A few months ago I gave up reading novels, but over the summer I cheated and devoured two, both of them very slowly, my preferred mode of literary consumption. The first was Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which I read for reasons which I now forget, but which seemed good enough at the time. I won’t review it here, as the book has been around for a while.
The other, which I have just finished, was the second of Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novels to be translated into English, and is called The Secret History of Costaguana (the first was The Informers, shortlisted for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2009).The newer book was published by Bloomsbury two years ago, and so it’s taken a while to get to the top of my pile, even the very slow-moving pile of a reluctant novel-reader (re-reading that last line sounds ominously intestinal).
I am not an easy reader to please, but am happy to report that Vásquez has helped restore my faith – not in humanity: his novel is too dark and despairing for that – but in the genre of the novel, itself a faith that needs frequent, though not frantic, restoration. From the start of The Secret History we know we are in the hands of a consummate maker of stories, led inventively through the emerging narrative of a place and a people whose identity is continuously under threat, of internecine dispute, of civil war, of colonialization – the city itself is, after all, called Colón – and whose surprising directions and narrative angles keep the reader in a state of interested anticipation throughout.
You can enjoy The Secret History of Costaguana even if you care nothing for Conrad or his Nostromo, around which the narrator circles like a nervous cat. However, if you carry a deep affection for Conrad, and for Nostromo in particular, then you will enjoy it even more. Vásquez’s story, or a version of it related by one José Altamirano, was made famous by Conrad (but stolen by the great novelist, according to the narrator, during a long night’s conversation in which Altamirano describes the coup by which Panama was, in a way that reflects the theft of the story, stolen from Colombia).
One of the most powerful moments in the book occurs towards the end, when Altamirano, on the point of leaving his beloved daughter Eloísa, considers the difference between the two of them: himself rootless and lacking in any sense of belonging, and she of quite a different mettle:
I realised that you were also flesh of the flesh of your land. I realized that you belonged to this country the way an animal belongs to its particular landscape (made for certain colours, certain temperatures, certain fruit or prey). You were Colónian as I never was . . . Each of your movements said to me: I am from here.
The Secret History of Costaguana is beautifully translated from the Spanish, as was The Informers, by Anne McLean.