The Secret History of Costaguana cover

No, that's not a conquistadore.

Author Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Translator Anne McLean

Things You Might Like

  • Full-on 19th century-style writing
  • What may be an entirely new subject
  • History! Politics! War! Gringos!
  • Personification (Angelification?) of History

Things You Might Not Like

  • Full-on 19th century-style writing
  • You’ll actually have to pay attention
  • Conrad’s really not all that important to the story

Vasquez’s novel treats the reader to an intelligent narrative of Panama and Columbia, with war, politics, and literature as added bonuses.

4 out of 5 Frequent Revolutions

Aaron Simon


You’d think that a book that opens with the death of Joseph Conrad would be enough for me to sing its praises to everyone I meet, eventually leading to my capture and subsequent incarceration as a mental patient.

See, my hatred for Conrad stems from an incident that occurred a long time ago. It was when I was sixteen years old. I was in a bookstore. I came across a copy of Lord Jim, read the back cover, and was under the impression that it was a rollicking adventure story on par with King Solomon’s Mines.

Of course, it wasn’t. It was much more subdued than that. The adventure/war-y bit didn’t come into play until much later on in the book, and I felt cheated. I cursed Conrad and swore that I would never read another book of his again.

Of course, that was quite stupid, and now I can actually kind of dig Conrad. Y’know, even though I still want to beat him with a baseball bat that is carved with “BE CONCISE.”

Anyway. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana opens with the death of Joseph Conrad as told by a man with a somewhat unhealthy fixation on the literary giant, the Colombian José Altamirano.

The narration by the above, as I said, opens with Conrad’s death, and while you might not be blamed for thinking that this book will deal entirely with the relationship between Altamirano and Conrad—I certainly thought it would be about that until I was well into the second part of the novel—the subject mater is more accurately about Colombia in the late nineteenth century.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the two men’s relationship isn’t a major part of the novel. It is. See, and Altamirano states it quite early on, Conrad got the entirety of Nostromo from a conversation with Altamirano. (And, of course, the very astute, well-read, and sage readership of Bullet Reviews need not be told that Costaguana is the setting in Conrad’s novel, and that it is based on Columbia.)

However, there are no magnificent showdowns. The two are not comrades in arms in some struggle. They aren’t even poker buddies. Of course, that’s perfectly fine, and, thinking about it, the novel is much more interesting for it. But, man, it is laid on heavy at the beginning.

So, what is this book about? Well, I’ll tell you.

With Daniel O’Thunder, I briefly mentioned about how it was a history lesson without being a history lesson. The book had a strong basis in historical fact, but the reader was able to glean what was fact from what was fiction, and thus developed a clearer picture of Victorian London. The Secret History of Costaguana does almost the opposite.

Think about the classic way of sharing history. A historian would formulate a narrative and break down the bits and pieces as necessary. That’s the narrative style of this novel, and it’s quite well done. Unlike Daniel O’Thunder, which is Victorian in name only, Vásquez’s novel excels in mimicking the style and tone of the nineteenth century romantic(ish) novel.

Vásquez’s novel provides a survey course in the history of both Columbia and the Panama Canal. And, turns out, it’s all a lot more interesting than what you probably learned in school. War, political maneuvering, the constant use of the word “Gringos,” it’s all there.

The subject matter is alien to your average American reader. We are aware that there is a country called Columbia, and that there is a country called Panama. And we are also aware that there was a Canal in Panama, and that at one point we owned it.

But the particulars aren’t something we can rattle off. Hell, even history students kind of shrug when it comes to Central American history. I asked a friend: “Wasn’t Panama a part of Columbia?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I think it was. Seems like it in this book, at least.”


We are very American, you see.

Oh, right, sorry. So, as I said in the Daniel O’Thunder book review, it’s always a good thing when a novel teaches you some history, and The Secret History of Costaguana sure does that.

Vásquez also flexes his literary muscle with the way he plays around with chronology in the book. The book is mostly chronological, with one event following another, but, sometimes, there will be a wild jump into the future or past. Just enough to keep the reader on his toes. And, most importantly, Altamirano always alerts the reader to when such a jump is happening.

So, how to summarize my reaction to the book? Well, first of all, it’s not for people with short attention spans. There’s simply too much history and politics packed into about 300 pages for a reader to zone out for even a couple paragraphs.
Second of all, it’s a fine example of stylistic writing, and an even better counter to the modernized Victorian of Daniel O’Thunder. Of course, that’s its own drawback, as dense writing can be hard to handle if you’re not in the write frame of mind or setting.

Buy, Rent, or Pirate? Rent. However, if this sounds like something that’s really up your alley, you lover of 19th century history and literature, you, then you can buy the book from Amazon now. (NOTE: Bullet Reviews does not condone piracy. Aaron Simon is quite mad.)


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