Bloomsbury, £16.99, 305pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Secret History of Costaguana, By Juan Gabriel Vásquez trans. Anne McLean

For once, this novel's title says it all. Costaguana is irreducibly the name of Joseph Conrad's fictive Latin American land. In his life as a mariner, Conrad knew the region remarkably little – having spent just three days in Colombia - just as he knew so few Latin Americans that the local characters were all drawn from other nationalities. Conrad's Nostromo, an abbreviation of the Italian nostro uomo (a term often used for the Italian labourers on the Panama Canal), is a kind of everyman, at work in a country that used to be Colombia but which then seceded to become a nation that was little more than a canal. Costaguana, indeed: a name redolent of a country bounded by two coasts – or an isthmus bounded by two oceans - from whose waves protrude islands of fertilising birdshit.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez is no stranger to secret histories: his first publication was A Secret History of all the Saints and his second novel, The Informers, is also shot through with parallel lives and deceptions. Vásquez discovered that there was an actual Colombian in London when Conrad was researching Nostromo: the son of a former Liberal president named Santiago Perez Triana, who had fled Colombia following persecution by the incoming conservative regime. Here Vásquez rebaptises him José Altamirano. It is he who accuses his author: "You have eliminated me from my own life. You, Joseph Conrad, have robbed me." But it was Conrad who stole Perez Triana, and Vásquez who invented Altamirano, so what character is now accusing which author, and how do we know which was the more real?

So opens Vasquez' game with his readers. Miguel Altamirano, father to José, is born in 1820, the year of Colombia's independence. Curiously, he died at the hands of the Conservative regime (like Perez Triana) and, equally curiously, had studied law and become something of a radical (like Vásquez) in his youth. José Altamirano's quest for his father is the first trope of this highly layered and intelligent novel. While Altamirano is to be our sardonic and confessional narrator, we sense that it is not really Jose but Joseph that Vásquez is after.

Not content with having written a short biography of Conrad, Vásquez is now in pursuit, not so much of an unreliable narrator, as of an unreliable – and, arguably, unscrupulous - author. The novel is in three sections of three chapters apiece, and flows like a novena of the Catholic church - to which both Conrad and Altamirano pay dubious homage. And in the final chapter, José pursues Joseph to London in the desire to unburden himself of his knowledge of the disaster that would beset the Canal and the plot for Panamanian independence. So fiction fuses with history again, like a serpent with a tail in its mouth.

Vásquez has said that the great writers of the Latin American "boom" in the decades following the 1960s – who, like him, headed abroad (and particularly to Paris) but wrote about where they had left – "were all obsessed with reinventing their countries in literature". Here he deliberately references the Congo. Conrad's tropical jungle in Heart of Darkness resembles Colombia's "muddy Maddalena", the murky river along which the drugs and arms, paramilitaries and guerrillas, the country's flotsam and jetsam, are shipped. Vásquez goes beyond magical realism, even beyond the postmodernist reaction to it.

Costaguana is the illustration of how fiction is the vampire of history. Or, as Balzac put it, "Novels are the private histories of nations". This illumination of the maxim befits an author who is already the biographer of the most famous Polish author to write in English, and also a translator (of Victor Hugo, among others), not to say the most erudite and inventive Colombian novelist writing today.

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