Juan Gabriel

Novelist Joseph Conrad is wrapped into secrets at the heart of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s novel, which unfurls from 1924. (Spicer-Simson / Hulton Archive / Getty / December 31, 2021)

The Secret History of Costaguana

A Novel

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Riverhead: 287 pp., $26.95

"The Secret History of Costaguana" is an intricately detailed, audacious reframing of "Nostromo," the classic 1904 Joseph Conrad tale of power, corruption, intrigue and revolution in a South American country he called Costaguana.

Author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, a much-honored, Colombian-born, Sorbonne-educated novelist, seems more influenced by modernist authors like Conrad than by his legendary countryman, Gabriel García Márquez. The erudite Vásquez is a translator (Victor Hugo, E.M. Forster) and author of a brief biography of Conrad.

His strategy as a novelist is to dart back in time to explore dark moments in Colombian history and their consequences for his generation — "the disasters that Great Moments can impress onto Small Lives," he writes.He dramatizes the sins of the previous leaders in father-son conflicts in which shameful secrets are revealed. In Vásquez's first novel, "The Informers," a man who has written a book about Colombia's World War II-era policies toward "enemy citizens" uncovers his own father's transgressions.

The father-son drama in "The Secret History of Costaguana" involves José Altamirano, a bastard son, searching for his father, Miguel, a journalist who is chronicling the epic struggle to build the Panama Canal. The novel opens on Aug. 7, 1924, with José, a self-described "poor anonymous exiled Colombian" living in London, noting the death of Joseph Conrad, the "Great English Novelist" — a man to whom he believes he is bound by fate. It's also independence day in Colombia, 105 years since the end of Spanish rule.

José announces that Conrad robbed him. Of what? He's not telling, at first. Instead, in a playful postmodern maneuver, he declares, "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." And so he plunges into Miguel Altamirano's back story, which begins in 1820. This section is too lengthy by far, and Miguel, "the last Renaissance Man," as José calls him, is a flat character, projected only through his son's distorted vision.

The considerable charm of what might otherwise be a tedious post-colonial history lesson lies with José, a character whose appeal grows as he meanders through a wry, wistful, occasionally bitter chronicle of a century of violent, convoluted Colombian history.

Vásquez brings the struggle to build the Panama Canal vividly to life with "implausible murders and unpredictable hangings, elegant declarations of war and slovenly peace accords," fires and floods, yellow fever epidemics, drenching rains, a horrific earthquake and cycles of increasingly bloody civil wars between Colombia's Liberals and Conservatives. His rendering of the bloody 1,000-day war, which began in 1899 and was fought on Panamanian soil, is particularly fierce. (History tells us that Theodore Roosevelt, his eye on the lucrative canal route, was offstage pulling strings.)

Vásquez also weaves an engaging love story into the mix; José falls for Charlotte, a Frenchwoman who goes mad with grief after her husband, who was overseeing the failed French canal project, and their young son die of yellow fever.

Vásquez never loses his focus on Conrad. José describes meeting with Conrad in 1903 (when the novelist was immersed in writing "Nostromo") as well as a near-encounter 27 years earlier, when he was in the same Panamanian bar as young Conrad, then an apprentice sailor on a ship smuggling rifles to revolutionaries. José later learns that Conrad's companion that night was an Italian sailor upon whom he modeled the character Nostromo, the "man of the people" whose singular honor is severely tested. José bemoans his own absence from the story: "I'm the man who didn't see. I'm the man who didn't know. I'm the man who wasn't there. Yes, that's me. The anti-witness."

Gradually José perceives his father's "Refractive Pen" — his tendency to ignore anything that might smack of failure or danger to the cause of building the canal. Miguel underplays the number of victims of a yellow fever epidemic, for instance. José also learns that his father has been accused of being bribed by the canal company.

"The Secret History of Costaguana" is a potent mixture of history, fiction and literary gamesmanship. Vásquez's themes are of the moment: powerful countries (the U.S. foremost among them) dabbling in Latin American politics, bribing politicians and journalists, trolling for profits; European writers appropriating history for their own tales. His particular triumph with this novel is to remind us, as Balzac put it, that novels can be "the private histories of nations."

Ciabattari's work has appeared in many publications, including Bookforum, the Daily Beast and Salon. She is a vice president and former president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire."