The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

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The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Richly told fictional account of Colombia and the building of the Panama canal. Was this story the basis for Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel Nostromo set in the fictional Costaguana?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-1408800188

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In 1904 Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad wrote his novel about a self-publicising Italian expatriate by the name of Nostromo, set in the fictitious South American republic of Costaguana. Columbian writer, Juan Gabriel Vásquez imagines that the fictitious José Altamirano has assisted Conrad in his research by telling him his own story, only to find that the British novelist has subsequently inexcusably omitted him from his book. Now, he is seeking to set the record straight by telling the reader, who he imagines in the role of a jury, as well as someone named Eloísa (who we later find out about) the same story to pass judgement on if this was fair.

Operating in this grey area between fiction and non-fiction, combining literature with history and addressing issues of influence and originality, Vásquez explores what Columbia means as a nation, with repeated violence and political upheaval, as well as illustrating the influence of the individual on history. And it's highly entertaining, not least as the narrator, José is a witty and charming story teller, albeit one that is perhaps a little full of his own importance.

Running through the centre of José's story is his relationship with his father, Miguel, a journalist, who finds employment with the company charged with digging the Panama Canal. Panama at the time was part of Colombia. His father is, by nature, optimistic and views events with a degree of 'refraction' (what we would now call spin) and rather than telling the truth about the terrible conditions and deaths that occur with the project, he spins a tale of great endeavour which keeps the French backers supporting the project. Indeed, the book forces you to consider the ethical questions raised by the act of writing, not only in Miguel's work, but also ultimately in Conrad's treatment of José. At the centre of Conrad's book was a dispute over a silver mine, although Vasquez suggests that this is a thinly disguised alternative to the Panama Canal.

José is convinced that there is a link, forged by the 'Angel of History' between his life and that of Conrad, however far fetched this claim may be. There's no doubt that he has witnessed great suffering and by the time he meets Conrad, he is carrying a guilty conscience and a story that has almost destroyed him.

As I've said, José charges the reader with the role of judging if Conrad's appropriation of his story matters. For the vast majority of the book I will admit that I felt it didn't much - but ultimately I found myself thinking that perhaps it does matter. At least now, Colombia can reclaim this story for its own.

But for all the plot and history contained in this book, and the ethics of an author using a man's, and a country's, history to pursue his own fictional end, the real joy of it is in the writing. By turns the book is tragic, funny, insightful but never less than a delight to read in the voice of a natural raconteur of a narrator. The translation by Anne McLean is superbly smooth. If you like big, rich stories and beautiful writing, then this is a fantastic choice. The only slight drawback is the preponderance of Colombian rival politicians that can get a bit confusing - but I suspect that it was similarly confusing to the Colombian residents of the time too!

Our thanks to the kind people at Bloomsbury for sending this novel to The Bookbag for review.

To continue the central and south American theme, Michelle Lovric's The Book of Human Skin (Peru), Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna (Mexico) and Roberto Bolano's Amulet (Chile) are all terrific books.

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