The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction.

It took me three attempts to read this book in full but I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely very rewarding. A knowledge of Joseph Conrad and of Panama-Colombia history would be useful, though that being said it was fun to read this and have no idea what was true and what wasn’t (I definitely want to know if the anal abscess story is true!).

What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian?” With this opening question, the book is propelled forward, and as readers we remain curious throughout as to how the narrator, Colombian exile José Altamirano, ends up encountering and sharing his lifestory with the rising writer Joseph Conrad, who goes on to use Altamirano’s story as the basis for his novel “Nostromo.”

In telling us about how he came to meet Conrad, Altamirano also ends up telling us about his journey to Panama at age 21 to meet his estranged father, who is working as a reporter. The tale is digressive, as Altamirano informs us at varying points about how his mother and father met via Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Saenz’s love affair (I loved the throwaway comment about Saenz meeting Herman Melville; can this possibly be true?? Probably not, but that’s what makes fiction so delicious), and how his father came to be excommunicated and exiled thanks to a mummified Chinese railway worker’s hand. This digressive style is one of the book’s real pleasures, and encompasses one of its main themes: that of everyday life versus History, or as Altamirano puts it, how “the small incident had been obliterated by the Big Event.” As Altamirano tells us the story of his family, he is also telling us the story of the Thousand Days’ War in Colombia, of Liberal-Conservative fighting (The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard: it’s done every so often, generally following the same criteria as children at play (‘It’s my turn to govern,’ ‘No, it’s my turn’), and of how the U.S. came to secure both Panama’s independence and a hundred-year lease on the canal zone (I remember feeling embarrassed when learning about this in middle school, and likely had to resort to apologetically insisting to my classmates that “I’m half-British, not all gringo, don’t resent me, please!!”)

There are traces of The Informants and The Sound of Things Falling here with the father-son theme, as Altamirano’s father becomes famous for publishing enthusiastic journalism about the Panama Canal, journalism that is far more fiction than factual (it’s hard not to see echoes of contemporary events here). It’s interesting to contrast the father’s writing about reality vs. Conrad’s fiction: which is a more “true” version of Colombian history? Or as Altamirano puts it at one point, “There are good readers and bad readers of reality; there are men able to hear the secret murmur of events better than others.”

Other echoes with Vásquez’s novels include the impossibility of keeping your loved ones safe (Yes, yes, yes, we’re safe, no one can touch us, we have stationed ourselves outside of history and we are invulnerable in our apolitical house) and the form and style of rhetoric. On this latter point, Anne McClean’s translation (as is per usual for her) deserves heightened praise, for translating the book into such a readable and engaging style.

Part of what made this book a bit hard for me was all the names, but at a certain point I was just like “well, I’m just going to keep reading and not be too fussed if I don’t know who everyone is,” and that ended up working really well for me. Overall, what I admired most about this book is the angle it took towards writing historical fiction, with its focus on juxtaposing, interconnected stories that underly the bigger ones:

Stories in the world, all the stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exists on their own… Here is a humble revelation, the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said, and, since my intention is to tell faithfully, my cannibalistic tale must include everything, as many stories as can fit in the mouth, big ones and little ones.

A big theme throughout is the story of individuals versus that of Big Historical Events, and what gets forgotten as opposed to remembered. One of my favorite sections that best exemplified this was one that focused on a single rifle and who used it. Although the novel comments early on (and very knowingly so) about the mechanisms of magical realism (this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful women ascend to the sky), the rifle section stands out not only for its examination of how do objects “speak” to us, and its haunting question of “what do rifles know of us?”, it is also serves as a sad eulogy (among many) about the constant presence of violence in Colombian history. “It is 9.30 when its shot perforates the right lung of Miguel Carvajal Cotes, chicha producer; it is 9.54 when it blows apart the neck of Mateo Luis Noguera, a young journalist from Popayán who would have written great novels had he lived longer.” At another point, Altamirano says “The things we don’t see tend to be the ones that affect us most,” and it’s passages like the rifle one–where the book tried to show us who and what often gets lost/ignored/”disappeared” from history–that affected and impressed me the most.

All in all, major respect for this book. Another fine addition to the author’s canon, and highly recommended for all lovers of historical fiction (especially Borgesian-style). There is much food for thought in here.

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