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History & Language in the Information Age: An Interview with Carlos Fonseca

By Gunter Silva

Carlos Fonseca’s debut novel Colonel Lágrimas, published by Anagrama in 2015, was just released in English by Restless Books, translated by Megan McDowell.  Fonseca tells the story of the world famous and enigmatic mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, focusing on the private life of his protagonist in order to explore the ways in which the colonel’s everyday life intersects with the rhythms of world history. As Fonseca knows well, his character is not an island, even when he tries to be so—his private life speaks to the rest of the world. The colonel decodes history by coding his own private history. In the process of this game of coding and decoding, Fonseca deploys a torrent of vital and poetic ideas within a singular yet fascinating literary artifact, which Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia has described as “an intriguing and unforgettable verbal kaleidoscope.”

Henry James, who spent a large part of his life in London, was possibly thinking of Máncora Beach when he declared that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon.” When I met Carlos Fonseca, summer had officially begun, and summer in London is quite unpredictable, so it was raining cats and dogs. We took refuge in a pub near Oxford Circus. He ordered a glass of white wine, I stuck to rum; and we talked about his book.

Gunter Silva (GS): We both know that only 3% of the literature published in English is translated from other languages, and just a few Latin American authors have been published in English since the Latin American boom. Is the recent increase in translations of Latin American authors because of the success of Roberto Bolaño’s novels in the English-speaking world or do we need to credit the enormous effort of independent publishers?

Carlos Fonseca (CF): I think that Roberto Bolaño’s success made it possible for foreign readers to visualize Latin American literature in a different way: neither as the magical jungle portrayed in the works of García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, and many of the Latin American Boom authors, nor as the purely globalized region portrayed in the novels of the Crack Generation and the McOndo Group. Many readers and writers of my generation found in Bolaño’s work a way of bridging the local and the global. Novels like The Savage Detectives and 2666 gave us a glimpse of a type of global novel that didn’t forget to inscribe itself, ultimately, within Latin American coordinates. His success, in turn, opened up a new space for Latin American literature. No longer the territory of magical realism, Latin America became—for foreign publishers—the land of formal exploration and avant-gardist experimentation. This, coupled with the boom in indie publishing, brought forth in translation the works of a series of fascinating avant-garde writers that until then had been overlooked: I am thinking of the works of people like Sergio Pitol, Ricardo Piglia, Juan Villoro, and Alan Pauls. It also helps that today, more than ever, indie publishers either read in Spanish or have some close colleague that does read in Spanish.

No longer the territory of magical realism, Latin America became—for foreign publishers—the land of formal exploration and avant-gardist experimentation.

GS: There’s a tradition of Latin American writers moving to Spain to publish their first novels. Your trajectory, however, was different. You did most of your academic studies in the States, and lived both in California and New York, before settling down in London. How do you explain this and do you think it impacted your work?

CF: I think my generation has seen a change in this context. If Paris used to be the literary capital for Latin American writers during the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, if Barcelona became the literary home for many authors during the Latin American boom, I believe that nowadays, for writers of my generation, the United States—and in particular, New York—is increasingly seen as a possible place from which to write. This has to do, I believe, with a very simple economic fact: whereas in the 1960s journalism was a possible economic route for writers, nowadays it would seem that academia provides a suitable economic stability from which to write. I think this leads to a very productive dialogue, between fiction and philosophy, as well as between Latin American fiction and English-language fiction. A dialogue, I must add, that was always there but nowadays becomes evident: if the writers of the boom were reading Faulkner, we are reading the works of Don DeLillo, J. G. Ballard, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon, or Lydia Davis.            

GS: In your novel—which is loosely based on the life story of the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck—we see episodes that span from the Russian Revolution to the Spanish Civil war, extending all the way to México and from there to Vietnam. How do you understand, then, the relationship between the colonel and world history?

CF: For me Alexander Grothendieck’s life was symptomatic of what had happened to the twentieth century: despite the fact that he and his family had experienced some of the most traumatic events in world history—the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, and Vietnam—Grothendieck decided to spend the last years of the century locked in his house in the French Pyrenees, in order to sketch a sort of total theory, a sort of borgesian encyclopedia written in mathematical symbols. I thought that his fascinating life story mimicked that of the century: a century that began addicted to political action and ended up hooked on big data. I wanted to sketch that change and to explore what a historical novel might look like in our information age, in the era of Wikipedia. In this sense, I note I am not alone. While writing the novel I discovered Álvaro Enrigue’s magnificent Sudden Death, a novel that explores history in its relationship to the archive, and imagines a different type of narrative form, closer to the encyclopedia than to the linear stories we have become accustomed to. The encyclopedia shatters the linear causality of history and turns history into a great mosaic. I wanted to portray the madness of a character that one day decided to bring upon himself the task of sketching that new history.

 I wanted . . . to explore what a historical novel might look like in our information age, in the era of Wikipedia . . . I wanted to portray the madness of a character that one day decided to bring upon himself the task of sketching that new history.

GS: Most young Latin American authors tend to write short sentences. You instead have opted for long and poetic phrases. Is it language that worries you most in the construction of a novel?

CF: I think short, minimalist sentences can also be poetic. Alejandro Zambra’s or Diego Zúñiga’s works are great examples. However, when I was writing this novel I had something else in mind, perhaps something closer to the Caribbean baroque that I grew up with: the linguistic exuberance of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Luis Rafael Sánchez, or Lezama Lima. Every morning, during the nine months it took to write the novel, I would wake up in a state of linguistic euphoria, ready to play with language. In this sense, I agree with you: for me, the most important thing a novel has is its style. Today, when language is produced and consumed at an impressive speed, when meaning rules sovereign, perhaps the true poetic act is to force language to its limits, to risk becoming incomprehensible. Today, when language is produced and consumed so fast it risks becoming invisible, perhaps the true political act is that of forcing the reader to stop and understand that language is there: a material thing like any other, something that refuses to become a mere object of consumption.

GS: I think of Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, W.G. Sebald, Borges, Juan Rulfo; and I feel that somehow they exist in your novel, or at least in your library. Which authors have influenced your work?

CF: Influences are tricky. I think that, like many Latin American writers, my favorite writer is William Faulkner. With him I first experienced a linguistic intensity that I have not found elsewhere. However, each novel determines its own influences, and while writing Colonel Lágrimas I tried to stay away from Faulkner, because I thought the book demanded something else. On the one hand, I kept thinking about novels that portray characters immersed in megalomaniac conceptual projects: novels like Flaubert’s posthumous novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, or Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. On the other, I kept thinking about a novel that I had back then just read: A Rebours, the nineteenth-century decadentist novel by Huysmans. I wanted to sketch the image of a decant protagonist who one day decides to leave society in order to surround himself not with art, as it is in Huysmans’s novel, but rather with information, with data. I had a model for this protagonist, who eventually I decided to call the colonel: I wanted to portray the protagonist as a sort of Borges, a man lost amidst data, theories, and books. Lastly, I would say that in terms of the narrative voice, I had two main influences: the playful and capricious narrator in Machado de Assis’s Epitaph of a Small Winner and the baroque narrator of Luis Rafael Sánchez’s La Guaracha del Macho Camacho. But, like with anything else, one thing is what you aspire to, another is what you get. I think the novel ended up being closer to Perec, Calvino, and Borges—as you say—than to the works of Bernhard or Flaubert.

GS: Reading the novel I get a sense that it is constructed in a similar manner to Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, namely as a puzzle narrative that the reader has to piece together as he reads. Was this idea of the novel as puzzle in your mind at the time of writing Colonel Lágrimas?

CF: I like a lot Georges Perec’s idea of a novel as a puzzle that the reader must reconstruct. While writing the novel I become obsessed with the paintings of Chuck Close. Perhaps you know his works: there are impressive realist portraits which Close produces by breaking down the piece into a multiplicity of small pixel-like squares, which he then paints by hand. The idea that the portrait of a man could be made up of thousands of small “pixels” of information became for me an obsession. Just like Close, I became obsessed with the idea that the biography of a man could be made up of bits and pieces of seemingly random facts—a biography composed purely of information. In this sense, I kept thinking of the novel as a big puzzle, where I had to keep placing pieces in the right order in order to eventually construct the image of the protagonist’s face. Oulipo—of which Perec was a crucial member—was composed in fact from a series of mathematicians turned writers, so it is not a surprise that a novel about a mathematician, like Colonel Lágrimas, takes Perec’s novels as a reference.  

I became obsessed with the idea that the biography of a man could be made up of bits and pieces of seemingly random facts—a biography composed purely of information.

GS: The novel opens with the following quote by Pascal about a “monster”: “If he extols himself, I humble him; if he abases himself, I exalt him, and I always contradict him, until he comprehends that he is an incomprehensible monster.” Who is this monster? The colonel, his memory, history, time?

CF: In Pascal’s quote, I think that the monster is man. Man is an incomprehensible monster, so I guess the monster in the novel would be the colonel. When I decided to use the quote I was more interested, however, in thinking through the narrative voice I had chosen as the machine of contradictions suggested by Pascal. I wanted to find a narrative voice that would force the protagonist to face himself, a narrative voice that would move in a bothersome way, blocking all possible exits, like consciousness sometimes does. After the book got released in Spanish, many people asked me who the narrator was, and I couldn’t answer with absolute confidence. In fact, I still don’t have a single answer. However, now that you ask the question, I might venture an answer: the multiple narrator could be the objectivized and externalized consciousness of the protagonist himself. The voice of a man in battle with his past and his history.

GS: How do you feel Megan McDowell (the translator) dealt with this particular voice? Is it quite different from the Spanish?

CF: I think Megan did a wonderful job. Reading her translation of the novel I was amazed at her capacity to remain faithful to the book, while producing a style that works in itself. And this is something that for me is crucial: translated novels must work by themselves as novels. They should be ready to be read as if they had been written in the translated language itself, in this case English. I knew of Megan’s work, because she had translated some of the best Latin American writers of the generation that precedes mine: authors like Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane, and Álvaro Bisama. So I knew she was an extremely talented translator and I was excited to work with her. It turned out to be a great collaboration, and I am grateful to her for her amazing work.

Translated novels must work by themselves as novels. They should be ready to be read as if they had been written in the translated language itself. 

GS: Did you discuss individual words in detail with Megan; were a lot of emails exchanged? Or did you just let her do the work?

CF: I think that there must be a level of trust and respect between the writer and the translator. I trusted and respected Megan’s decisions, which made the whole process a lot easier, as I could always count on her making the right choice. We did discuss certain details and we did exchange emails, but most of the time Megan was right. The commonplace saying became in this case true: I think her translation improved the original, it removed some of the baroque excesses that plagued the original text. I wrote the novel almost four years ago, so by now my style has changed. I always felt tempted to go back and erase a couple of adjectives. I think Megan’s translation was able to do exactly that, to make the text neater and tighter, while remaining faithful to the original. 

GS: And working with Restless Books, how was that?

CF: Working with the team at Restless Books has also been a wonderful experience, from day one. Even before receiving the great news that they had decided to buy the rights to publish the novel, I was a big fan of their catalog—from Juan Villoro to Hamid Ismailov, all the way to a truly amazing author they will publish soon, Emiliano Monge—so it was a real honor for me to know they wanted to publish a translation of Colonel Lágrimas. Ever since, it has been a real learning experience, and a joyous one indeed. I have learned a bit more about how the US-UK literary-fiction market works, and how different it is from that in Spain and Latin America. It is always encouraging to get to know a group of people that still are mad enough to believe in literary fiction in translation beyond its immediate commercial scope, and that is exactly what the team at Restless Books are: a group of great readers and writers that are brave enough to know that literary fiction in translation is something worth fighting for. I love working with indie presses and have found at Restless a great group of friends.
 

Carlos Fonseca was born in Costa Rica. He spent part of his childhood in Puerto Rico and went to college in the United States. He received his doctorate in Latin American literature at Princeton University and now teaches at the Centre of Latin American Studies, Cambridge. Colonel Lágrimas is his debut novel.


Published Oct 4, 2016   Copyright 2016 Gunter Silva

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