Tag-Archive for ◊ story-teller ◊

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, December 13th, 2014

Amitav Ghosh was born in 1956 into a middle-class Bengali Hindu family in Calcutta, India, to a lieutenant colonel father and a housewife mother. He grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He received a B.A. degree in 1976 and an M.A. degree in 1978 from the University of Delhi followed by a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the University of Oxford in 1982. As well as working as a newspaper reporter and editor, Ghosh also taught at the University of Delhi, the American University in Cairo, Columbia University in New York City and Queens College in New York.

Amitav Ghosh is a novelist, an essayist and a non-fiction writer. He has received prestigious awards including the Prix Médicis étranger, The Padma Shri, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Frankfurt International e-Book Award and he has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The Shadow Lines, Ghosh’s second novel, published in 1988, won the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar.

Ghosh is now a full-time writer. He lives between the USA and India with his wife Deborah Baker,
who is a biographer, an essayist and a senior editor at Little Brown and Company, a publishing house in the USA. The couple have two children.

The Shadow Lines is set against a historical background that moves back and forth from the second world war in England to the nineteen-sixties in India, leading to the eighties and interwoven with the fictitious lives of the characters. The author tackles a specific theme: the power of memory, the art of remembering almost everything and how one can travel, virtually, to various places through one’s memories. The writer brings together, through the main nameless character, various periods of time and series of events experienced by generations of the family and friends in Calcutta, Dhaka and London.

Events start decades before the narrator’s birth and end on the eve of his return from London to Delhi. After becoming a mature young man and after studying in London for one year, he comes to terms with the fact that there is no longer hope of having his beautiful cousin, Ila, share his love now that she is married to Nick and madly in love with him despite their misfitted marriage. Before leaving London the narrator also finds out from May, Tridib’s lover and Mrs Price’s daughter, the truth about the mysterious death of his elder cousin and mentor, Tridib, while visiting Dhaka during the Bangladeshi revolt.

Tridib is a great story-teller, through his tales of London and various other topics like “Mesopotamian stelae, East European jazz, the habits of arboreal apes, the plays of Garcia Lorca, there seem to be no end to things he could talk about”, make everything real for his younger cousin. Both cousins are gifted with vivid memories, an acute sense of perception of the past as well as a strong desire to learn new things to feed their imagination. Additionally, the narrator’s grandmother, through her many stories about Dhaka, where she was born before settling in Calcutta, has “no home but in her memory” and she makes the narrator feel as if he was there with her.

The narrator realises, while sitting on the edge of a camp bed in the cellar back in Raibajar with his beloved cousin, Ila, surrounded by objects that carry a lot of memories, like ghosts of time, that “they were not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance – for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time”.

The Shadow Lines is a compassionate, powerfully moving novel in many ways. Ghosh masterfully expresses his thoughts in his eloquent writing. His characters are well depicted in an interesting, vast array of individuality. The narrator is a passionately imaginative recorder of the events and lives of people around him. The young Tridib is an idle, avid, multifarious intellectual. Ila is portrayed as a spoiled, beautiful young bohemian seeking complete freedom in her new world and although born an upper-class Indian, feels devoid of identity. Tha’mma’s husband dies when she is thirty two years old and in order to survive, she works for twenty seven years as a schoolmistress in Calcutta. She is hard working and authoritarian unlike her only sister, Mayadebi, who is richly married and referred to ironically as “Queen Victoria” by her elder sister. There is also the very old friends of Tridib’s family, Mrs Price, and her two children, May and Nick.

The violence in Dhaka and Calcutta described subtly by Ghosh and shown as incomprehensible and aberrant brutality, as in the violent death of the innocent Tridib, sadly still exists today in many other places of the world, e.g. in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya, Israel, Yemen and Bahrain. In his novel, Ghosh describes shadow lines that create a seemingly unbridgeable gap producing bloodshed. These lines leave their shadows wherever they happen to be. They are irrationally man-made in order to divide people and separate countries artificially. While wars, religions, partitions and violence alienate people and nations, at least the power of memory combined with imagination keeps them united.

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