Tag Archives: Joseph Conrad

The Sound of Things Falling

1 Feb


The Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has a thesis in which he claims that every successful story contains within it another story. The first story narrates the action of the plot, while the second story is more or less hidden from view, or in parentheses. The art of the story-teller, according to Piglia, lies in knowing how to encode the secret story within the interstices of the first.

In Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’ this duality is expressed as tension between the self and its other, and the theme is one to which the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has been drawn in all three of his novels. In fact his second, The Secret History of Costaguana is – in the parenthetic sense of Piglia’s definition – about Conrad himself. There is more than a little of Conrad also about the ‘inner weather’ of Vásquez’s writing, not least in the elusive and at times strenuous unravelling of plot. In his new book the structure of telling is doubly replicated, both the main story and the subsidiary story recounting (among other things) the relationship of a father and his daughter, while the threads holding together the parental relationship begin to unravel.

The novel begins with an account of the shooting of a hippopotamus, a one-and-a-half ton male ‘the colour of black pearl’. The hippo has escaped from the private zoo of drugs baron Pablo Escobar, in the Magdalena Valley, south of Bogotá, after the zoo, along with all of Escobar’s vast and ill-gotten estate, falls into ruin. The narrator, Antonio Yammara, visited Escobar’s zoo as a twelve-year-old, against the express orders of his parents, and the memory is still vivid. And it is memory – its tenuousness and its faulty reconstruction – that lies at the heart of this novel. ‘The saddest thing that can happen to a person’ we are told, ‘is to find out their memories are lies.’ Elsewhere we learn that ‘remembering wears us out.’ Familiar tropes emerge: deception, the inescapability of the past, stories that mirror one another, and fatherhood. It is perhaps unavoidable recalling Borges’ famous dictum that mirrors and copulation are abominations, since they both replicate the numbers of man.


Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Back in the 1990s, Antonio is a young lawyer who befriends a lonely man with a secret. Ricardo Laverde has just been released after twenty years in jail. He says he makes (or made) his living as a pilot, so it is hardly a spoiler to reveal that, given Colombia’s history, he might on occasion have made aerial deliveries for the wrong sorts of people. We also learn that US Peace Corps workers developed the cocaine-refining technology that helped turn Colombia into the nexus of the narco-industry over the following two decades. Ricardo was himself married to a young Peace Corps volunteer, whom he expects shortly to welcome back to Colombia after two decades’ separation. With some evocative, painterly, strokes Vásquez leads the reader through the landscape of Ricardo’s past, before returning, with a searing sense of loneliness and regret, to Antonio’s present.

Anne MacLean has translated all three of JGV’s novels into English. There were a couple of lines I questioned: her reference to Maya’s hands being ‘tainted’ by the sun rings strangely in English, as does the phrase: ‘my closed lungs made themselves felt effortlessly’. But these are small matters: for the most part the work reads beautifully.

Vásquez’s persistence in exploring the darker corners of his country’s history, in probing his characters’ intractable duality, and in questioning the frailties of both collective and individual memory, is compounded by his skill in evoking those instances, known to us all, when things changes for ever: such as when the telephone rings, and “all you have to do is pick up the receiver and a new fact comes through it into the house, something we’ve neither sought nor requested and that sweeps us along like an avalanche.”

This review first appeared in The Independent on 1 December 2012.




The other side of the other

22 Jan
Cat in Sultanahmet

Cat in Sultanahmet


In my last post I mentioned that perennial companion and source of consternation, the other, the doppelganger, the one who walks beside us, both ourselves and not ourselves.

I cited the introduction from Orhan Pamuk’s memoir of Istanbul, but cut the quotation short. I did this on purpose, because Pamuk leads off into the dark side of the other, to the fear of replication that beset him when he once came to grips with the awfulness of one’s own doubling:

On winter evenings, walking through the streets of the city, I would gaze into other people’s houses through the pale orange light of home and dream of happy, peaceful families living comfortable lives. Then I would shudder, thinking that the other Orhan might be living in one of these houses. As I grew older, the ghost became a fantasy and the fantasy a recurrent nightmare. In some dreams I would greet this Orhan – always in another house – with shrieks of horror; in others the two of us would stare each other down in eerie, merciless silence.

‘As I grew older’. There’s the rub. Just as all literature leads us back to children’s stories, as Borges notes, so, in an inverse sense, stories that begin as childhood diversions, of daydreaming and harmless fantasy, with time become the stuff of nightmares. The prospect of possessing (or being in the possession of, possessed by) a double, a version of oneself both intimate and foreign, both known and unknowable, intrudes into consciousness with the stealth of a thief, come to steal our bones, come to steal our soul.

After reading my last post, The one who walks alongside us, a friend commented that in Freud’s essay ‘The Uncanny’, he refers to the terror implicit in the concept of the double, the creeping horror of replicating something long known to us, once very familiar, but which has now become terrifying. What could be more familiar to us – and therefore possess the greatest potential for horror – than ourselves?

In literature, notably in the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Conrad, Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Bernhard, we frequently encounter something approaching a paranoid state revolving around the persecution of the ego by its double. Otto Rank, Freud’s precursor in the study of the double, compares these imaginary creations to their authors’ symptoms, through which the theme of the double reveals a psychopathological dimension. Well . . . you might see it that way, you might even, as Freud suggests, see the expression of the double as a symptom of the ego’s inability to outgrow the narcissistic phase of early childhood, but that would be to pathologize a great number of writers, and I don’t for one moment believe in the notion that you have to be mentally ill to be intrigued by the notion of a double, or to write effectively on this theme, or to be encouraged to think there may be some profound connection between an awareness of one’s own otherness (expressed in many ‘traditional’ cultures as an animistic belief in immortality) – or to believe that after a certain age it should be regarded as an unhealthy or pathological condition.

We all possess the ability to imagine ourselves as other, and this imagining, or daydreaming, is the beginning of all literature. How appropriate then, that when a writer sets out to put down an account of his or her own life, they seem best able to do this by imaging their story as one that happened to someone else. It seems to be the core paradox that confronts anyone who writes a memoir, and has certainly been my own experience.

Pamuk too, apparently: “I’d have liked to write my entire story this way – as if my life were something that happened to someone else, as if it were a dream in which I felt my voice fading and my will succumbing to enchantment.”

More to follow. Written either by me, or the other bloke.


View from Megara Palace


Sultanahmet shack


Flying carpet








The Secret History of Costaguana

6 Sep


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.





Borges and I

19 Oct

The idea that we contain a double, or a secret other, is a strangely pervasive one, and has fascinated writers from different traditions and in distinct genres. Among those who have famously approached the topic are Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Joseph Conrad in his long story The Secret Sharer. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short piece, reproduced below (in the translation Norman di Giovanni made with Borges himself rather than the travesty published by Andrew Hurley in the Collected Fictions) the writer focuses on the schism between the public persona of the famous writer Borges, and the individual, private Borges in whose first person the piece is written. Or is it that straightforward? While this is the apparent message of the text, we, the readers, are nonetheless engaging with it in the knowledge that it is written by Borges, the famous writer, so the dualism is in a sense perpetuated by that knowledge, driven by our relationship to Borges the writer rather than Borges the private individual. In the end, as Borges intended, we are faced with a hall of mirrors, in which Borges’ self-confessed tendency to falsify and magnify things (as do all writers of fiction) reaches into the very representation of the ‘I’ that claims to reject such things. We are all the products of an insidious dualism, the piece tells us, and to attempt to deny it only draws us deeper into the labyrinth.


Borges and I

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork of the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.