From Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

Cover of Natural History by Carlos Fonseca

It must have been during those months when an accident slightly threw off my routine. And maybe it was in those months when I finally found—though I wasn’t looking for it—a brief respite. One day I was at Giovanna’s and she read me a few lines of the subcomandante’s, poetic lines that told the story of a viceroy of India who dreams that his kingdom is destroyed. Terrified by cyclonic winds he believes he has foreseen, the viceroy sets about proving the dream wrong. So he travels throughout his land, asking his subjects about the event: he goes to his guards, who tell him they’ve had the same dream, then the feudal lords, who confirm the dream, and finally to the doctors, who try to convince him the dreams are the product of Indian witchcraft. Fearful, psychotic, the viceroy orders all his people to be tortured and jailed. Giovanna read the subcomandante’s words with the fury of fists, prophesies of a history to come that nevertheless occurred in the distant past. I remember the last sentence said, “He dreams and does not sleep. And the dream still keeps him awake.” Without wanting it, without expecting it, the words touched something in me and made me think of that immense mural by Diego Rivera I’d seen in the National Palace as a child: that abbreviated history of Mexico where the shapes seemed to mix together as if they’d been drawn by the same insomniac cyclone. Two hours later, when I emerged from the building, I still had the image of the mural in mind, and maybe because of that, or maybe because of the cloudy sky that was already announcing a storm, I decided that that day, before I went to the Bowery bar, I would take the chance to visit one of the city’s museums. And that was how I arrived at the Metropolitan Museum bearing the fears of a viceroy of a long-past empire who dreamed himself insomniac.

The accident, then, was a painting, or the conjunction of a painting and a phrase, or just the downpour that burst over the city as soon as I set foot on the museum steps—a complex weather front that forced me to wander longer than I’d planned through the wet halls of that many-faced monster, where I got lost and finally arrived, by no logic at all, at a small room of somewhat insipid paintings. Then I saw it: one more insipid painting among other bland portraits, as geometric and simple as could be, that nevertheless grew complex if you looked closely. It’s not that the picture was an optical illusion. Nothing of the sort. Quite the opposite, everything in that painting seemed to be exactly what it was: a pale man sitting at his work desk and looking out a window. And even so, looked at more carefully, the painting began to take on a certain density: you started to see the man’s terrible solitude in the fictitious city that was barely hinted at in the brief fragment of urban building that marked the lower corner of the image. Otherwise, that was the painting: a pale man sitting between windows, looking out at the clear sky of what could be any city. Something, then, started to mutate: there was that second window, our window, the one through which the observer looked at the man who was looking. I checked for the title and found in it the same flat literality of the image: Office in a Small City, 1953. The painter’s name, Edward Hopper, sounded familiar, but I couldn’t call up an exact idea of his work. I thought about continuing my walk, but for some reason I chose to stay there, take out my little notebook, look at the painting, and take a few short notes. The phrase I’d just heard from Giovanna came into my mind: “He dreams and doesn’t sleep. And the dream still keeps him awake.” And suddenly I saw it clearly: that image was the very embodiment of insomnia. It didn’t matter that in that fictional city, so fragile and slight, the sky was clear and the man was lit by daylight. It was the image of a man who in daytime dreamed he was sleepless, doubled by windows, oblivious to real time. I thought of the viceroy, his fears and his eternal fury, and suddenly I felt terribly powerful, capable of moving mountains from a simple desk in a marginal city. For the first time in years I felt fury in my veins, the drive I’d had as a teenager, the caffeinated feeling of being capable of anything and wanting it all. Right there in the gallery, museumgoers moving around me as I sank into my hushed megalomania, happy to have found the way back even if it was only a hall in a wet museum. A terribly geometrical hall where suddenly the pieces of the world were starting to fit together with the precision of a chess game. I sat there and started to think about the shape certain animals have when they stay silent, shrinking a little until they become light and anonymous, dangerously close to nothing. I felt a kinship with them and intuited their quiet power. Then I thought how the vitality of plants was even more complex, the secret strength of bonsais and algae, that way they had of huddling into themselves as if in a subtle display of omnipotence. And I saw all of us—Giovanna, the woman with the newspapers, me and Tancredo, the assistants and the man with the collarless shirt—I saw us all behind our desks looking at that same clear sky, which seemed now to emerge from the painting, flood the hall, and return to its fictional place as though nothing had happened. I jotted down the painter’s froggy last name, tore out the paper, and stuffed it in my pocket, then left the museum ready to change my life. Outside, a handful of clouds seemed determined to contradict me.

I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened. Not Tancredo or the Spanish girl I’d gotten entangled with in those days and who, as usual, had more or less ended up turning into my personal psychoanalyst. I went on with my routine, knowing that resolve was growing inside me, something like a plant or algae. Tancredo peered at me over his beer and thought he perceived something. “You’re somewhere else,” he said. But then he just repeated what he thought he knew: that Giovanna was slowly captivating me, beguiling me with her mystery, and that one day I would find out just how long a joke can drag on. I kept quiet, feeling the return inside me—so long delayed—of the same juvenile will that, in a distant past, had driven me to chase the silhouettes of the quincunx across a wide map of tropical butterflies. I kept quiet and gave a hint of a smile, as if I were the one proposing a final joke to the world. 

The first thing that hit me about the Edward Hopper paintings was their crushing simplicity, their total literality behind which, little by little, something nevertheless seemed to withdraw. Something seemed to bristle inside an image that, otherwise, would have looked like a simple postcard. Maybe that’s why it took me two days to look for the paper where I’d written his name beside the painting’s title. Finally I found it, hidden in the pockets of some pants I had sent to the cleaners. Though the letters were blurry I could make out the name, the title, and the date: Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953. Then I headed to the university bookstore and bought a small illustrated volume on his work. Two hours later, when Giovanna called and the driver came to pick me up, I didn’t hesitate to bring along my new book. On the ride there I paged through the pictures: women naked in full daylight staring outside, office workers depicted from windows, men and women who who drink coffee and smoke at leisure. Hopper is the great landscape artist of American insomnia, I said to myself, but the accidental echo of “American dream” struck me as vulgar. Instead I went with a quote that appeared on the book’s cover: “Hopper is simply a bad painter, but if he were a better one, he would probably not be such a great artist.” I liked the idea that he was essentially inept, an anachronistic painter, who, while his modern contemporaries spent their time throwing paint at the canvas, had dedicated himself to depicting landscapes. That was Hopper’s great skill: to depict the inner life of a landscape that was itself barely hinted at. As I flipped through the pages I arrived at another painting. It was called Morning Sun and was dated 1952. In it, a woman in a slip reclines on a bed, in profile and with her legs curled up. The picture is marked by the light that pierces the room and falls onto the woman’s face, as she in turn seems to observe with utter patience the world just glimpsed through the window. Little is shown of what’s beyond the window frame: just the top of an urban, redbrick building. Looking at that painting, I thought how that was what made Hopper the great American landscape artist: the way he inverted the logic of the genre. To show us the insomniac who looks and not the landscape. I glanced at the picture again and thought I saw Giovanna and the woman in the bar, I thought about the subcomandante and the insomniac viceroy. The bumping of the car as we hit the cobblestones told me we were arriving. She could be there behind any of the windows, in a room stripped of luxury—a Hopper-style room.

That night I didn’t mention my newfound inspiration to Giovanna. I found her tense, more anxious than usual, moving with the bristly energy of someone suffering from a hangover. Indecisive and impatient, Giovanna’s jitters seemed to be concentrated in the muscles of her right hand, whose restless fingers held a little figure that after a while I distinguished as a small jade elephant. I merely observed her movements, mentally following the little elephant’s adventures, until the memory of the painting I’d seen a few hours before made me see it all with different eyes. For the first time I imagined her naked in the middle of a room, her hands resting on her knees and her eyes a little lost, as if in a Hopper painting. I imagined her naked in her sleeplessness, terribly pale and anxious, like those fingers of hers that now seemed to clutch the jade figure with the nervous fury of a person risking her life. I looked at her fake blond hair, the black roots that now seemed to hide much more, and something told me the moment to act had come: to take a step forward and use sex to put an end to the joke that was threatening to bury us all. Maybe the code lay there: in the passion of one night that would reveal a sunny day. For a brief second I felt that Giovanna was thinking the same thing, that her fingers had stopped their restless probing and that she was looking at me deeply.

The ring of the phone put a stop to the scene.

I saw her set the elephant on the table, cross the labyrinth of furniture that I now found unbearable, pick up the phone, and answer in a voice that somehow reminded me of the one from almost two years earlier, recorded on my machine. Anxious, still overwhelmed by the scene I’d just imagined, I leaned over the table in search of something to hold in my hand. Then I saw it: an open envelope with the stamp of a medical clinic on the back. I sat there, remembering the early call, the echoes of that recorded voice that now seemed to be sobbing into the phone while she merely said yes and no with the fragile strength only found in the ill. I picked up the little jade figure, put it in my pocket as if it were a talisman. When she came back, I recognized on Giovanna’s face the stubborn conviction of someone who intends to lie until the end.

Somewhere I read that what is forgotten is not a lie. In the months that followed that strange meeting, I remained faithful to that perverse intuition. I tried to forget, as I laboriously built my new project, the painful truth I believed I’d glimpsed that night. Later that night, I arrived at the Bowery bar feeling like my newly acquired powers were in danger. If I didn’t make a decision now, I ran the risk of remaining beneath that strange shadow that is the lives of others. The lives of others: like that woman who spent her time in the same bar, compulsively reading the news. Then I took out my little notebook and there, where I had written Reading Hypotheses, I wrote another title that struck me as more apt: The Invisible Border. I looked around me, more out of modesty than anything else, and below the title I sketched those fake, light blue eyes which just a few hours earlier had looked out at me from the empire of the sick. Only then did I feel the imaginary figure of my ancestor dissolve, as I finally became the story’s protagonist. And I was the one now deciding to break down invisible borders, I was the one deciding to get up from the table where I’d kept quiet until then, and I was the one who, breaking all the unspoken rules, went over to that table where the newspapers lay exposed, and now, without an ounce of modesty, I pulled out a chair and sat down. I was the one who ignored the waiters who tried to dissuade me, and it was I who, finally sitting across from the woman who I felt I’d been observing for ages, uttered the obvious question:

“What’s with the newspapers?”

What comes next is almost an artificial memory, like the memory of a movie, pure image. The measured and deliberate way her face seemed to lift very slowly—refusing the violence I’d expected—from the paper. Her eyes had the glassy tinge that some faces take on in digital photographs. A terribly empty gaze but not, for that, profound, a pair of eyes that simply refused to be more than eyes, mere surface without depth, much less abyss. From that abyss-less void I heard the reply that today, with Giovanna’s notebooks strewn across the table, strikes me as terribly pertinent:

“What’s it to you?”

Even today, past four in the morning, that would seem to be the question: what’s it to me? That was always the question: why do we decide to get involved in certain lives and not in others? Why, in the middle of the night, does someone decide to remember one story and not others? That night in the Bowery bar I learned that patience isn’t always rewarded with stories, or, even more terrible, that sometimes curiosity is left there, at mere curiosity, without even rising to the level of anecdote. That sometimes surface is all there is, gaze without depth, the glassy eyes dedicated to filling the hours with letters. Finally I thought I understood something: that woman wasn’t reading anything, wasn’t looking for any stories beyond those offered by the surface of the paper. Like ancient copyists, like current computers, her labor was limited to a register of the vocabulary that precedes anecdote. Or maybe not, maybe she was reading from the secret center of her particular obsession, but even if that were true, everything still ended there: at the armor of the private passion I’d intuited in her eyes. I didn’t reply, didn’t think it necessary to come up with an answer. I simply apologized, as if I’d done something rude, and put away my notebook, and as I left I felt I was reliving a scene: outside a nearby bar, two boys were in a fistfight. Only now I felt I was living it in my own skin, in the present and not the past, immersed in all the details: the boys’ sweat, the stench of stale beer, the blood that traced one eyebrow on the face of a very tall boy who was now being held back by his friends, their fury a match for his as he struggled to escape. At the start of the twenty-first century, two boys were repeating a scene that had surely been lived by two gangsters of the nineteenth, with the difference that I was forced to watch the scene live and in color, in its absolute presence, with all the modern resolution of television. I crossed the street convinced that, little by little, I was starting to shed my old costume. After a few blocks I stopped at another bar, took out the notebook and read that phrase I had written earlier: The Invisible Border. There was a project peering out from behind those words. The sketch of Giovanna’s eyes, below, seemed to remind me that it wouldn’t be an easy one; forgetting never has been easy.

You can read a cat’s insomnia in his eyes, Tancredo says. He says it as if he knew them, as if he secretly frequented their meetings, as if he belonged to the animal world. He says it and then he corrects himself. Cats, he repeats, inhabit an in-between world. Scientists have demonstrated it, he repeats, as if it mattered to me, and then he goes on to explain what he calls science: the fact that it’s been proven that feline brain waves are similar to those of human beings when they sleep.

Maybe that’s why, the day I decided to shave, I thought of Tancredo. Shaving, now that I think about it, was my way of marking a change: a before and after that simulated metamorphosis. I saw myself in the mirror: tired and old, fatter than I used to be, but still willing to fight the last battle. And there was the beard, the beard I’d had since I was twenty, full at times and at others timid, but always there, hiding much of my face. I thought about how, though it seems strange in retrospect, Giovanna and I had never talked about the beard, hair as a mask. That was ultimately what my beard had been: at first a way to hide my youth, then a way to hide behind the anonymity of the ordinary, until it became the mask that hid a premature old age. But something in me now was starting to resist: part of me wanted to be a child again. I ran my fingers over my beard, and, to the rhythm of a Dominican bachata, I saw the fuzz fall until there was no more hair on my face but a lively mustache. I laughed at the thought that I had become, at the end of the day, one of those cats Tancredo talked about, a kind of eternal watcher of the sleeping world. I laughed at the thought that a man could come to look like a cat. It was then that I understood the meaning the words I’d written would have: The Invisible Border was another name for the gaze. I thought about Hopper and the characters of his paintings, those men and women in broad daylight who seemed to look toward an outside that was forbidden to the viewer. I looked at myself in the mirror, with the peppy mustache in the middle of my face, and I played for a few seconds at becoming unrecognizable. I played at losing myself in grimaces, with the plastic joy of a person repeating a word until it’s deformed. Everything changed except my eyes. I felt a childish joy as I told myself that that was what The Invisible Border would be: an enormous exhibit on the animal gaze, a giant parade of eyes. I told myself this and for an instant, while the razor removed the mustache, I forgot Giovanna’s eyes, the medical envelope, the anxious fingers. I forgot that I’d imagined her naked in the middle of the room, that I’d desired her, even if for a brief instant. With the last cut, I looked at myself again in the mirror: I looked young and strange, a cat without whiskers, anxious and ready to wake up.

Excerpted from Natural History by Carlos Fonseca. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 14 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Carlos Fonseca. All rights reserved.

Carlos Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica, and spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. In 2016, he was named one of the twenty best Latin American writers born in the 1980s at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and in 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under forty. He is the author of the novel Colonel Lágrimas, and in 2018, he won the National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica for his book of essays, La lucidez del miope. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London.

Megan McDowell is an award-winning Spanish-language literary translator from Kentucky. Her work includes books by Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, and Lina Meruane. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and Vice, among others. Her translations have won the Valle-Inclán prize and the English PEN prize, and been short- and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

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