An ambitious picaresque tale about civil war, love, propaganda and the Panama Canal, delivered with verve and wit.
The inspiration for the second novel by Vásquez (The Informers, 2009) is Joseph Conrad’s 1904 classic Nostromo, which depicted warfare and greed in the mythical country of Costaguana. José Altamirano, the narrator of Vásquez’s novel, knows Costaguana was a stand-in for his native Colombia, and he's eager to correct Conrad by telling the truth about his country through much of the 19th and early 20th century. He does this both in broad strokes and through the lives of his loved ones, who suffered their share of tragedies: From the yellow fever that kills close friends to the long civil war that tragically affected family members, loss and death routinely stalk José. Yet his tone remains kindly and often comic. He smirkingly observes the bizarre coincidences in his life, the foibles of the so-called leaders who drove the country into civil war with what is now Panama, and the contempt of the American imperialists who ended the war with a land-grab. José inherited his sensibility from his father, who came of age provoking conservative religious authorities and later wrote propaganda on behalf of a French company making an early attempt to dig the Panama Canal. Such inventions support the novel’s theme that words matter, particularly when they’re false: José’s father’s upbeat prose kept the canal-building effort alive in its funders’ imaginations despite its doomed reality; yellow journalism fueled the civil war; and Conrad’s novel, in José’s estimation, rudely defined the country as backwards. As Colombia collapses into civil war in the final chapters of the book, Vásquez elegantly chronicles the violence and absurdity of war while conveying a sense of bemused fatedness. That the author can make his hero so entertaining without diminishing the gravity of the bloodshed is a testament to his talents.
To read this novel is to enter a Borgesian rabbit hole—it’s a fiction that purports to tell the truth obscured by another fiction—yet its strangeness helps make it both brave and engaging.