Tag-Archive for ◊ centuries ◊

• 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, January 31st, 2015

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1950. She is the eldest of three children from a father who was professor of psychology and a mother, professor emeritus of English literature at Cairo University, who later translated some of her daughter’s literary works. Ahdaf Soueif was educated in England and Egypt, where she obtained a BA degree in English Literature in 1971 from Cairo University and in 1973 an MA in English Literature from the American University in Cairo. In England she received a Ph.D in linguistics from the University of Lancaster in 1978.

Ahdaf Soueif worked as an associate lecturer from 1971 to 1979 and then a lecturer from 1979 to 1984 at Cairo University and later as an associate professor at King Saud University in Riyadh from 1987 to 1989. Back to London in 1989 she found employment at Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. She is a novelist and also a political and cultural commentator. She writes regularly for the Guardian newspaper in London and has a weekly column in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Shorouk. She writes mainly in English but also in Arabic.

Ahdaf Soueif received the Cavafy award in 2011 and the Mahmoud Darwish Award in 2010. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999 for her fourth novel, The Map Of Love, which became a best seller and was translated into several languages. She was also awarded for Sandpiper by the Cairo International Book Fair Best Collection of Short Stories in 1996 and was shortlisted in 1983 for the Guardian Fiction Prize for her novel, Aisha.

Ahdaf Soueif wrote and published Aisha in 1983, In The Eye Of The Sun in 1992, Sandpiper in 1996 and The Map Of Love in 1999. In 2003 her translation from Arabic to English of I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti was published; then in 2004, Mezzaterra followed by I Think Of You in 2007 and Cairo My City, Our Revolution in 2012.

Ahdaf Soueif was married and has two sons from the late Ian Hamilton, the British literary critic, reviewer, biographer, poet, magazine editor and publisher. She lives between Cairo and London.

The Map Of Love, despite its unfortunate and misleading title, is a political, historical story sprinkled with romanticism, written originally in English and endearingly dotted with Egyptian colloquialisms. The story begins at the end of the 19th century and continues throughout the 20th. The events take place in London, Cairo and New York, where the past connects with the present and when history tends to repeat itself.

It’s the story of the complex history of Egypt during a whole turbulent century of its awakening, its aspirations, revolts and resistance to adversities. The author mentions names of several Egyptian heroes such as the nationalist colonel, Ahmed Orabi, the loyalist, Mustafa Kamel Pasha, the patriot Mohammed Farid and many others who were all fighting, each in his own way, to free their beloved country from the weakened Ottoman rulers who had occupied Egypt for centuries and had been superseded by the colonialist British Empire from 1882 to 1956.

One of the main characters is the newly widowed, Anna Winterbourne who leaves England for Egypt in 1900. Anna falls in love with Egypt as well as with the Egyptian nationalist, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi. She doesn’t know then that nearly a century later, her great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman, the young American divorced journalist living in New York, will fall in love with the handsome world-renowned, half Egyptian half Palestinian, pianist and conductor, Omar-al-Ghamrawi.

Although, nearly a century apart, Sharif Basha al-Baroudi as well as his great grand nephew, Omar-al-Ghamrawi, have four things in common: they share the same blood, they are both charismatic well-known figures, both in love with western women and they both fight strongly for their political beliefs. Sharif Basha wants to free Egypt from the British occupation and a century later Omar is fighting for the Palestinian cause in the Middle East. The depiction of Sharif and Anna’s love mirrored many decades later by Omar and Isabel’s is intentional by the author, as a proof that love transcends time, place and culture.

When in 1997 Isabel discovers an old trunk in her dying mother’s home containing Anna’s diary and letters written in English and Layla’s diary written in Arabic, she informs Omar, in order to get him interested in her and win his attention. Omar is much older than Isabel and has a difficult character. He is divorced and has two children and advises her to see his sister Amal in Cairo who might be willing to translate the Arabic diary and papers for her.

Isabel goes to Cairo. Amal accepts the task and while working to unravel the history of Anna and Layla through the written material and trinkets in hand, Amal discovers that she has common ancestry with Isabel. The story of Anna unfolds gradually but at the same time is intercepted by other stories that are happening a hundred years later. The past and the present run in a harmonious parallel throughout this family saga.

The Map Of Love is compassionately written with an Egyptian spirit, wit and sensibility, the author showing a good historical knowledge and a strong political opinion. The novel provides rich insights into Egyptian political, cultural and social life during all of the twentieth century including some history of the Palestinian and Israeli problem.

In one in her interviews, Ahdaf Soueif says: “The genre I work in is the ‘realistic’ novel. So my characters live in a specific time and a specific place in our real world. And in that time and place things happen – political things or public things, if you like. And they affect the characters and the characters in turn strive to affect them.”

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