Sunday, 13 June 2010

Book of the Week - Juan Gabriel Vasquez, The Secret History of Costaguana

I have a soft spot for foreign fiction in translation. Considering the enormous number of novels published in foreign languages, the mere act of acquiring an English translation is usually a mark of distinction. However, there is no doubt that this is a specialised area with restricted appeal, particularly when considering literary fiction. The Secret History of Costaguana is the second novel in translation from Juan Gabriel Vásquez, who was born in Bogotá in 1973. He studied Latin American literature at the Sorbonne between 1996 and 1998, and now lives in Barcelona. His stories have appeared in anthologies in Germany, France, Spain, and Colombia, and he has translated works by E.M. Forster and Victor Hugo, amongst others, into Spanish. His essays, reviews and reportage have appeared in various magazines and literary supplements. He was recently nominated as one of the Bogota 39, South America’s most promising writers of the new generation. Vazquez’ previous novel (The Informers) and his current book have both been very well received, and he may well have a long and very successful career as a writer. Now is probably a good time to sample his work, as signed first editions of Costaguana are available readily at present.

"It is London, 1903. Joseph Conrad is struggling with his new novel ('I am placing it in South America in a Republic I call Costaguana'). Progress is slow and the great writer needs help from a native of the Caribbean coast of South America. Jose Altamirano, Colombian at birth, just arrived in London answers the great writer's advertisement and tells him his life story. Jose has been witness to the most horrible things that a person or a country could suffer, and drags with him not just a guilty conscience but a story that has almost destroyed him. But when Nostromo is published the following year Jose is outraged by what he reads: 'You've eliminated me from my own life. You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me'. I waved the Weekly in the air again, and then threw it down on his desk. 'Here', I whispered, my back to the thief, 'I do not exist'.

"The Secret History of Costaguana", the second novel by Juan Gabriel Vasquez to be published in English, is Jose Altamirano's riposte to Joseph Conrad. It is a big novel, tragic and despairing, comic and insightful by turns, told by a bumptious narrator with a score to settle. It is Latin America's post-modern answer to Europe's modernist vision. It is a superb, joyful, thoughtful and rumbustious novel that will establish Juan Gabriel Vasquez's reputation as one of the leading novelists of his generation"

1 comment:

Simon said...

Excellent post, I too have a strange affection for translated works - perhaps it is no more than a guarantee almost of quality.

Interested to hear more on why you think it's a "specialised area with restricted appeal" - I would've said it was quite appealing looking at authors such as Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Borges, Camus, Kafka etc.