Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for January 2018

Return to the Dark Valley

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gamboaThis review was written for a page which was never born.

Santiago Gamboa’s “Return to the Dark Valley” is a very accessible work of postmodern noir shot through with philosophy and poetry.

Among the characters populating this polyphonic novel are Tertullian, an Argentinian neo-fascist who claims paternity from the Pope and believes in “necessary destructions”; Palacios, a priest who founds an anti-Communist death squad; and Manuela Beltrán, a poet emerging from a dark past and wondering if there’s “a certain spirituality in excess”.

Their plots run parallel for most of the book, converging thematically around rape, revenge, and deception, and eventually cohering around a Colombian intellectual called the Consul – an alterego for Gamboa, who was once Colombia’s cultural attaché in New Delhi. The Consul’s biography of poet Arthur Rimbaud, from enfant terrible in Charleville and Paris to voluntary exile in Harar, Ethiopia, forms the spine of the novel and, with its interest in migration and the impossibility of true return, reflects the concerns found in the dramatic monologues.

The story jumps from Rome and Madrid (where Boko Haram beseiges the Irish embassy) via Berlin to Bogota and Cali. Its kaleidoscopic nature aims to suggest our contemporary sense of accelerating dislocation.

The shifts in voice and genre are masterfully played. Gamboa’s Consul says that in an increasingly readerless world only the most versatile writers will survive, and Gamboa has versatility in spades, as well as the intoxicatingly prolific fluency of a Roberto Bolaño, with whom he is frequently compared. His writing is exuberant, sometimes extravagant, and makes reliably compulsive reading.


Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm

Posted in book review

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The Common Enemy

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This was first published at (the highly recommended) AlJumhuriya.

iran-images-from-the-uprising_592x299-7Do revolutions move in circles? The uprisings which shook the Arab world in 2010 and 2011 were in some ways prefigured by Iran’s Green Movement protests of 2009. The years since have been so dominated by counter-revolution and war that many have despaired of forward movement. Yet one year after Iranian proxies crushed the revolution in Syria’s Aleppo, sparks of revolution are flying in Tehran.

These protests differ from those of 2009 in several important respects. The Green Movement was centred in Tehran, it was largely middle class, and it supported the reformist wing of the Islamic Republic against more authoritarian conservatives. The current protests, in contrast, are fiercest in the provinces, are largely working class, and often express rejection of the Islamic Republic itself.

It remains to be seen how far this angrier, more radical opposition movement will undermine or transform Iranian governance. On the one hand, its working-class character cuts at the heart of the regime’s legitimacy. The mustadafin or ‘downtrodden’ are supposed to be the base and prime beneficiaries of the Khomeinist wilayet al-faqih system, and yet they are chanting for the death of the Supreme Leader. On the other hand, this same subaltern fury may play into regime hands by scaring the middle classes. There is, after all, the Syrian example to point to, an image to strike fear into the hearts of rebellious people everywhere. If a regime is pushed too far, look, the result is war, terrorism, social collapse and mass exile.

The Syrian example deployed as a threat may save Iran’s regime. The tragic irony here, of course, is that the Iranian regime has played a crucial role in creating the Syrian example. It is indeed to a large extent responsible for the disaster.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 3, 2018 at 11:09 am

Posted in Iran, Syria