Carlos Fonseca on Masks, Perspective, and History

An identity is nothing but a coherent life narrative weaving together separate fragments of lived experience.

Carlos Fonseca is the author of Colonel Lágrimas, first published in Spanish in 2015 by Anagrama (Barcelona) and coming out in English on 4 October from Restless Books. A British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge, Fonseca’s research interests lie in Latin American literature, philosophy, and art history, and the formal links between novels and politics, among many others. He was born in Costa Rica and grew up in Puerto Rico, but he considers himself Latin American.

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen interviewed Carlos over email about his debut novel, the people who inspired his characters, and his thoughts on identity and the evolving nature of memory. Read an excerpt of Colonel Lágrimas here.

Hanna Heiskanen (HH): Could you begin by describing your book to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Carlos Fonseca (CF): Imagine a book that works like a virtual map: you can zoom in or you can zoom out. If you zoom in, you will see the daily life of an eccentric old man who is constructing an encyclopedia of human knowledge. If you zoom out, you will see the political history of the twentieth century. Colonel Lágrimas tries to link these two narrative layers.

HH: This is your first novel—how did you get into writing fiction, and why did you want to tell this particular story?

CF: The novel sprang from two different events. The first is the moment in which a friend of mine tells me the life story of the eccentric mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, a brilliant thinker who ended up locked in his cabin in the French Pyrenees, imagining a universal theory of knowledge. The second was the moment I sat down and, influenced by the works of the American photorealist portrait painter Chuck Close, attempted to imagine what a close-up portrait of my character would “sound” like, what his voice would sound like. The moment I figured out which type of narrator I wanted, the novel’s structure became clear to me.

HH: History, its blurriness and dependence on perspective is one of the leading themes in your narrative. I understand your academic research also has to do with representations of history. How did your research seep into Colonel Lágrimas?

CF: I felt that the life of Alexander Grothendieck—upon which the character of the colonel is based—represented in some ways the history of the twentieth century: a century that began with an addiction to political action and ended up hooked on data. A century that moved from the battlefield to Wikipedia, so to speak. I wanted to explore, through the novel, this idea of contemporary history as a giant museum where the possibility of political action itself is at stake.

HH: You also write about how we can’t escape the inevitability of inheritance“walking on a tightrope” means you can only walk in one directionand whether it’s possible to change the narrative and thus the course of history.

CF: I think you are absolutely right: it is a novel about inheritance. A novel about what it means to inherit a history, a history both individual and communal. The protagonist, like Grothendieck, is the son of two left-wing anarchists and, as such, he must learn how to inherit this political tradition. In a way, I was interested in exploring the Colonel’s eccentric projects and actions as his way of appropriating the anarchist tradition from which he came. It is, indeed, a novel about the ways in which we narrate history and the consequences these narratives have upon us.

HH: I found three separate narrators in your book: the enigmatic “we”, the Colonel himself, and his adoptive son Maximiliano, who all seem to have different takes on what’s really happening in the novel.

CF: I think this particular novel is an experiment regarding the figure of the narrator. As I mentioned before, I started by writing—more as a game than anything else—the first paragraph of the novel. In this paragraph, the narrator zooms into the protagonist’s face until the reader sees him dissolve into small pixels, as if the narrator was a cinematographic camera. I think back then, when I was writing the book, I was intrigued by the idea that we live in a surveillance society where every single movement is being recorded, narrated, archived. To some extent, there are as many narrators in our world as security cameras. The story of our lives, one could say, is composed of the millions of images those cameras hold of us.

HH: In the beginning of the book, the Colonel sits down to tell three stories. Do you think he’s telling them to himself as much as he is to us?

CF: Of course! I think his idea is for the Colonel to narrate to himself his own life in a ciphered manner, like a man who writes in code. Not so much afraid of what others might think, but more afraid of what he might discover about himself if he were to tell his story in simple language. Colonel Lágrimas is a novel about the secrets we hide from ourselves and the way they become writing or art.

HH: It’s also a study of identity: an attempt to define the Colonel, to pin him down like he pins down the butterflies in his insect collection, to understand the defining core of a person.

CF: I agree. At some point in the novel the reader understands that the novel resembles a game of hide-and-seek between the narrator and the Colonel—the Colonel attempts to escape his guilt with the same passion he applies when he assumes different masks. In fact, as we read in the second chapter: “To don a mask was to refuse a destiny.” I have always been interested in the refusal of stable identities, but in this case, also at work was my fascination with the artist that was fundamental for the construction of the novel: the painter Chuck Close. Just as Close shows through his paintings that a face is nothing but discrete fragments of information, the narrator of Colonel Lágrimas shows that an identity is nothing but a coherent life narrative woven from separate fragments of lived experience.

HH: This is a painful, melancholic study of old age, failing memory, and forgetfulness. At times, I almost saw the Colonel as someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s.

CF: I wanted to portray, through the Colonel’s character, what I take to be one of the craziest paradoxes of our time: the fact that it is perhaps today, when data can be stored the most easily, that we have finally become incapable of experiencing the past in a meaningful manner. Perhaps today, when history has become a giant museum or a giant database, nobody remembers anything anymore. The birth of the memory stick marked the death of memory as experience.

HH: Some of the novel’s passages describe events taking place in the Colonel’s dreams. It made me wonder, referring back to the theme of the real and the imagined, whether they were just as factual as everything else he experiences, or claims to have experienced. It reminded me of the Australian Aboriginal dreamtime.

CF: I hadn’t heard about the Australian Aboriginal dreamtime, but now that I read about it, I like the idea a lot. I like the idea that dreams return us to a fundamental ground where fictions abound. I like thinking of the dream-world as a machine that corrodes causality and produces narratives. I will always remember a page from Nabokov, where he speaks of a series of nonsensical objects called nonons which, when placed in front of a distorted mirror, end up gaining a recognizable shape. I think the Colonel’s dreams are like these distorted mirrors: the only foreground against which the shapeless flow of his imagination can gain shape and meaning.

HH: Tell us a bit more about the Colonel’s relationship with Maximiliano.

CF: I think the Colonel’s relationship with Maximiliano mirrors the problematic relationship between Europe and Latin America. In fact, the name Maximiliano comes from the crazy story of Maximiliano, Mexico’s last Emperor, sent directly by Napoleon to conquer Mexico and help establish grounds for the expansion of his American empire. The Maximiliano of Colonel Lágrimas, however, is not a mere puppet of his European counterpart. To the contrary, he ends up disturbing the Colonel’s peace of mind to the point that by the end of the novel, I felt as if Latin America was chasing Europe to its last secure corner.

HH: You are from Costa Rica and one of your academic interests is also Latin America. Was it natural for you to set some of the book’s events there?

CF: Despite having had a cosmopolitan upbringing, I still think of myself mainly as a Latin American, and I think most of my fictions find their ultimate meaning within Latin American history. However, at the moment of writing the novel, I wanted to experiment with the idea of writing from pure data, rather than from experience. Perhaps because of that, now that I think about it, I decided to place some of the action in Mexico, rather than in Costa Rica or Puerto Rico, the two countries where I grew up. My ultimate horizon of meaning, however, will always be Latin America.

HH: At times it felt that the book was hovering between fiction and nonfiction: you featured people that are both historical and mythical figures. Why did you choose to write about the Colonel through this particular set of characters?

CF: This is very true and is perhaps one of the most delicate aspects of the novel. The novel is not a historical novel at all, despite taking as its basis the real story of Alexander Grothendieck. That’s why, I think, I decided to call the protagonist “the colonel” instead of “the mathematician”, or “Grothendieck”. I wanted to make sure I highlighted the purely fictional aspect of the novel. Rather than writing a truthful historical fiction, or a biographical epic, I was interested in understanding the fictional dimension of Alexander Grothendieck’s story.

HH: Your book is highly intertextual, and I was particularly struck by your references to Hamlet. Some of them were on the level of language (“the Colonel’s madness has order and method”), but many of the themes are also similar: relationships with parents, the essence of truth, identity, and so on. Which authors have inspired this book, directly or indirectly?

CF: I wrote the book intrigued by the ways people link information nowadays. I was interested in exploring how, today, information is no longer linked through causality but rather through the capriciousness of the reader’s personal interests. In this sense, one book that was crucial for the construction of the novel was Flaubert’s posthumous novel Bouvard and Pecuchet, where two clerks decide, one day, to build a universal, yet highly capricious encyclopedia of human knowledge. Another central author was Borges—not as much his stories as his authorial figure. To some extent the protagonist of Colonel Lágrimas is based upon Jorge Luis Borges, a man trapped between his love for knowledge and his love for life. And lastly, not to make the list long, I think the other great influence that hovers over the novel is that of the Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis and in particular his novel Epitaph of a Small Winner, a sort of Latin American version of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. I think I learned from him that in the modern novel, the narrator becomes the great protagonist.

HH: The novel’s colonel is in fact a mathematician, and the narrative regularly refers to maths. Could you tell us a bit more about this side of the book?

CF: The novel is indeed inspired by the life of the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck and the equation that appears throughout the novel is indeed a real equation belonging to Grothendieck’s work. I was interested in his work because he had attempted, in a way, to construct a universal theory, a universal language. Mathematics was, to some extent, the dream limit of the Enlightenment and what I wanted to show was its paradoxical nature: the man who dreams of thinking through the universal language ends up becoming incomprehensible to everyone except himself. Today, only a few people in the world understand his theories. That was perhaps the paradox of the Enlightenment: that at its limit, it leads us back to obscurity.

HH: You live in the UKwas it an easy decision to write in Spanish instead of English?

CF: Despite having lived abroad—in English speaking places—for more than twelve years, I still don’t feel I have the same mastery with English as I have with Spanish. In Spanish, I feel the texture of the language more acutely.

HH: You tell your story through repetitions that are like spirals whose every round reveals a bit more about the big picture. Your writing is also a fascinating mix of minimalist “oriental strokes”, as you put it, and the corporeal, even sensual, subject matter. Do you feel that this translation is very faithful to the language of the original, and did you have any role in the translation process?

CF: I am grateful to Megan McDowell for her amazing translation. I feel it really captures, as you say, the paradoxical style in which the novel is written. She produced a text that works on its own, which I think should be the aim of every translation: to give us the illusion that no translation-work has occurred and that the text we are reading is, in fact, an original.

HH: One reviewer, Miguel Ángel Hernández, wrote about the multiple narratives your book incorporates for La Opinión de Murcia: “Any of the tales that spring from this device constructed by Fonseca has the potential to become a great story”. Do you think you’ll return to them one day?

CF: I like Hernández’s idea of imagining the novel as a machine capable of producing multiple fictions. Perhaps, rather than returning to a particular story, I will return to his idea as a model for future novels. However, now that I find myself writing new books, I find that I keep coming back to certain images already at play in Colonel Lágrimas: I find myself gravitating toward obsessive characters, art brut sort of characters, always at the border between science and art, between order and madness.

Carlos Fonseca 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.


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