The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – The Secret History of Costaguana
Unlike last year, when Juan Gabriel Vasquez made it through to the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his first novel,The Informers, The Secret History of Costaguana has not reappeared for round two. Though this may be partly down to the competing attentions of other South American novels (the other three are through), it has to be said that the central conceit of the novel is not entirely successful.
The idea is an intriguing, and brave, one: take a classic European work about South America (Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo) and link it to the ‘real’ South America through your central character. The novel is predicated on a meeting between our narrator, Jose Altamirano, and Conrad, as we are told in the first few pages:
“Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future…When this happens, when the paths of two men born in distant places are destined to cross, a map can be drawn a posteriori.”
The meeting between them takes up only a few pages (though every so often Altamirano reminds us what Conrad is up to); the bulk of the novel is taken up with Altamarino’s life, his father’s life, and the life of his country, Columbia – the story that he claims to have shared with Conrad during that meeting.
From the beginning his father is portrayed as a believer in progress, championing the use of corpses for dissection in the face of the Church’s opposition. His father finds a way round the prohibition by using the corpses of Chinese workers killed building a railway across Panama. Later his father will become a steadfast supporter of the Panama Canal, and these dead bodies are an early indication of the price of progress, though one his father consistently ignores:
“My father does not hear a story of personal tragedies, does not see the dead Chinaman as the nameless worker of no fixed address for whom no grave is possible. He sees him as a martyr, and sees the history of the railway as a true epic. The train versus the jungle, man versus the jungle…”
This attitude is more damaging when he becomes a journalist in Panama, refusing to allow facts to get in the way of his belief in progress:
“Examining my father’s articles: in one from 1867, the fifteen dead had become nine; in 1872 he mentions nineteen wounded, seven of them seriously, but not a word about deaths; and in one of his most recently published texts…my father recalled ‘the tragedy of the nine victims’.”
Perhaps Vasquez intends to draw some parallel between this and Conrad’s use of Altamarino’s story as raw material for his novel, but there is no indication he regards Conrad’s work as propaganda. Altamarino’s main complaint is that Conrad has removed him from his own story:
“My tale lived there, the tale of my life and my land, but the land was another, it had another name, and I had been removed from it, erased like an unmentionable sin, obliterated without pity like a dangerous witness.”
But, as Conrad says when Altamirano asserts that Nostromo is false: “That, my dear sir, is a novel.” Vasquez may have cleverly taken the fictionalised history of Nostromo and turned it back into the factual history of Columbia, but I remain unclear as to whether this implies criticism of Conrad’s fictionalisation. Of course, it may not, and may simply be a device for attracting attention to what would otherwise be a novel about the history of Columbia.
This would be ironic as where he is particularly successful is in portraying that turbulent history, both in the general (with frequent references to the Angel of History) and in the particular. There are two stand-out examples of the latter. One is where he provides the history of a rifle over eight pages; another is when he spends thirteen pages focusing on a particular soldier.
Vasquez is clearly a very talented writer and, while this may not have quite the impact of The Informers, it also an excellent novel. Having covered almost 150 years of Columbian history in his first two novels, it will be interesting to see what he does next.