Juan Gabriel Vasquez's "The Secret History of Costaguana"
This may be thanks to Bolano and his massive appeal, but it seems (to me at least), like Spanish literature is going through a sort of a “Second Boom.” Not so much in terms of a shared aesthetic, but in terms of having captured the imaginations of American publishers. In addition to standards like Javier Marias and Fernando del Paso, over the past few years works from Evelio Rosero, Alejandro Zambra, Eloy Urroz, Jorge Volpi, Cesar Aira, Santiago Roncagliolo, Carlos Gamerro, Sergio Chejfec, and Enrique Vila-Matas have been published in English translation, and have received both great critical attention and a decent-sized readership.
And that’s just in the fiction world . . . Additionally, there have been a number of collections of poetry published, along with Granta’s “Best of the Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue and the forthcoming The Future Is Not Ours anthology.
All of this is a brief (and rather vague) prelude to talking about Juan Gabriel Vasquez, the author of The Informers and the more recently publishing The Secret History of Costaguana. I’ve had Secret History on my shelf for months, but haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Well, after exchanging a few emails with Jeremy Osner (who runs this blog) about this book, I think it’s about to move up my “to read” pile . . .
Jeremy was blown away by this novel, in addition to writing a short review (see below), he translated (with Anne McLean’s editorial guidance), a piece by Vasquez on How to Read Novels:
I keep wondering why we do it: why would an adult devote his time, his mental energies, his moral intelligence to reading about things that never happened to people who never existed; how could this activity be so important, so vital, that this person would voluntarily withdraw from real life to carry it out. I’ve come across a few answers over the years, some of them in conversations with other addicted readers, but mostly in books here and there along the way. And indeed, the most recent of these books is truly marvelous: The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist consists of six essays in which Orhan Pamuk seeks to answer one crucial question: What happens to us when we read (and write) novels? This book is the most illuminating, most stimulating, most abundant examination of this difficult topic that I’ve read in years. I can do no less than to offer this urgent call to readers.
“I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel,” says Pamuk. “We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fiber of our being.” In other words: there are no two identical readers of the same novel; not even two identical readings. And this fact, which seems so obvious, is what can explain the effects, the intimate, unpredictable effects the novel can have on us. What are these effects? Pamuk says we read the way we drive a car, pressing the pedals and shifting gears while watching the signals and traffic and the landscape around us: our intellect moves in a thousand and one directions in every instant. With part of our mind we do the simplest thing: follow the story. But readers of “serious” novels are doing something more: are looking constantly for the secret center of the novel, for that revelation the novel seeks to bring to light, which cannot be summarized, which can only be expressed just as the novel expresses it. Sábato was once asked what he meant to say in On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato replied, “If I could have said it any other way, I would never have written the book.”
(I think it’s fitting that I’m posting this today, since that bit above loosely ties into the Very Professional Podcast that we’re posting later today.)
Going back to the book itself, here’s Jeremy’s summary:
The Secret History of Costaguana (2011) is Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s second novel to be translated into English, following 2009’s The Informers. It is a captivating book, the very best kind of historical novel: Vásquez has researched meticulously a corner of history that may be unfamiliar to many readers (as it was to me); he draws connections between that corner and the broader currents of world history and the history of literature; and he does so playfully, inquisitively, accepting none of the strands of historical narrative as immutable fact.
Vásquez’ chosen topic is the first attempt to build a canal in the Panamanian province of Colombia, in the 1880’s. One of the people who was in that corner of the world during those years was Joseph Conrad, a key literary influence for Vásquez, who used his observations of Colombia as the basis for his novel Nostromo, set in the fictional country of Costaguana. Vásquez’ narrator Juan Altamirano crosses paths with Conrad in Colombia, and again many years later in London, and he sets his own South American voice up in opposition to the colonial voice of Conrad.
And so we get a beautifully-drawn picture of Colombia and Panama during a critical point in their history, and in the history of their relationship with the US; and interlaced into this picture we get the novelist’s statement of his influences and his literary education. (For more of the latter, be sure to read Vásquez excellent essay on literary influence, Misconceptions Surrounding Gabriel García Márquez.) Vásquez’ powerful, enchanting prose finds an able translator in Anne McLean.
But of all this, one of the coolest bits from Vasquez in this quote that Jeremy found in his book chat at The Guardian: “I have a tendency to trust translators, mainly because nobody does it for the money.”