Saturday, April 4, 2015

Juan Gabriel Vásquez and The Secret History of Costaguana (a review)

The Secret History of CostaguanaThe Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth. Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality. Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself, so the weary travelers may find repose. --Czeslaw Milosz, Polish Nobel Prize Laureate


Vásquez's micro-existential and momentary fictional audience within this novel, Joseph Conrad, needs redemption for his evil doppelgänger's distortion of Colombia/Costaguana's history as told in his popular work, Nostromo. At least that's what Jose Altámirano, the narrator of The Secret History of Costaguana, comically and feverishly pleads for ultimately to an unreliable reader(s).

Most reviewers have tried to place this 2011 South American story within appropriate regional parameters but, given the absurd supra-realism (not magical), that Vásquez cubistically uses to makes us see and believe the 'truth' about Costaguana, and to some poetically licensed, demystification of Joseph Conrad, The Secret History of Costaguana, is more attune to the early 20th century Spanish writer, Miguel Unamuno's fascination with intrahistoria-- that history could best be understood by looking at the small histories of anonymous people, rather than by focusing on major events such as wars and political pacts. However, Vásquez aggressively expands the meme by including major historical figures a la Winston Groom's Forrest Gump. The comparison is not so far fetched as it sounds.

Rewriting history in novel form is hardly (excuse the pun) novel, but what distinguishes Vásquez here is his post-deconstructionist sensibilities within the framework of Spanish language philosophical thought. He writes at the beginning of Chapter VIII, The Lesson of Great Events:
Pain has no history, or rather, pain is outside history, because it situates its victim in a parallel reality where nothing else exists, I've said; and it's true that for me--I can insist without grandiloquence--nothing else existed in those days...


Once again, this clearly articulated premise could well have been penned by Unamuno or any of his contemporaries seeking existential truths in a peri-WW1 social milieu. Vásquez has the advantage, or disadvantage, of over a hundred years of evolved skepticism that have led many philosophers and writers into an almost laughable position of complete intellectual frustration that only comic relief can cure. One person severely betrayed, as Altámirano claims he was in the novel, translates as the entire human race forsaken. Even the narrator's name, which roughly means in garbled Spanish 'highest viewpoint', suggests an agonizing observation of ironic events from a disingenuous narrator.


The protagonist, linking his fate to that of the great Joseph Conrad's--a Polish enigma yet keen observer of psychological skin--reflects the angst of Altámirano's desperate plea for the 'truth' to be told, never realizing that Conrad's fictional words to him are final: "This, my dear sir, is a novel."

While Vásquez's wit and word play, brilliantly translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, entertain the actual reader tremendously, there is a tediousness and sluggish pace to certain sections in this work that require less cataloguing and more dialoguing. Nevertheless, The Secret History of Costaguana has certainly earned victorious merit in the long spanning tradition of Spanish existential literature, in spite of its absurdist trappings, much as Unamuno re-created another fantastic story of supposed betrayal in his most famous novel, Abel Sánchez.The themes are similar: the struggle to preserve personal integrity in the face of the pressures of social conformity.

Joseph Conrad might not be amused, but the discerning reader understands that Vásquez unapologetically does not allow the protagonist to use the first person point of view to pay no homage to anyone except his dear daughter, Eloísa. One might even be able to say that love, like cholera, lingers heavily forever like the unbearable tropical heat that melts away positivism--another philosophy that Unamuno embraced. And as
Altámirano forgot to say, "I rest my case!"



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