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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Return to the Dark Valley

by
Santiago Gamboa


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Return to the Dark Valley



Title: Return to the Dark Valley
Author: Santiago Gamboa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 461 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Return to the Dark Valley - US
Volver al oscuro valle - US
Return to the Dark Valley - UK
Return to the Dark Valley - Canada
Retourner dans l'obscure vallée - France
Volver al oscuro valle - España
  • Spanish title: Volver al oscuro valle
  • Translated by Howard Curtis

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Our Assessment:

B : quite engaging, but presentation feels somewhat clunky

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Return to the Dark Valley is the work of the writer and one-time diplomat called the 'Consul', familiar from Gamboa's earlier Night Prayers -- and even begins with a message from one of the other major characters in that novel, Juana, sending him to Madrid to wait for her.
       Though narrated by the Consul, the novel includes several other first-person accounts that he integrates into, and alternates with, his own, a variety that ranges from longer autobiographical accounts to tighter ones of specific events and episodes. Beyond that, there is also a potted biography of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud -- "my most constant companion in all those years of traveling between Asia and Europe", the Consul says -- presented piecemeal over the course of much of the novel
       The Consul doesn't reveal very much about himself, and spends much of his time waiting in a southern Europe still out of whack after the financial crisis. Among the major events going on in the background is the terrorist takeover of the local Irish Embassy, not by your usual Islamist group but by Boko Haram. The Consul also does get involved in an altercation with an American, and winds up in hospital, and possibly facing criminal charges. There he meets several of the others who play a significant role in the novel -- notably a fellow Colombian, Manuela Beltrán.
       Much of Manuela's story is already familiar to readers by then: a difficult childhood that included horrible abuse by her mother's boyfriend, a dissolute life at the convent school she tried to escape to, and her mother's murder by the boyfriend. Manuela is a very talented poet, and, with some help, does manage to escape her past, and when she begins her studies in Bogotá even finds a woman who appears to foster her talents and supports her -- and becomes her lover. Eventually, however, Manuela is terribly betrayed, and when the Consul encounters her she is still battling the root of all evil that poisoned her life -- the man who abused her and was responsible for the death of her mother:

This is something that hurts me every day. It won't let me breathe. Knowing he's at large chokes the air in me. The thought that he's alive is so invasive it obscures any other thoughts.
       Between information gathered from some of the stories he learns and people he encounters, the Consul is in a position to facilitate Manuela being able to exact justice. Among those with information, or who can help, is the Argentinian Carlos Melinger, known as Tertullian, who claims, incidentally, that he is the son of Pope Francis, and whose own dark history includes hanging out with German neo-Nazis -- and exacting some horrible revenge of his own on those that wronged him.
       The Consul, Tertullian, Juana and her son, and Manuela do head back to now-fashionable Colombia which, after long years of guerilla unrest, is surprisingly a: "country of peace". With their target involved in the drug trade, however, things aren't entirely safe.
       The various characters' very different experiences come with considerable curious overlap -- as does also the story of Rimbaud, which the Consul continues to grapple with. Like Manuela, Rimbaud was precocious; like Manuela -- for now ? --, he appears to give up writing -- something the Consul struggles to understand (as he also does Rimbaud apparently giving up reading, which the Consul finds even more incredible). In his youth, Rimbaud was set upon much as Tertullian later is, while Manuela was also horribly violated, physically when she was a girl (and in another terribly damaging way later on too).
       There's quite a bit of brutality and violence in Return to the Dark Valley -- though it is carefully dosed. Much of it is, notably, wildly disproportionate in its excesses -- this is not an eye-for-an-eye story. (The embassy takeover in the background balances in similar territory, and though there is (disproportionate) throat-cutting excess and more, the carnage there almost doesn't seem as bad....)
       The Rimbaud-story is a slightly awkward fit: Gamboa recounts it in considerable detail, with a bit of commentary, but for those familiar with the poet's life-story (or any of the available biographies) it seems a lot for a relatively small pay-off: it's not great, newly-insightful biographical writing, and what fictional use it's put to doesn't offer nearly enough of a pay-off. Though the Consul and some of the others do wind up making the pilgrimage to Rimbaud's old haunt in Ethiopia, Harar, so at least there's that.
       Return to the Dark Valley is a lively novel of contemporary southern Europe and the Colombia of the past decades and its rapid present-day changes, and Gamboa presents several interesting life-stories, in whole or in part. Yet among the novel's weaknesses are how little readers learn about the central character, the Consul -- and how the novel relies on these other life-stories, presented like building blocks.
       Doubly-wronged Manuela also is treated oddly, in that so much of the novel tells what leads up to the second devastating betrayal -- the one that seems to silence her as a poet -- yet barely any space is then devoted to her attempts (if any) to work through or past that; instead the focus is on the much earlier violation -- understandably more fundamentally devastating, yet presented much more quickly and simply. That her vengeance should be so focused on one violator, and not the other, is never convincingly explained. (It's not that it's necessarily implausible, but the way the stories are told -- and Manuela's poetic silence -- suggests the other needs to be dealt with just as well (if, hopefully, rather differently).) Meanwhile, Manuela's crossing paths with the Consul is also rather too convenient -- and far too little of her post-Colombian life leading up to that encounter is related (especially in comparison to the space devoted to her university years in Bogotá).
       At times the violence is near the gratuitous, too -- even if its root causes are readily identifiable (revenge among them), there's practically no discussion or consideration of the implications of resorting to (or being subject to) such violence: given how talky the book otherwise is, this makes for something of a moral vacuum at the heart of the weighty work.
       A lot happens in Return to the Dark Valley, and many of the episodes and twists are, at least, interesting, making for a fairly consistently engaging read for all its 461 pages. But it doesn't quite add up to enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 September 2017

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Links:

Return to the Dark Valley: Reviews: Other books by Santiago Gamboa under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian author Santiago Gamboa was born in 1965.

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© 2017 the complete review

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