“Only someone who knows he is condemned can clearly see the path to salvation.”
Carlos Fonseca is a writer who delights in spinning complex webs that blend history, fiction and a distinct fondness for archival elements to create a framework within which important ideas and themes can be explored. As with his earlier works, Colonel Lagrimas and Natural History, his new novel Austral reaches across time and space to craft a unique literary environment complete with eccentric characters and grand schemes that gradually reveal the secret of their connections. But this time, the key to the puzzle the narrator is seeking to understand lies closer to home than he suspects when he is first drawn into this most unusual mystery.
Julio Gamboa’s world is unravelling when an unexpected summons arrives from his past. His distant past. The letter, postmarked in Argentina, bears an unfamiliar name, but the contents inform him that his friend Alicia—or Aliza as he had known her—Abravanel has died following a long illness that had, ultimately, left her almost entirely mute. However, as the letter writer, Olivia, assures him, she remained perfectly lucid to the very end. And, in passing, she entrusted a most important task to Julio, even though it had been more than thirty years since they last spoke or saw one another. An invitation to visit Aliza’s home in Humahuaca accompanies this curious missive and, with winter taking hold of Cincinnati and the future of his recently fractured marriage uncertain, Julio imagines not only a welcome reprieve, but a potential return.
Julio had met Aliza as a teenager in his native Costa Rica. To him she was exotic—a British girl bursting with poetry and stories of punk music who had run away from home at seventeen in pursuit of freedom and adventure. By contrast, he was cautious and uncertain, reluctantly committed to trying to meet his parents’ expectations that he pursue an academic future. Knowing that a scholarship awaited him, Julio and Aliza headed off on a last road trip up through Central America, finally ending in Guatemala during the volatile years of the early 1980s. That is where they parted ways, Julio leaving an angry and disappointed Aliza behind. Over the decades that followed, he moved to the US where he studied, got married and eventually settled into life as a professor of literature. Aliza, on the other hand, stayed in Latin America, changed the spelling of her name and began to write and publish novels in Spanish. When a stroke left her with a progressive form of aphasia, she moved to a commune in northern Argentina to try to complete the last installment of an ecologically themed tetralogy. But that goal had perhaps been too ambitious so her focus changed and she turned her attention to a new project. When she died, she left that manuscript with the explicit instruction that Julio was the only person who could edit it.
Upon his arrival in Humahuacha, he is given Aliza’s text—memoir or fiction, he is left to decide—and he begins to read a most remarkable account of Karl-Heinz von Mühlfeld, an anthropologist who travelled to Paraguay in the 1960s seeking the ruins of New Germany, the failed utopia founded in 1886 by Elisabeth Nietzsche, sister of Friedrich, and her eugenicist husband Bernhard Förster. But Karl-Heinz’s intended research takes a different turn when he meets Juvenal Suárez, the last surviving member of an indigenous tribe and only living speaker of the Nataibo language. Over several subsequent visits, the anthropologist’s efforts to record and preserve this soon-to-be-lost language increases while his sanity deteriorates. Aliza’s father comes into the picture a number of years later when he is invited to meet with the anthropologist in the Swiss sanitarium where he lives. He is inspired to carry the torch he believes the older man is attempting to pass him—a destructive path that left him ever changed but may have kindled his daughter’s attraction to Latin America.
As Julio makes his way into Aliza’s manuscript, titled A Private Language, he is impressed by the richness of the writing given the author’s declining ability to communicate while haunted by the notion that he is dealing with a work somehow composed in a “private key”—a text that “all could read but only one person could understand.” As her chosen reader, he feels that Aliza is offering him precious insight into the girl he once knew, but wonders what deeper message she might be sending him after all these years. Then, at a party, he learns of a companion piece she was working on, a dictionary of sorts. It is suggested that an indigenous man who visited the commune daily might know more. The following day, as Julio sets off by bus for Salinas Grande in search of this man, Raúl Sarapura, he is beset with his own linguistic anxieties:
Though he wouldn’t say so, he was bothered by that sense of foreignness that fell over him every time he came back to Latin America. That feeling of never really returning. An anxiety over belonging that occasionally even translated into grammatical errors and pronunciation mistakes, making him feel that little by little he was losing his language, and the last traces of his past along with it.
He returns bearing Dictionary of Loss, a notebook filled with almost child-like collages featuring images and entries with meanings, etymologies and commentaries for various words. If the key to understanding one text, and Aliza herself, lay in the other, and it was now Julio’s task to find the key to unlock the secret buried within this dual project.
Such a journey, of course, will lead Julio into a labyrinth lined with historical, philosophical and literary references, all somehow inextricable from his memories of his time with Aliza. But from his sofa back home in snowy Cincinnati, the logic connecting it all eludes him. Until he realizes that the roads he seems to be wandering down all lead to Guatemala, to the site of a village destroyed during the genocide, where a man he read about in the Dictionary, has constructed a memory theatre containing images, objects and recorded recollections—a space where fellow survivors of the war can honour their lost community and, through sharing memories, heal their trauma. Julio is certain that this is where he will find the answers he needs to complete the posthumous request his friend has made.
Austral is, clearly, a book about language, about the relationship of language—on an individual and societal level—to memory and legacy. It offers much to contemplate, but at the centre is the question of what can be done, in the face of the loss of language, to preserve the memory of a person or a people. Language does not exist in a vacuum, it needs to be spoken or read or committed to memory. Language is a link between the past and the future. A key image, repeated twice in the text, drawing on the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913) depicts a sketch of two rivers, one representing thought and the other representing language. The caption reads: “The trick, then, would be to learn to pass from one bank to the other without ceasing to speak.” For Saussure, language was a social phenomenon, in Austral the isolation of one speaker from a social network that has completely disappeared is mirrored by the potential loss of the ability of another speaker to navigate an existing system because the tools make that language possible have become inaccessible to her. But where an attempt to record a dictionary to preserve a dying language without a community fails, a dying speaker losing language is able to employ a community to reach an audience of one.
Fonseca, like his protagonist, is also from Costa Rica although he spent much of his adolescence in Puerto Rico, and Austral marks his first return to Central America in his writing. He notes in an interview that it meant a lot to finally feel comfortable “narrating from a region that I recognise as home but which I left long ago.” It may have taken three novels to get back there, but, having read and loved both of his previous works, I would suggest that this
is perhaps his strongest, most focused and most rewarding to date. Sometimes you can go home again.
Austral: A Novel by Carlos Fonseca is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.