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Author:
• Sunday, November 01st, 2015

Gerbrand Bakker was born in 1962 in Wieringerwaard, Holland. He studied Dutch language and worked as a subtitler for nature films on Dutch television for several years as well as a skating instructor during the winter before becoming an accredited gardener in 2006. Bakker says that writing and gardening complement each other.

Bakker’s first novel, The Twin, was published in 2006 and won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His second novel, June, was published in 2009. The Detour, Bakker’s third novel, won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and was published in Dutch in 2010 and in English in 2012.

The Detour is the story of a middle-aged Dutch woman who calls herself Emilie. On what seems a sudden impulse, she rents a farmhouse in a remote area of North Wales, leaving everything behind in Amsterdam – all her worries, her husband and both her parents without telling anybody about her whereabouts.

Emilie, who only took the farmhouse on rental and is not likely to remain in it for long nor had the intention to and despite been given short notice from the agency to leave in a matter of a few days, is nevertheless working hard to embellish the wild and desolate garden and surroundings. She also purchases a Christmas tree as well as a television set. In her endeavour, she is trying to bury her past by finding peace and comfort physically and mentally as a therapeutic pass time.

Emilie spends her days gardening, walking, admiring the far away sea and nature around her, observing an aggressive badger who sneaks out of his den and bites her foot. She puzzles about the flock of white geese in her yard which were ten when she arrived but keep on disappearing one after another, she tries to save them from what she thinks might be a fox, but fails. Their curious disappearance will never be solved like other inexplicable mysteries in the story.

Emilie’s solitary confinement comes to an end when Bradwen, a young Welsh man from the area, who is mapping a walking trail across the country and across Emilie’s farm yard, gets injured near Emilie’s farm. She offers him shelter but he ends up staying with her longer than the expected one night. Bradwen will prove to be a good companion, being taciturn like her. He will also prove to be a good help around the house and the garden. A certain understanding combined with a tender relationship creates a bond between them.

The story moves back and forth between Emilie’s new life in Wales and her husband Rutger’s life in Amsterdam. Rutger is baffled by his wife’s unexpected disappearance and seeks the help of a detective to trace her whereabouts. Once located, the husband with the help of a policeman who arrested him earlier for setting Emilie’s university office on fire out of anger and who meantime became his friend, both set sail and go on Emilie’s trail.

The reader unravels Emilie’s enigmatic world slowly, but not fully, in little strokes by half-said words, through meditations and several reminiscences. We discover that Emilie is a lecturer at the university and that she is preparing a thesis on the nineteenth century reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson. We also assume that she has an unhappy marriage.

Seeking anonymity in her escape and wanting to put an end to any past connection and create a vacuum by keeping her distance with everybody, she borrows the name of Emilie from the poet Emily Dickinson that she had a sort of love hate feeling towards and looked upon in disdain in spite of being aware of similarities in character between the poet and herself. The author throughout the novel draws the similitude between the two Emilies.

The reader also discovers that the story’s main protagonist fled Holland after the university scandal as a result of having an affair with a student which ended her academic career. Additionally, she seems to be suffering from an undisclosed, incurable disease. After receiving a card from her husband telling her he is on his way to fetch her, the message hastens her final, inevitable decision before her husband’s arrival. At the abrupt end of this haunting story we learn, for the first time, from Rutger that his wife’s real name is Agnes.

The detour is also a tribute to nature which is a prominent character in this well written, slow-paced and yet gripping novel. The author, being a gardener by profession, features the beauty of nature in what remains an overall gloomy atmosphere. He describes the part of North Wales – he said he visited a number of times – in great detail. The idyllic Welsh wildlife, the surrounding trees, the plants, the green hills, Mount Snowdon and the varying climate, not forgetting the animals, being part of nature.

Emilie who is clearly grieving over her past life and over her deteriorating state of health, is a tormented soul seeking an impossible, unattainable peace within herself, forgetting that it’s impossible to escape from oneself by fleeing. Instead of confronting her problems with some pragmatism, she stages an inevitable, abrupt, harsh ending to her life. The sombre atmospheric setting of The Detour is like Emily Dickinson’s poems – it’s about Life, Love, Nature. Time and Eternity as well as Death.

The title of the novel implies that Emilie is taking a detour maybe in order to be isolated among the beautifully remote Welsh nature or perhaps to enjoy her own company away from everything and before her final and ineluctable destination or perhaps destiny. Bakker has definitely left his reader to draw his/her own conclusion.

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.