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Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Historia secreta de Costaguana (The Secret History of Costaguana)

Three years before publishing this novel, Vásquez wrote a biography of Joseph Conrad so it is perhaps not so surprising that he would write a novel featuring Joseph Conrad. Costaguana is the fictitious country Conrad uses in Nostromo, based on Colombia, which Conrad visited in his sailing days, while engaged in illegal gunrunning. (It should be remembered that in Conrad’s day and during the period of this novel, Panama was part of Colombia and did not gain its independence till 1903.) While this novel is, to a certain extent about Conrad, it is much more about the very murky politics of Colombia/Panama in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century.

The hero/narrator of the novel is José Altamirano and the book opens with the death of Conrad (i.e. 1924). Altamirano is living in London at the time and seems to be quite bitter about Conrad, having given him information which he used for Nostromo. The rest of the book tells four stories. The first is the chaotic story of early Colombia/Panama. Civil war is rife. There are essentially two political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Whichever is in power spends much time not just keeping the other out but in killing members of the other party. The party that is out spends its time in plotting against the party in power. Conrad’s gunrunning was to provide arms to the Conservatives when they wished to overthrow the Liberals. José and his father, Miguel, are caught up in this strife. The second part is the story of José and his father, Miguel. Miguel had met Antonia de Narváez, who was married to an American, William Beckman. Beckman had been running a shipping company on the river but one of his ships, filled to the brim with tobacco to be taken to an English steamer for export to England, had got caught up in the latest civil war and was hit by a cannonball. The ship, the tobacco and Beckman’s fortune went to the bottom of the river, though the chimneys of the ship could still be seen. Miguel had had a quick fling with Antonia but she spurned him and, in despair, he went off to Panama, unaware that he had left her pregnant. Though he regularly wrote to her, she did not reply. When Beckman found out that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he killed himself. José was keen to find out about his father and eventually managed to drag some information out of his mother. When he was old enough he left his mother and headed to Colón and his father.

The third story was, of course, about Conrad. This is one of those novels where people cross the paths of others without realising it and this happens with Conrad when he is Colombia, almost meeting Miguel though not doing so. Miguel, however, does met Dominic Cervoni, who will be the model for Nostromo. Vásquez continues to give us glimpses of Conrad’s life story, as we follow him as sailor, a captain and a writer. The fourth story concerns the Panama Canal. Miguel moves to Colón, where he works as a journalist. He is very enthusiastic about the prospects for a canal and is happy to embellish his articles in favour of the canal. When the French plan starts to take effect, he is even more enthusiastic and any setbacks are glossed over while Miguel talks up the limited successes. He is eventually hired as the PR man for the Canal but, as we know and we learn from this novel, it all went horribly wrong. Meanwhile, José joined his father and moved in with him. Nevertheless, this part is concerned essentially with the construction for the canal and the problems the French faced, with a few Colombian civil wars thrown in.

As we know from the historical record, Panama gained its independence from Colombia in 1903 and José was there but he was not happy about it. He left immediately for London where he met Conrad, told him his story and the story of Colombia and was devastated that Conrad did use the story he had told him but created his own novel. Does it all work? The answer is more or less but we are left unsure as to whether Vásquez wants to tell the Conrad-Altamirano story or the history of Colombia/Panama. While not, of course, mutually exclusive, we do sometimes get the sense that Vásquez is not always sure where his focus is. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating account of one man’s perspective of Latin American turmoil.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Alfaguara
First English translation by Bloomsbury in 2010
Translated by Anne McLean