Joseph Conrad is struggling to come up from his debts and his creative lull and need to write a book that bring him back to the literary scene. Its his 1903 book Nostrono, which he set in the fictional republic of Costaguana in the Latin America. However, the person supposed to have assisted Conrad in the writing with his novel ( Jose Altamirano, who visited London to answer few questions by Conrad, ending up telling his life story) is now feel cheated ( 'You've eliminated me from my own life. You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me.') and wants to set things right to the " Jury of the Readers" by retelling the real story.
Under this pretext, starts the tale of a country that was in turmoil for over 60 years in the middle of the Americas. The tiny land strip of Panama Rapublic. Originally part of Columbia, this merely 100 km wide land connect between two continents was of strategic importance of the nations of the world. The trading of goods from the Europe and other part of the world to the West cost of the US, or the rich minerals and metals from Peru and Chile to Europe has to go through the southern Cape of South America, which was a great loss of time and resources. The Spaniards tried to find a way from the Atlantic Coast of the Isthmus to the Pacific Coast. the narrow strip wasn't an easy one to conquer. the early days of moving the good through these jungles and difficult terrain was met with lot of difficulties and loss of man power. The idea of building a rail line came from this experience. An American names Aspinwal won the deal and the rail road was constructed amidst great loss of people. The workers brought in from various parts of the world succumbed to the tropical deceases and the hard labour. Unable to withstand the hardship , people started commit suicide ( especially Chinese), the Irish workers abandoned and had to be moved to New York However, Aspinwal and Company succeeded in completing the 50+ mile "Panama Rail Road Company" after much delay and huge loss of human lives, amidst multiplied cost. Though this had improved the movements of goods with considerable ease, it stil had its own issues. The ships have to be unloaded and loaded to the rail road wagons and had to be reloaded again at the other end. It is at this time, the Frenchman de Lessip and his team successfully completed linking Mediterranean sea to the Red sea in the Middle East, thus reducing the time travel to the Far East, in the form of Seuz Canal. He was invited to study the feasibility of a similar Canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Panama Canal , under the auspices of de Lessip and his French team has thus began. However, they had to face all those difficulties that the "Rail Road Company had to undergo. Losses mount, the progress next to none, the investors in the company is not satisfied, the political and civil unrest lead to the famous 1000 days of war etc hampered the canal, resulting in the abandonment of progress and the return of the French. Panama was still in unrest. Despite multiple set backs and hanging of their revolutionary leaders , they fought for their independence from the mainland Colombia. At this opportune moment, US steps in and supported the break away republic, only after securing the rights to build the canal, which eventually completed a decade later.
Juan Vasquez, build his story around this history of Panama from the 1850s to the first decade of 20th Century ( until 1905), through his characters. José Altamirano, a bastard son born in Bogota, learns about his father as he was turning twenty and come to Panama in search of him. He meets his father in Panama, who is unaware of the existence of his son.The rest of the book is about his relationship with his journalist father Miguel, who in continuation with his support to the Rail Road company and the Canal Project writes article in the leading news papers and his wife ( a French widow who looses her child and her Engineer Husband to the tropial Yellow Fever) and daughter. His personal history in connection with the history of the republic is intermixed as both goes through the same level of turmoil.
Juan Vasquez walks the fine line of fiction and history with some clever writing. A little knowledge of the history of the Rail Road Company, the Panama Canal Project and the Independence of Panama will be essential if you want to get into this book. I had to discontinue my reading and get back after I did some parallel reading on the above. While he is a brilliant writer, and this book is a product of meticulous research and planning the heavy historical content that overshadow the fictional element make this a non-fiction read at many a times. The initial pages however was brilliant writing.
Jose Altamirano is a great protagonist. While he claims to set the facts right, most of the narrative is not about him, but about the birth of the republic whose fortunes were interlinked with his own. Its a country risen from great losses of individuals, including that of his own. Thus it is also a a confessional narration, apologetic to his daughter,Eloisa. Vasquez has combined many a things in his narration. Colombia, having to loose control over one of the most important area of world commerce, having suffered the humiliation by the mighty powers, The Panama, having to suffer the fate only because of its strategic geographical position, whose ill fortune did not end after the independence ( its trouble continued years after its secession from Columbia , as late as 1989 when the US Marines invaded the country to arrest the ruler). The book is multi-layered. There is a Columbian view as the protagonist and his father are from Columbia, there is world view of its importance of the Rail Road and Canal, the Conrad angle, the subtle love of a husband and father forced to go through personal losses resulting from political upheaval.
The modern day literary revenge ( he not only takes on Conrad, but the general literary tendencies ) set in the midst of historical turmoil, intelligently and cleverly written by one of the new voices form Latin American Literature. Very good book.-----------------------------------------------------------------
The Secret History of Costaguana ( 2007 )
Juan Gabriel Vasquez ( translaed from Spanish by Anne McLean -2010)
NY Times, Guardian , Independent