IN HIS GROUNDBREAKING ESSAY “The Present Age,” Søren Kierkegaard remarked that “[t]he present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.” He presciently noted what many intellectuals deem to be the downfall of the modern age: an inability to move away from mirroring others as a means of establishing one’s own identity. Essentially, Kierkegaard and those who concur with him see a modern world largely devoid of individuality and existential ambition. In an age where vast swaths of civilization sit glued to their smartphones or computers, where stepping out of the internet’s vast echo chambers is growing increasingly difficult — regardless of whether one is an Ivy League academic or a blue-collar autoworker — Kierkegaard’s prognosis seems telling, even accurate. Santiago Gamboa’s newest novel, Return to the Dark Valley, translated by Howard Curtis, encapsulates this modern indolence, as well as going one step further: commodiously capturing the 21st century’s zeitgeist.
His novel follows five seemingly unrelated story lines: a brilliant but emotionally scarred female poet; a writer turned one-time diplomat (simply referred to as Consul); an Argentine neo-Nazi evangelist; a priest-turned-rebel; and the celebrated French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. The novel is divided into two parts and an accompanying epilogue over the course of which we become well acquainted with the journeys and miraculous crossing of paths of its protagonists. Gamboa seamlessly weaves together biography and fiction, at times even borrowing from his own, quite fascinating life.
Though Gamboa is a heavyweight of Latin American literature, he has been largely overlooked by Anglophile audiences; his only previous novels translated into English are Necropolis (Europa, 2012) and Night Prayers (Europa, 2016). Despite his ostensible lack of traction in English-speaking markets, Gamboa translates as well if not better than most of his Latin American counterparts; his prose is both honest and unpretentious, striking an equitable balance between the flair that’s come to be expected of Latin American authors and a breath of literary fresh air. Do not be mistaken, Gamboa is no novice; he’s an experienced short story writer, novelist, and journalist who has lived in Colombia, France, and Spain, along with other destinations he uses for inspiration in the novel.
Part I, aptly titled “Theory of Suffering Bodies,” not only introduces us to the various plot lines but also begins capturing the aura of the 21st century, our present age. We are introduced to this age through the lens of the Consul, who after a mysterious message from an old acquaintance hurriedly leaves Rome for Madrid. As soon as his flight touches down, he checks into a hotel room and awaits a mysterious rendezvous. However, this wait is made excruciating by the news of a terrorist attack and hostage taking at the Irish embassy by Islamic militants. In this sequence, Gamboa flexes his geopolitical nous, depicting a chief issue with the modern world — the normalization of and anesthetization to acts of terror, at home and abroad. In the present global climate, one cannot turn on the news without seeing a headline about a suicide bombing, hostage taking, or other heinous attack occurring somewhere in the world. Gamboa not only understands the current global security climate, but he also describes the geopolitics and nuances of these issues with such detail and expertise that one could easily mistake them for an analysis lifted from Foreign Policy.
Gamboa paints a picture of a Madrid in chaos — helicopters frequenting the skies outside the Consul’s hotel window and the masses milling about aimlessly in the streets — but also of a Madrid whose inhabitants, a few days into the siege, have become largely desensitized. Gamboa describes life as continuing more or less normally for most Madrileños, even though most live mere blocks away from the besieged embassy. Gamboa displays a modern world that isn’t quite burning, but in which the sparks of chaos are certainly flying. He showcases a population that, after the initial shock of the hostage taking, returns to its day-to-day activities, only casually keeping up-to-date via 24-hour news punditry.
Furthermore, Gamboa, through the Consul, launches into a surface-level analysis of postmodernism, economic disparities, and consumerism, flexing his authoritative gauge of the present age’s temperature. When discussing consumerism, for example, the Consul declares:
The Old Hispanic vice of confusing genius with appearance was reaching new heights. The cult of the superficial […] was now triumphant. Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, 450 euros plus VAT, I’ll take a pair! Abercrombie underpants […] I want half a dozen! […] Look at my long eyelashes, look at my decorated nails […] admire my body, tanned in the middle of winter […] Life is beautiful, very beautiful. That’s why I want to show it, why I want the world to see me and know! I want lots of likes on my Facebook page.
You, on the other hand, are poor, ugly, and unhappy.
In the middle of the crisis, the fortunate minority practiced a combination of every form of luxury and frivolity.
Gamboa demonstrates an uncanny ability to pinpoint one of the many generational malaises plaguing the present age: the widespread inability to remove oneself from the echo chambers and reflectors of social media. In an age where the sheer volume of information as well as the unprecedented rate of its dissemination both dictate the increasingly rapid pace of modern life, Gamboa serves us with a clairvoyant reminder as to its antecedent. Individuals living in the 21st century, Gamboa seems to say, are increasingly trapped within the virtual confines of their phones, computers, and televisions. They find it increasingly difficult to step out of the superficiality of their time, the mirrors into which they stare, the mimicking of their friends’ and followers’ behavior on Instagram or Facebook (for evidence, simply consider the number of times you’ve already looked up from this review to check your phone, email, et cetera).
Though Kierkegaard wrote “The Present Age” in 1846, it is as, if not more, apt in our own era. Gamboa testifies to our collective inability to sustain our attention on causes for more than the 30 seconds they get on a news report or the split-second it takes for us to scroll down our newsfeed. He touches on our failure to cultivate our individuality by questioning our own beliefs, engaging in meaningful discourse, or even experiencing the prosaic joy of simply sitting and thinking absent technology’s ever-present temptations. He masterfully demonstrates what Kierkegaard so judiciously wrote about nearly two centuries ago. Gamboa grasps the magnitude of the over-stimulation in the present age: everyone’s always waiting on a text, an email, a call, a like, a follow. As Gamboa writes, “[O]ne half of humanity writing to the other half, and then waiting for the reply.”
Now, this is not to say that Gamboa is some sort of anti-technology crusader or luddite — he is in fact quite the opposite. He writes of a world that grows increasingly smaller and more accessible, of a generation that has a slew of previously nonexistent tools at its hands. Gamboa simply states that the same tools that provide us with near-infinite possibilities can simultaneously be our downfall, his version of Kierkegaard’s leveling — the process by which individuals are brought down to a constant level, not encouraged to strive forward and upward but to instead settle.
Gamboa’s analysis of the present age may at times be solemn, indirectly raising a question in his audience’s mind: would it have been better to live in another age, away from modernity’s fast pace and chaos? Though this is a natural reaction to certain sequences within the novel, Gamboa, to his credit, tempers our nostalgia with testimony from the Argentine radical and alleged son of the pope, Tertullian.
Tertullian is wracked with a visceral desire to change the world and save it from the destructive hands of basically everybody but his own followers. He views himself as a modern messiah of sorts, one who admittedly keeps neo-Nazis for company. Tertullian, however, is not the black-and-white character one would expect. He is well read, well traveled, well spoken, worldly. An avid environmentalist, who, in Gamboa’s eyes, just so happens to subscribe to a series of radical ideologies. Tertullian even disavows the ideologies of certain men he actively associates with. For example, when referring to the German neo-Nazis he befriended during his years in Berlin, Tertullian remarks:
I realized that these guys were nostalgics, and that what they hated was their own situation. Their own lives. Deep down, they hated themselves […] They cling to violence because it makes them feel important.
Tertullian might keep unsavory company but he realizes that the problems that plague the world around him aren’t straightforward and that many of those who rage against the same issues as himself are ultimately deluded. Through his balancing of Tertullian’s repugnant politic beliefs and astonishing skills of perception, Gamboa demonstrates the intricacies of individuals in the present age. Gamboa refuses to hastily pigeonhole ideologies, narratives, or characters; he sees the world in infinite shades of grays.
In her essay “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” the late writer and academic, Svetlana Boym, drew a fitting distinction between the two types of nostalgia present in our age: restorative and reflective. She writes:
Restorative nostalgia stresses nostos (home) and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives on algia (the longing itself) and delays the homecoming — wistfully, ironically, desperately.
Boym warns that, though the latter is the mostly benign nostalgia of writers, lovers, and poets, the former is a dangerous iteration that can lead down the path of violence and totalitarianism. The Third Reich and even Donald Trump’s MAGA campaign, for example, both exploited notions of restorative nostalgia. Gamboa demonstrates a well-balanced understanding of the present age in that, although he sees it mired in entropy and decay, his solution to its woes is not to wish to have lived earlier, or to restore the society of past ages. Rather, Gamboa urges his audience to learn from the past and present then subsequently look to the future and act with conviction. In truth, Gamboa’s analysis of the present age is anything but pessimistic; he registers the world’s realities, nevertheless deciding that individuals can prosper, if they decide to.
The sheer breadth of Gamboa’s prose, furthermore, is remarkable; he concurrently plays historian, political scientist, writer, male, female, extremist, and intellectual. The strength of his prose is evidenced by its impeccable pace and digestibility. Though the novel connects five separate narratives, the reader is never left lamenting excessive detail or frustrating over inadequate plot development. Gamboa, instead, pulls off a master class in writing akin to that of the most celebrated Latin American writers of our time. Moreover, his writing isn’t negative or critical; it is more often empathetic and raw, in the refreshing style of a much-younger writer.
Gamboa divides the various narratives through alternating chapters, and those dedicated to Rimbaud are the most buoyant. Beginning with Rimbaud’s birth to a devout, overbearing mother and absent military father, Gamboa paints a picture of a budding young genius stuck between provincial frustration and the turbulence of wartime France. Gamboa takes us through Rimbaud’s travels, affairs, and writing in a masterfully eloquent yet empirical fashion. He simultaneously biographies Rimbaud with the methodical expertise of a trained historian and the adept style of a talented storyteller. Throughout his Rimbaud chapters, the reader hardly remembers that Rimbaud did in fact exist and is not just another stroke of Gamboa’s imaginative genius.
Gamboa’s tales of Rimbaud reveal something more about the author himself: his impressive propensity for and appreciation of poetry. The text is littered with beautifully crafted, smoothly integrated turns of phrase and witticisms that could easily have been picked out of an Octavio Paz verse. Though Gamboa is not a published poet, he clearly has a strong poetic voice and fortunate penchant for alluding to the verses of innumerable poets, including Blake, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Breton, and Rimbaud himself. Return to the Dark Valley is by no means a poetry anthology or a biography, but it effortlessly weaves the life and work of one of the most important modern poets into its grander narrative.
Gamboa’s use of poetry is further evidence as to his valuation of the present age. He utilizes the bohemian, peripatetic life of Rimbaud and the sheer intensity of his verses to showcase the life that is possible when one abandons the comforts of their level, ceases becoming a reflector of their surroundings, and passionately indulges in the project of their own life. Admittedly, poetry is not said project for most of his audience. However, that is not Gamboa’s point; he simply uses Rimbaud as a foil to the masses of people he sees settling into passionless lives in the present age. This explains Gamboa’s fondness for repeatedly quoting Rimbaud: “and at dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.” Gamboa and Rimbaud both instruct us to don an increasingly rare cap of patience and embark on adventure, or at the very least, on life. Gamboa’s inclusion of Rimbaud is, above all else, a call to action for our times, a call to live more genuinely and passionately. As Gamboa writes, enthusiastically, nearly shouting from the page, “To travel, to live, to be free.”
Ironically, the last poem that sticks with readers upon completing the novel is the first poem included in its dedication, an excerpt of William Blake’s Vala, or The Four Zoas:
That Man should Labour & sorrow,
& learn & forget, & return
To the dark valley whence he came,
To begin his labour anew.
The poem is repeatedly alluded to throughout the novel, and remains the inspiration for its title. In this repetition, Gamboa indicates that although living zealously necessitates labor, sorrow, and concerted effort, it is well worth the trouble and, in fact, necessary. Though the present age’s condition makes it anything but easy to lead such a life, Gamboa urges his audience to ardently pursue it.
Toward the novel’s denouement, Gamboa laments that “the anonymous reader is cruel and unfair because that is how literature is; only he who is prepared to take the blows can enter it.” In Return to the Dark Valley, Gamboa proves that he is not only willing to take the blows, but that he is also indeed the consummate sparring partner. Gamboa has returned to the dark valley of literature, and his passion, talent, and impressive powers of perception pave the way for his readers to join.