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Symbolic Grenade: The Historical Provocations of Carlos Fonseca’s Colonel Lágrimas

By Jessica Sequeira.

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A unified theory: that was the dream of Cambridge mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A correspondence between the marks on paper and the structure of the skies, a single formula that could encapsulate the universe. Ramanujan wasn’t successful in finding his theory of everything, but his ideal remains a covert presence and source of strength for many who have embraced a life in the sciences. But what happens when that ideal is applied to history? Is history a science too? Is the attempt to create a blueprint misguided if we’re talking about human endeavor? Or can one look for a pattern there as well? If so, how should one go about trying to find it? Is it best to remove oneself from the world to ensure peace of mind and the tranquility necessary for tracing larger arcs? Or should one try to be as actively engaged in daily life as possible? Do the aims of history writing undergo development, in the same way that ideas of modernism marked a literary shift, partly in response to scientific discoveries? And is there some shining pattern or arch-truth behind these changes? Or is history just an infinite parade of possible anecdotes to arrange, catalogue, exhibit, assemble and frame in a Duchampian exercise, like a box of old film reels? Can the historian in his observational role play some part in affairs, creating change through his attempt to understand? Or is this withdrawal into the imagination folly?

This flood of questions lies behind Carlos Fonseca’s intelligent and elegantly written novel Colonel Lágrimas, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Restless Books, 2016). The book takes the form of the notes of Alexander Grothendieck, a mathematician who retreats to a remote location in the Pyrenees and embarks on a tragicomic project to discover an allegory for the political trajectory of history. Dissolving into his story, transforming into an enigmatic presence that comes to seem like time itself, Grothendieck refers to his own persona throughout as the ‘colonel’, possibly due to the efficient, quasi-military way he goes about his writing, possibly because of how he views the past as a battlefield of meanings. Fueled by alcohol and coffee — after all, ours has been a ‘caffeinated age’ — he sets about his work.

Left alone for hours with his texts, the colonel jumps from one volume to the next, ‘making impossible connections between impossible continents and eras’. Vertigos of the Century, his masterpiece in progress, is intended to be a blueprint of himself and all the events that have occurred in the last hundred years. He is obsessed by the beauty of brevity, the elegance of simplicity, and he wants to fit everything that has happened into one equation. Abstract symbols become a way to make sense from a mess of meaningless facts. And so he takes notes for an ‘autobiography of others that gradually extends over everything, threatening to become infinite’. Jumping from one idea to the next, his prose fragmented and structurally demented, he writes and writes, yet nothing actually happens, or everything.

Is he a genius or is he cracked? In the cover image, the colonel’s head explodes in a scrawl of black ink, as he holds an enormous pencil to mark out his lines on graph paper. The image may just have been a publisher’s choice, but the colonel doesn’t really come off as deranged — just an exaggeration of the tendencies many introverted or solitary people exhibit. Obsession with some big idea combines with close attention to detail and a wandering mind prone to distraction, whether the source be drawings in the shape of Cuban 8 loops or a Jacques Brell chanson.

*

There are dangers to an existence so entirely oriented toward thought, of course. Seen from the outside, the author is a man who is eighty-three years old, schizophrenic, in dialogue with the voices in his head. In an absolute ‘loneliness populated by ghosts’, he analyses and reanalyses the same events from infinite angles. Guilt is a major theme, and to some extent his project is also ‘the equation of his guilt’. His life is the story of the things he didn’t do but should have done, and he alludes to an old lover named Cayetana Buamante. ‘Was it so difficult to take a plane, load up the chalkboards and some chalk, and go and build the revolution in America, that continent that saw his birth? So difficult to follow the footsteps of that woman he loved and of whom he now only has some photographs without memories left, a few lifeless equations?’ Considered this way, it seems easy to criticize excess passiveness as a negative historical position, and glamorize action and living in the present moment.

‘Not understanding is perhaps his way of life,’ the colonel writes. ‘This same man who, as a child, would distract himself from hunger by untangling invisible knots, this man whose passion gets tangled up among doodles and equations, knows full well there is a beauty that consists of allowing oneself to be caught up in life and following it to its final consequences.’ And so, battling amnesia, he sets about trying ‘to codify life in small postcards, build an encyclopedic Babel for his cracked memory’ and begin to reconstruct his past. The reiterated question becomes that of the relationship between mind and action, which is both a historian-actor problem and an observer-participant problem. Do one’s ‘public persona’ and social activities matter, or is what matters the life of the mind?

When the colonel is photographed, there’s an artificial quality to it, and he ‘seems to assume the posture of a dandy posing for the posterity of a futuristic camera.’ What is the line between truth and the public appearance of truth? And at what point do impressions cease to matter and give way to the story told about them afterward, reducing people to their appearances? At one point the colonel writes a postcard to his character Maximiliano:

You know, Maximiliano, that this Ronald Reagan, man of a thousand facets and a dapper walk, illustrious president of the United States, had the most interesting job before he found success as an actor: he was an announcer for American football games. The strange thing, the magnificent thing, Maximilianoand here is the point of this anecdoteis that this future president didn’t watch what he was narrating: he simply received bits of information, strung like rosary beads, whose whole he never saw, loose bits of information about a spectacle he didn’t see, but whose tone he imagined in a kind of blind broadcasting. Our project is a bit like that. Broadcasting for an age without witnesses, a kind of blind narration of this dance of crazies. So, learn to tell without seeing.

An obvious displacement exists everywhere, between mind and behavior, event and interpretation, fact and memory. A constant slight sense of slippage suggests the colonel has not quite been in the right place at the right time. ‘At times we feel that Vertigos of the Century is a kind of blueprint of the colonel’s true heroic attempts,’ writes the narrator. ‘At times we feel that our hero arrived late to the epic of his age. He was there — in the Mexico of the twenties, in the Spanish Civil War, in the Second World War, at Woodstock and Vietnam — but always a little before or a little after, a little out of time and place.’

*

Although he is the only character, in a sense the colonel is still in good company. He imagines a cast of other beings, his ‘divas’. These include a female artist named Chana Abramov, an anarchist named Vladimir Vostokov battling technological modernity, and a man named Maximiliano Cienfuegos (recalling the monarch of the Second Mexican Empire Maximilian I and the Cuban revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos) who gets involved in revolutionary political activity. For the colonel, reason is not the opposite of imagination; it is what gives fuel to his invented images. His ‘great work’ is mirrored in the minor endeavors of various characters, such as Maximiliano’s ‘Diatribe Against Useful Efforts: A Thesis Against Work in the Practical Age’, critiquing useful work. The colonel himself maintaining pages of notes that link seemingly disparate concepts, such as ‘an entry about tightropes and history, about risks and politics’.

If a grenade is thrown, it will only ever be symbolic. Anecdotes of retreat transform into anecdotes of obsession, as in Chana’s obsessive and repetitive painting of ‘the same landscape of a volcano that little by little, with the fading of memory, became simpler and simpler, less figurative and more abstract, and that went from being the recognizable volcano of her Mexican years to a collection of sparse green dots on a terribly white canvas, in a kind of catastrophe of the image from which only the color was salvaged in a posthumous ruin’. Reading is a way to remain silent, and here silence is preferred over action. ‘One must carry entropy to the edge of the possible, play with absolute equilibrium, and only then finally act: entering the panorama with a totalizing gesture,’ writes the colonel. ‘They are wrong, those who believe that a man who speaks is more worthy than the one who stays silent. It is a simple matter of not really doing anything, of concentrating one’s energies for a future moment in which the being is fully expressed.’

The spiraling involutions of the colonel’s thoughts are drawn with great complexity, as well as sympathy. Action is difficult, but so is thinking, and mental life is seen to be very rich. The colonel finds delight in unexpected and complex new forms, such as the ‘pleasure of bewilderment’ and ‘transverse pleasures’, which connect elements across time. The distancing method is appropriate for Fonseca’s mission to transcend local references and do something other than simply describe reality. The colonel wants to think in a way that isn’t limited to a single place or even time, as the small lives of humans are part of much bigger processes: ‘The real work happens on a different plane and a different scale. Take genetics: Man takes pains to sculpt his health, his face, his body on a human scale, though he has a legacy from long before chiseled by millions of years… The true Copernican Revolution would consist of our realizing that human ability can do little against nature… I’ve said it to Maximiliano: life is not made to the scale of man, but rather to the scale of these white mountains.’

The concerns mirror those of their young author. Fonseca, who published the original novel in Spanish last year with Anagrama, was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Costa Rica, studied at Princeton and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge. The alternate ambition and futility of the mathematician’s ‘project’ at times resembles a doctoral thesis. Fonseca is intelligent and well read, and his book very much reflects the modern(-ist) condition of a jet-lagged, on-the-go, post-national and post-temporal world, in which anyone could theoretically travel anywhere, even if they would prefer to stay in one place and think deeply into a single subject. ;Intelligence’, always been a nebulous concept, here comes to mean the ability to forge links or connect disparate concepts into a narrative.

Displacement is the situation of the writer, who tends to note or interpret rather than act, and this story of a man who isolates himself on a mountain with his memories is an analogue to the trajectory of not just 20th century history, but also 20th century literature. The lines between ‘Latin American’ and ‘non-Latin American’ literature have broken down in meaningful ways, and the question of whether identity based on geographical location even makes sense is a serious one. Writers like Fonseca, living abroad and writing with influences from US, UK and French literature, clearly have a sense of identity that goes beyond the place where they were born. This can often push a text toward abstraction and wordplay, making the result a fascinating linguistic Molotov cocktail, but also generate a literary self-anxiety, a concern with being an observer outside of events.

*

Observation can be fun, in some circumstances. Two of the most fascinating and magical childhood toys are the stereogram (usually called the ‘Magic Eye’) and the kaleidoscope. Both play with perception, with a key difference. With the stereogram, you have to stare at a repeating field of patterns until, in a brilliant moment of intuition, a three-dimensional shape reveals itself to you. With the kaleidoscope, on the other hand, you look into the eyehole of a mirror-filled cylinder, which you turn. Images are likewise revealed, but in a succession, one after the other, never repeating. These two toys might be used to compare the trajectories of Fonseca and his teacher, the Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia, author of Respiración artificial, Prisión perpetua, Plata quemada, La ciudad ausente and other classics of contemporary literature.

Last year Fonseca wrote an essay on Piglia’s Antología personal for the Mexican magazine Horizontal, arguuing that for Piglia, reading is a utopic activity and political gesture. The world offers up a certain image, and reading gives it a new form. Everything that occurs seems random, but is really a code, and reading is a form of cryptonomics, a way of deciphering it. Piglia, he notes, compares his own work to a stereogram, which can reveal an unknown dimension. Through literature, the world is seen with not an innocent but a playful and mischievous eye, and this dimension is potentially political, as ‘seeing’ differently can disrupt the causal logic of pragmatic capitalism and draw out a sense different from common sense.

Piglia’s work in some sense responds to the challenge of social realism, with its demand that literature reflect reality. His writing argued just the opposite, that literature should operate on reality. A recurring image in his work is his personal rewriting of Borges’ Aleph, in the project of ‘a photographer who from his house in the neighborhood of Flores, dedicates his days to imagining an impossible project: a replica so exact of the city of Buenos Aires that, far from being the mere representation of urban life, it becomes its secret cause’. The miniature world seeks to alter the real world; the stereogrammed image can alter reality.

The opposition between social realism and metafiction was a real one when Piglia began writing. Now, though, it seems the literary landscape of even what we call ‘metafiction’ has segmented, with the line between fiction and non-fiction breaking down. Some writers pursue metafiction by making their own lives into essays with an unstable narrator or altered details, drawing on but subverting the realist approach of using real life as the material for fiction. Fonseca takes the opposite tack, still working within metafiction but drawing from the Piglia (and Borges)-inspired position that literature can alter life, even if this position has by now also become self-conscious and uneasy with itself.

What happens when life-inspired fiction goes on to alter life, for better or worse? A pseudonym or altered version of oneself is no longer avant-garde or scandalous, and is not necessarily an angled way into a single true identity, but the creation of an entirely different possible self. Without the belief the image produced by playful new self-creations will lead to a definitive image, the stereogram can become a kaleidoscope. ‘Verbal kaleidoscope’ is a phrase found in Piglia’s blurb on the back of Fonseca’s book. Like all quasi-marketing material, this image is not perhaps meant to be read with undue seriousness. But it offers a way into understanding how Fonseca departs from his teacher, as well as the challenge faced by a new generation.

While a stereogram is a way of offering a perspective, at least it retains a certain solidity, a single solution. A kaleidoscope, on the other hand, is infinitely unreliable. Words turn ever inward, yet the meaning they seek remains forever elusive. Will the colonel’s “divas” help him discover the one true formula? Or will these identities simply proliferate meaninglessly? If a faith in political commitment (or something else) is missing, what ‘Magic Eye’ image can one hope will emerge? This is also a question for Fonseca and others — at what point does a multiplication of anecdotes transform into the unified vision of a book? Does this have to do with the sequencing and feedback loops of how it is assembled? I remember something Gabriel Jospovici said in an interview once, talking about Infinity, The Story of a Moment: ‘I at any rate dream of making a work that is like some complicated toy you can dismantle and put together again, and that is always not just more than the sum of its parts, but in a different dimension.’

*

Whether out of the necessity of his position living abroad or his personality, Fonseca has turned to this particular way of writing, and in doing so is discovering a new strangeness and complexity to history. Colonel Lágrimas suggests that perhaps there is a way to understand history that distances itself from direct representation of the past to better understand it, capturing how memory and imagination saturate the texture of the historical fabric in complicated ways.

Fonseca’s Cambridge PhD dissertation, ‘States of Nature: Catastrophe, History and the Reconstruction of Spanish America’, explored the emergence of catastrophic representations of history within the transatlantic historiography of the so-called ‘Age of Revolutions’ which marked the collapse of the Spanish Empire, as well as the subsequent foundation of the Latin American nation-states. One might similarly think of the behavior of a kaleidoscope as the behavior of a disaster. One image becomes another, and then another, and then another, unpredictably. There is no state of nature, only infinite change. In this situation, words become even more important, for as in situations of unstable reality, the most convincing idea wins and shapes the reality around it. In the phrase of J L Austin (an Oxford man), the question becomes ‘how to do things with words’, how to use language to shape actions in the world. Literature doesn’t just reflect reality, but can operate on it in indirect but real ways.

At some point we get a glimpse of the colonel’s shelf: a Mexican translation of A Thousand and One Nights, the Islamic eschatology of Kitab-al-Miraj, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Cicero’s De Inventione, Quintiliano’s Institutio Oratorio, Mao Zedong, Simon Bolívar, Joris-Karl Huysman’s À rebours, an edition of Tristam Shandy, and Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet are all there, among others. These influences inform Fonseca’s book, which in various places also seems his personal homage to other writers, from Thomas Bernhard (Correction), to Gabriel García Márquez (No One Writes to the Colonel), to the lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (there’s a description of the colonel in short pants in the middle of a Swiss river, holding a butterfly net to catch specimens for arrangement in his private collection). There’s a dark comic element too, along the lines of some works by António Lobo Antunes, or Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis in Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas.

Colonel Lágrimas forms part of this line of works that turns to non-chronological, non-systematic fragmentation to transcend local references and anthropological approaches, and incorporates the complexities of the imagination. The colonel isn’t just an antiquarian, but a historian in a new and full sense. At the beginning of the 21st century, as we attempt to understand our past and present in an increasingly technological age, the portrayal of his confusions seems illuminating.

Here we reach a final quandary. The more beautiful the telling, the more likely a story will be received as true. Truth and aesthetics, the question of whether a theory is accepted because it proves something real or because it has a certain allure, threaten to become synonyms throughout the project. Fact and fiction are intertwined, so that history becomes a myth, a cipher, a colorful geode. In the middle of the Amazon jungle in 1824, the colonel notes, Johann Moritz Rugendas picks a rock off the ground. In it he sees ‘the strata of a past time, history turned pure geometry, and thinks: it was with this rock that Cain killed Abel’.

The distillation of various ingredients into a single potion of meaning and beauty may sound like magic, and there is a sort of alchemy at work here. Not only does Grothendieck think of his work as a charm or amulet, an enchantment, he literally turns to magical explanations in his efforts to understand history, realizing historiography is simply another kind of magic. His various works of reference include the Spiegel der Kunst und Natur (Mirror of Art and Nature), written by Stephan Michelspacher in 1614, and the Natural System of Colours, written by Mary Gartside in 1766, outlining a theory that ‘construes the color palette in a way that never ceases to seem magical’.

This magic can mean a sense of wonder, a replacement of certainty with stardust, a questioning of linear chronology, a disintegration of time into rearrangeable quantum units. Reading Fonseca, and writers like him, we find ourselves in a world that is not our familiar old sphere, but the y = 1/x equation of a hyperbola, as in Christopher Priest’s novel The Inverted World. No simple narrative is offered to us. But the kaleidoscopic proliferation of visions investigates all the ways the intellect can get tied up in silk knots, while eluding the merely erudite. Colonel Lágrimas is a book you can read multiple times, and each time discover new meanings, new rays of interpretation radiating from the anecdotes. The seductive danger of such a tale is that the reader too is caught up in trying to assess and decipher the damage.

The formula
(after Carlos Fonseca)

Bivouacked in a cave on Pic Maudit, he tries to find the equation. He wants to find the expression that captures all of himself, the century, the landscape around. He sets about piling up stones, arranging them loosely but with purpose, paying close attention to the small gaps between them. Apocrypha is what the stones are, anecdotes whose meaning no one quite understands, lucidly told but lacking that indefinable thing that makes you say, yes, this one here, this is the formula. In truth, finding the formula isn’t the hard thing. Recognizing it as the formula is what’s difficult, since likely it will arrive in the form of metaphor. He writes potential formulas in black with felt tip pen, paints a stone blue, writes a single line on the surface of another. What if I’d been a father? He scrapes a third all day with a piece of raw leather, the syncopated sound of stone on stone suggesting he’s getting closer to something, ever closer  —  but no, more stones. On one, he writes What if I’d been a mother an animal a plant a wire a cable a different person. On another, Inconnue, résistance! The piled up stones accompany him as he putters about the ledge. He picks up his canteen. Moving toward the pebbles, he lets the canteen tip as an executioner would drop a hatchet, without emotion, love, hatred. The water falls over the rocks, and as it trickles down he wonders if it has to fall that way, if there’s any freedom in that falling. Compelled by its own cascade, the water glazes the stones, clarity. The formula might appear if the water never stopped running, he thinks. If it kept trickling through for infinity, maybe all his meaningless scribbles would be washed away, so the hidden message in the stones could emerge. Something clean and simple, something that explained everything…

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator born in California, at home in Buenos Aires. @jess_sequeira

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 8th, 2016.