History reshaped, retold in Vasquez’s ’Costaguana’

“The Secret History of Costaguana” (Riverhead Books), by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” is based in Costaguana, an imaginary South American republic inspired by an anecdote the author heard during a journey to the region as a young sailor.

Conrad’s expedition there, if it did happen, was brief, and scholars have speculated that much of “Nostromo” is based on readings and encounters in London with figures like Santiago Perez Triana, the exiled son of a Colombian president. But his text has endured among novels about Latin America.

“It may be that one cannot speak about the Caribbean republic without echoing, however remotely, the monumental style of its most famous historian, Captain Jozef Korzeniowski,” Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his story, “Guayaquil,” of the legendary English novelist.

That phrase is one of several that guided Juan Gabriel Vasquez in the writing of his novel, “The Secret History of Costaguana,” which has now been translated from Spanish by the talented Anne McLean. Yet, rather than viewing history as a static, unmovable tale, Vasquez reclaims the story, rooting it in the real-life events of Panama and Colombia in the 19th century and telling it from the perspective of Jose Altamirano, who the author imagines telling his story to Conrad only to find that it’s been greatly distorted in “Nostromo.”

“It’s not my story,” he confronts Conrad. “It’s not the story of my country.”

“Of course not,” Conrad tells him. “It’s the story of my country. It’s the story of Costaguana.”

Setting the record straight, Altamirano takes the reader back to the second half of the 19th century, where we meet his father, the liberal law student turned scientist who is declared a heretic and winds up in the port city of Colon, where construction of the Panama Canal is under way. Vasquez vividly brings Colon back to life, weaving in the stories of its inhabitants and the seemingly constant upheaval — disease, disaster and violent political conflict between conservatives and liberals — they are forced to endure.

Miguel Altamirano, the narrator’s father, becomes a journalist for a French newspaper, writing rosy descriptions of the canal’s progress, even as construction is mired in corruption and workers are overcome by deadly illnesses. His journalistic flourishes are not intentional; rather, they are a reflection of his blind optimism, what Vasquez, in one of many critiques, describes as “the famous Colombian illness of SB (Selective Blindness), also known as PB (Partial Blindness) and even RIP (Retinopathy due to Interest of a Political nature).”

An idealist, he sees the canal as “a work of the Human Spirit,” even as it fails to progress.

Jose Altamirano, whose mother, a married woman, had a brief affair with Miguel Altamirano, encounters his father for the first time as an adult. And so begins the story of Vasquez’s narrator, an at once resentful and revealing man who pieces together his father’s life as he embarks on his own. Over the course of the novel, he loses nearly everything he comes to attain in the backdrop of the violent Thousand Days War, the United States takeover of the construction of the canal, and Panama’s independence from Colombia. And he confides everything in Conrad, only to see his story robbed from him, too.

In an interview with the Spanish news agency Europa Press, Vasquez called “The Secret History of Costaguana” a “novel of historical adventures or a reflection about history.” He said he also wanted to tell the small, private stories that are enveloped in common historical threads.

Vasquez, whose previous novel, “The Informers,” was met with much acclaim, proves himself again as one of the most talented in a new generation of post-Gabriel Garcia Marquez Colombian writers. Yet while the story is well planned, researched and executed, it is in Vasquez’s stated goal of telling the personal stories that occur in the backdrop of sweeping events where he sometimes falls short, the larger task of recounting and critiquing history, and settling a score with Conrad, overtaking their private narratives. When their stories are allowed to subsist, the book shines with all its humor and intrigue, showing once again that history is never a settled matter.

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