It’s amazing what you can find on Twitter. There are shops, libraries, councils and even whole countries on there all sharing their opinions with the world in bite-size chunks. So when I saw the Panama Canal on the site, I couldn’t resist tweeting at it to ask it what I should read.
This came off the back of a long and surprisingly difficult search for a Panamanian writer with literature available in English. I’d emailed numerous organisations and publications. I’d even got a Panamanian student at Exeter University on the case. She recommended Justo Arroyo, but when I contacted him it turned out he only had one short story available in translation. He suggested Carlos Russell, a bi-lingual poet who has lived in the US for many years and has written some prose narratives too.
I was on the point of contacting Russell when the Panama Canal popped up on a Twitter search and, on a whim, I decided to see what it had to say for itself. The Canal came back very politely and, after a brief exchange, it recommended the writer Juan David Morgan.
I was intrigued by Morgan, not only because the Panama Canal had recommended him and I’d never had the opportunity to gain an insight into a waterway’s literary tastes before, but also because my brother’s name happens to be David Morgan.
Having found Morgan’s website, I sent him an email. It turned out that one of his novels, The Golden Horse, had been translated into English, but it was not published yet. He kindly sent me the manuscript, along with regards to my brother, and I settled down to read.
It’s funny that I found this book by way of the Panama Canal, because the novel is about the construction of the Panama Railroad, the first ever transcontinental railway line, which was completed in 1855, 26 years before work on the Canal began. Telling the story of this most gruelling of human endeavours, which saw thousands of workers from all over the globe lose their lives to disease and despair in the country’s tropical swamps, the novel is a tribute to the bravery, folly and ambition of the people who changed the world forever at the height of the Californian Gold Rush.
The book’s events are related through the eyes and sometimes diaries of a number of Americans connected with Howland & Aspinwall, the New York-based merchant firm that conceived and funded the project. There is the young widow Elizabeth, the travel writer John Lloyd Stephens – who is entrusted with securing governmental permission for the work – and the steamer captain Cleveland Forbes, as well as a large cast of lesser characters whose lives and loves all become entangled in the scramble to capitalise on the rich discoveries out west.
Morgan is skilled at keeping the high stakes foremost in the reader’s mind. From the deadly Chagres fever (malaria) and the crocodiles that lurk in the river, to the constant threats to the project from a rival scheme in Nicaragua and the sinister steamship line owner George Laws, who is determined to either profit from or scupper the venture, we are never allowed to forget the risks the characters are taking. This is coupled with an impressive portrait of the destructive impact of the huge numbers of prospectors or ‘argonauts’ passing through the region and turning Panama’s once-sleepy towns and villages into dens of vice and crime. With no government protection and robbery and murder rife, it falls to Howland & Aspinwall to buy in security in the shape of wild Texan ranger Runnels.
Rigorously researched and plotted, the novel works neatly, with many seemingly incidental characters woven throughout so that we have the sense of their lives unfolding beyond the boundaries of the narrative. There are also some very powerful moments. The brutal robbery of Norwegian hotelier Peter Eskildsen and his struggle to save himself from being pecked to death by vultures is horrifying, while the description of the fate of the Chinese railroad workers will stay with me for years to come.
That said, the novel could do with some tighter editing. While the diary entries allow for a more discursive style than might play comfortably in other forms of narrative, there are some repeated descriptions of events and emotions that could be lost without doing any damage to the work as a whole. I also found a few of the plot twists concerning Elizabeth towards the end of the book a little too convenient.
Overall, though, this is an impressive portrait of a pivotal moment in global history. In amongst the rabble of foreign nationals that bustle through the narrative intent on using the country for their own ends, the character of Panama shines through: wild, beautiful and rich. Let’s hope the translation finds a place on an English-language publisher’s list – it deserves to be widely read.
The Golden Horse (El Caballo de Oro) by Juan David Morgan, translated from the Spanish by John Cullen