Book Quote:

“So, without precise coordinates, deprived of places and dates, I began to exist. The imprecision extended to my name; and to keep from boring the reader again with the narrative cliché of identity problems, the facile what’s-in-a-name, I’ll simply say that I was baptized — yes, with a splash of holy water and everything: my mother might be a convinced iconoclast, but she didn’t want her only son ending up in limbo on her account — as José Beckman, son of the crazy Gringo who killed himself out of homesickness before the arrival of his descendant.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (JUN 18, 2011)

When Joseph Conrad was working on Nostromo in the early 1900s, and setting it in the fictional Latin American country of Costaguana, he found that his first-hand knowledge of the region, based on a couple of brief shore visits a quarter-century earlier, was insufficient. He therefore consulted friends who had spent greater time in northern South America and constructed a setting that is entirely believable, not only in its composite geography but also in its way of life and political turmoil. Now Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez imagines that Conrad might have had one further contact, José Altamirano, born in Colombia but recently arrived in London as an exile from Panama, following the province’s secession from Colombia in the revolution of 1903. Writing now in 1924, the year of Conrad’s death, Altamirano believes that the novelist has stolen his life story and that of his country to make a fiction of his own, utterly obliterating him in the process.

Altamirano writes in a voice that is immediately attractive. Witty, knowing, speaking directly to his readers, and making hay with narrative and historical conventions, he is an engaging travel companion and tour guide to the past century of Colombian history. Kudos to the translator Anne McLean for maintaining especially the humor of this voice, as when General Rafael Uribe Uribe dies “with an ax embedded in his skull and the weight of several civil wars on his shoulders,” or a group of envious conspirators break in on Simón Bolívar in bed with his mistress, “determined that this coitus shall be interruptus.” Altamirano’s story begins with the birth of his father in 1820, a Renaissance man who is simultaneously a lawyer, a doctor, and a writer, until exiled from the capital as a liberal and unbeliever. José himself is born in 1855, and remains in ignorance of his father until his late teens, when he goes off to Panama — at this time still a Colombian province — to find him. Coincidentally, a young seaman named Józef Konrad Korzeniowski makes his one visit to Panama at about the same time, gun-running with a French ship. The two do not meet.

It is probably going to be difficult for a foreign reader to keep up with the changing political situation in Colombia itself, but it would be worth Googling the history of Panama, especially the difficult building of the railway across the isthmus, the failed French plan to cut a sea-level canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the horrendous loss of life to yellow fever and loss of capital to fraudulent speculation, and the American involvement in securing a sovereign zone in a newly-independent country where the canal would ultimately be built. All these form the background to Altamirano’s personal story, which has more than its share of danger, love, and loss. Vásquez loses none of his narrative virtuosity, but halfway through his book begins to pall, partly because the mixture of personal and political no longer seems to gel, and partly because he also begins to tell the parallel story of Conrad in Europe and Africa. Though interesting enough in itself, the parallels seem forced and both stories get diluted. For that matter, the similarities between Altamirano’s story and Nostromo are not really that close at all, and good though Vásquez’ sense of place may be, Conrad’s is even better. The moral climax of the book depends entirely upon which side one backs in the Panamanian revolution, and while Altamirano clearly feels deeply, it is difficult for a Gringo to have any horse in that race at all, making it hard to sympathize with the author’s crippling guilt.

So other than an entertaining and swashbuckling yarn, what is the novel about? Any light it casts on Conrad and his Nostromo is relatively trivial; this does not even have the relevance that, say, Jean Rhys’ High Wind in Jamaica has to Jane Eyre. But in a less specific sense, it is a fascinating exploration of history and fiction. When Altamirano complains to Conrad “It’s not the story of my country,” the novelist replies: “Of course not. It’s the story of MY country. It’s the story of Costaguana.” Fact has become fiction. But the whole book is about the reshaping of fact. As each regime takes over from the other, it’s justifies its aims in the reframing of history and the writing of bad but patriotic poetry. The senior Altamirano practices a form of “refractive journalism” in Panama, bending the truth, and is paid by the Canal Company to write copy that will keep investors coming up with the money. His son uses every narrative trick at his disposal to present or conceal facts as he sees fit. And even the author plays the game by including among his solemn list of works cited an entirely fictitious history written by a fictitious character invented by Conrad for his Nostromo!

AMAZON READER RATING: from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover (June 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Guardian article on Juan Gabriel Vásquez
EXTRAS: Wikipedia page on Nostromo
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


June 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Latin American/Caribbean, South America, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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