Monday, June 6, 2011

The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez: A review

I admit I have never read Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, but after reading this book, it is definitely going on my "to be read" list.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a Colombian writer, has taken the germ of an idea from Conrad, his mythical country of Costaguana, and recast it as Colombia/Panama. He creates a character, Jose' Altamirano, to narrate his convoluted and non-linear tale of nineteenth and early twentieth century Colombia and Panama, a time when the French attempted to construct a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific but were defeated by Nature in the form of disease, insects, unbearable heat, and earthquakes. Finally, in the early twentieth century, Panama declared its independence from Colombia (with the encouragement and assistance of the United States) and struck a deal with President Theodore Roosevelt's government to try again to build the canal, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Altamirano's story begins in the mid-nineteenth century with his father, Miguel Altamirano, a journalist who was an idealist, activist, and booster of his home country. Most of all, he believed in the idea of the canal and did everything to support it, including turning a blind eye and ear to all minor problems that cropped up - e.g., Yellow Fever which killed thousands. But at that time our narrator did not know his father. He was being raised by his mother in Bogota'. He had been conceived in a brief encounter between his mother, a married woman, and his father and had never known the name of his father until he was a teenager.

When he finally learned who his father was, he went looking for him and, finding him, stayed with him in Panama throughout the rest of his father's life.

Vasquez/Altamirano switches back and forth in time in the telling of his tale, but the climactic moment comes when he goes to London (after Panamanian independence has been declared, leaving his teenaged daughter Eloisa behind!) and there meets Joseph Conrad who is having trouble with the novel that he is working on. Altamirano is persuaded to tell his personal life story and the story of Colombia while Conrad takes notes and that story becomes the basis of Nostromo. When the book is published and Altamirano sees it, he feels cheated because the story is not his. He goes to confront Conrad who points out to him that Nostromo is fiction!

This is a delicious novel, both humorous and sad, ironic and tragic, and very well-written and well-translated by Anne McLean. Moreover, it is a novel with a lot of actual history woven into it, enough to entice any history buff.

I had three quibbles with story.

First, as a teenager, Altamirano leaves his mother to go looking for his father. We never hear anything about his mother again. What happened to her?

Second, he kisses his teenaged daughter goodbye while she sleeps and heads off to London with hardly a backward glance. What happened to her?

Third, we never get to know the source of the narrator's income. From whence came the money that kept him and his family fed, clothed and housed all those years?

Ah, well, did I mention that the story is told in a non-linear fashion?

Mr. Vasquez is a very interesting writer and I look forward to reading more of his work.

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