Narratives, Roland Barthes once argued, are perhaps the one thing that all humans have in common. But in the face of the Western canon and what Adorno referred to as the ‘culture industry’ this does not mean much. Barthes’ suggestion is not that the canon does not have a distinct hierarchy. What it does perhaps intimate is that this hierarchy can be undermined and that all voices have at the very least the potential to be heard amidst the white noise. But what certain postcolonial fiction and theory has demanded is that the subaltern be heard through, at the very least, the same megaphone or one with an equivalent amplifier as the western voice. Perhaps at the beginning of this post-colonial ‘writing back’, as put forward by likes of Chinua Achebe and Jean Rhys, was the idea of creating an alternative text to the those of the Western canon.
At a cursory glance Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel The Secret History of Costaguana is one of these attempts. Like JM Coetzee’s Foe it claims to contain the narrative that was used (perhaps the correct term might be ‘abused’) in the creation of a text that is now established within the canon. In Vasquez’s case the text is of course Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. But like Foe if one reads it a little deeper this simple remedy of an alternative paradigm does not sit so easily.
The novel begins with the death of ‘the Great English Novelist’, Joseph Conrad, and with the accusation that he, Conrad, ‘robbed’ Jose Altamirano, the narrator, of something. That something is of course the story of Columbia/Panama (or as Altamirano puts it ‘that shit hole’) which underlies Conrad’s tale of the invented territory of Costaguana. To be sure right from the start one can’t but be aware of the criticism directed at Conrad by both Achebe and Edward Said. But, as Jose Altimirano would say:
I’ll reveal more on the subject in a few pages.
Conrad, or more correctly Joseph Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was Ukrainian by birth, Polish by upbringing, Russian by education, French in his early working life and English by adoption. That is to say, as Conrad said of his most famous character Kurtz, all of Europe contributed to the making of him. And it was as such that he was critiqued. Achebe argued that Conrad was a European writer who refused to vouchsafe human expression to Africans, silencing them within their own landscape. Said too would have a similar criticism, although acknowledging Conrad’s anti-colonial stance, he lambasted Conrad for his failure to imagine how ‘the natives’ could ever rule themselves. What Vazquez adds (or at least Jose Altamirano) to this is that he was not even capable of creating his own narrative, instead he robbed the ex-colonies of their story.
Because if The Secret History of Costaguana is about anything, then it is not about Conrad, nor the dominance of the western canon – although these do play their parts – but rather it is about narrative itself: the problems of influence and fiction’s relation to, that nefarious piece of stinking vagary, that thing we call ‘truth’.
Vasquez, a Spanish speaking South American Colombian, is acutely aware of influence and of the success of the two men who tower over the South American continent of contemporary letters: Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. And it is to Garcia Marquez that Altamirano nods when he states to his daughter, Eloisa, ‘this is not one of those books where the dead speak, or where beautiful woman ascend to the sky’ (p.16) In a sense Vasquez, certainly in this novel, slips between these two South American writers, between the ‘magical’ of Marquez and the realism of Llosa. In other words Vasquez offers a version of both of Marquez’s playfulness and Llosa interest in fictionalising historical figures and events.
Version. That is a word that is never far from Altamirano’s pen. It is something that he offers to Conrad, that is to say he retells his version of the history of Colombia, only to discover that Conrad’s version, contained in Nostromo, is ‘false, this is not what I told you.’ And there it is, the central conceit of The Secret History of Costaguana. But if you are thinking, ‘here we go, another bloody postmodernist’ you will be comfortingly surprised. Perhaps the first hint that Vasquez is not saying that Nietzsche was right when he stated that ‘all truths are fiction’ is when he mentions how Altamirano was conceived. His mother and father had, he tells the reader, two different versions of the story but they agreed ‘on one fact, which in any case has left verifiable consequences.’ (p.43) Here one is reminded of Bernard Williams’s assertion in Truth and Truthfulness when he concluded:
As Clemenceau’s famously said at Versailles to a German who had wondered what future historians would say about all this, ‘They won’t say that Belgium invaded Germany.’ (p 243)
But then what is the truth in fiction, the truth in the versions of Altamirano and Conrad? Here one begins to feel that Vasquez believes in something close to Peter Lamarque’s idea that fictions are not scientific or analytical tools for understanding the Truth. There may be instances of truth contained within them but to claim that they have a veracity and that they are verifiable in analytic terms is simply not what fictions are attempting to convey. When confronted with Altamiron’s claim that ‘It’s not the story of my country’, Conrad retorts, ‘Of course not. It’s the story of my country. It’s the story of Costaguana.’ That is to say it is a fictional place, constructed on the versions of places, histories and people.
Instead as Altamirano says earlier:
All those stories that are known and told and remembered, all those little stories that for some reason matter to us and which gradually fit together without us noticing to compose the fearful fresco of Great History, they are juxtaposed, touching, intersecting: none of them exist on their own. (p.84)
It is here where the idea of an ‘alternative text’ is questioned. That is to say the idea that there is the Western canon and that there is a post-colonial response to it that seeks to negate it. Instead Vasquez seems to be suggesting there are versions, contestations, agreements, incommensurabilities, absences, silences, selective blindnesses but that they will never eclipse each other and that more often than not they ‘only touch on an objective reality at certain select points, the way a merchant ship only concerns itself with certain ports.’ (p.104) This here, one feels, is Vasquez’s response to Achebe and Said.