El síndrome de Ulises

My first encounter with the writing of the Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa (Bogotá, 1965) was in the collection of essays Palabra de América (Seix Barral, 2004), which included an introduction by Guillermo Cabrera Infante and two short pieces by Roberto Bolaño, in whose memory the volume is posthumously dedicated. The book was intended to be an introduction to a younger generation of Latin American writers, those born in the 1960s and 70s, in the heavy shadow of the Boom, many of them permanently dispersed beyond outdated notions of nationality, self, fiction, form and style.

Gamboa's essay in this volume, "Opiniones de un lector," begins with a declaration of allegiance to nomadism and cosmopolitanism, a defiant faith in his identity as a reader above all else:

"I have lived in many cities and almost always in capitals, especially since I had the liberty to choose my city of residence. Always cities, because from a very young age I felt an attraction towards that image that comes from classic American cinema: that of the solitary man, with an overcoat and hat, who steps off a train with a suitcase and looks for a hotel in an unknown city." (My translation)

When Bolaño's final masterpiece 2666 (Anagrama, 2004) was published, I read Gamboa's short review encouraging us to gather around this book as a totem, or map. He called 2666 a trench from where young writers might gain a perspective on our infinitely fractured age. Which 2666 surely is, despite the hype surrounding it and its inevitable backlash. Bolaño's managed to write a book that marks a turning point in Latin American letters, five epic novels threaded into one horrifying allegory. I don't know what readers will say when it's finally translated into English and other languages. But, for me, it seems clear enough that 2666 is a watershed book, as Gamboa so wisely points out in his review.

I've just finished reading Gamboa's autobiographical novel El síndrome de Ulises (Seix Barral, 2005), which is centered on the experience of young immigrants in Paris during the early 1990s. Gamboa himself studied Cuban literature at the Sorbonne during that time, so I'm assuming that at least parts of this book relate to his own life in Paris. At 350 pages, Gamboa's novel never attempts, like Cortázar or Vallejo, to transform the city into an aesthetic labyrinth or spiritual vortex. Gamboa's book certainly carries the weight Paris has imposed on countless generations of Latin American artists and intellectuals, but he chooses instead to narrate a much humbler series of interconnected individual stories, none of them glamorous or legendary.

His narrator and protagonist is an aspiring writer who has arrived in Paris after an interlude in Spain. There are various episodes describing sexual encounters that could surely be classified as "pornographic," though always skilfully drawn. Gamboa manages to make these transgressive sexual instances relevant to the larger question of how immigration can affect an individual. The friends, lovers and acquaintances the young writer encounters during his initial year in France include his fellow dishwasher at an Asian restaurant, who is a 40-something year-old refugee from North Korea who shares his horrific memories of escaping from a totalitarian hell; Gloria, a wealthy Colombian college student who inducts the narrator into a sexual underworld of excess (cf. Henry Miller, Jean Genet or Anaïs Nin) while also encouraging him in his editing of a manuscript for his first novel, telling him about the transformations she is undergoing as an earnest reader of poetry; a Colombian laborer he meets during a chess tournament who disappears mysteriously; several drug addled friends from Eastern Europe, post-communist casualties; a girlfriend from Ghana who occasionally makes her living as an escort, and who sweetly reminds him that he's not quite European; a working-class French girl he begins to fall in love with; his Spanish girlfriend who has stayed in Madrid but whom he can't forget; his fellow student at the Sorbonne, a young Algerian poet studying Latin American literature who helps him investigate the mystery of the disappeared Colombian laborer; an older Algerian poet and an Iraqui exile (also a poet) he meets with for drinks and conversations about literature and writing, after classes and between shifts as a dishwasher.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator is introduced to the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo. He also meets and interviews the semi-reclusive Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro, a life-long resident of Paris, to whom the novel is dedicated. While these two writers are included as non-fictional reference points, there are at least a dozen other characters, minor and major, that populate the exciting pages of this book. The title itself refers to the condition that unites these disparate people in one way or another, the so-called Ulysses Syndrome. When one of his friends ends up committing suicide just before his personal situation in Paris is about to improve, a doctor tells the narrator:

"The difficult things he must have suffered, his self-esteem on the floor, helplessness and fear, all of that must have led him to this chronic stress and depression. There is a an ailment which is closely related to these symptoms, said the doctor, but he didn't go on, because at that time the syndrome didn't have a name yet. It still hadn't been baptized as the immigrant's syndrome or Ulysses Syndrome."

I started reading this novel last summer, and I've interrupted it with excursions into several other books. But the thread of the book was never lost for me, with its visceral evocations of the early 1990s as a distinct period of history, a moment when global saturation seemed complete, after the fall of the Berlin wall and amidst the prelude now known as the first war in Iraq. Gamboa's book offers a beautiful portrait of a generation shaped by a propulsive moment, whatever the early 1990s might signify for us.

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