Excerpt of The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
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The Secret History of Costaguana
Let's just come right out and say it: the man has died. No, that won't do. I'll be more precise: the Novelist (with a capital N) has died. You all know who I mean. Don't you? Well, I'll try again: the Great English Novelist has died. The Great English Novelist - Polish by birth, sailor before he became a writer - has died. The Great English-language Novelist - Polish by birth, sailor before he became a writer, who went from failed suicide to living classic, from common gunrunner to Jewel of the British Crown - has died. Ladies and gentlemen: Joseph Conrad has died. I receive the news familiarly, as one might receive an old friend, then realize, not without some sadness, that I've spent my whole life waiting for it.
I begin writing this with all the London broadsheets (their microscopic print, their uneven, narrow columns) spread out over my green leather desktop. Through the press, which has played such diverse roles over the course of my life - threatening to ruin it at times, and at others granting what little luster it has - I am informed of the heart attack and its circumstances: the visit from Nurse Vinten, the shout heard from downstairs, the body falling out of the chair. Through enterprising journalism I attend the funeral in Canterbury; through the impertinences of reporters I watch them lower the body and place the stone, that headstone beset with errors (a K out of place, a vowel wrong in one of the names). Today, August 7, 1924, while in my distant Colombia they are celebrating one hundred and five years since the Battle of Boyacá, here in England they mourn, without pomp and ceremony, the passing of the Great Novelist. While in Colombia they commemorate the victory of the armies of independence over the forces of the Spanish Empire, here, in this ground of another empire, the man has been buried forever, the man who robbed me...
It's still too soon.
It's too soon to explain the forms and qualities of that theft; it's too soon to explain what merchandise was stolen, what motives the thief had, what damage the victim suffered. I hear the questions clamoring from the stalls: What can a famous novelist have in common with a poor, anonymous, exiled Colombian? Readers: have patience. You don't want to know everything at the beginning; do not investigate, do not ask, for this narrator, like a benevolent father, will gradually provide the necessary information as the tale proceeds. ...In other words, leave it all in my hands. I'll decide when and how to tell what I want to tell, when to hide, when to reveal, when to lose myself in the nooks and crannies of my memory for the mere pleasure of doing so. Here I shall tell you of implausible murders and unpredictable hangings, elegant declarations of war and slovenly peace accords, of fires and floods and intriguing ships and conspiratorial trains; but somehow all that I tell you will be aimed at explaining and explaining to myself, link by link, the chain of events that provoked the encounter for which my life was destined.
For that's how it is: the disagreeable business of destiny has its share of responsibility in all this. Conrad and I, who were born countless meridians apart, our lives marked by the difference of the hemispheres, had a common future that would have been obvious from the first moment, even to the most skeptical person. When this happens, when the paths of two men born in distant places are destined to cross, a map can be drawn a posteriori. Most oft en the encounter is singular: Franz Ferdinand encounters Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo and is shot dead along with his wife, the nineteenth century, and all those European certainties; General Rafael Uribe Uribe encounters two peasants, Galarza and Carvajal, in Bogotá and shortly thereafter dies near the Plaza de Bolívar, with an ax embedded in his skull and the weight of several civil wars on his shoulders. Conrad and I met only once, but long ago we had been on the verge of doing so. Twenty-seven years passed between the two
events. The aborted encounter, which was on the verge of taking place but which never happened, occurred in 1876, in the Colombian province of Panama; the other meeting - the actual one, the fateful one - happened at the end of November 1903. And it happened here: in the chaotic, imperial, and decadent city of London. Here, in the city where I write and where death predictably awaits me, city of gray skies and the smell of coal in which I arrived for reasons not easy, yet obligatory, to explain.
Reprinted from The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2011 by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.