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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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Round-up: Machado de Assis and Jennifer Makumbi

Machado de Assis, Epitaph of a Small WinnerThis novel is dedicated to “the first worm that gnawed at my flesh.” That is not a metaphor: Epitaph of a Small Winner is the fictional memoir of Braz Cubas, a late-19th century wealthy Brazilian man, and is written (literally) from beyond the grave: a posthumous memoir, so to say. That sets the tone for some truly dazzling flights of fancy, presaged by the following warning on page 10:

“The reader, like his fellows, doubtless prefers action to reflection, and doubtless he is wholly in the right. Se we shall get to it. However, I must advise him that this book is written leisurely, with the leisureliness of a man no longer troubled by the flight of time; that it is a work supinely philosophical, but of a philosophy wanting in uniformity, now austere, now playful, a thing that neither edifies nor destroys, neither inflames nor chills, and that is at once more than pastime and less than preachment.”  

Braz Cubas takes us through his misspent youth at the University of Coimbra (“I was a harebrained scholar, superficial, tumultuous, and capricious, fond of adventures of all kinds, engaging in practical romanticism and theoretical liberalism, with complete faith in dark eyes and written constitutions…“), his early-adult melancholy at the passing of his mother (“I believe that it was then that the flower of melancholy in me began to open, this yellow, lonely, morbid flower with its subtle and inebriating perfume…”), early failures in love, and then dedicates most of the memoir to a tumultuous and caustically adulterous affair with the wife of an ambitious minor politician. The narrative is fragmented, meandering, often self-referential and full of all kinds of digressions, but sustained by a lightness of tone and a conspicuous refusal to take anything – life, love, death, politics, the world – too seriously.

Beneath the lightness of tone, however, lies an unsparing, almost savage critique of social institutions, human vanity, and human conceit(s). Sometimes, this rises to the surface in an offhand, blink-or-you’ll miss it manner (“…but if you have a profound and perspicacious mind (and I strongly suspect that you will not deny this)…”), while at other times it takes the form of a lengthier digression, which might be straight out of The Devil’s Dictionary:

“I like epitaphs; among civilized people they are an expression of a secret and pious egoism that leads men to try and rescue form death at least a shred of the soul that has passed on, with the expectation that the same will be done for them.”

Or:

“As his manner was very sharp, he had enemies who accused him of barbarity. The only fact alleged to support this charge was that he frequently committed slaves to the dungeon and that they were always dripping blood when released; but, apart from the fact that he did this only to fugitives and incorrigibles, one must remember that, as he had long been engaged in smuggling slaves into the country, he had become accustomed to long-established methods of treatment that were somewhat harsher than those practiced in the regular slave trade, and one cannot honestly attribute to a man’s basic character something that is obviously the result of a social pattern.”

There is a particularly acute deconstruction of male vanity, which has all the markings of a proto-feminist critique (“… but the man, considering himself the irresistible cause of the [adulterous] affair and the vanquisher of the other man, becomes rightfully proud…”), and moments of sudden, serious depth, that stand out because of the contrast with the rest of the novel (“at dusk one seeks in vain the fresh exhalations of the morning…”).

In its epigrammatic quick-wittedness, Epitaph of a Small Winner is reminiscent of passages from Assis’ contemporary, Oscar Wilde; in its jocular narrator making light of the world, it anticipates some of Vargas Llosa’s comic novels, such as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; and in its uncanny ability to draw a vast sweep in space and time simply by recounting individual events and stories, there are obvious comparisons with Garbiel Garcia Marquez. It is not difficult to see why Epitaph of a Small Winner is accepted as a classic of Brazilian literature.

(NYT review; the book is available on Amazon).

Jennifer Matumbi, Kintu 

The form of Kintu is familiar to readers of postcolonial fiction of a certain kind: the story of a nation, told through the travails of a single extended family through the generations. In terms of its story, however, Kintu is unique. Anchored around a senseless, violent death on a road in the Ugandan countryside, Kintu spans the pre-colonial kingdom of Buganda, the era of colonialism, Idi Amin’s wars, and Uganda’s transition into the 21st century. There is a sprawling cast of characters – all part of an extended family descended from a half-historical, half-legendary figure called Kintu (“Kintu” is, in fact, a central character in Bugandan creation myth), whose single misdeed many centuries ago brought down a curse that continues to dog the family. Teachers, evangelists, incestuous twins, a military leader, and many others – their lives and paths intersect, separate, entwine, separate again, and finally come together in a haunting denouement at the end of the novel. There is a smattering of magic as well, vaguely reminiscent of The Famished Road, but only vaguely.

In the Introduction to Kintu, Aaron Bady writes that Makumbi “vowed to tell the story of Uganda with colonialism placed in perspective: not to say that the colonial encounter wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t the only thing that was.” Nonetheless, for me, some of the most striking passages from the book have to do with colonialism. For instance:

“After independence, Uganda – a European artifact – was still forming as a country rather than as a kingdom in the mind of ordinary Gandas. They were lulled by the fact that Kabaka Muteesa II was made president of the new Uganda. Nontehless, most of them felt that “Uganda” should remain a kingdom for the Ganda under their kabaka so that things would go back to the way they were before Europeans came. Uganda was a patchwork of fifty or so tribes. The Ganda did not want it. The union of tribes brought no apparent advantage to them apart from a deluge of immigrants from wherever, coming to Kampala to take their land. Meanwhile, the other fifty or so tribes looked on flabbergasted as the British drew borders and told them that they were now Ugandans. Their histories, cultures, and identities were overwritten by the mispronounced name of an insufferably haughty tribe propped above them. But to the Ganda, the reality of Uganda as opposed to Buganda only sank in when, after independence, Obote overran the kabaka’s lubiri with tanks, exiling Muteesa and banning all kingdoms. The desecreation of their kingdom by foreigners paralysed the Ganda for decades.”

Even more striking is a piece of imagery developed by a teacher, lately returned from the colonial metropolis (a familiar figure in postcolonial literature), in a piece he is writing for the local magazine:

Buganda, unlike the rest of Africa, was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was the plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house… Though the African was too weak to get up, he still said to the European, “I don’t like what you are doing, my friend. Please get out of my house.” But the European replied, “I am only trying to help, brother. You are still too weak and drowsy to look after your house. I will take charge in the meantime. When you’re fully recovered, I promise you will work and run twice as fast as I do… But the African body rejected the European body parts. Africa says that they are incompatible. The surgeons say that Africa discharged itself too soon from hospital – that is why it is hemorrhaging. It needs a lot more continual blood and water pumped up intravenously. The surgeons say, “Nonsense, we did the same to India, see how fast it’s running.”

And perhaps, most effective of all, the rawness of this:

“God became an idea. If there was a God then he was a racist. In anger, Miisi walked away from religion.”

(Africa in Words review; Jennifer Makumbi interview; the book is available on Amazon)

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“We all need witnesses of our lives in order to live them…”: Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Death of Artemio Cruz’

Artemio Cruz, sometime revolutionary hero, later exploitative landlord, is on his deathbed, “an old man whose features are fragmented by… uneven squares of glass.” His unloved wife and daughter hover around, attempting to extract the location of his will; a priest tries to get him to repent, while his secretary is ever-present with a list of his most corrupt dealings. In the midst of this cacophony, Artemio Cruz feels himself slipping into “nostalgia, which is another form of growing old, more ancient, going back.” As he dies, the scenes of his past flash into memory, in the form of discrete events that shaped his life. There is no coherence or structure to his last, disjointed thoughts, and his reminiscing alternates with keen awareness of his failing bodily functions, and resentment for the pseudo-solicitous individuals making his last moments excruciatingly painful.

Through the rambling recollections of one man, Carlos Fuentes’ novel describes the Mexican revolution, its promise, its failure, and its cynical betrayal by those who made it. Two hours before being summarily executed during the fag end of the long revolution, Cruz’s jail-cell companion speaks in the voice of the author: “those who want a real, radical, intransigent revolution are, unfortunately, ignorant, bloody men. And the educated ones only want half a revolution, compatible with the only thing they really want: to do well, to live well, to take the place of Don Porfirio’s elite.” Cruz proves him right by surviving, returning to dispossess his aristocratic father of his lands, marry his sister against her will, and create a political/economic empire as brutal and exploitative as that of the aristocrats.

In Fuentes’ novel, it is often difficult to separate the authorial voice from the voice of Artemio Cruz. Fuentes’ anger at the betrayal of the revolution is palpable, and often it spills out onto the pages, which crackle with a rage and intensity that the dying Artemio Cruz is quite beyond the capacity to feel. Normally, this would detract from the quality of the novel. But in The Death of Artemio Cruz, with its rotating narrators, one more voice added to the already existing medley hardly strikes a discordant note. Amidst the universe of characters that populate fifty years of Mexican history, “a country incapable of tranquility, enamored of convulsion“, Fuentes can simply take his place as another individual living it all, rather than an author imposing his point of view from on high.

To the extent that the story of Artemio Cruz is the story of the revolution betrayed, its very inception seems to foreshadow its ultimate failure. In the beginning, it appears that the story of Cruz is your run-of-the-mill story of disillusionment: the idealistic young revolutionary is heartbroken and permanently embittered when his first lover, who would meet him in each town after the fighting was done, is summarily executed during the war and left hanging from a tree for him to find; from that day on, ideals are shattered, love is banished from the world, and he lives to inflict injury upon his fellow beings. But matters are not so simple, because it turns out that the origins of their love were anything but pure:

“He would return. Where? To that mythical beach that never existed? To that lie about the beloved, to that fiction about a meeting on the beach invented by her so that he would feel clean, innocent, sure of being in love? He threw the glass of mescal to the floor. That’s what mescal was really good for: destroying lies. It was a beautiful lie… he would have to believe that beautiful lie forever, until the end. It wasn’t true: he hadn’t gone into that Sinaloa town as he had so many others, looking for the first unwary woman he’d find walking down the street.”

And he had raped her.

The suggestion seems to be that there was never a time of innocent revolution, a time before betrayal and corruption, a time when there was a possibility that things might turn out differently. To which origin? Cruz – or Fuentes – or someone else – asks at another time. “... no one wants to return to the phony golden age, to the sinister origins, the bestial grunt, the struggle for bear meat, for the cave, for the flint, return to sacrifice and madness, to the nameless terror of the origin.

And the matter seems to be sealed by the death of Cruz’s son in the Spanish Civil War, fighting beside the anti-fascists, just a little distance from safety beyond the French border. The only way for the revolution to remain uncorrupted, it seems, is to be defeated, and the only way for a human being to remain uncorrupted is death.

In its polyphonic structure, uncertain chronology, corrupted protagonist, and acute historical awareness, The Death of Artemio Cruz has drawn comparisons with that other great Mexican novel, Pedro Paramo. Certainly, there are similarities; but while Pedro Paramo recounts without judgment, The Death of Artemio Cruz is – to paraphrase Sartre – a “committed novel”. By the end, Fuentes has made it abundantly clear that Artemio Cruz (and, by extension, Mexico) has betrayed… someone, or something, although (apart from the enigmatic jail-cell speech excerpted above), we’re never quite told what.

Below all that, however, there is an undercurrent of something else: that Artemio Cruz’s actions are understood – if not justified – by the raison d’etre of all revolutions, that elemental human passion: of shaping the world in one’s own image. “It was an invitation to adventure, to plunge into an unknown future in which procedure would not be sanctioned by the sanctity of custom. He invented and created everything from below, as if nothing had happened before, Adam without a father, Moses without the Tablets of the Law. Life wasn’t like that, the world ordered by Don Gamaliel wasn’t like that.” And Artemio Cruz rejects guilt because he refuses to adjudge himself guilty of sins against a morality that he did not create, but found already made.

Despite all his anger, Fuentes insures that there is enough complexity, in history and in the character of Artemio Cruz, to render easy judgments impossible. Something has been lost, we keep feeling, both by Cruz and by Mexico, but again, it is difficult to say quite what they could have gained.

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