"How many fragments are needed in order to describe the life of man?"
Carlos Fonseca Suarez is the youngest author to appear on the renowned Spanish publisher Anagrama's list. His first novel, Colonel Lágrimas (now available in English from Restless Books), is indeed astonishing in its wisdom and maturity—the product, one would guess, of decades of deeply engaged reading. Yet its author was a mere twenty-seven when it came out. Written at any age, the work is a true feat of literary ventriloquism and cinematic control, tinged with a humor and melancholy inspired by the human condition. Whether we think of it as a game of masks or as a Cubist portrait, Fonseca's novel reads like an Oulipian puzzle where historical memory can play hide-and-seek.
Chloe Aridjis You wrote your doctoral thesis on the representation of natural disaster and catastrophe in art and literature, so how often did the notion of catastrophe, in this case man-made, enter your thoughts while writing this novel? Did academic themes migrate into its arena—that is, the catalogue of twentieth-century disasters man brought upon himself? Both natural and man-made disasters could be read as an outburst of tension that's been building over time. And this raises the question of bearing witness, as your protagonist does, to historical events... And, of course, you have the character who paints the same volcano over and over again.
Carlos Fonseca As you say, I wrote my thesis in tandem with the novel, and to some extent the novel became the secret flipside of the dissertation—the place where I could take certain ideas to their limits. One of these ideas was that the twentieth century had turned universal history into a museum of ruins. In particular, I remember reading, in the year prior to writing the novel, an essay by Walter Benjamin, where he talks about the angel of history as he who, propelled by the storm of progress, contemplates how the past has been reduced to a giant pile of debris by the catastrophic passage of time. I remember thinking about that scene and telling myself that the task of the novelist was not unlike that of the angel imagined by Benjamin: the contemporary author must also, to some extent, make whole what has been wrecked. The twenty-first century author must reconstruct, out of the ruins of the twentieth century, an image of the past that would allow us to imagine a future. The novel then emerged as an attempt to imagine a Borges-like protagonist—the colonel—that, in the manner of a collector, writes a universal encyclopedia in an attempt to make whole what has been wrecked.
This is ultimately a question about witnessing. What does it mean to bear witness to a catastrophe? When I decided that this protagonist was going to take as its basis the life story of the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, I did so intrigued by a simple question: How could it be that this man, who had been present, as witness, at many of the catastrophic events of the twentieth century—from the Spanish Civil War to the Holocaust, from May 1968 to Vietnam—had decided at the end of his life to seclude himself from society, to become a hermit? Why had the witness decided to seclude himself from political reality and devote himself to the composition of a universal theory capable of explaining history in mathematical terms? Perhaps, I thought, this was a new way of bearing witness: the only adequate testimonial way of interacting with a century that had been marked by a constant repetition of man-made catastrophes.
Perhaps it was while thinking about the idea that history is a constant repetition of an original catastrophe that I decided the mother of the protagonist would spend the whole second world war painting the same Mexican volcano over and over again. The reference there was to the eccentric and fascinating Mexican painter Dr. Atl—the teacher of the Mexican muralists—who later in his life became obsessed with volcanoes and started painting each of them more than a thousand times. I thought his gesture, in its obsessive absurdity, was the embodiment of a terrifying truth: the twentieth century was a constant chain of catastrophes, and as such, it asked for a witness capable of recording this absurd repetition. The protagonist of the novel is, in this sense, a man who collects bits and pieces of historical data in an attempt to reconstruct history.
CA The novel is insistently a portrait rather than self-portraiture, and yet it seems to present manifestations of different selves. The supposed authorial distance—a necessary distance for the project, with that constant zooming in and out of the lens—preserves an enigmatic quality and sets the tone.
CF I think you're completely right, to the point that the original subtitle for the novel was Portrait of a Private Man, and that the idea of writing a modern portrait stayed with me throughout the process of making the novel. In fact, how its very first paragraph came about has a lot to do with portraiture. At the time, I was obsessed with the work of Chuck Close, the American hyperrealist painter, and in particular with his idea that a portrait is ultimately composed of a multiplicity of smaller pixels. I was intrigued with how it suffices to break the face into these pixels and color them accordingly—and that this, when seen from an adequate distance, produces the hyperreal effect that has become his signature. So one day, I attempted to translate this approach into writing. The first paragraph of the novel, with its zoom-ins and zoom-outs, with its mentions of pixels and photographic frames, is the product of this attempt. His pixelated yet realistic portraits allowed me to devise the voice I needed to narrate the story. They allowed me to see that behind the apparent identity of any life there are a thousand different fragments of information.
Any face—and this is perhaps the lesson I learned from Close—is a mask. This idea pervades the novel, and led me to constantly refer back to his work and life throughout: in fact, the protagonist, like Chuck Close, suffers from prosopagnosia, a strange disease where the ability to recognize faces (including one's own) is impaired. The protagonist also quotes as his own a quote from Close:
I discovered about 150 dots is the minimum number of dots to make a specific recognizable person. You can make something that looks like a head, with fewer dots, but you won't be able to give much information about who it is.
I guess I wrote the novel trying to figure out the answer to a similar question: How many fragments are needed in order to describe the life of man? Just like a collection defines a collector, the protagonist of the novel is defined by the bits and pieces of information he gathers. They compose, to some extent, his portrait.
CA The structure works wonderfully and lends it a very specific rhythm, even more evident in Spanish. I wonder how that came about. It advances through a catalogue of observations and via travel through archives, as if emulating thought processes themselves and a movement between spaces.
CF I had three levels of fiction underlying the same narrative—three stories I wanted to inscribe within the same book. The simplest one, which dictates the closed narrative space of the novel, was the quotidian daily life of an old hermit living in his house in the Pyrenees—a story based on the last days of Alexander Grothendieck. On top of that, I thought about adding a second narrative layer, which I kept referring to as the encyclopedic layer. It's dictated by what this man is writing: an encyclopedia of pseudo-sciences. Lastly, on a third level, I wanted to tell the story of this man's life—a life traversing many of the great political events of the twentieth century.
I think I was reading a lot of Georges Perec at the time and wanted to see if it was possible to find a fictional space where these three layers of narrative could coincide happily. I ended up thinking that the only way was to compose the novel as a sort of biographical archive, where different documents—letters, encyclopedic entries, random facts, aphorisms, and so on—emerge in a fragmentary fashion, jumping from one narrative layer to another. The novel leaves it to the reader to piece these pieces together as one would with a puzzle. In some sense, it could be thought of as a detective novel: the reader must figure out the sense of this fragmentary archive just like the detective solves a crime by adding pieces of information together until he sees the whole picture.
CA The novel has a panoramic and worldly vision. There's something vast, all-embracing, and decidedly humanist about the project. How has your peripatetic existence—Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Stanford, Princeton, London—fed into your writing, and particularly into the scope of this book?
CF I was born in Costa Rica but moved to Puerto Rico when I was six, and up to today, perhaps because my accent doesn't fit perfectly within either country, I'm considered Puerto Rican whenever I am in Costa Rica, and Costa Rican whenever I am in Puerto Rico. This sort of double exile has determined the way I approach literature geographically: I see myself first and foremost as Latin American, and I think I feel more comfortable working in broader, panoramic cartographies rather than within national borders. Not that I am uninterested in texts that work within national boundaries; it just doesn't come naturally to me. What first attracted me to Alexander Grothendieck was this: here was a stateless man whose life defied borders and who was not, however, cosmopolitan in the neoliberal sense of the word. There is a small fragment in the novel where I described this sense of displacement:
He may have been born in Mexico of Russian descent, but his double displacement—let us call it his double exile—condemned him to an eternal pilgrimage. To put it indelicately: he was born stateless.
I remember writing this and thinking it was meant to be a reflection upon my own dilemma.
Regarding his project, I guess what interested me was precisely its paradoxical humanist nature. I think that, to some extent, what is at stake in Grothendieck's final project of an all-embracing mathematical theory is the question of universality: Can we find a universal language? The paradox of it all was that in his attempt to produce such a universal theory, he ended up becoming incomprehensible to everyone except himself. And this is something that runs throughout similar projects: whoever attempts to become universal, runs the risk of becoming an incomprehensible monster. It is, I think, the topic of many of Borges's stories—be it Funes, the man who collapses because he has an infinite memory, or the protagonist of The Aleph, who has seen the point that contains all points but who considers this his greatest burden. The ambition of universality, however, remains, and that is perhaps what interested me regarding Grothendieck. I think it's a paradox that links perfectly with Grothendieck's Jewish origins. Judaism might be one of the main pillars of Western universalism, but the Jew is still forced to wander, struggling to fully assimilate to a single national tradition.
CA There's the figure of the hermit in his hermitage—again, a certain geographical and also spiritual remove, and self-imposed exile. Can you say more about your attraction to this sort of figure?
CF I've always been attracted to stories of isolation, and to works of art produced under such conditions. To some extent they reproduce the conditions under which they are produced. Writing a novel is probably one of the loneliest things you can do: the novel becomes your obsession, your fixed idea. I like reading novels that, in one way or another, reflect upon this condition. I remember, just to give an example, reading Thomas Bernhard's novel Correction while writing my novel, thinking that this was exactly what interested me: entering into the archive of a lonely creator and attempting to figure out, from its pages, the sense and logic of his apparently absurd creation. I was also very interested in Jean Dubuffet's notion of art brut: the art produced by people placed outside of established culture, like madmen and children, in secluded places such as mental asylums and prisons. When I came upon the anecdote of Alexander Grothendieck's last days as a hermit, as well as his final attempt to compound a universal mathematical theory capable of explaining everything, from God to dreams, from knots to history, I thought it had perfect contours of the art projects produced by Dubuffet's outsider artists. His last work was a conceptual project that perhaps only he could understand. Perhaps the novel was written as an attempt to understand the private language sketched by that project.
I was fascinated, on the other hand, by the fact that it was precisely him—who had in one way or another witnessed many of the crucial events of twentieth century, and who had finally, as the century wound down to an end, decided to seclude himself from society. I thought it represented the history of the century itself—one that began addicted to action and ended up hooked on information. A century that began seeing history as the agent of change and concluded by pronouncing the end of history as a giant museum where history stood still.
Chloe Aridjis's first novel, Book of Clouds, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France in 2009. Her second novel, Asunder, is set in London's National Gallery. She was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and recently co-curated the Leonora Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool. Her third novel, Book of Thunder, is due for publication in early 2018.