Tag-Archive for ◊ space ◊

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:
• Friday, October 25th, 2013

Tirdad Zolghadr was born in 1973 in California. He grew up in Tehran in Iran, England and North and West Africa. He obtained a B.A. Degree in history and political science and an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature at The University of Geneva, Switzerland. He worked as a cultural journalist and translator before working as a freelance art critic and curator.

He writes for Frieze and other publications and is a founding member of the Shahrzad art and design collective. He lives and works between Berlin and New York and teaches at the Center of Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York.

Zolghadr’s first novel, Softcore, which has been translated into German, Italian and French, was published in 2007. In this satirical, cynical novel, the narrator, a cosmopolitan, art-minded individual, like the author himself, is an opportunistic young Iranian man returning to Tehran after graduating from Yale University in the U.S.A. He has a great plan for re-opening the family restaurant and cocktail bar, the Promessa, closed in 1978, during the Iranian Islamic revolution. He is ambitious and has in mind to transform, the Promessa, into a space for art exhibitions, fashion venues, workshops, film sets, corporate receptions and dance parties.

The narrator is part of the international art world and his most important mentor and muse is Stella, who he met ten years back in the U.S.A. She is always behind him electronically, telling him what to do. She is a German historian, specialised in postwar art brut while being a spy at the same time but he is unaware of it.

The novel takes a different path when the main protagonist is caught by the police and jailed for innocently photographing the Tehran neon orange flower stand, which happens to be near the Revolutionary Courthouse. Being a polyglot and widely travelled, he is asked by the police to become their spy or bear the consequence of refusal. From now on he is thrown into the treacherous world of conspiracy and deceit.

An original glimpse into modern cultural Iran, a contrast with the serious, conservative religious state of the mollahs. Tehran is depicted as an important international crossroad, but unfortunately there are some other interesting topics and opportunities which the author has missed, like elaborating more deeply about life in Tehran, the contrast between the regime now and during the Shah’s reign as well as to what extent people are coping and what are the authorities’ views on the arts today, etc…

Alas, taken as a whole, this is an obscure, unbalanced, pretentious, unconvincing novel. It is unstructured, irritably overdone with unnecessary name dropping of all sorts of products as well as names of rock and roll stars, poets and artists, ad nauseum. The characters are one-dimensional, incongruous and unsympathetic. They evolve haphazardly throughout the story which makes it difficult to follow the turn of events and confuses the reader. If the author intended to write an original novel he strayed from his target.