Summary and book reviews of The Secret History of Costaguana by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Secret History of Costaguana

A Novel

by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Secret History of Costaguana
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    Readers' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2011, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Sacha Dollacker

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About this Book

Book Summary

Tragic and despairing, comic and insightful, The Secret History of Costaguana is a masterpiece of historical invention.

In the early twentieth century, a struggling Joseph Conrad wrote his great novel, Nostromo, about a South American republic he named Costaguana. It was inspired by the geography and history of Colombia, where Conrad spent only a few days. But in Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novel The Secret History of Costaguana, we uncover the hidden source - and one of the great literary thefts.

On the day of Joseph Conrad's death in 1924, the Colombian-born José Altamirano begins to write and cannot stop. Many years before, he confessed to Conrad his life's every delicious detail - from his country's heroic revolutions to his darkest solitary moments. Conrad stole them all. Now Conrad is dead, but the slate is by no means clear - Nostromo will live on, and Altamirano must write himself back into existence. As the destinies of real empires collide with the murky realities of imagined ones, Vásquez takes us from a flourishing twentieth-century London to the lawless fury of a blooming Panama and back.

Tragic and despairing, comic and insightful, The Secret History of Costaguana is a masterpiece of historical invention. It will secure Juan Gabriel Vásquez's place among the most original and exuberantly talented novelists working today.

Excerpt
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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Secret History of Costaguana is a brilliant exploration of how stories and histories are told and of how one man's version of events is not another's. Fans of Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Ilosa will enjoy Juan Gabriel Vásquez's multi-layered, anguished tale - a story that seeks to understand the inheritances of history.   (Reviewed by Sarah Sacha Dollacker).

Full Review Members Only (899 words).

Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Vásquez is piercing in his attentions to who documents history and how... but the litany of battles and names captured here essentially smothers the novel's potential and fails to unseat its inspiration...

Library Journal

Not all readers have the background to grasp Vásquez's premise, but the descriptions here, particularly of the two attempts to build the Panama Canal, are very entertaining.

Kirkus Reviews

To read this novel is to enter a Borgesian rabbit hole - it's a fiction that purports to tell the truth obscured by another fiction - yet its strangeness helps make it both brave and engaging.

Author Blurb Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
A bold historical novel from one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature.

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Beyond the Book

The Panama Canal

Juan Gabriel Vásquez's novel, The Secret History of Costagauna, centers on the making of the Panama Canal. Constructed between 1904 and 1914, the Panama Canal is a vital shipping route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Panama Canal map Though it only took ten years to construct the current canal, the idea for a waterway connecting the two oceans dates back to the 16th century. The route around the horn of South America was long, arduous, and costly. If it were possible to create a water route over the thin isthmus between North and South America, a great deal of money and time could be saved. There were discussions and some rudimentary attempts, but construction of a canal did not start in earnest until 1881 under the direction of ...

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