant investigative journalist who drinks too much, thinks too much, and loves her teenage sons fiercely, despite mainly leaving them in the (to her) substandard care of her estranged husband; and Johana Triviño, Julieta’s equally smart assistant, who grew up in a tough neighbourhood of Cali and spent twelve years as a member of the FARC. Determined to find out who is behind the shooting (all evidence of which has been smoothly swept away), the trio embarks on a labyrinthine investigation that will lead them to the dark heart of Colombia where religion and politics intersect.

Thanks to its troubled history and figures like Pablo Escobar, who has reached something of a cult status through popular TV shows such as Narcos, Colombia is all too often associated with cocaine-driven crime, closely followed by the FARC. But while drug lords, motorbike-riding sicarios and guerrilla fighters do all appear in The Night Will Be Long, the real criminal here is the Church – or, more specifically, a couple of decidedly shady priests. It isn’t a spoiler to say this, as the novel isn’t a classic thriller: who or what authorised the riverbank shooting turns out to be fairly irrelevant. What matters is the stories Julieta, Johana and Justiñamuy uncover along the way; the people – both ordinary and extraordinary – they encounter; and the vibrant picture of Colombia that emerges as a result: ‘a country smaller than the world, but just as cruel and violent’.

With its endless red herrings, looping backstories and unexpected tangents, Gamboa’s novel is a complex beast – and yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel that way to read. Structurally, it is digestible, with new, often self-contained plot arcs presented in the form of police reports, interviews or stories, and there is plenty of fairly pacey dialogue that both maintains momentum and helps the reader keep a handle on the story. Though often writing about dark subjects, not least the everyday violence to which the book returns again and again, Gamboa’s tone is light and playful, with a generous sprinkling of humour to keep things palatable. Above all, though, it is his strong characterisation that makes this novel so enjoyable: Julieta, Johana, Justiñamuy and their many fellow characters, both major and minor, veritably leap off the page, each with a distinct voice and set of personal problems that make them relatable and human. This is, of course, in no small part the work of translator Andrea Rosenberg, who has deftly created a parade of voices beneath the overarching, witty-yet-intelligent tone of the narrator.

The Night Will Be Long is a novel about Colombia, about corruption and murder and self-interest and lies, but also about the world in general and the difficulty with being human. It is about everyday struggles and the way the past repeats on us, about the many layers to any story and what makes good people do bad things. At its heart, it is about the impossibility of ever being right – after all, as even the impassioned Julieta seems forced to accept in the end, ‘“Truth is merely our perception of the truth”’. As Gamboa so deftly shows in this novel, it is not so much the ‘what’ that matters as the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – two factors that can be almost infinitely various. Smart, thoughtful, liberally doused in both metaphor and wit, The Night Will Be Long is a celebration of voice and multiplicity, and of the vital art of storytelling.

The Night Will Be Long by Santiago Gamboa, translated from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg, is published by Europa Editions. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.


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