Días hábiles by Óscar Daniel Campo
Días hábiles. Óscar Daniel Campo. Colombia: Marcanegra Ediciones. 2021.
The men and women who populate this story carry defeat on their backs. The novel’s characters are the tenants of a run-down apartment building, located in the middle of a Bogotá constantly engulfed in electrical blackouts. The building’s neighbors live through their days in a state of endless unease, in which the future does not exist and hope looks far off, like the times when the electric company’s service was permanent. In this novel, all the characters count the days, which grow as long and heavy as a bureaucratic procedure.
The novel, which is divided into five chapters (“Las partes,” “Régimen simplificado,” “Vencimiento de términos,” “Letra menuda,” and “Otrosí”), begins with the appearance of the Author, a literature professor who makes a living teaching at a mediocre university. He is freshly divorced, besides which he bears the weight of the loss of his dead daughters, but thanks to a “push” from his own parents, the Author has decided to finally go and live alone, and to remake his life. While we reconstruct his past, we watch him forge an uncertain future, a new path that seems to offer him no motivation. Along this tiresome path, we meet the Author’s neighbors and enter his intimate world. We meet Julián, a student who tries to rebel against the system, although he pursues this struggle only in his head; and Miriam, the elderly, solitary landlady who tells us the story of the house, which is the story of her own life. Likewise, we watch the performances of a theatre group that no longer has the means to support itself, led by Ramiro, who makes a living as a tour guide and, on top of that, just got his girlfriend pregnant. This is also the story of Claudia, a colleague and lover of the Author, who is in the process of separating from her abusive husband.
Orhan Pamuk tells us that when a reader comes up against a novel, they must decide if they want to accompany the characters on the adventure that awaits them. The reader often starts out following the character with which they most empathize, but, while they read, the invisible threads of literature are tied up and the reader opts to choose a different character, one who leads them to the end. In the narrative universe Campo has created, it is hard to tie oneself to a single life because, as we move on, we make friends even with the drunk who throws up on the staircase—with the Author, we help him get to his bed, we take his shoes off. In Días hábiles, we inevitably end up joining every one of these characters, a community of outcasts, as they grapple with their past. All life is a process of demolition, Fitzgerald said, and these characters’ lives are, in Ricardo Piglia’s words, “like a cracked plate—you never quite know when it started to come apart.” They all act as detectives, searching for the starting point of this rupture.
Along with this novel, which won the 2020 Abby Bonny Prize, whose jury made up of Toni Díaz Grau, Raquel Carrasco, and José Bocanegra praised it “for its ability to look rawly within itself,” Campo has published the short story collection Los aplausos (Premio Ciudad de Bogotá 2013) and participated in various research projects and publications on human rights. Óscar Campo completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, and forms part of a generation of Colombian writers that has grown up within academic programs that have helped usher them toward new ways of telling stories. This is precisely where the idea of making this novel was born, where teachers like Tomás González, Marta Orrantía, and Julio Paredes showed him the steps toward building the Author’s voice. But this was just the beginning; as Campo writes in this edition’s acknowledgments, the manuscript passed through many hands that helped him to configure this universe, demonstrating that, even if one writes alone, books and good stories end up being team efforts.
Días hábiles is a novel rich in black humor and a desperation reflected not only in the characters but also in the city they inhabit—a dark, dirty place, somewhere to be afraid of, but somewhere, at the same time, whose inhabitants find unexpected paths in the midst of the blackouts caused by the electricity shortage. The city stands as yet another character, and as the story progresses and we explore its streets, we learn more and more about its decadence, which grows more evident with each passing day.
Óscar Campo makes a risky wager, exploring different tones, rhythms, and types of voices that make the narration flow. Besides this polyphony, different forms of storytelling are interwoven: there is a stage play, a diary, monologues, introspections. This novel is a well-made puzzle, allowing us to discover a Bogotá even more fragmented than the one we already know, and more aggressive, but one that in the end always holds on to some measure of humanity, which is enough for everyone: a guardrail to hold on to.
“The novelist puts his all into a particular fate, a particular suffering, the particular victory or defeat of one man,” says Juan Gabriel Vásquez in Viaje con un mapa en blanco: “Readers understand him not with cold, distant comprehension, but through the singular way of comprehending reality proper to the novel: relative, intuitive, lacking in absolute truths but rich in absolute humanity: the way of empathy.” This is where the strength of Días hábiles lies, emerging from the depths of the darkest feelings—a strength one cannot help but recognize in every character, in every one of the city’s streets. This novel’s author succeeds in humanizing this universe, pulling it close to the reader in order to invite them, with no further ado, to the battle of samurais that Bolaño puts forth as a metaphor for all literature: a battle we know, inevitably, we will lose.
Gustavo Bueno Rojas
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon