Carlos Fonseca & The Liberated Novel

The debut author on Faulkner, Borges & the LatAm novel unbound

Carlos Fonseca’s biography is marked not only by constant territorial displacements — he was born in Costa Rica in 1987, grew up in Puerto Rico, did his studies in the United States and now lives in London — but also by the multiple literary traditions that interest him. Despite his young age, he has already accumulated a vast series of influences, ranging all the way from Latin American to European authors without eluding the United States. Reading his works, one feels the presence of voices as disparate as those of W.G. Sebald, Alexander Von Humboldt, Simón Bolívar and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Fonseca is, without a doubt, a cosmopolitan offspring of cultural globalization as well as an attentive inheritor of both literary and cultural history.

In 2015, the prestigious Spanish publisher Anagrama published his debut novel Coronel Lágrimas, a novel that was praised both by the Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia as well as by the legendary editor Jorge Herralde for its singularity, experimentation, intrigue and elegance. It couldn’t have been better described. Lágrimas is a novel inspired by the life of stateless mathematician and hermit Alexander Grothendieck. Through an attentive and rigorous attention to detail, Fonseca is able to construct a collage where the mathematician’s life finds its ultimate meaning amidst a series of series of historical, metaphysical and poetic fragments that end up giving shape to a fascinating literary artifact that shines like an eclectic mosaic.

After its extraordinary critical reception in Latin America and Spain, unusual for a debut novel, Fonseca has established himself as one of the most promising and interesting new voices of his generation.

In a typical cloudy afternoon in London — with Bloomsbury’s literary landscape as backdrop — I sat to talk with the author about the publication of the English translation of his novel, Colonel Lágrimas, which is out today from Brooklyn-based publisher Restless Books.

— Tomás Peters

Tomás Peters: From the very beginning of Colonel Lágrimas, your writing reminded me of the cinematic strategy Aleksandr Sokurov used in his movie Russian Ark, filmed in a single unedited shot. Russian Ark recounts the history of Russia through the halls of the Hermitage Museum, as well as some biographical elements from the narrator’s life and that of his companion, “the European.” There is something similar in your novel. Throughout the book, there is a narrator and a historical character who, without ever encountering each other, traverse historical events, emotional fallouts, and biographical details. How did you come up with such a narrative (and film-like) strategy of this kind?

Carlos Fonseca: I guess I imagined the novel sort of as the story of a man — the colonel — situated at a point in time that some have called the end of history. One could say that the museum is the backdrop to the historical logic of this end-of-time. In other words, I think that nowadays, history runs the risk of becoming like a large museum, whose halls exhibit an enormous archive of what has ensued, but within which it is impossible for something new to happen. Inside of the museum, so to speak, happenings are forbidden. In Colonel Lágrimas, I tried to portray both the allure and danger of that final museum, the dead end that characterizes our current era of information decadence. Like Borges, like Bouvard and Pécuchet, the colonel is a man trapped inside a labyrinth of information: a labyrinth that leads to the indiscriminate and pleasurable consumption of data. In that sense, I like your comparison to Sokurov’s Russian Ark, a movie that I loved when I saw it. I think in both cases there is an attempt to rethink and critique the ways in which we currently live the past. In my novel, the cinematic prose is also related to another fiction that has permeated modern society: the reality show. The false perception that we see everything in the present, from a privileged perch from which we can issue a moral judgment of the characters. I like to think that the novel works, to a certain extent, like a reality show about the private world of an old Borgesian protagonist, who is unable to act. If there is politics in the novel, it would be there, in the way that the novel critiques his passiveness and inaction.

TP: I think Colonel Lágrimas is a novel that showcases the craft of writing. Throughout its pages, it becomes apparent that its writerly resources are managed with a certain fluency and experimentation but, at the same time, with notable confidence. Considering that this is your first novel, do you think that you managed this narrative technique as part of your professional craft or did the story itself demand this sort of writerly treatment?

CF: I have always believed that literature is something that occurs primarily in the act of writing. When Faulkner sat down, in The Sound and the Fury or in As I Lay Dying, to narrate the same event from multiple different perspectives, he did so, in my understanding, with the full conviction that writing is everything: the event cannot take shape if the narrator does not describe it. In that sense, I like novels that deal with tricky environments, stories that stay away from predefined formats and in that sense force us to rethink the way we write. It is not a matter, of course, of beautiful storytelling. On the contrary, it’s a matter of twisting the rote usages of words until they become malleable enough for what you want to narrate. In that sense, I believe that biographies are woven around that malleable fiction that we call a private life.

TP: How do you take on the craft of writing in the literary context of Latin America, which is so full of biographical stories?

CF: When I was writing Colonel Lágrimas, I was conscious of this issue regarding biographical novels or novels of self-fiction, as they call them nowadays. The colonel is, ultimately, a man that sits down one day to tell the story of his life. From the very beginning, the question was: What does it mean to chronicle a life? What does it mean to narrate a biography beyond merely giving an account of what has happened to someone? There are as many lives as ways to narrate them. This idea tortures the colonel, forcing him to rewrite his private life in an attempt to restructure what has happened and what could have happened.

On the other hand, I have a friend who tells me, half in jest, that the novel is really autobiographical, that I am the colonel. Even though I find that take on the novel absurd, I like it a lot, because it forces me to think.

TP: It seems today as though the accumulation and cataloguing of historical archives and fragments has become an obsession of our age. In Colonel Lágrimas, without giving too much away, this is quite evident. Essentially, the historical remnants shape a story in which the recollections and secrets of the colonel — a character inspired by the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck — and the universal history intermingle. What do the figures of archives and memory mean to you?

CF: I could not agree more. As I see it, we see three decisive literary figures at the turn of the twenty-first century, whose novels provide different aesthetic responses to these questions: Roberto Bolaño, W.G. Sebald, and David Foster Wallace. All three, of course, were ardent fans of Borges. And all three died relatively young. I think we are now in an age where archival fiction enjoys the particularity of not being intruded upon by memory. In other words, if ten, or fifteen, years ago, archives were mediated by the subjective voice of testimony, marked by the memory of witnesses, nowadays, it seems like archives appear simply as they are: in their pure embodiment, with neither support nor intrusion. The aesthetic gesture would therefore consist of the arrangement, cataloging, and exhibition of the archive. This is not, however, something new. It is something we have inherited from the historical avant-garde and its ready-mades, its collages, its cut-ups. If there is politics in our archival fiction, it is related to the way in which nowadays, we are rethinking the logic of assembly and framing. In this sense, our task therefore has a great deal in common with Pierre Menard’s absurd odyssey. We owe everything to Duchamp.

Our task therefore has a great deal in common with Pierre Menard’s absurd odyssey. We owe everything to Duchamp.

TP: A year ago, in Argentina, there was some controversy surrounding the writer Pablo Katchadjian and his book El Aleph Engordado. His case has not only sparked debate related to the literary space of Latin America — due, in part, to the legal allegation by Borges’ widow, María Kodama — but also a broader discussion pertaining to the art world in general. Essentially, Katchadjian’s gesture would seem to be a contemporary ready-made. I would like to hear what you think of this case and, concretely, ask you how Colonel Lágrimas also plays a role in the stories and works of others.

CF: I have to tread carefully here, because it seems like nobody is safe from María Kodama’s ambition. Citations, plagiarism, ready-mades: all of the resources that are the hallmark of Borges’ work set the stage for a critique of private ownership. In this sense, Kodama’s gesture is paradoxical and absurd. If we follow her logic, we would have to put Pierre Menard on trial. The whole affair seems unfortunate to me, but at the same time, fascinating. I have always been interested in moments when art goes on trial, not merely aesthetically speaking, but also legally, because it entails the breakdown of an essential distinction: that which gives a certain autonomy and freedom to art, understood as an aesthetic space beyond the legal realm. I even read that one of the witnesses who will testify on behalf of Katchadjian will be Cesar Aira. That’s incredible! The collision of two up-until-now incompatible realms of judgment: the aesthetic and the legal. I am very interested in the disconnect between these two realms. I should probably be scared to say that the character of the colonel has a lot of Borges in him, lest Kodama take offense. But it is very clear: the colonel carries the Borgesian argument to its extreme, because he sets out to tell the story of his own life by stealing anecdotes from the “story of others.” The life of the colonel therefore consists, to a certain degree, of stolen identities. If Kodama is upset because someone stole, smartly, a few lines from her ex-husband, imagine what she would say to someone who plagiarizes an entire life. Nor is that idea so new: it is exactly what the French artist Sophie Calle did for a while.

TP: Latin American literature has lost some ground internationally, but it continues to stay alive. Every year, dozens of novels–and collections of short stories–are published, both by “prestigious” and independent publishing houses. However, the space to receive these publishing efforts is increasingly diffuse. In a context of instability along the literary circuits of Latin America and among readers, what does the political-critical mean nowadays in art and literature?

CF: I think far from seeing the lack of acceptance as a problem, it would be more positive to look at it is an opportunity to change the political-critical stance. When poetry was anchored to its duty of telling stories in a memorable way, it was unable to find the autonomy necessary for the formal experiments we saw in the avant-gardes. Similarly, I think that as long as the novel was tied down, for much of the nineteenth century, to its sociological function, it was unable to achieve the autonomy necessary to lay out a political critique beyond a social critique with moralist overtones. At the end of the nineteenth century then, we see the first great liberation. The novel becomes unshackled from the need for a large audience and in so doing gains an autonomous political stance. I would like to think that something like this could happen and is happening in Latin America. Now that Latin American literature does not have to epitomize the essence of “Latin America” to foreign eyes, it can afford to try something different. It can afford, so to speak, to play with different political-critical stances that move away from the representational. In that sense, I like the word that you use: bending. To some degree, in order to fulfill its political-critical role, literature needs that bending moment, that moment when, like Melville’s character Bartleby, it manages to pull away from its immediate reality in order to have a stronger impact on it.

Now that Latin American literature does not have to epitomize the essence of “Latin America” to foreign eyes, it can afford to try something different.

TP: London, where you currently live, has not generally been known as the essential destination for Latin American writers. In the past, Paris or Barcelona were the places to be, and now it’s all about New York, Mexico City, or Berlin. As a Latin American writer educated in the United States, what does London have to offer for Latin American literature?

CF: For biographical reasons, I have always experienced some sense of dislocation. I was born in Costa Rica, but at a very young age, I moved to Puerto Rico. This displacement left an impression on me that still persists to this day. Because I was a Costa Rican in Puerto Rico and a Puerto Rican in Costa Rica, I always felt somewhat foreign wherever I went. The same happened to me when I moved to California and again in New York. However, in the United States, there is a tendency to view Latin Americans through the lens of certain stereotypes. London is completely different, in that way. Latin America does not play a preconceived role in its political or social worldview. Being from Latin America, to a Londoner, is something really strange. It’s not exactly exotic. More like being a blank page. If the poetics of Latin American minorities in the United States sometimes end up demonstrating that we are not the stereotypes they have drawn onto us, in London, the political position is something perhaps even more radical: the outline of a territory entirely unknown to them. To me, however, I like that sensation of a vacuum, that sensation of distance and abstraction that allows one to imagine traditions that might seem, from a national or continent perspective, incongruous. And of course, then you start to meet Latin American authors that, for one reason or another, have also ended up in the city.

About the Conversationalists

Tomás Peters is a cultural sociologist based in Santiago, Chile. His main areas of research include cultural studies, sociology of art, Latin American studies and cultural policy. Currently he works at the University of Chile. He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the School of Arts at Birkbeck, University of London.

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. Colonel Lágrimas is his first novel.

More Like This

Notre Dame Is Never Lost

To paraphrase Victor Hugo, the book will save the building

Apr 16 - Elyse Martin

What Science Can Learn from Constipated Dogs

"Gulliver's Travels" shows us how modern science could benefit from a little satire

Mar 21 - Andrei Smolnikov

“Faust” Was the Original Viral Content, and It’s Still Relevant Today

How a 400-year-old story keeps reinventing itself to reflect what we most want, and what we most fear

Feb 19 - Olivia Giovetti