The Conradian: Review

By Hugh Epstein, London

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Secret History of Costaguana, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. £16.99

I“To a teacher of languages there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” Several such parrots (as well as the feathered one) in their various ways screech “Viva Costaguana!” in Nostromo.

But the narrator’s famous statement from the opening of Under Western Eyes also aptly describes the historical Colombia of 1845 to 1903 that Vásquez offers both in homage and as a riposte to Conrad’s fictional Costaguana: Vásquez’s novel, as much as Conrad’s, turns upon the fraudulence of public language, but his choice of the sprightly, self-aware and loquacious José Altamirano as narrator, often seeming a hyper-animated Decoud, ensures that this novel isn’t sparing with its words, from the opening irony, “Let’s just come right out and say it” (in a novel which defers doing just that for nearly the whole of its length), to the many explicit and implicit parallels drawn with Conrad’s imagined republic:

Readers of the Jury: I do not know who first compared history to the theatre (that distinction does not belong to me), but one thing is sure: that lucid soul was not aware of the tragicomic nature of our Colombian scenario, created by mediocre dramatists, fabricated by sloppy set designers, produced by unscrupulous impresarios.

The specific charge upon which we are being asked to sit in judgement is not made absolutely clear until the final chapter, and one question in judging the novel will be, has it been worth the wait? Meanwhile, the reader familiar with Nostromo is likely to feel that the defendant in question is, of course, Conrad, and that the evidence shows him guilty of a very European appropriation of the tragedies, cruelties, and humanity of Colombia for a comic-opera rendition of some “typical” Central or South American state, a “performance upon the Conrad” that Vásquez’s highly performative novel unmasks as a species of theft.

There are two conceits upon which the novel turns or, rather, which it works to a crisis point, and they both show Vásquez as well read in Conrad’s life and letters. The premise that Costaguana is Colombia by another name receives equivocal support from scholars: Najder (1983) says that the Saint-Antoine sailed to the South American ports of Cartagena in Colombia and Puerto Cabello and La Guaira in Venezuela and “several days on land provided Conrad with the visual material for Nostromo”; Stape (2007) says “Conrad glimpsed the Colombian coast and stepped ashore on the “dreary coast” of Venezuela at Puerto Cabello”; however, Knowles and Moore in the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad (2000) claim “the Saint Antoine stayed in the Saint-Pierre roads and did not, contrary to Conrad’s intimations, visit ports in Colombia and Venezuela.”

Be this as it may, the history of the secession of Panama from Colombia, with the inflow of foreign investment into the Canal and the part played by journalism in its announcement, provides some irresistible pointers to Sulaco, the Gould Concession, and the role of Decoud; and Vásquez’s determination to show Conrad’s unacknowledged debt to this brutal history of European and American capitalism provides the reader with a fast-moving narrative of battles, advances and retreats, incidents of cruelty, stupidity, and kindness, pronunciamentos, newspaper articles, ineffectual government, rascality, construction and destruction, to match the turbulence that sounds through Nostromo.

The second premise is more far-reaching, metaphysical, and strained. It is of a life-long parallel between the lives of José Altamirano, Colombian in exile, and Joseph Conrad, that bends to intersect, briefly, in November 1903. Vásquez’s narrator is moved to identify with the tortured, sceptical Conrad of the letters to Cunninghame Graham, and moved also to anger at the spectacle of the novelist “transforming Colombia into a fictional country, a country whose history Conrad can invent with impunity”:

Yes, my dear Joseph, yes: I was there, in Colón, while you were ... I was not a witness, but that, given the nature of our almost telepathic relationship, of the invisible threads that kept us on the same wavelength, was not necessary. Why does that seem so implausible to you, my dear Joseph? Don’t you know, as I do, that our encounter was programmed by the Angel of History, the great metteur-en-scène, the expert puppeteer?

Fictionally, this identification becomes a means to explore a relationship with his journalist father – “idealist, activist, optimist” – who functions in the novel both as a Decoud figure and also as Apollo Korzeniowski. The death of Miguel Altamirano “by disillusionment, though I was prepared to accept melancholy,” in an abandoned excavator for the Panama Canal for which he has been so enthusiastic, is one of the most finely evoked, indeed Conradian, moments in the novel.

More broadly, the assertion of identification between Conrad and his narrator Altamirano is also the means for the author Vásquez to explore the role of the writer in relation to country and nationality: for Vásquez, who lives in Barcelona, the insistent presence of Conrad the expatriate Pole bounding his literary horizon seems to demand this examination of the oscillations of loyalty and betrayal, those deeply Conradian concerns.

In this respect, the most affecting aspect of The Secret History of Costaguana is José Altamirano’s attempt to live outside history and to protect his daughter Eloísa from the politics of Colombia. He says to her, “The war, in this country of windbags, was something that happened in telegrams, in letters exchanged by generals, in the capitulations that were being signed from one end of the Republic to the other.” His contempt for this as “Mere words, mere words, mere words,” as he writes in the next paragraph, has much in common with Charles Gould’s disdain for Don Justé Lopez and his fellow parliamentarians “putting all their trust into words of some sort.”

Yet Conrad’s awareness of the irony of a writer airing this view permeates his work more tragically than is allowed by Vásquez’s procedure in his novel of having a first person narrator who must be the voice of this awareness as well as its victim. So his parenthesis – one of many – that “(Words pursue, they can wound, they’re dangerous; words, in spite of being the empty kind of words that Colombians tend to pronounce, can explode in our mouths, and we mustn’t underestimate them.)” is too explicit and, unlike the multiple parentheses in Nostromo, actually limits the resonances that operate within this narrative of history rather than extending them.

At bottom, this is because of a condition that Conrad knew well – a lack of conviction in the reality of his characters. As Conrad wrote to William Blackwood about Lingard in The Rescue, “If after reading the part 1st you don’t see my man then I’ve absolutely failed and must begin again” (CL1 381). For Vásquez, this affliction becomes a multiplication of words at the expense of realised presence, and a multiplication of aims that diminishes the intensity that peculiarly arises from fiction.

Had Eloísa been more truly seen, and had she been the sole narratee in the manner, say, of Elizabeth Curren’s daughter in Coetzee’s Age of Iron, such a concentration would have produced the illusion of a told story more convincingly than the expansive address that includes Conrad and the implied reader as “Readers of the Jury.”

The constant declarations of method, as for instance, when he introduces the Colombian Envoy Extraordinary Pérez Triana (the real-life connection who will be made into the link between Conrad and Altamirano) with “The important thing is not who that man was, but rather what version I am prepared to give of his life, what role I want him to play in this tale of mine,” might count as “postmodern,” but their wearying explicitness is, in Conradian phrase, fatal to art.

In fact, the best scenes in the novel – and several are briefly and vividly imagined – are given life by a modernist sensational immediacy rather than by making a foreground of the issues inherent in narration. The exception to this is a bravura eight-page history of a Chassepot rifle, one of the guns supposedly smuggled by the Saint-Antoine to Catholic conservatives, which operates as an implicit commentary on Decoud’s shipment of arms to Sulaco and, in its inventiveness, overleaps the boundaries between fiction and history at which, elsewhere, the novel strains.

To match the novel that Altamirano claims has stolen and then falsified the lives of “we, who lived in the fiction that there was no history,” Vásquez needed to trust the fictional truth of that life (for a novel lives in that oxymoron) as Conrad did in the creation of Mrs Gould and the “tremendous disclosure” to her of “a great land of plain and mountain and people.”

For Vásquez has a real gift, hinted in the later stages of The Secret History of Costaguana, for serious evocation of a personal plight and that of a country, but it suffers under the weight of a scholarly awareness imported to mediate playfully between history and fiction, which ends by stifling the direct force of the latter.

© 2011 Hugh Epstein






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