Origins Again

Carlos Fonseca, trans. Megan McDowell, Natural History: A Novel

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320pp, $27.00, ISBN 9780374216306

reviewed by Luke Warde

For all its experimental features, Carlos Fonseca’s Natural History, which follows his ambitious 2016 debut, Colonel Lágrimas, feels eminently familiar. The influence of a range of other innovators — Bolaño, Borges, Calvino, Perec, Piglia, Krasznahorkai, to name only a few — is page after page in evidence. Yet the presence of one writer in particular, W.G. Sebald, looms largest. Fonseca has stated in interviews his specific debt to the late German melancholic, and Natural History is Sebaldian in both form and content: the reader is confronted by the prolix ruminations of a narrator who nevertheless remains stubbornly elusive; these ruminations revolve around themes of memory, beauty, truth, narrative, violence and death. The inheritance is even more explicit in Fonseca’s use of in-text photographs, which Sebald didn’t quite pioneer (Roland Barthes, Javier Marías and Geoff Dyer got there first) but certainly helped to popularise.

I doubt Fonseca would be concerned by the insinuation of some lack of originality here. Indeed, the question of originality and its very possibility is posed at the novel’s outset. Musing on his ‘strange obsession’ with the idea of beginnings, the narrator admits adopting the ‘corny but efficient’ message from ‘an old painter he used to watch on TV as a boy’: that ‘the best way to avoid a new beginning was by imitating one that had come before.’ For him, life itself is a matter of imitation: a continuous cascade of reminiscence and recognition prompted by our encounter with an infinitely complex and ramifying world. Nothing emerges ex nihilo. As he puts it, pondering what initially appeared ‘one more insipid painting among other bland portraits’ at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum: ‘looked at more carefully, the painting began to take on a certain density.’

To what extent does he have control over this process? This seems to be the issue that Fonseca wants to get at. Everything seems to resemble something else already encountered, but the veracity of what the narrator is being reminded of is usually in doubt. Is this chronic déjà vu him (mis)remembering or even hallucinating? He’s buffeted by waves of suggestion that bubble up before him, promising some deeper self-knowledge; and insomuch as these experiences are involuntary, the effect is distinctly Proustian. Should he – and we – understand these as aberrations to be resisted? Perhaps not: ‘I had recently stopped taking anxiety pills, and sometimes my reality seemed to jump a little. Nothing strange, no hallucinations or anything like that, just little slipups of perception that seemed more like calls to lucidity than anything else.’ Maybe these ‘slipups’ clarify more than they obscure?

All this probably makes Natural History sound more plotless than it in fact is; the book does have a plot, albeit an eccentric one. We follow an insomniac curator and former academic whose monograph on tropical butterflies and a curious geometric pattern, the quincunx, is spotted by noted fashion designer, Giovanna Luxembourg (a pseudonym, of course), who invites him to collaborate with her on an exhibition. The enigmatic, dissembling Giovanna, like the nameless narrator whose expertise she solicits, is fascinated by the phenomenon of camouflage, especially in the non-human world. The exhibition as she envisages it will consist of models strutting the catwalk in darkness, either naked, bedecked with animal-inspired camouflage or masked like Mexican Zapatista Insurgents (make of that what you will). Giovanna dies before the exhibition ever takes place and we are introduced to her collaborator seven years later, after he has just received a manila folder containing what we understand to be the remnants of their aborted project. Initially hesitant to open this pandora’s box, the first section of Natural History is propelled by the narrator’s recollections of his peculiar relationship with Giovanna. In particular, he becomes preoccupied with the patchy details of her childhood — origins again. Indulging his penchant for imagining the lives of others, our curator speculates, often wildly. Soon he realises the package of documents vouchsafed him contains clues regarding Giovanna’s mysterious background. The search begins.

From this springboard emerges a kind of anti-Bildungsroman. Rather than describing an individual’s journey towards some stable, consolidated identity, Natural History gives us the opposite: characters fleeing definition, seeking out hybridity; enigmas whose camouflage is embraced and never shed. One of the more successful aspects of Fonseca’s novel is how we as readers are drawn into the intrigue; as in Sebald’s novels, we get enrolled in precisely the kind of dubious search our nameless curator is engaged in. We’re invited to read as clues for our own purposes — who is he? — the narrator’s comments on his subject of decipherment, Giovanna:

she had that allegorical and epigrammatic way of speaking, as if she were leaving clues that one would have to think about later. . . as if it were all going to take on meaning in retrospect . . . understanding would come only at the very end.

Significantly, the sense that the comforts of closure will never come isn’t weaponised against the reader, as in Kafka’s brilliantly infuriating parables. Rather, would-be frustration is offset by the book’s general whimsy. Here, Fonseca parts ways with Sebald.

Natural History is a mixed bag. The formal ambition is impressive and the prose at times superb (translator Megan McDowell has done an excellent job rendering Fonseca’s circumlocutions): seen from New Jersey, New York is described as a ‘beautiful catastrophe of lights’, a ‘canvas full of tiny points that shiver like stars’; elsewhere the narrator imagines being surrounded by ‘the taciturn solidarity of the color white’ in the polar regions. In addition, the book is tremendously erudite, its frame of reference encompassing aesthetics, botany, zoology, anthropology, photography, cartography, Latin American politics, spirituality and chess, among other subjects.

But these strengths are also, to a great extent, sources of weakness. Instances of intelligent commentary are in general outnumbered by myriad moments of what we might call mere cleverness. As we read further these accumulate, and Natural History starts to come across as a bit too enamoured of its own conceits. Ultimately, the impression we get is of bold ideas in search of a compliant form, something which the novel, at least as constructed by Fonseca on this occasion, fails to adequately provide.

Luke Warde is a doctoral candidate in French at the University of Cambridge, working on the politics of humour and the rhetoric of provocation in modern French literary culture. He is also books editor at Totally Dublin.