Tragedy or farce: Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

“Hell is an incomprehensible sarcasm.”

There is, at the centre of the longest section of Carlos Fonseca’s ambitious and wildly inventive new novel, Natural History, an improbable tower inhabited by poor families, vagrants, addicts and an assortment of individuals who crave the seclusion afforded by a structure barely accessible by ordinary means. It is a strange and fantastic community bound by its own logic, something like the larger fictional work that supports its existence—a daring and intelligent spectacle peopled by a wide and vividly drawn cast, both historical and imagined.

Fonseca is a writer who loves to play with ideas, to set his eccentric characters up, rather like a set of dominoes, and allow them to follow leads, passages and pathways to the most unexpected and impossible conclusions. The tendencies that drive Natural History—a fascination with archival novels, science, and art—can be seen in his debut, Colonel Lágrimas, but here they are observed on a much grander scale. And yet there is a cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere that haunts the protagonists who get swept up in this multi-layered adventure.

The novel opens with the neurotic confession of the unnamed Puerto Rican American narrator who works as a curator at a natural history museum in New Jersey. He admits that he tries to avoid facing beginnings by imagining his life is a continual act of imitation, an ongoing repetition of what has already happened. So, when he receives a package containing several envelopes filled with photographs, essays and newspaper clippings, he is not surprised. They are from Giovanna Luxembourg, a recently deceased fashion designer. His inheritance, so to speak. Seven years earlier she had summoned him out of the blue and arranged for a meeting at her unusual New York City apartment. Her interest in him had been sparked by papers he had once published on tropical butterflies and the quincunx, a geometric pattern consisting of five points with the fifth in the centre like, for example, the five on a dice.

They begin to meet. Periodically she calls for him and they talk well into the night about patterns occurring in nature. Afterwards, the narrator typically makes his way through the Bowery and stops into a Lebanese restaurant where he has become oddly obsessed with an older woman who sits with a table full of newspapers. Strange? Yes, well everything is strange. The uncertain attraction between two troubled insomniacs, Giovanna’s strained elusiveness, the narrator’s peculiar behaviours, and his annoyance when the designer suddenly becomes obsessed with masks. However, when Giovanna’s package arrives after her death, the narrator finds clues that will allow him to begin to unravel the truth of her identity, and the unconventional family that she sought to hide from.

Natural History is not a mystery or a detective novel so much as an elaborate construction of facts and fictions that, if it seems loose and slippery around the edges, works as a whole. It depends on having a wide enough sweep to see patterns form, connect and repeat. As multiple, richly realized story lines unfold and individual characters labour after their own obsessions, Fonseca is slowly gathering threads and themes together. As his quest for answers begins, the narrator visits an abandoned mining town where underground fires burn, home to a reclusive Israeli photographer who had once enjoyed a glamourous existence in the New York City of the sixties and seventies. Bits and pieces of the story begin to take shape there. He tells meeting and marrying a dynamic young beauty, their shared fame and their unfortunate decision to head south with their young daughter, the child who would one day become known as Giovanna.

A year later, in 2008, our protagonist learns of the arrest, in Puerto Rico, of a former model and actress, missing for decades, found in the odd, rundown high rise where she’d been living in seclusion. Now in her seventies but still striking, she is charged with intentionally, yet anonymously, planting fake news items which have impacted the stock market. She argues that she was engaged in a time honoured act of performative art. A nervous young lawyer is hired, and a lengthy trial ensues, observed close at hand by the narrator’s colourful friend Tancredo who has been sent to report on the event. Before long, he gets swept up in the entire strange atmosphere, telling the narrator that he’s spent nights thinking of:

all those who… had fallen prey to Virginia McCallister’s madness. He spoke of a great conspiracy that originated not in a human mind, but in a cosmic figure that grew steadily. I recalled my first months with Giovanna, months of exhaustion and delirium, and understood why my friend was starting to rave. Too much rum, too much heat, too many theories.

In this part, the longest and most complex section of the book, a wealth of ideas are woven into the narrative, against a rich tapestry of unlikely and colourful characters. The fourth part carries us back to the mid-seventies to revisit, this time in third person, the journey of the small family—photographer father, actress-model mother and sickly child—into the Central American jungle following a man known as the apostle. A formative and destructive pilgrimage. The final section is another missive from a ghost.

The core story line is filled in slowly, but the overall tale is never slow. The human connections (and disconnections) are real and affecting. The settings, urban and natural alike, are vividly drawn. And there is so much going on. On so many levels. Primary themes—masks, camouflage, the desire to disappear, the nature of art, the quincunx, utopian colonies, ruins, burning—all cross over and multiply in the reader’s imagination long after the book is finished. As well, the  steady parade of historical personalities that pass in and out: Comandante Marcos of the Zapatistas; Argentinian artists Jacoby, Costa and Escari who planned and promoted a Happening that did not occur; B. Traven, the popular Mexican-based author whose actual identity remains a mystery; Antonin Artaud; Karl Wallenda; General William Sherman and many more offer a wealth of opportunities for extratextual reading. Of course, to be able to carry all these interwoven elements with ease, a novel must be strong, strange and smart enough. And this one is.

Natural History by Carlos Fonseca is translated by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

A methodical madness: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

On a cold winter day, in a remote location high in the Pyrenees, an old man is bent over his desk intent on completing an ambitious, eccentric project. Time is against him. He is an enigma—reclusive and unknowable. And the goal of Carlos Fonseca (Suarez)’s infectious debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, is to attempt to unravel and piece together the true identity of this strange man and the circumstances that led him to this place. But it’s no ordinary investigation and the colonel at the centre of attention is a military man only in his own imagination. He is, or rather was, a brilliant mathematician, a cryptic solver of abstract puzzles, who at the height of his fame, suddenly retreated from academia, embarking on a strange journey toward isolation and obscurity.

Our guide in this inquiry is a playful voyeur who follows the aged recluse through the course of a single day, spinning a fragmented, nonlinear narrative of anecdotes, historical asides, interruptions, and discursions. At times we are invited to observe our subject as if through a lens, sometimes zooming in to a level of pixelated hyper-reality. At other times we watch as an invisible (or unnoticed) presence, slipping into the frame to rustle around in his photographs and letters when the colonel is asleep or otherwise occupied. As readers we are complicit. Curiosity is mixed with a sense that we are invading the secret world of a man lost to the caprices of a second, doomed childhood:

Where is the border of the private? Where is the sentry to tell us when we should stop, draw a line, move no closer, and have a little respect? We imagine that at some point, when we’re getting too close, we’ll no longer see him and only the pixels of the background will be left, atmosphere with no storyline.

The pleasure of the intruder.

Much more than an exercise in intellectual and linguistic experimentation, the hero of Colonel Lágrimas is loosely based on the strange life of Alexander Grothendieck, the enigmatic German-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of modern algebraic geometry before suddenly abandoning his career in mid-stride, ultimately spending his later years in seclusion. Fonseca, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, grants his colonel a Mexican birth, a Russian Jewish mother given to painting the same volcano day after day, and anarchist father who fatally throws his lot in with the Spanish Republicans. There are crossovers and echoes with Grothendieck’s life which held its own share of mystery. But here we have a character on whom the spotlight can be dialed in much closer, even if we can never get inside his head, so to speak. In an interview published in Numéro Cinq, Fonseca describes his novel as the product of an intersection of his obsessions with the elusive German mathematician, with archives and archival novels, and with Chuck Close’s large portraits often composed of “pixels” created out of mini-paintings. Stylistically he says he sees his writing as, in some sense, a product of his origins, that is, as “the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other.”

Thus, by playing the voyeuristic detective narrator’s close observations of the colonel’s daily routine and his current effort to record the lives of three imagined alchemical divas against a collection of historical anecdotes we begin to build an image of an old man racing against time to contain an essence of a history he is trying to forget. Woven into the narrative are descriptions of faded photographs, aphorisms from his father’s notebook, and postcards from a long correspondence with Maximiliano, a Mexican who gets inextricably bound in his former hero’s eccentric archival efforts. Themes repeat, patterns form. And binding it all is the regular appearance of a doodled spiral of barbed wire and a complex algebraic equation that are assumed to be connected. Gradually, layer by layer, a picture starts to take shape.  The fragments are the pixels needed to construct a fuller portrait of the life of our solitary subject.

His is a life that crosses many of the major events of the twentieth century—the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, Vietnam—albeit a step out of time or logic, forever anachronistic. We learn that our “young colonel” rejected his past and began a lifelong pattern of slipping behind masks at an early age. He headed off, on his own, to occupied Paris, when he was ten. Within a few years he had adopted the role of an orphan. Later, having earned respect as a mathematical genius, he suddenly tosses it all to teach math in Vietnam during the war. At present, on the day we spend watching him in his absent-minded pursuits, he is engaged in writing the “autobiographies of other people,” his trio of historical divas. Or are they a means of assuaging a guilt that has driven his odd behaviour? That is not an easy question to answer.

There are two ways of approaching the colonel. You can see him from a distance, his romantic profile like a tired genius who finally surrendered to the madness of endless projects. Easy to see him in this genius-like aspect, prisoner of dementia, a captive of the memory of his traumatic childhood. More difficult though to approach him to the point of belief, to where we believe in his projects. To see him up close in his more criminal profile: no longer a genius, no longer mad, but rather a man who waited, patiently, until the day came that would strip him of his talent so he could sit down to write what he always wanted.

As a portrait of our stateless colonel is fleshed out in what is more a process of questioning, refining, and focusing possibilities—attempting to solve an individual life as an algebraic equation—it is impossible not to feel pity for this man who struggles with writer’s block, has an unknown audience waiting outside his bathroom door as he sings in the bath, is observed as he dresses up in his finest regalia, and critiqued as he performs a drunken oratory in what he can only assume is the guarded privacy of his own home. Examined as a collection of data, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in his waning days, he will not be allowed to slip quietly into obscurity.

And whether that would secretly please him or not, we will never know.

Colonel Lágrimas is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books.