The Secret History of Costaguana

Overview

A bold historical novel from "one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature" (Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).

In the early twentieth century, a struggling Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Nostromo, about a South American republic he named Costaguana. It was inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, where Conrad spent only a few days. But in Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novel The Secret ...

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The Secret History of Costaguana

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Overview

A bold historical novel from "one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature" (Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).

In the early twentieth century, a struggling Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel Nostromo, about a South American republic he named Costaguana. It was inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, where Conrad spent only a few days. But in Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novel The Secret History of Costaguana, we uncover the hidden source- and one of the great literary thefts.

On the day of Joseph Conrad's death in 1924, the Colombian-born José Altamirano begins to write and cannot stop. Many years before, he confessed to Conrad his life's every delicious detail-from his country's heroic revolutions to his darkest solitary moments. Conrad stole them all. Now Conrad is dead, but the slate is by no means clear- Nostromo will live on and Altamirano must write himself back into existence. As the destinies of real empires collide with the murky realities of imagined ones, Vásquez takes us from a flourishing twentieth-century London to the lawless fury of a blooming Panama and back.

Tragic and despairing, comic and insightful, The Secret History of Costaguana is a masterpiece of historical invention. It will secure Juan Gabriel Vásquez's place among the most original and exuberantly talented novelists working today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On the day Joseph Conrad dies in England, the Colombian-born José Altamirano begins to write, for the edification of his daughter, the true story of his life and country, which were taken, compressed, and repurposed by Conrad in Nostromo. This is the jumping-off point for the imaginative if flawed latest from Vásquez (The Informers), a bristling counternovel that aims to retrieve from Conrad's work two revolutions and the endless series of coups, gunfights, and voyages that characterize Colombia's "convulsive times." José begins with the story of his radical, exiled father, Miguel, who he goes to find in Panama. But he finds more than he bargained for: yellow fever outbreaks, the burning of Colón, plans for a strategically imperative canal, a visit by Sarah Bernhardt—and Conrad himself, whose own history is interwoven with the rest. Vásquez is piercing in his attentions to who documents history and how—whether in letters, newspaper articles, folk songs, or literature—but the litany of battles and names captured here essentially smothers the novel's potential and fails to unseat its inspiration, not because this is made of more truth than fiction but because the informed fiction that results dismisses personality, romance, and style for zealous veracity. (June)
Library Journal
For readers familiar with Joseph Conrad, Costaguana will ring a bell: it's the fictitious setting of his novel Nostromo. Following the historical pattern of Vásquez's earlier The Informers, this novel covers about 100 years of Colombian history (a veiled homage to Gabriel García Márquez?), from the birth of the revolutionary Miguel Altamirano in 1820 to Conrad's death in 1924. Miguel's illegitimate son José, the narrator of this story, reunites with his father in Panama, marries and has a daughter named Eloísa, and travels to London, where he meets Conrad and tells him the story of his life and of Colombia. When Nostromo is published, Altamirano recognizes what he had related to Conrad, but his physical presence is missing. When Conrad dies, Altamirano, with delightful literary irony, decides to set the record straight, addressing Eloísa and an unknown jury and interrupting himself frequently to clarify points. The text plays with intertextual literary references; Gauguin and Sarah Bernhardt are but two historical personages who show up in cameo appearances. VERDICT Not all readers have the background to grasp Vásquez's premise, but the descriptions here, particularly of the two attempts to build the Panama Canal, are very entertaining. [See Prepub Alert, 11/29/10.]—Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., OH
Kirkus Reviews

An ambitious picaresque tale about civil war, love, propaganda and the Panama Canal, delivered with verve and wit.

The inspiration for the second novel by Vásquez (The Informers, 2009) is Joseph Conrad's 1904 classicNostromo, which depicted warfare and greed in the mythical country of Costaguana. José Altamirano, the narrator of Vásquez's novel, knows Costaguana was a stand-in for his native Colombia, and he's eagerto correct Conrad bytelling the truth about his country through much of the 19th and early 20th century. He does this both in broad strokes and through the lives of his loved ones, who suffered their share of tragedies: From the yellow fever that kills close friends to the long civil war that tragically affected family members, loss and death routinely stalk José. Yet his tone remains kindly and often comic. He smirkingly observesthe bizarre coincidences in his life, the foibles of the so-called leaders who drove the country into civil war with what is now Panama, and the contempt of the American imperialists who ended the war with a land-grab. José inherited his sensibility from his father, who came of age provoking conservative religious authorities and later wrote propaganda on behalf of a French companymaking an early attempt to dig the Panama Canal. Such inventions support the novel's theme that words matter, particularly when they're false: José's father's upbeat prose kept the canal-building effort alive in its funders' imaginations despite its doomed reality; yellow journalism fueled the civil war; and Conrad's novel, in José's estimation, rudely defined the country as backwards. As Colombia collapses into civil war in the final chapters of the book, Vásquez elegantly chronicles the violence and absurdity of war while conveying asense of bemusedfatedness. That the author can make his hero so entertaining without diminishing the gravity of the bloodshed is a testament to his talents.

To read this novel is to enter a Borgesian rabbit hole—it's a fiction that purports to tell the truth obscured by another fiction—yet its strangenesshelps make it both brave and engaging.

From the Publisher
Praise for The Secret History of Costaguana

“Audacious…a potent mixture of history, fiction and literary gamesmanship.” — Los Angeles Times

“An exceptional new novel.” —The Wall Street Journal

 

Praise for Juan Gabriel Vásquez

“One of the most original new voices of Latin American literature."

— Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

“Remarkable . . . Immensely entertaining . . . The best work of literary fiction to come my way since 2005.”

—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“One hallmark of a gifted novelist is the ability to see the potential for compelling fiction in an incident, anecdote or scrap of history. . . . By that standard and several others, the career of Juan Gabriel Vásquez . . . is off to a notable start.”

—Larry Rohter, The New York Times

The Barnes & Noble Review

Less than a quarter of the way into Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel, Nostromo, a venture capitalist by the name of Mr. Holroyd—burly, jingoistic, evangelical—takes a meeting with Charles Gould, a businessman passing through San Francisco. Full review: Gould is in search of financial backing for a silver mine that he inherited in Sulaco, a province of the fictional Latin America country Costaguana. Less than a quarter of the way into Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel, Nostromo, a venture capitalist by the name of Mr. Holroyd—burly, jingoistic, evangelical—takes a meeting with Charles Gould, a businessman passing through San Francisco. Gould is in search of financial backing for a silver mine that he inherited in Sulaco, a province of the fictional Latin America country Costaguana. The budding entrepreneur impresses Holroyd with his assiduousness. But before acceding to Gould's request, Holroyd, never one to miss an opportunity for grandstanding, spouts wise: "Now, what is Costaguana? It is the bottomless pit of ten-percent loans and other fool instruments. European capital has been flung at it for years. Not ours though. We in this country know just about enough to keep indoors when it rains? Of course, some day we shall step in."

Juan Gabriel V?squez's The Secret History of Costaguana rewires the events that led Conrad to write Nostromo, implanting them within the fictional life of one Jos? Altamirano, a Colombian whose existence—at least in his own mind—is a curious shadow of the Conrad's own. We meet Altamirano, an expatriate living in London, as he learns of Conrad's death in the early days of August 1924. The obituaries he reads spark mixed feelings in him. Although Altamirano met Conrad only twice, these incidents have left an indelible mark—so much so that in the intervening years since their last encounter, in January 1904, he has come to interpret the events of Conrad's life in the light of his own. What he finds are "metaphysical affinities" that demonstrate, to his suspect way of thinking, that he and Conrad are "two incarnations of the same Joe, two versions of the same fate?"

Jos? finds it striking, for instance, that when Conrad was born his father dedicated a poem to him that inveighed upon the Russian occupiers of their native Poland—while, across the Atlantic, the two-year-old Altamirano was drawing homegrown warriors busily engaged in thrashing Spanish colonialists. Or that at twenty, Conrad was recuperating from a suicide attempt, while his Colombian double was laid up with pneumonia. Other tenuous examples proliferate.

Though the spirit of the Polish writer buttresses the novel's form, his character plays a supporting role. For Conrad lovers who feel dejected by that news, there is scant reason to pay it second thought. In qualitative terms, The Secret History of Costaguana testifies to Harold Bloom's much-cited paradigm that the best artists don't genuflect before their influences but repurpose them for their own ends. V?squez gamely challenges the depth of Conrad's grasp of Latin American politics by subsuming the fictional land of Costaguana beneath the convulsive history of his native homeland, Colombia. Whereas Nostromo pivots around the lives of people whose economic and political interests are tied up with the goings-on at the silver mine, The Secret History of Costaguana is richly informed by the dramatic history of the Panama Canal and its construction.

As this tricky engagement with events real and imaginary unfolds, the true engine of the novel proves not to be Conrad at all but Jos? s father, Miguel Altamirano. Educated as a lawyer but earning his keep as a liberal journalist, Miguel is forced to flee Bogot? after incurring the wrath of the conservative, Catholic establishment. He eventually makes his way to Col?n, a city in the then-Colombian territory of Panama, which borders the Caribbean Sea. Soon after his arrival, he has a one- night stand with a married woman, Antonia de Narv?ez. Though their brief union results in the birth of Jos?, De Narv?ez shuns Miguel's entreaties to reconnect. Jos? grows up ignorant of his father's identity until, at twenty-one, he extracts enough information from his mother to go looking for him.

When he finds Miguel, he discovers a man who has allowed his commitment to the ideal of progress with a capital 'P' to mislead him into becoming a propagandist for the French-supported, Canal Company:

I discovered that over the course of two decades my father had produced, from his mahogany desk-a scale model of the Isthmus. No, model is not the word, or perhaps it is the applicable word to the first years of his journalistic labors; but starting from some imprecise moment (futile, from a scientific point of view, to try to date it), what was represented in my father's articles was more than a distortion of Panamanian reality... Now I can say it: that was my first contact with the notion, which would so often appear in my future life, that reality is a frail enemy to the power of the pen, that anyone can found a utopia simply by arming himself with good rhetoric.
Miguel's faith in the power of the planned interocean canal to raise the standing of his country is unremitting. Over time, this will lead to his downfall. One of the mysteries of the novel is why Jos? papers over his father's lies about the supposedly low costs, in economic and human resources, being consumed in the building of the canal with the conceit that "it's not that my father wrote lies-my father's pen was the largest refractive lens of the Sovereign State of Panama." In due time, one realizes that Jos?'s rose-tinted logic is used to preemptively defend his own callousness toward his family and community, both victim to the vicissitudes of Colombia's fractious political life.

As a moral inquest into the nature of venality that asks who has the right to define and or revise history, and an engrossing critique of Colombia, sparing neither its conservative nor liberal factions, The Secret History of Costaguana conjures a bracing disgust that is harmonized alongside other, less biting pleasures. —Christopher Byrd

Christopher Byrd is a writer who lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in publications such as The New York Times Book Review, The American Prospect, The Believer, The Guardian , The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Wilson Quarterly.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594488030
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/9/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 9.04 (w) x 6.18 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is a critically acclaimed Colombian writer, translator, and award-winning author of a collection of stories Los amantes de Todos los Santos, as well as the novels Historia secreta de Costaguana and The Informers, which has been translated into seven languages. He has translated works by Victor Hugo, E.M Foster and John Hersey, among others, his essay “El arte de la distorsión” won the Premio Nacional Simón Bolívar, and he is a regular columnist for El Espectador, the newspaper of dissent in Bogotá. Educated in Colombia, and in Paris at the Sorbonne, he now lives and teaches in Barcelona, Spain with his wife and twin daughters.

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