JULY 31, 2020
PART GEOGRAPHER OF IDEAS, part geomancer, Carlos Fonseca methodically maps out big ideas that later come to connect in unexpected ways, coaxing hidden meanings from animal prints in mud, the grain of tree trunks, and mineral traces on stone. He is gratifyingly hard to place at a time that the market demands its writers to wear a nationality and identity on their sleeve. Born in San José, Costa Rica, he spent much of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. After studying at Stanford and Princeton, he moved to London and began to give lectures on Latin American literature and culture at Trinity College, Cambridge. All of these places have formed him in significant ways, yet his true home is literature.
In a calm and lyrical tone, Fonseca’s works ambitiously seek to incorporate everything. They flirt with unified theories and take joy in connecting ideas in unexpected ways, his protagonists often losing themselves in beguiling mental labyrinths of their own making. Fonseca is fond of the hyper-precise, nearly affectless prose of W. G. Sebald, with its long, trance-like paragraphs that build into architectures of grandiosity or horror almost without the reader noticing. His own prose dances at the edge of the abyss, struggling to maintain its serene beauty as his characters succumb to paranoia and elliptical solipsism. He is always in danger of losing control, of entering the darkness of thought at the expense of something more intimate.
Yet it is this very bravery that makes it such a pleasure to read his intellectual thrillers about art, nature, and the quest to remake oneself. Fonseca is doing astonishing things with literary form, and despite their heady themes, his novels have a lightness of touch, a self-conscious irony, and even an occasional note of comedy, thanks partly to literary influences ranging from Ricardo Piglia to Enrique Vila-Matas. Interested readers can track down his impressions of favorite authors in his still-untranslated essay collection, La lucidez del miope (2017).
Fonseca’s first novel, Colonel Lágrimas (2014), focused on a lonely mathematician in the Pyrenees who is attempting to build a comprehensive theory. When an English translation appeared in 2016, The New York Times called it “an original, insubordinate novel […] fabulously, compellingly readable.” His new novel, published in Spanish in 2017 as Museo Animal and now translated by Megan McDowell as Natural History, features a larger cast of more lively characters, who all attempt in their own ways to interpret or alter a system of truth. In poetic and subtle language, Fonseca ambitiously strives to encompass a wide variety of disciplines, all revolving around a mysterious museum exhibition of the camouflage strategies of animals. A review of the Spanish-language version in Latin American Literature Today described it as
a global novel in the best sense of the word since it moves through geographical regions and disparate times[.] […] There truly is in this novel a commitment to the idea of genre as a kaleidoscope, as the philosopher and theorist Mikhail [Bakhtin] would say, “testimony of the perpetual incompleteness of the world.”
While I have enjoyed several pints with Fonseca in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, and Cambridge, this interview was conducted via socially and geographically distanced email.
JESSICA SEQUEIRA: Your 2017 novel, Museo Animal, is coming out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in a beautiful English-language translation by Megan McDowell, under the title Natural History. The name change evokes a long tradition of natural histories, from the ancient Greeks to On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald, an author you admire. One of my favorite lines in the book is about a drunk in a bar who is also an author:
He said that for years he’d been planning a novel about the history of fire: a novel where fire was the true protagonist, a novel that would start with the chemical equation of combustion and then spread over all the continents and all the ages, a novel that would cross history like a field in flames.
How do you see your own book with respect to this tradition?
CARLOS FONSECA: I still remember a book that left a strong impression on me back when I was 16 or 17 and starting to get into literature. It was not a novel but rather Strabo’s Geography, where the narrator tells us about the many lands and the forms of nature he has seen. I remember reading that book and first feeling tempted to write a novel: a novel without characters, where the true protagonist would be nature itself. I think that, to some extent, that bizarre idea has remained with me up until today. I think that explains, as well, my interest in natural histories, be it Alexander von Humboldt’s travel notebooks or the works of Sebald.
I think three things interest me from natural histories. First, the possibility of narrating a long-duration story, far from the brief worries of humans. Second, that impersonal and anti-psychological density they provide us with: within a natural history, everything becomes description. And lastly, I think I share with the old naturalists their love for collecting. In the case of Natural History, one of the many possible inspirations for the novel was an anecdote that a friend told me long ago: the story of underground fires that kept burning for centuries. That image, and the idea of subterranean history marked by deep time, gave way to the novel and granted me the same feeling I had originally felt while reading Strabo’s Geography.
Several times you have called this an “archive novel,” and the story takes its structure from a gathering of notes and photographs, the archive of an unhappy family. At the same time, one of your characters mentions a story without an ending, “its laborious rhetorical twists only leading to other false endings in an infinite chain of detours,” as if the archive were a labyrinth with no exit. Do you find that the archive novel offers a viable challenge to the traditional novel?
My novel begins with the arrival of an archive. The protagonist inherits, so to speak, an archive with photographs, newspaper clippings, and other mementos. Starting from there, he tries to reconstruct the story of this family. I think that my interest in archives has to do with my search for new ways of narrating history beyond the traditional historical novel and with my fascination for collections. Every archive is a personal collection: a way of making history intimate. At the same time, the other model through which I often like to think of novels is that of the Russian doll: the idea of a story that leads to other stories. In the case of Natural History, I think that idea is very present: at the end of the story, what the protagonist finds is not an answer but a detour, a new story. I think that life is like that: we never really get to solve anything, we just get distracted for a bit. That is something that is very present in the works of Sebald, for whom the inquiry into the historical archive is projected onto the long walks of his narrators, or even in the works of Bolaño, who in 2666 shows to perfection how all stories end up opening up a window of possibilities and consequences. I have always liked stories that branch out — they seem more honest to me.
One of your characters says: “Of all the objects of desire, the most seductive and fearsome is one’s own identity.” Yet he says so on the way to an art exhibition about camouflage. Your characters do not seem to have stable identities beyond their intellectual interests. How might your novel allow us to reconsider the idea or importance of literary character?
I think it’s the narrator who makes that comment, and to some extent Natural History is full of characters in search of an identity that escapes them. I remember that, as a young boy playing in the garden of our house in Costa Rica, there was a small and curious animal that fascinated me: it was an insect that sometimes would switch from its traditional green color to the color of wood in order to hide between the tree branches. We called him Juan Palo, but I later discovered that biologists call this type of animal a phasmid, which I find amazing: an animal that plays at becoming a phantom. Like the shy person I am, I found there a hide-and-seek image of identity.
Years later, while writing the novel, I discovered the life of a magnificent man: Abbott Handerson Thayer, a painter born halfway through the 19th century who, fascinated by the capacity animals have to hide among their surroundings, started creating a theory of mimesis that was both biological and artistic. This theory would take him all the way up to the phenomenon of the camoufleurs, a group of painters who were drafted to imagine new ways of military camouflage during World War I. Picasso is famously said to have told Gertrude Stein, after seeing a camouflage tank traverse the streets of Paris, that such camouflage was nothing new, the Cubists had invented it.
I loved the connection there between the natural world, the art world, and the political world, and it made me think of the role the mask has taken for one of the great political protagonists of our time: Subcomandante Marcos. Those were the reflections that gave rise to Natural History, a novel in which the protagonists define themselves by the masks they wear and by the ways they try to hide. We must not forget that, as Bergman’s great movie reminds us, the term persona for the ancient Greeks designated the masks actors wear in the theater.
Your academic study The Literature of Catastrophe: Nature, Disaster and Revolution in Latin America just came out in May from Bloomsbury Press. There is a great deal of thematic overlap with your novels, but obviously with a different tone and from another angle. How does your work as a university professor overlap with your literary writing, or do you feel they are two entirely separate projects?
I think that being a writer within academia is a bit like being two-faced old Janus: having two faces that look in opposite directions with the same eyes. Something like that happens to me with regard to the book you mention: all of my fixed ideas are there — my preoccupations with the natural world, with history, with catastrophe — but seen from a different angle. I like Don DeLillo’s phrase: “[W]riting is a concentrated form of thinking.” In my novels, I think in ways that the rigor of an academic article doesn’t allow. I free myself from the fear of contradiction and from the fear of metaphor. One thinks through fictions, through metaphors, through language. That might be why I am attracted to those thinkers who are also writers: Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, Maggie Nelson, Michael Taussig, Ricardo Piglia.
A natural history can include many moments of growth without violence. What interests you so much about the idea of catastrophe, which one finds deeply rooted in this novel?
You mention something crucial, which is the tension that exists between the long duration characteristic of natural histories, where each new stratum can appear every 1,000 years, and the punctual precision of catastrophe. I think it is the tension that interests me: the expanse of a broad story that seems at times to reduce itself to a traumatic instant. And I think that is what has led me to think about catastrophe: the idea of something abrupt that breaks with the status quo. The idea of catastrophe as event. We tend to think of nature under the figure of the garden, as a place of peace and ease, but as we have seen in these past months, nature is actually a space traversed by violence and danger.
Giovanna Luxembourg, a character at the center of your story, is a fashion designer with a secret life behind her in Puerto Rico and New York. We also encounter figures like “the apostle,” a kind of drugged-out North American guru; the Puerto Rican detective, Burgos; the lawyer Esquilín; and a cast of artists and scholars who come to the island to contribute specific forms of knowledge. They all have very singular obsessions that lead them to act in ways “normal” people might define as mad, or at least eccentric. What attracts you to intense figures like these, whose lives are driven by a fervent belief in something, no matter what it may be?
In 2011, I accompanied my wife to an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in honor of the recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t interest me, yet the exhibition — which was entitled Savage Beauty — turned out to be one of the inspirations behind Natural History. Here was a designer who was thinking of fashion through the lens of animality, someone that looked to the animal kingdom in search of the origins of fashion. He is, I can now say, the figure behind Giovanna Luxembourg, who, as you say, is a protagonist defined — as are so many of the novel’s characters — by her obsessions.
I like working with eccentric protagonists. I think fixed ideas give people passion and vitality. The history of the novel as a genre, when you think about it, is marked by obsessives and eccentrics: from Don Quixote to the obsessive characters of Thomas Bernhard, leading all the way up to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness or the green light that punctuates The Great Gatsby. In a world where normality hides its truth behind routine, only the eccentrics can really see.
Your novel also pursues the relationship between art and law, since Giovanna sends fake new stories to media outlets that affect public perception and make companies lose money. In the trial that follows, many parallels are made to contemporary artistic projects. Do you think there is a moral limit to what an artist can do? Or are the process of art and the process of law two different languages?
While I was writing the novel, news started coming out that some authors — among them Pablo Katchadjian and Agustín Fernández Mallo — had been brought to trial by María Kodama, the widow of Borges, who accused them of plagiarizing her husband’s work. The news coverage of the trial mentioned how other authors, such as César Aira, had been brought to testify as defense witnesses. The image of art on trial made me remember the famous case of Constantin Brâncuși, who was forced to defend his art in front of US authorities. It seemed to me an interesting way of putting on stage the question of the place and limits of art.
Given that you mention the character of Giovanna and fake news, I can tell you that that whole subplot has to do with a group of Argentine artists called the Media Collective. Already in 1966 that group had understood that, in our era of (dis)information, the media constructs public truths or at least builds belief. In order to showcase that idea, they made a work called Anti-Happening, in which they got the press to disseminate as true a series of documents of a happening or event that had never occurred. That antecedent, alongside the case of the Honduran poet Salvador Godoy, helped me imagine an artist who disseminates fake news through the press in an attempt to move the stock market. After I had written the novel, Trump arrived and the whole topic of post-truth became a thing, but I find it rather funny that, already in 1966, the Media Collective had understood all of this clearly. They had grasped the fact that, rather than conveying truth, the media has the capacity to construct spheres of belief.
The narrator’s friend, Tancredo, is a curious and elusive character, who seems to be very impressionable. He starts by talking in aphorisms and ends by imitating Giovanna’s “crazy” routine. Today, when copying is easier than ever, do you think there is a danger in this kind of imitation?
Tancredo is, in a way, the equivalent of Sancho Panza for a narrator who often resembles Don Quixote. He is a bit of a crazy guy, a character who always wants to impose his theories and metaphors on the world. He is the comic relief that accompanies the narrator. At some point he becomes obsessed with the idea that, through imitating someone’s routine, he might get to understand that person. And that ties into the whole theme of camouflage, of imitation and repetition, as it appears throughout the novel.
In literary terms, I think there is a very interesting debate happening right now around the concept of imitation — a debate that includes the recent books of Kenneth Goldsmith and his notion of “uncreative writing,” as well as the idea of necrowriting espoused by Cristina Rivera Garza. In a way, this is nothing new: already in the 1930s Walter Benjamin was thinking about all this when he imagined a book composed solely of quotations. But the important thing is to understand what is at stake in imitation: to know that to imitate is never simply to repeat but rather to alter, to modify, to displace. The world walks forward through this game of repetitions and differences.
Your description in the novel of the march through the jungle is hallucinatory and slow, with close-up descriptions that almost seem to be mirages, and appearances of the figure of the quincunx, an almost magical symbol. The prose intrigues, fatigues, and disorients all at once, and suggests a wholly other scale of things that isn’t totally comprehensible. The characters connect their march to the scorched-earth policy of General Sherman during the American Civil War, among other unexpected references. In this section, do you want to show that making connections between things can go too far and lead to madness, or that reasoning itself may be a kind of madness?
The part entitled “The Southern March” narrates the central event around which the rest of the novel revolves: the journey the family takes through the Central American jungle in search of an anarchist commune. Latin America has often been read and written through the lens of the natural, so in this part I wanted to tell the story of the journey in relation to that tradition — a tradition that goes all the way from the diaries of von Humboldt to The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier. I wanted to play with the commonplace idea that, at the end of the jungle, one finds a true essence or a true identity. Instead, this family searches for meaning but ends up finding a void. I think you are right: in that section, time expands, it begins to be geological time rather than human time.
Finally, I want to ask you about scenes in the novel that feature characters reading Latin American poetry: a drunk Peruvian reads César Vallejo and an Israeli photographer reads Rubén Darío, for instance. There are also sections that echo the anecdotal tone of Roberto Bolaño, who was a poet. How has Latin American poetry influenced you?
I think poetry is the limit to which prose aspires. In Latin America, we all begin by reading poetry: Neruda, Vallejo, Nicanor Parra, Luis Palés Matos, Alejandra Pizarnik, Raúl Zurita, Julia de Burgos, just to name a few that have had a personal impact on me. We begin reading poetry and then everything we write moves toward that origin that somehow seems to recede and escape from us.
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator. She has written the works of fiction A Luminous History of the Palm, A Furious Oyster, and Rhombus and Oval, and the collection of essays Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age.