Tag-Archive for ◊ future ◊

Author:
• 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.

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Author:
• Friday, February 28th, 2014

Daniel Keyes was born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seventeen, he briefly joined the US Maritime Service as a ship’s purser before studying psychology and obtaining his BA degree at Brooklyn College in 1950.

He worked as an associate fiction editor, then as a fashion photographer, before earning a license to teach English in New York City schools. At the same time he studied and received an M.A. degree in English and American Literature from Brooklyn College. He left New York to teach Creative Writing at Wayne State University in Detroit, before moving to Ohio University in 1966 to teach English and Creative Writing.

In 1988 Keyes received the Distinguished Alumnus Medal Of Honour from Brooklyn College and in 2000 he was honoured with professor emeritus status at Ohio University. He lives in Boca Raton in Southern Florida.

Daniel Keyes has written eleven books to date and received several awards. He became well known after the publication of his very successful first novel: Flowers For Algernon, published as a short story in 1959 and as a novel in 1966. It won the Hugo Award in 1960 for the short story and in 1967 for the novel. It also won the Nebula Award in 1966 and the Locus Award of 1998 for the fortieth best novel before 1990.

Flowers For Algernon has been translated into many languages, has sold millions of copies all over the world and was made into a film called, Charly in 1968. It was also adapted for the stage and developed as a Broadway musical drama in 1980.

Algernon is a white laboratory mouse who becomes very intelligent after an unprecedented, experimentally successful brain surgery.

Charlie Gordon, whose fate is about to mirror Algernon’s, works for eleven dollars a week – plus bread or cakes, if he wants – as a cleaner at Donners bakery in New York. He is thirty-two years old and was born mentally disabled. Charlie is extremely eager to become intelligent and learn fast in order to fit in and for people to like him. Therefore, he volunteers to undergo the same brain operation as Algernon. Permission is given by his sister, Norma, and supported by Miss Alice Kinnian, his teacher at Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults who recommends him as her best student, to Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur for the experimental surgery.

Dr Strauss asks Charlie to write down all his thoughts and what he remembers, which Charlie does in a semi-literate way, on a regular basis under the title: “progris riports”. In progress report 7 March 11, he writes: “If your smart you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonely by yourself all the time.”

The spelling, vocabulary, punctuation and acumen of Charlie’s written progress reports improve gradually at the same pace as his mental condition advances steadily after his brain operation. The experiment is a great scientific achievement. Charlie’s IQ increases to exceed even that of his neurosurgeon, Dr Strauss and his psychologist, Professor Nemur.

Sadly, after becoming a genius, Charlie discovers the hard, cruel and real ugly truth about things around him. When he was mentally handicapped he thought people working at the bakery were his friends and never realised that they were making fun of him and laughing at him and not with him as he imagined. Presently what pains him most is that unknowingly he used to join them in laughing at himself.

When he becomes lucid, Charlie turns bitter and rancorous when he says to Alice Kinnian referring to the workers at Donners bakery: “they played tricks on me, and laughed at me” and although being aware of their cruelty, in his confused mind he still thinks of them as his real friends. He says to Professor Nemur: “ when I was retarded I had lots of friends. Now I have no one”, albeit knowing “lots and lots of people”. Professor Nemur replies: “You’ve become cynical […] your genius has destroyed your faith in the world and in your fellow men”. Charlie replies, perspicaciously, that intelligence and education alone without “human affection” are worthless.

Charlie becomes shrewd and angrily rebellious against life and people around him. Even Alice Kinnian – his former teacher – admits that after becoming highly intelligent, he has lost “his warm, real smile”, an engaging smile that was meant to attract people and gain their love and affection. Throughout the novel the author accentuates the regrettable fact that a mentally disabled person is just as alienated as an abnormally genius human being, because neither happen to fit with the predominant standard.

Charlie has always been seeking love and affection from his mother, Rosa, his father Matt and his younger sister, Norma. Instead he is rejected as an abnormal child and put in the Beekman College Center for Retarded Adults without any of his family ever visiting him. Charlie never recovers from being estranged from his family.

Despite becoming highly intelligent, Charlie remains emotionally handicapped and finds it difficult to become emotionally mature. He is in love with Alice Kinnian who returns his love but with all his knowledge he does not know how to handle the situation. Each time he attempts to physically express his love, the phantoms from his past haunt him. In the end, after making peace with his past as well as using strong will power, he manages to overcome his demons. He then succeeds in making love to his bohemian neighbour, Fay, which encourages him to physically express without inhibition his strong love for Alice, the only woman he ever loved.

Regrettably, the wonderful positive, scientific breakthrough effect of the brain surgery experiment only lasts a few months before Algernon’s cleverness unexpectedly deteriorates followed by his death. After following Algernon’s decline, Charlie witnesses in a panic that his intelligence is also reducing gradually and deduces with horror, that he is going back to his former mental disability.

The heart-wrenching part takes place at the end of the story when the now mentally disabled Charlie reveals he has not forgotten that, not long before, he was a genius. He writes: “I know evrybody feels sorry for me […] I dont want that […] so Im going someplace where they are a lot of other pepul like me and nobody cares that Charlie Gordon was once a genus and now he cant even reed a book or rite good”. The novel ends on a moving note, with Charlie asking Miss Kinnian, in his farewell message if she could put some flowers on Algernon’s grave in the back yard, when she gets a chance.

Flowers For Algernon is narrated by the main character, Charlie Gordon. It is a non typical science fiction novel, written in a diary cum epistolary form. The author brings into focus several subjects: the main one is compassion for mentally handicapped people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Then there are the ethical questions about experimenting on human beings as well as on animals and how the upbringing of a child can severely hinder him psychologically, haunt him and ruin his future. And finally, how great conflicts can arise between mind versus feeling.

Flowers For Algernon is an original, enthralling, thought provoking novel, deeply poignant and beautifully written with a great deal of empathy.