Tag-Archive for ◊ Joseph Conrad ◊

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.

Author:
• Saturday, May 01st, 2010

John le Carré, who’s real name is David John Moore Cornwell, was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset in the south west of England. He went to Sherborne school in Dorset, followed by one year study of German literature in the University of Bern, Switzerland (1948-1949). He graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford in 1956 with a first-class honours degree in modern languages.

Le Carré taught French and German at Eton school for two years from 1956 to 1958 and became a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 as Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and as Political Consul in Hamburg. He started writing books in 1961 and is well known for his espionage, thriller novels. He has written twenty two novels to date, one non-fiction book, a few short stories and screen plays.

Le Carré has been married twice: once in 1954 and the second time in 1972. He has four sons, three from his first wife and one from his second. He has twelve grandchildren.  John le Carré hates cities, he lives today in Cornwall with his second wife.

In The Mission Song, like in The Constant Gardener, John le Carré describes the exploitation of Africa by the hypocritical western powers. The introductory quotation of The Mission Song, taken from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which is about the Congo, reveals the subject of the novel.

Le Carré, in The Mission Song, gives the reader a clear and detailed account about the complexity of politics and business in The Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as an insight into who is behind the tension, the feuds between ethnic tribes and the bloodshed which killed around three to four million people from 1998 to 2003.

Following this period there was some semblance of stability in some part of the country but unfortunately not in the area of East Congo which to this day still suffers from combats and attacks against the civilian population. In particular in the province of Kivu, which happens to abound in natural resources in general and especially in minerals such as  Coltan (an important element used in electronic components) therefore attracted the interest and greed of the locals, the Congolese, the neighbours, like the Rwandans, the British and other western powers.

The story of The Mission Song is narrated by the unbelievably naïve and gullible, Bruno Salvador, a son of an Irish Catholic missionary priest and a Congolese village woman and who, eventually, becomes a British citizen. He is a polyglot and a very talented top interpreter who speaks English, French, Swahili and other African dialects spoken in Kivu, where he was born. He is a free-lancer who works for law firms, hospitals and big corporations.

Due to Bruno’s competence and to being so much in demand, the British Secret Service asks him to be the interpreter at a highly secret meeting, between an anonymous business Syndicate and some important Congolese negotiators from Kivu. The meeting takes place on an unknown island and will earn him a good sum of money in cash.

Bruno has been married for a few years to Penelope, a white well-bred, successful journalist, working for a national paper. His marriage has lost its glow and seems to be falling apart, he suspects his wife of having an affair. The “coup de grâce” comes when Bruno falls in love with a Congolese nurse, Hannah, which awakens and strengthens his loyalty and patriotism to his homeland rather than to his country of adoption and which will lead him and Hannah into great danger.

Bruno will not be able to turn a deaf ear and stay impartial or keep confidentiality, as his job demands, once he discovers the lies and deceits involved in the evil plan concocted by the avid western powers. The plan requires the help of the corrupt African leaders from the different ethnic tribes in Kivu in order to stage a coup d’état and create a war, which will endanger his homeland, his beloved people and give a free hand to the wicked and immoral commercial entity, called “The Syndicate” to control the Congo.

At first, Bruno was enthusiastic because he thought by accepting this mission he was helping in creating peace in Congo. He was made to believe that the Westerners wanted to establish peace by freeing Kivu from the Rwandan invaders who are stealing Kivu’s wealth. The British gave him to understand that they wanted to get ahead of the forthcoming elections in Congo by helping the old, mystic, religious, likeable, Mwangaza (which means enlightenment in Swahili) to get into power, not mentioning their intention to install a puppet regime with a puppet ruler and, of course, establish democracy and give back to the people of Kivu the wealth that belongs to them.

The Mission Song, published in 2006, is a fictional story condemning the corruption and exploitation of the African people by the western powers for their commercial interest, greed and racism. Unfortunately, the continuing massacres, in the Kivu region of The Republic of Congo even today tend to shed a sad and realistic light onto the novel.