Santiago Gamboa's Necropolis is a hefty, Decameron-like a story-within-story-within-story set in war-torn Jerusalem, told by an unnamed 40ish narrator who, like Gamboa, is a Colombian novelist living in Rome. Receiving a letter inviting him to the International Conference on Biography and Memory, with no idea why he's been invited, the narrator finds himself in a hotel full of eccentric delegates--all storytellers, spinning tales of chess, God and drug addiction.

Gamboa expertly juggles an international cast of characters, including a muscular, tattooed ex-convict pastor of a cult religion, an Italian porn actress, a brave and honorable hotel switchboard operator and a pretty journalist from Iceland with a penchant for shedding her clothes. It's a literate feast, and the reader won't get 20 pages into the story before hitting references to Poe, Mann, Bolano, Balzac and Melville.

With room-rattling explosions creeping closer and closer, the novel dovetails narratives within narratives, like that of the hardworking young auto mechanic who dares to stand up to the paramilitary hoodlums terrorizing his village, or the pregnant woman knitting a sweater incorrectly while a tortured prisoner watches, or the Portuguese poet whose job as an air traffic controller forces him into a conversation with a pilot about to crash into the sea.

It's a dizzying mosaic and stunt-filled juggling act, with plenty of sexual hanky-panky, but with a few exceptions, the book is best enjoyed for its verbal pyrotechnics, because its fancy footwork seldom engages the heart. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle

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