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The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan…
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The Secret History of Costaguana (2007)

by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

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1506122,860 (3.18)32
A tale inspired by Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo" follows the story of Colombian-born José Altamirano, who reveals his integral role in the classic's writing and who pens his own version of events against a backdrop of a flourishing twentieth-century London and lawless Panama.
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» See also 32 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
I was disappointed by this book and was tempted to quit reading it at almost every point. In retrospect, I guess I'm slightly glad I read it, but only slightly.

The first chapter promises a brilliant novel that intersperses the personal history of the fictional narrator, with the "true" history of end of nineteenth century Colombia and Panama and the "secret" history of Joseph Conrad and how he came to write Nostromo.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work. Too much of the style seems like trite pastiche, the history is far too detailed with long sections that just list the generals and colonels who are fighting, and the "secret" history and Conrad portions never really come together in a satisfying matter and almost seem peripheral.

That said, some of the writing is very good, some of the characters are interesting, and the general tableau of Latin American political strife, American interference, and the early days of the canal are all interesting. ( )
  nosajeel | Jun 21, 2014 |
Set in Panama in the 19th Century, reflecting both the history of the Panama Canal and the intertwined ficionalized story of how Teodor Korzeniowski became Joseph Conrad. ( )
  AnneliM | Mar 15, 2012 |
total waste of time. couldn't finish it. I guess that the author and Vargas Llosa have discovered Conrad... ( )
  prima1 | Sep 26, 2011 |
This review first appeared on my blog: http://www.knittingandsundries.com/2011/07/secret-history-of-costaguana-by-juan....

In this rather convoluted tale, the narrator, Jose Altamarano, the illegitimate son of a married cynic and an idealistic Renaissance man, poor, anonymous, exiled and Colombian, tells the reader how his story was hijacked by the Great Novelist (caps from the novel) Joseph Conrad, and twisted into Nostromo.

Through various anecdotes, scraps of history, and personal recollections, we read about an unconventional life from the son of an unconventional union: a journalist father who eventually becomes a propaganda machine for the building of the Panama Canal, and a married woman whose husband kills himself when he finds out that she is pregnant by another man.

There is a great mix of tragedy, history, and personal drama that should make this a wonderful historical tale. There are also flashes of brilliance in the writing that will probably land this one on one or more long-and-shortlists for a literary award. For THIS reader, however, the writing style was difficult to muddle through. More often than not, I found myself backtracking, because whatever I'd just read didn't 'gel' in my mind to something I could understand (and on a couple of these occasions, even reading it over didn't help). I must admit that I haven't read Nostromo, and I knew almost nothing of the history of Colombia and Panama, so someone with a deeper background may not have some of the same issues with it. It also simply may not have translated over very well.

This one is not for the casual reader; it's like certain movies - if you look away from them for a minute or two, you simply can't figure out what's going on. In this novel, you have to pay attention, or you'll find yourself scratching your head and going back a page or two to catch up. I've included some quotes that are illustrative of the writing style and may help guide you into knowing if this book is right for you. I think that some readers will LOVE it, and some, like me, will merely like it, feeling that it should have been a better reading experience for them.

QUOTES (from an ARC; may be different in final copy):

In other words, leave it all in my hands. I'll decide when and how to tell what I want to tell, when to hide, when to reveal, when to lose myself in the nooks and crannies of my memory for the mere pleasure of doing so. Here I shall tell you of implausible murders and unpredictable hangings, elegant declarations of war and slovenly peace accords, of fires and floods and intriguing ships and conspiratorial trains; but somehow all that I tell you will be aimed at explaining and explaining to myself, link by link, the chain of events that provoked the encounter for which my life was destined.

You'll see, with the passing of the years and the reflection on the subjects of this book, which I'm now writing, I have discovered what undoubtedly comes as no surprise to anyone: that 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. How to wrest a linear tale from this? Impossible, I fear.

After the fire, "sixteen Panamanians were admitted to the hospital with breathing troubles," wrote my father (the breathing trouble consisted of the fact that they were not breathing, because the sixteen Panamanians were dead). In my father's article, the Canal workers were "true war heroes" who had defended the "Eighth Wonder" tooth and nail, and whose enemy was "fearsome nature" (no mention was made of fearsome democracies).

Writing: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Plot: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Characters: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Reading Immersion: 3 out 5 stars

BOOK RATING: 3.6 out of 5 stars ( )
  jewelknits | Jul 7, 2011 |
I was disappointed by this book and was tempted to quit reading it at almost every point. In retrospect, I guess I'm slightly glad I read it, but only slightly.

The first chapter promises a brilliant novel that intersperses the personal history of the fictional narrator, with the "true" history of end of nineteenth century Colombia and Panama and the "secret" history of Joseph Conrad and how he came to write Nostromo.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work. Too much of the style seems like trite pastiche, the history is far too detailed with long sections that just list the generals and colonels who are fighting, and the "secret" history and Conrad portions never really come together in a satisfying matter and almost seem peripheral.

That said, some of the writing is very good, some of the characters are interesting, and the general tableau of Latin American political strife, American interference, and the early days of the canal are all interesting. ( )
  jasonlf | Jun 25, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
The Colombian Juan Gabriel Vásquez has set off on a mission to reclaim his country's territory from no less a giant than Joseph Conrad who, in the early 1900s, decided to write a novel about a South American republic to which he gave the name Costaguana. Though inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, Conrad's Nostromo, published in 1904, is not a faithful depiction of Vásquez's homeland, any more than Vásquez's Conrad is a faithful depiction of Conrad. Nor are they meant to be. With wonderful panache, Vásquez has reinvented Conrad and his literary geography, just as Conrad himself reinvented Theodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski (the name under which he was born in 1857 in Russian-dominated Ukraine) and the landscapes of South America and Africa which he visited as a youngish sailor.

What emerges is a convoluted, complex, many-layered chronicle of a country whose corrupt and war-torn present is the all-too-obvious inheritance of its corrupt and war-torn past. Not a hopeless picture, however, but an enlightening one. "To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good," wrote Conrad a year after publishing Nostromo. "It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so." That belief permeates Vásquez's vivid, forceful, masterly book.
 
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For Martina and Carlota, who brought their own book with them when they arrived
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