Colonel Lágrimas (excerpt) — Carlos Fonseca (Megan McDowell trans.)

And just like that, in the middle of a hallucinatory French winter, the colonel opens the door one day and finds himself face to face with a now-old woman, creases around her eyes marking them with character. And he, who always suffered that strange illness with an even stranger name, prosopagnosia, which renders him unable to recognize people and plays at making known faces anonymous, he, who always had problems recognizing reality without abstractions, stood in front of her, looked at the now-visible wrinkles, thought about that strange amalgam of shapes that concentrated around the eyes—a kind of barbed wire for memory—and he imagined himself tracing the equation of his madness. His mother’s face emerged, recognizable and aged, speaking a language he’d forgotten years before. Yes, reality descends upon the colonel for moments at a time, rosary beads whose existence he only senses. Now that we can get close to his papers again, riffle through them with eagle eyes, we can distinguish—in among the doodles with which the colonel adorns his papers—one that captures our attention and returns to us the aged image of Chana Abramov. It’s a kind of continuous spiral, a figment of barbed wire with sharp, dense points, a kind of tangled piety:


The colonel’s passion is a bit like that: a line of barbed wires on which a pigeon suddenly comes to land. It’s a strange form of piety that his prudent fragility displays, constantly doubling back on itself until it tangles and trips up. As now, when, unable to cut the umbilical cord of this penultimate diva, the colonel surrenders to the water, the simplest of pleasures. Relief of the waterfall in the middle of the jungle, of the postcard landscape that surrounds him. The colonel’s hymns take him back to his most comfortable childhood over which, nonetheless, was spread an elusive unease. Ombligo, belly button, Пуп, טבור—the colonel tried to deny his most fundamental scar, his navel; he managed to depict himself as anonymous and disinherited, but his origin seems to surround him on all sides in hallucinatory spirals that refuse to halt their peregrination. In what language should we narrate the twists and turns of his monastic decision? And looking at the barbs, those points that seem to imitate small astral explosions, we remember Chana Abramov’s narrowed eyes, the discrepancy between the jumble of wrinkles gathered around them and the volatility of her formidable contemporaneity, the way she rose from her long stupor eager to participate in a story that was escaping her. She who, without even knowing where she’d found the address, stood outside her son’s house one day, eager to retake what had been hers, eager to reclaim her inheritance if not for one small detail: that making it through the war had returned her to her childhood, when her only language was the Russian of her infancy. So there they were, she and him, mother and son, seated across from each other in a room full of black chalkboards, with an abyss of language yawning between them. She who had forgotten everything except Russian, who had finally managed to forget the volcano that haunted her for so many years, she who had escaped from her madness with a light burden—just a little book of aphorisms and a frightful activist impulse. We traverse the life of this Chana Abramov as one traverses barbed wire, or the rubble of a minefield, always expecting to find the mine that will explode and swallow us all in an instant. Everything except the leisure with which the colonel now sings in his French bathroom, surrendered to a happiness that tangles until it explodes in little fireworks, heirs of the barbed wire the war caged his loved ones in.


One day, his mother knocks at the door as if she’d never left, greets him effusively, and sits down on the sofa to rest from her wartime insomnia. Her son—already a little colonel in the making, a mathematician with his genius on full boil, surrounded by puppets with disparate faces—looks disconcertedly at this woman with her curly hair and profound gaze who now starts to speak in a language he’d sworn to forget, that language of lullabies that suddenly takes him back to the minefields of a Basque countryside. Chana Abramov got up from her wartime trance with an aphasia that returns her to childhood. She wakes up one day speaking only Russian. He, who’d always believed himself to have no heritage, suddenly finds himself with this mother sitting in his living room, speaking a language he forgot through the force of his conviction, ready to reinsert herself in that century with a main event, a war in which her people were the victims, that she didn’t live through, locked up as she was in a Spanish sanitarium. He looks at her again and again until her face becomes terribly recognizable, a silhouette of a childhood memory, and he merely sketches out, on a black chalkboard, the first of the doodles that over the years he will modify unconsciously until he ends up with that barbed wire whose equation he pursues. He draws that doodle and he sits down to continue his mathematical work, until one day he goes home and in the middle of that house that already had something of the symbolic laboratory about it—stuffed as it was with black chalkboards covered in the most diverse and illegible equations—he finds his mother watching TV. Let us imagine the surprise and anxiety of this warless colonel the moment he finds his mother, whom he’d believed lost, in the middle of his living room with that strange apparatus switched on, watching a documentary on the very French May whose existence he willfully ignored. Suddenly, the image assaulted him with a power he would later document in the postcards: his mother surrounded by black chalkboards, watching a documentary about May of 1968 in France, with images of the French people—students and workers—protesting in the middle of the street, the walls covered in phrases that always struck him as silly or naive, the police trying to break up the crowds. His mother, who didn’t even speak French, wearing the childish look of an actress in repose, watching the torrent of images that now fell over the screen in the most refreshing visual cascade. Now no longer the French streets, but the posters carried by Americans on strike, the police in California arresting a group of students dressed in their hippie clothes. Even further, no longer the French May, but a Mexican October dressed in Olympic hopes that the policemen pounce on, attacking a protest group: the Tlatelolco massacre there on the screen. The chalkboards full of symbols replaced by this kind of historical madness that refuses to be translated into a single equation. It must have been then, looking at his mother’s face as it regained the youthful aura of her acting years, when the colonel decided to choose war. Perhaps it was then, with images of Mexican violence inundating the peace of his home, that he gave in to the project that some months later would place him in Vietnam among a group of hippie activists, in a photograph where he hides behind the digressions of another, guerrilla, passion:


At that time, there was neither equation nor guilt, much less the equation of guilt. There was only his mother, who had come back just when everything seemed to be falling into place, his mother who returned ready to reclaim the years she’d lost to painting the same volcano. So many years protecting himself from reality by means of successive symbolic layers, and then to have reality suddenly explode in his face with the force of the simplest gesture: his mother’s hand turning on the TV every day and surrounding him with news on all sides, encroaching on his numerical solitude until he was perpetually distracted. All that news of war he seemed to miss, on a map that he’d never imagined until he saw it on TV, and it returned him to the nomadism of his now-buried childhood. The colonel was never even aware of his wandering route, not until he saw himself reflected in the circuits of an invisible war that seemed to be his, but was not.


Carlos Fonseca Suárez was born in Costa Rica in 1987 and grew up in Puerto Rico. His work has appeared in publications including The Guardian, BOMB, The White Review and Asymptote. He currently teaches at the University of Cambridge and lives in London.

Megan McDowell has translated many modern and contemporary South American authors, including Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, Álvaro Bisama, and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and VICE, among others.

Colonel Lágrimas is published by Restless Books.