cover image The Secret History of Costaguana

The Secret History of Costaguana

Juan Gabriel V%C3%A1squez, trans. from the Spanish by Anne McLean. Riverhead, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-59448-803-0

On the day Joseph Conrad dies in England, the Colombian-born Jos%C3%A9 Altamirano begins to write, for the edification of his daughter, the true story of his life and country, which were taken, compressed, and repurposed by Conrad in Nostromo. This is the jumping-off point for the imaginative if flawed latest from V%C3%A1squez (The Informers), a bristling counternovel that aims to retrieve from Conrad's work two revolutions and the endless series of coups, gunfights, and voyages that characterize Colombia's "convulsive times." Jos%C3%A9 begins with the story of his radical, exiled father, Miguel, who he goes to find in Panama. But he finds more than he bargained for: yellow fever outbreaks, the burning of Col%C3%B3n, plans for a strategically imperative canal, a visit by Sarah Bernhardt%E2%80%94and Conrad himself, whose own history is interwoven with the rest. V%C3%A1squez is piercing in his attentions to who documents history and how%E2%80%94whether in letters, newspaper articles, folk songs, or literature%E2%80%94but the litany of battles and names captured here essentially smothers the novel's potential and fails to unseat its inspiration, not because this is made of more truth than fiction but because the informed fiction that results dismisses personality, romance, and style for zealous veracity. (June)