Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo is set in a fictitious Latin American republic named Costaguana, and based in part on his travels to Colombia and its then-dependent state, Panama. From this tantalizing bit of literary genesis, Colombian-born writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez has crafted The Secret History of Costaguana, an ingenious novel that purports to tell the real story that Conrad appropriated and made his own. As he constructs his own cunning fiction from this rich raw material, Vásquez offers an incisive rumination on the elastic nature of history and truth, and the ways in which fiction distorts both.
Vásquez, while researching a Spanish-language biography of Conrad, discovered that one of the sources he tapped when writing Nostromo was a Colombian diplomat living in London. Vásquez imagines a scenario wherein that real-life Colombian introduces Conrad to a man who has witnessed the perpetual turmoil in Panama, where European financiers struggle to build the inter-oceanic canal and chronic war and civil unrest eventually give way to imperfect independence. This invented narrator is José Altamirano, the bastard son of an influential journalist and, like Conrad, something of a man without a country.
A Colombian novelist blurs the lines between fact and fiction—with a little help from Joseph Conrad.
The Secret History of Costaguana begins on August 7, 1924, the day Conrad is buried in Canterbury, England. That night, Altamirano begins to write his own version of the events he shared with Conrad 20 years before. It is a story that extends back a century, begins with the birth of his father, Miguel, and parallels the uneasy history of Colombia and Panama. A political radical, the elder Altamirano flees Bogotá, eventually settling in Colón, where his boosterism in the European press helps fuel enthusiasm and gain financing for the proposed canal. But Colombia—and by extension, the state of Panama—is a “convulsive” country, where the tumult of politics is outstripped only by the havoc of disease, earthquakes and apocalyptic weather. Over many years, the canal project faces countless obstacles and, ultimately, bankruptcy, with Miguel’s reputation suffering in the bargain.
When José, the son that Miguel does not know he sired, is serendipitously reunited with his father in Colón, he takes on the mantle of chronicler. He becomes involved with a distraught French widow, who gives him a daughter, Eloísa, who in turn becomes the recipient of this written testimony. While this generational through-line shapes the story, the novel is less a family chronicle than a narrative of a country’s history as refracted through individual experience. It is a colorful and bloody history to be sure, featuring fleeting cameos by Sarah Bernhardt and Paul Gauguin, among others. And it constantly hovers under the shadow of Conrad, an important if infrequent presence in the book, and his reinvention of history for his own literary purposes.
On one level, The Secret History of Costaguana is a political novel, exploring how foreign intervention, by the U.S. and others, shaped (and continues to shape) Colombia and Panama. On another, it both exploits and subverts beloved Latin American literary conventions. Mostly, though, Vásquez’s book is a dazzling consideration of how fiction is shaped by history and, not inconsequentially, how history is shaped by fiction. “Here is a humble revelation,” José Altamirano tells us, “the lesson I’ve learned through brushing up against world events: silence is invention, lies are constructed by what’s not said.”