“In a world where routine has become the norm, only the eccentrics can really see”: An Interview with author Carlos Fonseca — Silvia Rothlisberger

Carlos Fonseca’s second novel, Natural History (translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell), is woven around multiple stories: fiction is the core story that branches out to real historical people and events, sending the readers in different directions. A polyphony of styles sets the tone of a novel that, similarly to Fonseca’s debut Colonel Lágrimas (translated by Megan McDowell, 2017), focuses on archives, eccentric characters, totalizing theories and history. Born in Costa Rica in 1987, Fonseca was raised in Puerto Rico and now lives between London and Cambridge, where he is a lecturer in Latin American Literature and Culture at Trinity College. He is a writer who sketches a global narrative while thinking of Latin America as it fits within the globalised world in which we live.

I talked with Fonseca about his latest book Natural History and the way he illustrates the relationship of the Western World with Latin America: how the West sees Latin America as a utopic land and, through this desire, has made of Latin America a broken mirror of Western culture.

There is a quote in your novel Natural History that says ‘the novels of the future will be something like this: illustrated almanacs, enormous catalogues, curiosity cabinets of which the authors, mere copyists, write commentaries’. This quote resonates with what your novel is; was Natural History written under this concept?

Back in the day, the old renaissance natural historians had the wonderful idea of building rooms for the collection of objects they brought from faraway lands: they called them cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammer, which literally means wonder rooms. I think we novelists do something similar: we collect the stories that fascinate us and begin to imagine what the intrinsic connections between them could be. We are, at the end of the day, collectors, guided by both wonder and amazement. I think it was W.G. Sebald who brought the novel closer to this model and who showed us that literature could also be marginalia: an elegant commentary to our fascinations. 

I think Natural History, as the name suggests, takes the cabinet of curiosities as one of its possible models. It also tries, as you say, to show how history is already a dreamlike setting that works at the very limit of fiction. Many of the characters, events and settings it refers to are real – the David Tower in Venezuela, Subcomandante Marcos in México, the role of camouflage in the First World War, among others. I think the question is: how to use history without falling back into the old, rusty historical novel? History, at the end of the day, is our biggest fiction or, at least, our greatest story.

Natural History has different genres throughout each of its five parts, the layout of the book evoking files from an archive; in the first and last parts the text is accompanied by photos – like in a newspaper. There is also a detective element to the story: clues left here and there a feeling of suspense. Tell me about the role of the photos and the different styles in the book?

At its very heart, Natural History is a novel about mimicry: about the possibility of dissemblance inherent to animal mimicry, about the nature of camouflage and subterfuge. In that sense, it follows a crucial insight: style is never something independently established, but rather something we define in our relation to others. Just as the chameleon adopts its identity from its surroundings, in Natural History, I attempt to dissolve what is often called the author’s voice. Instead, I filter that voice through the voices or styles of authors that have inspired me. I like this idea of finding oneself through the other. It helps us counterbalance the highly solipsistic society we live in.

With regards to photography, what I can say is that in a way the novel revolves around an absent photograph: the photograph the father, who happens to be a professional photographer, takes of the mother and the daughter once they reach the end of their journey in the jungle. I like photography because it is an art of negatives, an art that shows us the other side of things. And I like also the idea that photography is an art of revelation, where the past meets the present. An art of inheritance within a novel that ultimately deals with what it means to carry a legacy.

Identity is an important element in the book, all the members of the family on which the story centres change their names and want to live in anonymity, one of them has multiple identities. We never learn the name of the main narrator; the reader is trying to discover who each person really is. How did you conceive identity in Natural History, what are the characters looking for or trying to hide?

Yes, now that I think about it, within a world that is increasingly becoming centred around the debate concerning identities, Natural History is a novel that stresses anonymity. Each of its characters tries to disappear, or at least tries to redefine themselves through different means. What that shows is that identity is never something fixed, but rather something malleable, and that the quest for identity is always long. I think each of the characters is trying to make sense of an event: they are all trying to figure out, through different art forms, what happened during that trip they took in 1978 through the Latin American jungle. They are trying to define themselves with regards to that instant that seems to elude them.  I like that you dreamt about the book. I think the novel works at the very limit between reality and dream, and that it is at that level that we must understand also the relationship it establishes between reality and fiction. Joyce’s phrase – “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – might as well have been one of its epigraphs.

In Natural History you describe the obsession with Latin American politics from Europeans as a cliché. The characters travel to the jungle in South America looking for an anarchist commune but when they arrive, they meet ‘a ruinous nature brimming with garbage’, ‘a mirror image of western misery’. One of them concludes that ‘the jungle is nothing but a voyage towards the malaise of his own culture’. Can you expand on the relationship between the western world and Latin America that you describe in the book?

Talking about epigraphs, the fourth part of the novel contains one from Conrad which states: “All roads are long that lead to one’s heart’s desire.” Conrad, who knew so much about the nature of journeys and about the history of colonialism, also knew that the relationship between Europe and Latin America has always been one guided by fantasy: Europe, and the Western World in general, have often projected its desires and political fantasies upon Latin America. It was projected desire that led Columbus to sail west, it was a projection of desire that led many to search for El Dorado in South America, and it was a dream of freedom that led the Beat poets to visit Bolivia or México. Even today, tourism is a new way of projecting fantasies upon our region. More often than not, Latin America has worked as a line of flight, and as a way of escaping from the discontent of Western culture. In Natural History, I was interested in working through this tradition, which sees Latin America as a utopia that often flips into a dystopia.

Natural History is a novel about the relationship between the North and the South, and about the possibility or impossibility of a truly political relation. It asks if we can finally traverse the fantasy and begin to see the political reality of the region beyond the chimeras that have often determined it.  

How would you describe the two main characters of Natural History: the unnamed narrator – of whom we know he is from Puerto Rico, but left the island twenty years ago and hasn’t returned, he works in the museum of Natural History in New Jersey – and his friend Tancredo – a journalist who is always questioning the narrator?

As you said, this is a novel that revolves around anonymity and mimicry. As such, the unnamed narrator acts like that: he is a sort of shadow figure of the other characters, always defining himself through the story that begins to unfold as he begins his search. The narrator is an obsessive, and it is his obsession that leads him to follow the story to its very end. His friend, Tancredo, acts a bit like a sort of Sancho Panza to our Don Quixote: he jokes around with him, bringing humour to a story that would otherwise be too serious or dramatic. He acts as a sort of comic relief, while also building paranoid theories about the story that begins to envelop them.  

Most of the characters in Natural History are paranoid eccentrics. I like working with eccentric characters. I think they can see the world from a different angle, from a perspective that breaks the status quo. They are usually people with fixed ideas, obsessives that try to bridge the world of ideas and the world of passion, the world of thoughts and that of action, trying to make whole what has been shattered. In a world where routine has become the norm, only the eccentrics can really see.

Natural History has many symbols: the red leather notebooks, the puzzle game that the narrator and Giovanna build in their last encounter, the domino game that Viviana Luxembourg spends her afternoons building structures with, the chess games between Toledano and the narrator, the quincunx, the animal patterns, the underground fires. Even the shared insomnia of the characters seems to be a symbol. Can you tell me about these games, these patterns, these objects that appear throughout the book; what do they represent?

I like working with these images that work halfway between the symbolic and the concrete, between the conceptual and the emotional. I feel most comfortable in that setting. There are many ways of giving unity to a novel. The most common one is plot: we tell a story with causes and effects, and everything ties in neatly like a chain. But frankly, I often find this strategy boring and dishonest: the world is not neat, and causes and effects don’t link as gracefully as they do in realist fiction. Instead, I am more interested in novels and books that explore the true complexity of the world we live in, where everything seems to link to everything else, suggesting stories and paths that often get forgotten. The world, like Baudelaire suggested long ago, is full of correspondences. I like novels that remain faithful to this game of resonances and echoes.

Natural History gains its unity from such metaphorical echoes, from the links that are built at the level of certain symbols or ideas: the idea of mimicry and dissemblance would be one, the image of fire would be another. At the very heart of it is the idea that there might be a pattern that holds, in graceful unity, both nature and culture. That is what Thomas Browne tried to do when he suggested the five pointed structure of the quincunx as the pattern that holds the world together. A game of patterns and structures that the members of Oulipo like George Perec and Italo Calvino, two great followers of Borges, would latter take as the guiding thread for their novels.

In the novel, one of the characters, Viviana Luxembourg, infiltrates the media with false news and when caught, she goes to trial for it. Her defence is that this is her artistic expression, she mentions the Media Collective, a group of Argentine artists – Escari, Jacoby and Costa – who wanted to show through art that a non-existent occurrence could exist if the media wanted it to. In this part of the book there are two big themes: the limits between art and law, and the role fake news has in shaping society nowadays. Can you expand on this?

Nowadays, with the arrival of Trump, everyone speaks of a post-truth era as if it was something new, but already in the 1960’s a group of Argentine artists, gathered under the name Colectivo arte de los medios [Arts of the Media Collective], understood perfectly what was at stake: with their piece Happening que no Existió [Happening that didn’t occur] they showed that today the media constructs rather than reflects reality. Even in the works of a writer like Ricardo Piglia, we find references to these ideas when in his 1992 novel La ciudad ausente [The Absent City] he speaks of a journalist that would report news before it had happened. In my novel I tried to unearth this often forgotten Latin American genealogy of reflections concerning the role of media within a post-truth reality. What these artists knew even back then was that, beyond truth, what seems to matter today is the construction of public spheres of belief. It is belief that is central for us in contemporary politics. 

Natural History engages with these reflections through the character of Viviana Luxembourg who, as you say, is brought to trial, accused of having infiltrated the media with false news. At the time when I was writing the novel, a series of trials started happening that involved art: María Kodama, the widow of Jorge Luis Borges, had started suing writers for “plagiarizing” Borges. I found this fascinating: what did it mean for art, supposedly an autonomous realm, to have to defend itself in front of the law? What are the limits of art and where, and how, does one draw the line?

Now that you mention the writer Ricardo Piglia and his acclaimed novel The Absent City, in the dedicatory of Natural History you wrote: ‘To Ricardo Piglia, for his incomparable generosity’. Tell me about the impact of Piglia in your writing.  

Ricardo Piglia forced me to see literature with new eyes. And I think this is fundamentally what great authors do: they redefine how we approach texts, that is, they redefine how we read. Good authors write books. Great authors imagine new ways of reading and thinking about literature. For me, encountering the works of Ricardo Piglia meant bridging two worlds that had always fascinated but which remained distant: the world of ideas and the world of emotion. Following Borges he imagined a new brand of literature: one in which passion and thought are two sides of the same coin.

Natural History is the translation of Megan McDowell from its original in Spanish Museo Animal, what do you learn as a writer from the translation process?

Recently, In the case of Natural History, I learned a lot while working, alongside the great Megan McDowell, on the translation. We edited a lot, even changed the title, from the literal translation, Animal Museum, to Natural History. Alongside a wonderful editor, Julia Ringo, Megan also pinpointed certain moments which we could rework and rewrite. So we used translation as a way of reopening the writing process, which could be never ending. I think translators are particularly privileged readers, and writers learn a lot when they immerse themselves in the sort of detailed reading that they perform. Translation is also an ethical task: it asks that we approach the other and try to understand other cultures. In a world that increasingly feels solipsistic and narcissistic, where everyone seems to be enclosed by the bubble of identity, this seems to me a crucial ethical and political task.

Maximiliano Cienfuegos a character from your first novel Colonel Lágrimas has a brief appearance in Natural History. Is there a bridge between these two books?

I think what binds Colonel Lágrimas and Natural History are certain motifs: an emphasis on archives, idées fixes, eccentric characters, totalizing theories and history. Both of them take as their protagonists eccentrics that try to find sense in a world that sometimes seems to be too much to handle. They try to find the figure in the carpet that would make it all fit together. They also try to think how we could approach history beyond the traditional form of the historical novel.

There is a question that one of the characters of Natural History is constantly asking and I want to ask you this same question: tragedy or farce?

That is the question that bugs the narrator throughout the novel: is the story he is piecing together a tragedy or is it farce? It is a question that Tancredo, his friend, takes from Marx’s famous quote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” In this case, the question forces us to rethink the counterculture movements of the 1960’s and their political commitments. And more specifically, we are asked to reconsider the peculiar story of this family. The narrator’s journey is guided by his attempt to see their story beyond the ironic detachment that has become predominant in our times. 

Carlos Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica, and spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. In 2016, he was named one of the twenty best Latin American writers born in the 1980s at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and in 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under forty. He is the author of the novels Colonel Lágrimas and Natural History and in 2018, he won the National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica for his book of essays, La lucidez del miope. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London.

Megan McDowell has translated many of the most important Latin American writers working today, including Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra, Mariana Enriquez, and Lina Meruane. Her translations have won the English PEN award and the Premio Valle-Inclán, and been nominated four times for the International Booker Prize. Her short story translations have been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Granta, among others. In 2020 she won an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is from Richmond, KY and lives in Santiago, Chile. Twitter: ​@meganalimcd

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on literature in translation and Latin American culture. Twitter: @silviarothlis