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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Richly told fictitious story of the man behind Conrad's Nostromo, 30 May 2010
Ripple (uk) - See all my reviews
Richly told fictional account of Colombia and the building of the Panama Canal. Was this story the basis for Joseph Conrad's 1904 novel Nostromo set in the fictional Costaguana?

In 1904 Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad wrote his novel about a self-publicising Italian expatriate by the name of 'Nostromo', set in the fictitious South American republic of Costaguana. Columbian writer, Juan Gabriel Vásquez imagines that the fictitious José Altamirano has assisted Conrad in his research by telling him his own story, only to find that the British novelist has subsequently inexcusably omitted him from his book. Now, he is seeking to set the record straight by telling the reader, who he imagines in the role of a jury, as well as someone named Eloísa (who we later find out about) the same story to pass judgement on if this was fair.

Operating in this grey area between fiction and non-fiction, combining literature with history and addressing issues of influence and originality, Vásquez explores what Columbia means as a nation, with repeated violence and political upheaval, as well as illustrating the influence of the individual on history. And it's highly entertaining, not least as the narrator, José is a witty and charming story teller, albeit one that is perhaps a little full of his own importance.

Running through the centre José's story is his relationship with his father, Miguel, a journalist, who finds employment with the company charged with digging the Panama Canal. Panama at the time was part of Colombia. His father is, by nature, optimistic and views events with a degree of `refraction' (what we would now call spin) and rather than telling the truth about the terrible conditions and deaths that occur with the project, he spins a tale of great endeavour which keeps the French backers supporting the project. Indeed, the book forces you to consider the ethical questions raised by the act of writing, not only in Miguel's work, but also ultimately in Conrad's treatment of José. At the centre of Conrad's book was a dispute over a silver mine, although Vasquez suggests that this is a thinly disguised alternative to the Panama Canal.

José is convinced that there is a link, forges by the `Angel of History' between his life and that of Conrad, however far fetched this claim may be. There's no doubt that he has witnessed great suffering and by the time he meets Conrad, he is carrying a guilty conscience and a story that has almost destroyed him.

As I've said, José charges the reader with the role of judging if Conrad's appropriation of his story matters. For the vast majority of the book I will admit that I felt it didn't much - but ultimately I found myself thinking that perhaps it does matter. At least now, Colombia can reclaim this story for its own.

But for all the plot and history contained in this book, and the ethics of an author using a man's, and a country's, history to pursue his own fictional end, the real joy of it is in the writing. By turns the book is tragic, funny, insightful but never less than a delight to read in the voice of a natural raconteur of a narrator. The translation by Anne McLean is superbly smooth. If you like big, rich stories and beautiful writing, then this is a fantastic choice. The only slight drawback is the preponderance of Colombian rival politicians that can get a bit confusing - but I suspect that it was similarly confusing to the Colombian residents of the time too!
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5.0 out of 5 stars engrossing novel for our times, unputdownable, 5 July 2014
Leslie Gardner (london, england) - See all my reviews
reading this book lead me on to reading the book Vasquez alludes to by Conrad - it is utterly persuasive and hilarious- truly an engrossing plot and almost a modernisation of Conrad's Nostromo in its way without being slavishly intertwined - the business of journalist and its closeness to politics is never more clearly revealed here in all its brutality and violence. our naive narrator develops into someone anti-cynical but aware. i could not put this down - i picked it up almost by accident in an airport lounge! very impressed
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5.0 out of 5 stars The real story of "Costaguana", 10 Oct 2013
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This review is from: The Secret History of Costaguana (Paperback)
It's original, it's clever and the intimate style "now, Readers of the Jury" pulls the reader into the yarn.
Knowing something of the history of Colombia and the work of Joseph Conrad obviously enhances the reader's appreciation of the satirical elements. So it's funny and and sad at the same time.
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The Secret History of Costaguana
The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Paperback - 6 Jun 2011)
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