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“How does a body manage to endure the weight of his memory?”: Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana

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)

Gran Colombia

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)

 

 

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Latin American Fiction, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“In the country of silence, the light in your eyes can land you in a concentration camp”: Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Days and Nights of Love and War’

“Every day one of the prisoners stood up and read to the others. I wanted to tell you, Don Alejo, that the prisoners chose to read El siglo de las luces (Explosions in the Cathedral) and couldn’t. The guards allowed the book in, but the prisoners couldn’t read it. I mean, they began it several times and had to put it down. You made them feel the rain and smell the violent fragrances of the earth and the night. You brought them the sea the roar of the waves breaking against the keel of a boat and you showed them the throbbing of the sky at daybreak, and they couldn’t keep reading this.”

Replicating a fractured life in a fractured continent, Eduardo Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War is a memoir of discontinuous and fragmentary anecdotes, impressionistic, almost aphoristic at times. To use Mourid Barghouti’s memorable phrase while entering Palestine from exile, Galeano’s work is an attempt to “collect my scattered fragments as I would collect the flaps of my coat together on an icy day or as a pupil would collect his papers scattered by the wind of the fields as he comes back from far away.” Barghouti goes on to talk about collecting “the days and nights of laughter, of anger, or tears, of foolishness, and of marble monuments…” – and that is exactly what Galeano’s impressionistic, discontinuous, almost aphoristic narrative tries to achieve. “My memory will save what is worthwhile,” he writes in the beginning, “My memory knows more about me than I do. It doesn’t lose what deserves to be saved.”

What is saved is a lifetime of political activism in Montevideo, in Buenos Aries, and in Havana, in the stifling shadow of the mid-20th century Latin American dictatorships. “Custom houses for words, incinerations of words, cemeteries for words are organized.” Galeano recalls the kidnappings, the disappearances, the terror – and what it does to the soul of the individual. “Censorship truly triumphs when each citizen is transformed into the implacable censor of his own acts and words.” And yet, it is not always bleak hopelessness. He recalls, for example:

“Today I discover that once a month, the day the magazine comes out, a group of men cross the Rio Uruguay to read it.
There are about twenty of them. The group leader is a professor of about sixty who has spent a long time in prison.
In the morning they leave Paysandu and cross over to Argentine soil. They all chip in and buy an issue of ‘Crisis’ and then go to a cafe. One of them reads aloud, page by page. They all listen and discuss the material. The reading lasts all day. When it ends, they leave the magazine at the cafe as a present for the owner, and return to my country, where it is banned.
‘Even if it were just for this,’ I think, ‘it would be worthwhile.”
 

But what is saved also is love and laughter, refusing to wilt even in that shadow: “… the trees were alive, they were accomplices, and the world softly reeled at our feet.” And what is saved is the memory of larger-than-life, unforgettable characters: of the El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, whose “poetry was like him, loving mocking combative“, killed in an internecine vendetta, and of whom his friends believed that he would have gone to his death “roaring with laughter”; and of Ariel Dorfman, Chilean dramatist in exile in France,  who meets an unknown compatriot on a train to Paris, expressing a wish to become a clown. “It must be a sad profession.” Yes. But I am sad.

What accompanies the memories, however, and lends a depth and richness to them, is a sense of self-reflection, a sometimes bemused self-awareness. Even though he is writing a political memoir, the history of a continent, Galeano notes that “I am the world, but very small. A man’s time is not history’s time, although, admittedly, we would like it to be.” Elsewhere, remembering a reading session with friends, he recalls that “I select some lines that describe how lovely sudden anger can be.” Offered without judgment, but there is nonetheless an almost rueful acknowledgment about the eternal temptations of revolution and lyricism, the kind that Kundera warns us so savagely against.

Accompanying the self-reflection, as well, is a keen wisdom, a wisdom that is borne out of a lifetime of experiences, many of them bitter, all of them real. Recently, during a dinner-time conversation, my father recalled an anecdote from the life of the Russian cellist Rostropovich: while instructing one of his students in playing a Brahms sonata, Rostropovich said to her: “you haven’t shed enough tears in your life.” Reading Days and Nights of Love and War, one feels that one is in the presence of a wisdom that has been forged in more than a lifetime’s fair share of tears. This is reflected, at times, in his choice of anecdotes. He recalls, for instance, a director telling him about filming in a poor part of Chile:

“The local persons were “extras” in the scenes where there were masses. Some of them played themselves. Others played soldiers. The soldiers invaded the valley, and with bloodshed and fire, threw the peasants off the land. The film was the chronicle of the massacre… the problems began on the third day. The peasants who wore uniforms, rode horseback, and shot blanks had become arbitrary, bossy, and violent. After each day of filming, they would harass the other peasants.”

But perhaps nowhere is that tempered wisdom more evident than at the end of the book, when Galeano notes, about living and surviving in a dictatorship: “Joy takes more courage than grief. In the end, we are accustomed to grief.”

My copy of Days and Nights of Love and War is prefaced by a brilliant introduction from Sandra Cisneros. Wisely – and very riskily – Cisneros adopts the same style for her Introduction that Galeano does for his book. Brilliantly, she pulls it off. Her own brand of wisdom is refracted clearly in the few passages she takes up, most notably in her recounting of her first meeting with Galeano: “The book is the sum of our highest potential. Writers, alas, are the rough drafts.”

Days and Nights of Love and War is certainly the sum of our highest potential.

 

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“He was a creature given to short-lived, contradictory, but invariably sincere enthusiasms”: Mario Vargas Llosa, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I’ve always had an ambiguous relationship with Llosa. Books have been started, but for a variety of reasons, remain unfinished. The War at the End of the World was left behind on the back-seat of an auto rickshaw, 120 pages in; The Dream of the Celt was interrupted by a change of continents, and the consequent loss of Blackwell’s Bookshop, which allowed you to take books to their cafe and read them cover to cover. This time, I took up Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and – thank heavens! – managed to finish it. Actually, it is a hard book not to finish. Unlike Llosa’s other writing, which is characterised by dense prose, indubitably complex, multi-faceted plot-lines, and a proliferating cast of characters, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a racy comic novel, an unabashed farce with, of course, a very distinctive Latin American flavour.

Aunt Julia, set in Lima during the mid-20th century, is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story about 18-year old Vargas, part-time news-editor for Radio Pana-mericana and part-time Law Student, who falls uproariously for his 32-year old, divorced Aunt Julia (an aunt, but not a blood-relative). At around the same time Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian script-writer and actor, with an implacable hatred for Argentines, arrives to take over the production of radio plays for the organisation. As their courtship progresses, from hand-holding and long walks to an improbable bid for marriage, via fights and reconciliations, stiff filial opposition (including a gun-toting father) and much help from friends, Pedro Camacho’s radio plays grow zanier and zanier, with characters appearing and re-appearing, dying and being resurrected, until a final genocidal climax, which also coincides with the climax of the courtship.

Apart from its memorable characters (including the sidekicks, who often steal the show) and delectable twists and turns, Aunt Julia contains some hilarious (and hilariously sharp) reflections about the writing life. Pedro Camacho, an unabashed caricature of the classic literary genius immersed in his work, dresses up as his characters while he writes, so that he can get into the feel of things. Vargas himself is an agonised writer-in-waiting, who dreams about living in a garret in Paris, and wants to write a story called The Qualitative Leap, which – in a quite brilliant one-line portrayal of the anxiety of influence – will be “as coldly objective, intellectual, terse, and ironic as one of Borges’s – an author whom I had just discovered at that time.” When he first meets Aunt Julia, and is attempting to impress her without even knowing it, he explains to her, in classically endearing 18-year old fashion, that:

“… love didn’t exist, that it was the invention of an Italian named Petrarch and the Provencal troubadours. That what people thought was a crystal-clear outpouring of emotion, a pure effusion of sentiment, was merely the instinctive desire of cats in heat hidden beneath the poetic words and myths of literature.”

… before immediately conceding to his audience that he doesn’t believe a word of it. Vargas, as a character, is splendid: cocky without being cocksure, headstrong, but not annoyingly so; self-conscious but not to a fault; reflective, but never consumed by his own interior world. It is difficult not to see at least parts of one’s own 18-year old self in him, and almost impossible to refrain from caring very intensely about his fate, which for most of the novel, seems as precariously balanced as a pig upon a beanstalk.

Aunt Julia is a book of multiple narratives. The main story – the courtship of Vargas and Julia – is punctuated, after every chapter, by a Pedro Camacho radio play, recounted in third-person, like a story. Being reductive, one can say that the book is composed of one novella, broken up by many short stories, none of whom bear any tangible resemblance to each other. For a long time, I attempted – unsuccessfully – to work out the relationship between the main storyline and each of the radio plays (potboilers filled with incest, murder, insanity, betrayal and everything else  that Baudelaire would maintain ought to splash the canvas of our lives with their colours). This review quotes Llosa as saying that one of his intentions was “to prove that his own early world and the world of soap opera were not so very different from each other”, and goes on to compare the main storyline (set in the real world) with the plots of a soap opera, especially in its explosive climax.

There is, admittedly, some truth in that; and there are a couple of places in the novel where Llosa deliberately blurs the line between “real-life” and a Camacho soap opera. But I feel that that is not entirely convincing. The Pedro Camacho soaps have just that extra layer of exaggeration, that hint of the grotesque and the weird, that places them in the realm of fiction. The story of the deranged rat-killer who may or may not be eaten by rats at the end, the story of the good-for-nothing lad who becomes the greatest football referee in Latin America, and so on – for such stories, at the end of the day, it is difficult to entirely suspend disbelief, while the Vargas-Julia episodes suffer from no such infirmity: they are entirely, viscerally believable. Of course, real life and soap operas hardly mirror each other – and Llosa himself said he wanted to prove they were “not so very different”.

Ultimately, though, I was left with the feeling that perhaps it is best not to look for connections. Perhaps Aunt Julia simply shows us that the novel and the short story can exist together in a book, that can be enjoyed as  a book with multiple, unconnected narratives, and nothing more.

 

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Filed under Latin American Fiction, Mario Vargas Llosa