I happen to like books with unreliable narrators, and this region of the world has certainly offered up enough shifting story-tellers for me to enjoy. Juan Gabriel Vasquez is a Colombian writer, but his novel deals with the history of the northernmost region of that land and the canal that was built (with much machinations amongst the Colombians, Panamanians, French, and the Americans) within its borders, so I am counting this book as my Panama selection.
So what is this book about? Well, it's the tale of how the French and American quest to build a canal across the narrowest part of the isthmus of Central America and how Colombia lost its northernmost region; about Jose Altamirano, who seems to have wandered into the story of his own life, almost by mistake; and about Joseph Conrad, who appropriates Jose's life to build a framework for his own novel, "Nostromo". Sly storytellers? I was in heaven here, as nobody seems quite concerned about the truth in Vasquez's novel--it was like "The Long Song", but infinitely more twisted. No one can be trusted, not Altamirano's mother and father, who recount entirely different stories of their son's conception, and who seem vague on his actual date of birth--indeed, the mother refuses to be nailed down on such an unimportant particular and celebrates her son's natal day on three different dates. Jose's father earns his living by writing the most fulsome of propaganda for the Panamanian papers on the French progress on the canal; he's certainly a man to have no confidence in; he's terribly vague on how he mislaid his Jose's mother. And the Americans? Well, they can't be trusted either as they scheme to pull Panama free of Colombian control in order to take over the failed
plan to build a great ditch to link the Atlantic and the Pacific. Above all, Joseph Conrad cannot be trusted, as he pumps Altamirano for information on his country, and then cavalierly decides to write him out of his own life story. Enrages, Altamirano decides on revenging himself on the Great Man by transcribing his own history called "Costaguana".
I've never read Nostromo, which would have been of great help in reading Vasquez's novel; I'm sure that I missed many references to Conrad's work. Reading this book was an exercise in mental acrobatics; the storyline leaps forward, loops back, shifts sideways to Conrad's life, and then circles back again. As I've said, there is a plot about the building of the Panama canal, but it's more about the nature of historical truth, and the "profitable profession of lying." Vasquez is less concerned about narrative cohesion (or even, sometimes, about coherence). There are big gaps in the story, and many plot lines left dangling, particularly with Altamirano's relationships with his daughter and mother. I really enjoyed the novel, but I could see why many readers would find this book frustrating. It's enough to make me pull out a biography on Joseph Conrad, or to read David McCullough's "The Path Between the Seas". I was tempted to add Nostromo to my reading list, but I have "Heart of Darkness" waiting for me in Africa.
Writing this review was difficult; it was chasing down a wispy cloud to describe exactly what "The Secret History of Costaguana" was about. I'm glad I added it in at the last moment, but I am just as relieved to move onto my next book, also another last-minute addition. Surely a non-fiction work on an international struggle to build a dam in Belize would be more straightforward? Or perhaps...not.