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. (85)
Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo – set in the 19th century, in a fictitious Latin American country called Costaguana – begins with an Author’s Note. Here, Conrad explains the “inspiration” behind the novel: a story that he heard when he was traveling in either the West Indies or the Gulf of Mexico (Conrad can’t remember which) in 1875 or 76, and an autobiographical volume that he found in a second-hand bookshop twenty-five years later. What gave Conrad the confidence to invent an entire nation, complete with history, society, and conflict, set in the middle of a very real part of the world, on the basis of such … thin material? After the work of Edward Said, we now know that the power exercised by European nations at the height of the era of Empire translated into presumptions of knowledge. Nostromo was simply one strand in a web of discursive practices that constructed the non-Western world in a certain way, the basis of which was invariably an unarticulated set of stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions.
In the Author’s Note, Conrad then went on to employ a more familiar trope: he invented a fictional book called “A History of Fifty Years of Misrule”, written by a fictional person called Don Jose Avellanos, and noted that “that work was never published–the reader will discover why–and I am in fact the only person in the world possessed of its contents.” Here, then, you have that disarming disclaimer: it is not Conrad who is the author of the story, it is a “local source.” Conrad is merely the transcriber. As noted above, this trope is a familiar one, and it performs a function – to use a word that whose meaning will become clearer later on – of “refraction.” On the one hand, it asks us to suspend belief and assume narrative authenticity, by telling us that the actual story belongs to a “native.” At the same time, it gives that actual writer – in this case, Conrad – a fiction of authority, by ascribing to him the role of detached editor rather than involved author. Through this device, we are then expected to take the events described at face value, rather than through the double-distorted lens of foreign eyes.
All this, of course, operates within the realm of fiction, but – as Said explained in Culture and Imperialism – European fiction is inextricably linked with the practices of Imperial rule (not least in implicitly legitimising it), and Conrad’s own position on the subject is ambivalent (as The Heart of Darkness demonstrates most starkly). Nostromo, at its heart, involves an asymmetrical assumption of authority: authority assumed by Conrad to tell the story of a tumultuous Latin American nation, that could be a stand-in for any one of the countries of the region, and based upon a second assumption – that his subjects cannot write back.
It is that second assumption that is challenged by Juan Gabriel Vasquez in The Secret History of Costaguana. Its central premise will remind readers of Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, once described as “a rebuke to Albert Camus’ The Outsider.” The Meursault Investigation rewrites the story of The Outsider from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab that Meursault shoots towards the end of the novel. In The Secret History of Costaguana, we are informed that “Costaguana” is actually Colombia, and that Joseph Conrad – struggling with writers’ block and financial troubles – “stole” the story after conducting detailed interviews with Jose Altamirano, who had fled from Colombia during the tumultuous secession and birth pangs of Panama. Altamirano – the first-person narrator – is now determined to “write himself back into history.” The Secret History of Costaguana is Latin America’s answer to the Imperial conceit of Nostromo, like The Meursault Investigation is Algeria’s answer to the colonial arrogance of The Outsider.
Vasquez’s novel chronicles the bloody conflict between the conservative and liberal factions of Colombia, their fraught relationship with the province of Panama, and the conflict around the building of the Panama Canal, that would ultimately lead to an American-sponsored uprising, and the birth of independent Panama. The story is told through the eyes of Jose Altamirano, who travels to Panama in search of an unknown father, and despite his best attempts to live an “apolitical” life, is ultimately – and inevitably – caught in the eye of the political storm. For much of the book, the action turns around the catastrophic French attempt to build the Canal, an attempt that would end in failure and ignominy. One of the major protagonists, however, is Miguel Altamirano, Jose’s father, who has been (effectively) “hired” to provide favourable press for the French:
I discovered that over the course of two decades my father had produced, from his mahogany desk – bare but for the skeleton of a hand on a marble pedestal – a scale model of the Isthmus. No, model is not the word, or perhaps it is the applicable word to the first years of his journalistic labors; but starting from some imprecise moment (futile, from a scientific point of view, to try to date it), what was represented in my father’s articles was more a distortion, a version – again the damned little world – of Panamanian reality. And that version, I began to realize as I read, only touched on objective reality at certain select points, the way a merchant ship only concerns itself with certain ports. In his writings, my father did not fear for a moment changing what was already known or what everyone remembered. With good reason, besides: in Panama, which after all was a state of Colombia, almost no one knew, and most of all, no one remembered. Now I can say it: that was my first contact with the notion, which would so often appear in my future life, that reality is a frail enemy to the power of the pen, that anyone can found a utopia simply by arming himself with good rhetoric. In the beginning was the word: the contents of that biblical vacuity were revealed to me there, in the port of Colon, in front of my father’s desk. Reality real like a creature of ink and paper: that discovery, for someone of my age, is of the sort that shakes worlds, transforms beliefs, makes atheists devout and vice versa. (105)
At one level, of course, this is a simple – albeit effective – reminder that “fake news” was around long before the era of Donald Trump, and deployed by the “liberal” West for its own, cynical purposes. But I think that Vasquez operates at at least two further levels here. The first is a writing-back to Conrad (and Conrad’s ilk). Descriptions that “touch on objective reality at certain select points” (and it is worthwhile to remember, for the analogy that follows immediately afterwards, that Conrad was a seaman himself), and help “found … a utopia simply by arming [oneself] with good rhetoric” are accurate accounts of precisely what Orientalist writers were doing.
The paragraph quoted above is then followed up with this:
Let’s clear this up once and for all: it’s not that my father wrote lies. Surprised and at the same time full of admiration, over the first few months of life with my father I began to notice the strange illness that a few years back had begun to guide his perception and, therefore, his pen. Panamanian reality entered his eyes as if from a stick for measuring water depth from the shore: it folded, it bent, folded at the beginning and bent afterward, or vice versa. The phenomenon is called “refraction”, as more competent people have told me. Well then, my father’s pen was the largest refractive lens of the Sovereign State of Panama; only the fact that Panama was in itself a place so prone to refraction can explain why nobody, I mean nobody, seemed to notice. At first I thought, as any respectful son would, that the fault was mine, that I had inherited the worst of distortions: my mother’s cynicism. But I soon accepted the obvious.
To parse this, I think it might be worthwhile to take a step backwards: part of Vasquez’s intellectual project is also to write back against the dominant style of the 20th-Century Latin American boom writers, embodied most famously by his Colombian counterpart, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In more than one public interview, Vasquez has repudiated Marquez’s style, and the broader project of magical realism. Here, for example, is what he said:
I want to forget this absurd rhetoric of Latin America as a magical or marvelous continent. In my novel there is a disproportionate reality, but that which is disproportionate in it is the violence and cruelty of our history and of our politics. Let me be clear about this. . . . I can say that reading ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ . . . in my adolescence may have contributed much to my literary calling, but I believe that magic realism is the least interesting part of this novel. I suggest reading ‘One Hundred Years’ as a distorted version of Colombian history.
It is surely no coincidence that the word “distortion” occurs both in Jose’s description of his father’s literary project, and Vasquez’s description of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As the novel progresses, Miguel’s narrative begins to fall apart like a house of cards; and it is difficult not to see how, at an intertextual level, The Secret History of Costaguana tells us that magical realism is an insufficient – and maybe even dishonest – way to tell the Latin American story.
This should not be taken to suggest that The Secret History of Costaguana is written in some grimly realist style where – in the words of P.G. Wodehouse – “nothing happens until page 350, when the moujik decides to commit suicide.” Vasquez’s style is wry, ironic, humorous, and savage. It reminded me of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (without the magic), but even more, of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (not least because both writers deal with American imperialism, separated by six decades). Here, for example, is a description of one of the tragedies surrounding the construction of the canal:
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. (160)
Or again, in describing his father:
The reason: at that moment he had acquired, definitively now, the famous Colombian illness of SB (Selective Blindness), also known as PB (Partial Blindness) and even as RIP (Retinopathy due to Interests of a Political nature). (145)
Perhaps the closest analogy that I can think of from the region is Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War at the End of the World. The difference is, however, that in its choice of setting, Llosa’s novel still feels at a distance. The Secret History of Costaguana – in dealing with the timeless theme of imperialism – resonates; and nowhere more than towards the end, where the Americans’ cynical support of the Panamanian uprising in order to secure their interests in the Panama Canal reminds one of a century’s worth of similar interventions, continuing to this day.
After all, as Jose wryly notes, in words as current today:
I wondered how to live in peace, how to perpetuate the happiness I’d been granted, without noticing that in my country these are political questions. Reality soon disabused me. (205)