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The Novel as Kaleidoscopic Puzzle: Carlos Fonseca’s Natural History

By Enrique D. Zattara.

Carlos Fonseca, Natural History, translated by Megan McDowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)

After Colonel Lágrimas, an impressive debut published when he was barely twenty-eight years old, the Costa Rican writer Carlos Fonseca returns now with Natural History, a radically different novel but nonetheless a book just as deserving of critical praise.

One could call Natural History a “philosophical book,” a novel that remains in dialogue, throughout its pages, with the tradition of twentieth century French philosophy, from Badiou to Derrida. The book overflows, as has become Fonseca’s trademark, with multiple stories that direct the reader in different directions, but which slowly begin to trace the contours of a recognizable conceptual phantasmagoria. From Badiou, it seems to adopt his “theory of the event” and the idea of trying to find a truth, even when the final piece of the puzzle permanently eludes us. And from Derrida, it seems to borrow the idea that every event bears the traces of a previous event, traces that work as displaced repetitions, distorted copies of an original that never gets fully actualized. As such, two main conceptual threads seem to guide the text: the first one a reflection on the notion of identity, which has always fascinated Latin American writers; and the second one about the role of art. Far from abstracting into realm of pure autonomy, art is seen here as an intrinsic part of reality itself, incapable of escaping its ethical responsibilities.

The more than three hundred pages of this highly ambitious novel could generate in itself an essay as long or even longer than the novel, but for now I would like to limit myself to the elucidation of the two main ideas that, from my perspective, guide its narrative.

“There is not art without judgement,” states Viviana Luxembourg, one of the novel’s protagonists, as she stands accused of distorting the stock markets through the dissemination of false or progressively distorted information—an act which, when forced to defend herself in trial, she claims to have imagined and executed as a work of art. Where are the frontiers and, above all, who decides between what is a work of art and what is not? Among the many artistic influences she quotes in order to legitimize her claims, she highlights some important antecedents: the 1960’s Media Art movement in Argentina, where three artists polemically tricked the press into conjuring a “happening” which had never occurred; or the famous Brancusi case, in which the Romanian sculptor successfully defended himself against the US Customs system when they wanted to tax his abstract piece Bird in Space as a kitchen utensil, on the basis that in no way did it resemble a bird, least of all a sculpture.

Viviana’s case directly plunges the reader into topics as contemporary as the rise of fake news, the theory of simulacra, and the omnipresence of mass media in the construction of our present day post-truth reality. But Fonseca goes further: what Viviana Luxembourg wants to show is that art is not an autonomous exercise, but rather something that establishes a direct dialogue with realms as distant, at first sight, as the economy and politics. This is accomplished by introducing within the novel a surprising figure: Subcomandante Marcos, the iconic Mexican guerrilla fighter whose revolutionary ideology abounds with artistic principles. This link is not arbitrary, for as we soon come to realize, Marcos—whose decision to hide behind his iconic ski mask, obscuring what Foucault would call his “civil identity,” became a staple of Latin American politics in the nineties—soon comes to synthesize the tendency of the novel’s characters towards anonymity and disguise. In 2014, Marcos even went on to announce the disappearance of his own character, assuming in turn a new identity: that of Subcomandante Galeano (adopting the identity of comrade recently fallen in battle), while pronouncing one of his most philosophical and poetic statements: “So here we are, mocking death in reality.” In a similar manner, each of the characters in this novel seems to have been reborn in one way or another. Viviana Luxembourg, the enigmatic media artist of simulacra whose trial we follow in the central part of the novel, turns out to be the missing model Virginia McAllister, diva of the beat generation, thought to have suddenly and mysteriously disappeared in the seventies alongside her husband, the Israeli photographer Yoav Toledano and their daughter.

The novel unravels the events that occurred between that disappearance and her return to society, telling a story that includes a delirious journey across a Latin American jungle not as Edenic as one would imagine, as well as Toledano’s posterior drift and the tragic destiny of their young daughter. It is the story of this estranged girl, now transformed into a successful fashion designer, that jumpstarts the plot and carries us to the ghost mining town where Toledano seems to be hiding. In Natural History, everyone seems to be, in one way or another, following Subcomandante Marcos’ poetic phrase through a game of simulations, subterfuge and anonymity. This becomes one of main themes of the novel: the labyrinthine construction of identity. A question which, beyond its philosophical complexities, brings us to one of the great themes of Latin American literature. Is there an origin, or a basis for Latin American identity? One which we could uncover by exploring the strata of its history, or could it be that this utopic essence is nothing but a myth, a simulacrum, a mere trace lost in the middle of the jungle as Derrida would suggest?

These are not the only threads by which we could take apart the skein of a history that, like a kaleidoscopic puzzle, is displayed through the five parts—and five stories—that compose this novel, a book that often reminds one of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666. We could even venture another key: there is a suggestion that certain events can produce unexpected detours in in life, sometimes modifying it completely. We are not far from the works of Alain Badiou or from Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths.” This is what happens, in fact, with all of the characters in Natural History, beginning with the narrator who finds his routine altered by the arrival of an archive that documents his unfinished collaboration with a fashion designer—a posthumous legacy that will slowly begin to shed light into the designer’s family history while providing him with a new destiny of his own. He won’t be alone in this regard. The other protagonists of this novel, which in many ways works as a conceptual detective fiction in the tradition of Ricardo Piglia or Don DeLillo, shall endure similar transformations. Not only the members of the family—Virginia, Yoav and their daughter Giovanna —but the others as well: Detective Burgos’s police career is diverted by the appearance of the enigmatic artist just as the lawyer Esquilín is when confronted with the puzzling case. Even Tancredo, the narrator’s friend, decides to go out of his way to begin to mimic the routine followed by Viviana Luxembourg. Diversions, chance encounters and crossroads propel them to imagine patterns that might uncover the figure in the carpet, as with the mathematical figure of the quincunx whose enigma sets the novel in motion.

Stories and histories, woven in time and space, present events and images that at first sight may seem to be clever inventions of the author, but which are soon revealed to be true facts around which the author has skilfully woven his fictions: an underground mine fire that has been burning for decades; an unfinished residential skyscraper converted by squatters into a world of its own at the margins of the city space; the phantom-like comings and goings of characters within a jungle that one would otherwise imagine as a virgin landscape; the Kafkaesque disputes between the limitless artistic imagination and the coarse rules of bureaucracy and the law. Even the poetic profiles of a peasant revolt. A fantastic world inscribed within this one that is nothing else but, in any case, the flipside of the world we read about in the newspapers. And that might be why it seems to have such a hallucinating quality, especially alongside the present feeling that we are living in a time when it has become impossible to separate facts, fake news, memories and illusions.

All of this is achieved through a skilful usage of language, or perhaps I should say of languages, as each of the novel’s five polyphonic sections bears traces—as conscious homage—of authors that Fonseca admires, while maintaining a rhythm that keeps us in suspense for the entire length of this singular narrative. Natural History is, then, a novel woven together through the resonance of its metaphors. In this regard, camouflage might be its final, grounding metaphor. Camouflage, that mimetic force which society uses at its own convenience, sometimes even unconsciously in ways that remit us to the heart of our very own animality and our desire for survival.

But the reader must not despair. Within this complex game of Russian dolls that Fonseca has constructed, nothing remains more fascinating and enthralling than the experience of reading it. Amidst intertextual references and philosophical winks, Natural History is above all a story that displays the power of a mighty imagination capable of transporting us to a myriad of scenarios and situations,  conveyed through entertaining and dazzling prose. Fonseca is, without a doubt, one of the great writers of a new generation that is beginning to gain a name within Hispanic literature. And from what we can see, he is far from having exhausted his creativity.

Enrique D. Zattara was born in 1954 in Argentina. He lives in London, after 25 years of living in Málaga, Spain. Journalist, writer and critics, he has published sixteen books of narrative, poetry and essays. He has been the director of four literary publications: Arte Nova y Contrapelo in Buenos Aires (in the 80s), Utopía Poética y Letras Axárquicas in Spain. He now is the editor of the cultural multimedia project El Ojo de la Cultura Hispanoameriana.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 6th, 2020.