Book review: The Secret History of Costaguana

Roberto Ignacio Díaz reviews Juan Gabrial Vásquez’s new novel, The Secret History of Costaguana for the San Francisco Chronicle.

For readers familiar with the practices of Latin American and Caribbean writing, the conceit that triggers The Secret History of Costaguana is probably well known. Like Aimé Cesaire’s A Tempest, which critiques Shakespeare’s take on Caliban, or Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, an ardent “prequel” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this second novel by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is first and foremost an extended meditation on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, published in 1904 and set in a fictional South American republic named Costaguana.

Indeed, like other authors from his part of the world, Vásquez, who was born in Colombia and recently won the prestigious Premio Alfaguara de Novela, employs the tools of fiction to address the questions of who owns Latin America ­— literally, literarily — and what kind of historical truth, if any, a novel ought, or can be said, to contain.

But to view Vásquez’s ironic novel simply as yet another angry postcolonial argument against the Western canon would be to shortchange the power of this intelligent and evocative story, which opens in London in 1924 with the death of Conrad. London, the imperial metropolis, is also the city where the novel’s narrator, Jose Altamirano, ends up as an exile from Colombia in the early 1900s. As it turns out, in this fictional account of the writing of Nostromo, Altamirano plays an anonymous but crucial role as Conrad’s secret informant.

The pathos inherent in Altamirano’s labor is not fully revealed until the novel’s last episode, but it can be foretold in the multiple references to the life and times of Jozef Korzeniowski, the original name of the Polish British author. As one would expect, Vásquez touches on Conrad’s journeys to the tropics. He mentions the Congo Free State, for sure, as the notorious setting of Heart of Darkness, and Panama, whose secession from Colombia is elliptically invoked in the plot of Nostromo, but is in fact the main subject of The Secret History of Costaguana. One of Conrad’s characters says in passing: “The birth of another South American Republic. One more or less, what does it matter?” But these mordant words, in the context of U.S. imperialism, reappear as a poignant epigraph in Vásquez’s text.

A self-reflexive tale about authorship and authority, The Secret History of Costaguana has as much to say about the patterns of European — and Latin American — fiction. But Vásquez, like Rhys, believes in realism and the power of material objects to convey an entire world. In the novel’s first chapter, the narrator recounts the confrontation between his enlightened father and an archconservative priest. Set in a cafe on a rainy day, the struggle is lovingly narrated through the sudden apparition of a wet umbrella and the puddle of water it leaves on the floor.

Conrad’s political novel opens with a tempestuous epigraph from Shakespeare’s King John: “So foul a sky clears not without a storm.” Indeed, Nostromo is a tale of corruption and terrible violence, and in this sense it can be seen as part and parcel of a monolithic discourse on Latin America, which emerges as yet another heart of darkness. But in the economy of Vásquez’s text, some formulations of Latin American literature are shunned because they, too, can function as restrictively as anything concocted by foreign sensibilities.

Delicately, The Secret History of Costaguana distances itself from the pleasures and perils of magical realism. In Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it rains for four years on end and no one acts surprised. In Vásquez’s novel, it rains quite a bit too, but the narrator is careful to separate impressions from reality — “it seemed to rain for forty days and forty nights” — lest his story becomes stuck in Latin America’s own literary quirks.

As it turns out, Vásquez is not the first Latin American author to discuss Nostromo in his writing. The short story “Guayaquil,” by Jorge Luis Borges, also invokes a country named Costaguana, but Conrad “reappears” as one José Korzeniowski, not a novelist but a historian. In Borges’ view of things, history, obsessively concerned with real-life details, emerges as a lesser form of writing than literature, which dwells freely in the realm of imagination. The Secret History of Costaguana, especially as it reaches its end, becomes bogged down in the history of Panama. But when Vásquez, like Conrad and Borges, restrains history and lets his mind’s eye take flight, he too becomes a master of fiction.

For the original report go toásquez-history-costaguana-conrad.html.csp

One thought on “Book review: The Secret History of Costaguana

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