The Secret History of Costaguana

Written by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Review by Patricia O’Sullivan

In 1904, Joseph Conrad published Nostromo, set in the fictitious South American republic of Costaguana, claiming that his information came from an equally fictitious character called José Altamirano who, at the end of the story, claimed that he had been ‘written out of history’ by Conrad. The Secret History takes José Altamirano as the central character and tells the story from his point of view, which includes his father’s activities in the various civil wars and conflicts of the fictitious state and the building of the Panama Canal (in Conrad’s story this was a silver mine).

The idea was good, very different, and Vasquez tells it as if Altamirano was re-telling it from his point of view in a court of law and the readers are the jury. However, I regret that I cannot agree with the general consensus on the inside of the dust cover which states – ‘It is a superb, joyful, boisterous and thoughtful novel’. As it is told in the one voice, there is little room for characterization, and I am afraid that I found it slow to the point of tediousness and became rather irritated by his constant use of ‘Readers of the Jury’. Originally written in Spanish, this is a translation into English, and, as is the case with others I have read, I find that the translator appears to be more concerned with faithfully translating every word than putting it into everyday English. For me this resulted in a very stilted style of prose.

I am afraid that this is not one for my bookcase.