The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana

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by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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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

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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

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.04(w) x 6.18(h) x 1.04(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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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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