Tag-Archive for ◊ arguments ◊

• Sunday, March 01st, 2015

Juan Gabriel Vasquez was born on the northern outskirts of Bogotá, Colombia in 1973. He studied in Bogotá’s Anglo-Colombian school, then studied law in his native city at the University of Rosario. After graduating, he went to France to study Latin American literature at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1996 to 1998. He had in mind to pursue a literary career despite the fact that his father, who was a lawyer, wanted him, like his younger sister, to follow in his footsteps.

Vasquez has received several awards and prizes. In 2014 he received the International IMPAC Dublin award, as well as the Prix Roger Caillois in France and the Alfaguara Prize in Spain. He also received the Qwerty Prize in Barcelona for the best narrative Spanish language book and the Books and Letters Foundation Award in Bogotá in 2007 for best fiction book for Historia secreta de Costaguana, published in English in 2010. Vasquez is one of the most acclaimed writers, his books have been translated into several languages.

Vasquez has written a few novels as well as a brief biography of Joseph Conrad. He also translated works by E.M. Forster, John Dos Pasos and Victor Hugo to Spanish. After living in France and Belgium he now lives with his publisher and publicist’s wife and their young twin daughters in Barcelona.

The Secret History Of Costaguana is set between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a mixture of reality and fiction in which the narrator, the novel’s main protagonist, José Altamirano, addresses the readers and his daughter Eloisa as a lawyer pleading before a jury. He makes arguments recounting the period during which the construction of the Panama canal was underway and makes claims that Joseph Conrad’s depiction of this historical era was filled with falsehoods.

The Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who successfully built the Suez Canal in Egypt, that opened in November 1869 after 10 years of construction, thought he could achieve the same success by building the Panama canal. The French began excavating in 1882 but hit by tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria which decimated the crew and after nine years of persistence, corruption, miscalculation, fraud and loss of about twenty thousand lives, the project failed. The French effort ended in bankruptcy and a scandal coupled with a court case in France against Ferdinand de Lesseps, his son Charles and other people involved in the project who were found guilty.

Notwithstanding this defeat, the USA’s interest in the Panama canal was sustained and under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, The Panama Canal Company sold all its property to the United States which completed the Canal. It was opened in 1914 and “Colombia guaranteed the United States complete control of a 10-kilometre-wide zone between Colón and Panama City. The cession was for a space of one hundred years and in exchange, the United States would pay ten million dollars”.

The Colombian, Miguel Altamirano, saw it all and after his death his illegitimate son José Altamirano continued to witness all these events. The father being more optimistic than his son believed in the Panama canal project and as a journalist kept writing how everything was running smoothly, deliberately omitting mention of the appalling work conditions and the deaths of the workers.

José Altamirano, disheartened and sickened by all he has been through, leaves Panama for London in 1903. Soon after his arrival in London he is introduced to the British writer, Joseph Conrad, who has some difficulties moving forward with his novel Nostromo. The story is centered around a silver mine instead of a Panama canal and Nostromo is an Italian expatriate. The setting is South America in the mining town of Sulaco, an imaginary port resembling Panama in the occidental region of a fictional country resembling Colombia which he calls: Costaguana.

José Altamirano will be of great help to Conrad by disclosing the oppression, revolution and armed conflict he witnessed, including the political conspiracies and corruptions during “the one thousand one hundred and twenty-eight days of relentless slaughter” which he endured there and which destroyed him psychologically, leaving him with a guilty conscience.

In Vasquez’s novel the British Joseph Conrad is portrayed as a character and when Conrad’s Nostromo is published in a weekly magazine in 1904, Altamirano is appalled to note that the author has not mentioned him anywhere in his story. He says to him in anger: “You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me” he waves “the Weekly in the air, and then threw it down on his desk. Here he whispered…I do not exist…My tale lived there, the tale of my life and my land, but the land was another, it had another name, and I had been removed from it, erased…obliterated without pity.”
Conrad answers him: “This, my dear sir, is a novel” it’s not the story of your country, “it’s the story of my country. It’s the story of Costaguana.”

Through the voice of José Altamirano we recognise the voice of Vasquez who says: “History is a tale somebody has told us from a biased point of view; it’s only one possibility among many. Novels give another version, recover truths that have been repressed. The task is to make Latin America’s past come alive so we can gain some control over our future.”

This truth will be delivered by Vasquez himself. As an amendment to Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Vasquez provides his readers, without “transformation or distortion”, the real history of this dark and tumultuous period of his own country which led Colombia’s province of Panama to secede in 1903, as well as the root and rift between the conservatives and the liberals during these bleak years.

Vasquez novel is a reaction against the magical realism genre, commonly used by south American novelists. Altamirano says derisively in the novel: “this is not one of those books where the dead speak or where beautiful women ascend to the sky, or where priests rise above the ground after drinking a steaming potion.”

The Secret Story Of Costaguana is a well documented and informative novel about the history of Colombia during the period of the building of the Panama canal. José Altamirano is an astute and sardonic story-teller, the only flaw of the book being the plethora of names of characters and politicians the reader needs to keep up with, a number that is well above average even by the standards of South American literature.

• Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Niccolo Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. He studied at Liceo Classico and then at university where he read biology. He quitted university before obtaining a degree and decided to breed fish in his bedroom in twelve aquariums containing two thousand litres of water, as a business, in order to earn some money.

Ammaniti wrote his first novel “Branchie” in 1994 and in 1995 published an essay titled “Nel nome del figlio”. In 1996 a collection of short stories called “Fango” came out. As for his great rural novel “Ti prendo e ti porto via” which was written in Scotland during his six months there, it was published in 1999. He then went to the United States in 2001 in order to write the script for an American production called “Gone Bad”. His third novel, “I’m Not Scared” (Io non ho paura) was published in Italy in 2001. Niccolo Ammaniti is the youngest ever winner, at the age of 34, of the prestigious Viareggio-Repaci prize for his novel “I’m Not Scared”, which has been his biggest success so far.

“I’m Not Scared”became a best-seller in Italy for months, and was translated into 20 languages. It was also made into a feature film directed by Gabriele Salvatores, the Academy-award winning director of “Mediterraneo”. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2003. Niccolo Ammanity, who lives in Italy, mentioned that he is longing to be a film director, and that his novel “I’m Not Scared” was originally conceived as a film project.

In “I’m Not Scared”a thirty year-old Michele remembers a shocking episode from his childhood in the very hot summer of 1978, twenty years ago in Aqua Traverse, an isolated community living in a hamlet of five houses in the middle of wheat fields, in an unidentified poor region in southern Italy, a nine year-old boy Michele discovers a horrifying secret, unbearable for his age, which is going to change his whole life. He will be thrown into adulthood when he loses his innocence and his faith in the adults around him,and realises that those closest to him are not what he thought they were. And through finding out adult cruelty in kidnapping a child his own age and demanding a ransom from his parents. Michele is put through a dilemma, whether to keep his promise to his father by not going back to see Filippo, or listen to his pure heroic nature. He is helpless and confused as a child and yet courageous and righteous as an adult. The complexity inherent in growing up.Having lost faith in his idealised father and mother and all grown ups surrounding him, he has to work things out by himself and act like a humanitarian hero.

The whole novel is narrated through the nine year-old Michele’s eyes, therefore the language is simple, the sentences short, the paragraphs brief and the image clear, which conveys strength and authenticity to the narration. The author writes with great accuracy the feeling of fear and fantasies of corpse-eaters, ghosts, monsters, and bogeymen that come out at night, which are part of everyday life of a child. Michele is intimidated, like the other children of the hamlet, by Skull (Antonio), who seems to have hold over them through fear and seems to take a sadistic pleasure in ordering his friends around and getting away with it. There is also the fear of Skull’s brother, Felice Natale, who is portrayed as a despicable character.

The story is very well constructed, Michele’s character springs to life while the adults are portrayed in a sketchy way. Ammaniti excelled in capturing with great precision, Michele’s childish thoughts and vocabulary.The story starts in a slow rhythm which conveys the stifling summer heat and also the isolation of the Aqua Traverse people. Nothing much seems to be happening, the children are glad to get together every day to go cycling in the middle of the wheat fields, happily, innocently and without any worries, away from the adults’ evil tension, kidnapping, blackmail and guns. Then comes the black side of the story, the dark black hole opposed to the sunny wheat fields, Michele’s terrible discovery which he keeps to himself. Then follows the tension and violent arguments among the adults which holds the suspense going strong à la Hitchcock, leading to the climax which carries the twist at the end.

Niccolo Ammaniti, a talented story-teller with vivid imagination, is considered one of the best novelists in Italy.

Category: Book Reviews  | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  | Leave a Comment