F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “I’d rather have written [Joseph] Conrad’s Nostromo than any other novel.” That 1904 epic depicted a province separating from the fictional South American country of Costaguana over a profitable silver mine. The eponymous protagonist is a supposedly incorruptible longshoreman, an archetype Conrad also used in Heart Of Darkness. Now, more than a century later, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’ second novel, The Secret History Of Costaguana, delves into the mystery behind Nostromo with the narrative conceit of a memoir from the man whose history Conrad stole.
Beginning just after Conrad’s death, José Altamirano attempts to set the record straight, and in a fashion acutely aware of his audience—he often addresses the “Readers of the Jury”—begins at square one with his father Miguel’s life in Colombia, before he was the journalist responsible for propagandizing the canal’s terrible progress in a Panamanian newspaper. Vásquez eventually weaves in Jose’s own story of early life in Colombia and his journey to meet his father in Panama, all while charting the parallel progress of Józef Korzeniowki from Polish immigrant and New World observer into novelist antagonist Joseph Conrad.
Though the novel claims it’s all about setting the record straight and belying Conrad’s depiction, Costaguana tends to put off that discussion in favor of intricate family history intertwined with detailed political and social upheavals throughout Latin America at the end of the 19th century—specifically, the construction of the Panama canal. Vásquez’s writing has earned comparisons to Roberto Bolaño and Jorge Luis Borges, but here, his narrator is perhaps more akin to Junot Díaz or Edward P. Jones: He particularly shares Jones’ uncanny ability to introduce characters, provide their entire backstories, and offer a glimpse into their futures in the span of a single page without sacrificing pace.
Vásquez is at his best when delving into extended lyrical, sweeping passages that get caught up in detailed emotion, like when he describes the precise history of a particular design of rifle smuggled from Europe to the hands of South American rebels, or gets into a character’s head as she sinks to the bottom of a river with rocks in her pockets during a suicide attempt. These digressions help prevent Costaguana from becoming a low-grade copy of Conrad or other novelists with highly aware narrators. Instead, it’s a modern counterweight examining the cost and benefit of turning the truth of a country’s history into a story.