This is an ambitious novel, an attempt by the relatively young Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez to write serious literature. Give credit to him for that. But he tries to do too much; the novel is too diffuse and glib; and the Joseph Conrad angle is little more than an attention-getting gimmick. Despite some clever and entertaining passages, and a few brilliant ones, as a whole the novel fails.
The first-person narrator is José Altamirano. He was born in Colombia in 1855, the bastard son of a journalist father who coupled just one time with the Colombian wife of an American adventurer/engineer. Altamirano lived through the vicissitudes of Colombian politics and history until 1903, when the machinations of the United States - greased by several shiploads of marines and a chest of silver - brought about the secession of the State of Panama from the Republic of Colombia. That rupture, in turn, allowed the United States to pick up where the French had left off in building a trans-isthmus canal across Panama rather than Nicaragua. By coincidence Altamirano might have been able to thwart the Machiavellian maneuver by speaking up at a crucial moment, but he kept his silence. Plagued with guilt, he ended up abandoning his daughter in Panama and retreating to London for the remainder of his life. There, he was visited by Joseph Conrad, who was stymied in writing a novel set in an imaginary South American country called Costaguana. Altamirano spent a long evening with Conrad, relating his own story of Colombia and how it had been molded by the Angel of History, the Political Gorgon, the Journalism of Refraction, and human greed and ignorance. In doing so, Altamirano provided Conrad with the mythological/historical framework for what became his masterpiece, "Nostromo", only with a canal between two oceans having been transformed by Conrad into a silver mine. Altamirano then writes this, his own narrative, in 1924, shortly after the death of Joseph Conrad.
The best part of THE SECRET HISTORY OF COSTAGUANA is its episodic portrayal of the post-colonial history of Colombia (and Panama) through 1903. Vásquez presents much of the evidence that justifies these various conclusions about his native land: (i) "Colombia is a play in five acts that someone tried to write in classical verse but that came out composed of the most vulgar prose, performed by actors with exaggerated gestures and terrible diction."; (ii) "The regular massacre of compatriots is our version of the changing of the guard."; and (iii) "We Colombians were taken by the hand of our big brothers, the Grown-up Countries. Our fate was played for on the gaming tables of other houses. In those poker games that resolved the most important issues of our history, we Colombians, Readers of the Jury, just sat there like statues."
As those quotes exemplify, Vásquez's writing is playful, creative, zesty, and sprinkled with good, sardonic humor. There are many clever lines -- such as describing a drawing room cocktail party with "exchanges of witticisms that are the human version of dogs sniffing each other's tails". But for a novel-length work of serious literature, the tone is too light, too flippant. In the end, it imbues THE SECRET HISTORY OF COSTAGUANA with a sense of superficiality. There is no character development at all. Moreover, the reader is given little reason to care about any of the characters. Altamirano's abandonment of his daughter Eloisa is inexplicable, except as a facile vehicle for putting him in contact with Joseph Conrad. But then the entire Joseph Conrad episode (which, in actuality, takes up less than a tenth of the novel) strikes me as contrived. In my opinion, the novel would have been better off without it, though less marketable perhaps. In the end, I fear that THE SECRET HISTORY OF COSTAGUANA is Vásquez's contribution to a version of dogs sniffing each other's tails being played out in today's literary world.