Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca (tr. Megan McDowell). Restless Books. 224pp, $15.99.
THE COLONEL MUST be looked at very closely. We have to come near, near enough to be a nuisance, near enough to see his slow motion blinking—that face of his, youthful still, though tired, as he bends it once more over the page.
At this zoomed-in distance begins Carlos Fonseca’s tragicomedy Colonel Lágrimas. It quickly becomes clear that the work is ambitious and something to remember. Colonel tells the story of a hermit attempting to cipher the monstrosity that is 20th-century history into an intimate code. The novel is an exploration of obsession, genius, madness, and of the futility of historical meaning in the face of a past in ruins and the gargantuan archive that remains. Loosely basing his novel on the life of the great mathematician Alexander Grothendiek, Fonseca takes advantage of that biographical silence that was Grothendiek´s final decades. Colonel Lágrimas fills this biographical void with a bursting yet elegant flight of crazed and creative power.
The story unfolds within a single day and into several narrative layers through which we learn about the Colonel’s daily rituals, but also about his past life teeming with failed political efforts, and about the lives of forgotten historical figures, fringe characters that exist against the grain of history. All of it works as a biography of sorts where the construction of a remembered life allows for the appropriation of other’s stories.
The result is a novel that works almost as an artifact or a puzzle with a kaleidoscopic structure, as Ricardo Piglia has put it. It is to no surprise that when the original Spanish version came out, it was immediately compared to Piglia himself, and also to Roberto Bolaño and Borges, who are for better or for worse mandatory references for Latin American writers. But what was missed, I think, is the much vaster field of influences that go beyond the Latin American tradition and should be dully acknowledged now that the book begins to open to new markets through translation. It is no surprise that Fonseca, a Costa Rican who grew up in Puerto Rico and trained academically in the United States, and who today teaches in England, presents a book hard to pin down solely in relation to other contemporary Latin American authors. In Colonel we find strong hints of that deeply melancholic and spectral brand of historical rumination that is the trademark of authors like W. G. Sebald or Max Frisch. The entire project, steeped in obsession, reminds me of Thomas Bernhard’s highly obsessive characters. And of course one can also trace lines of influence to Nabokov’s magnificent stylistic prose and his complicit and voyeuristic narrator present in Pnin, also a tragicomic character with an emphasis, in his case, on the comic.
But most of all one finds in Colonel the voice of that wonderful philosopher of historical traces that was Walter Benjamin. Fonseca is able to adapt the German’s idea of history and his collector’s ontology. The operating assumption in the novel is that when one arrives too late for history, too late even for the possibility of history, one can always attempt to interpret and organize a world not systematically, but via mere constellations of meaning. Benjamin’s image-driven philosophy of history finds in Colonel Lágrimas a literary re-interpretation as a scaled down epic of an antihero looking desperately to “coincide with his time.”
What does come as a surprise is that here we are presented with a literary debut. It is a surprise given its highly developed poetic language—in this edition translated beautifully by the very talented Megan McDowell—and its fluidity in jumping comfortably from literature to history, science, philosophy, and mathematics. And maybe it is style, the elusive and highly misunderstood literary entity, that we should be looking at here precisely because Colonel is a first novel. It was Barthes, that other ecstatic and somewhat mad reader, that best understood the nature and the importance of style:
Style is almost beyond [language]: Imagery, delivery, vocabulary spring from the body and the past of the writer and gradually become the very reflexes of his art. Thus under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place, where once and for all the great verbal themes of his existence come to be installed.
And of course, there are very few places we can better trace this germinative entity than in a first novel: the early formulations of personal myths; the initial thrusts of a literary biography; the first exposure onto the institution of literature of private rhythms that move more like a necessity; the depth-ridden possibilities of language right here, right now; they are all there. It is a writing that has as its opposite a posthumous assessment of a body of work. Here the body is still not completely in the work, as a death mask. It is not a cadaver yet.
Colonel is a first book that lends itself to this kind of reading. Style, if taken in this Barthesean sense, is both thematized and formally expressed. It is thematized in that the book can be read as the story of a fatally anachronistic thinker looking to flesh out for himself a kind of destiny in the forgotten archives of history. The act of writing serves as a final yet flawed attempt for redemption, so that in the Colonel’s case what we are witnessing is precisely the construction of a death mask, style’s carcass. The obsessive writing begs for an uninvited witness armed with a camera attempting to capture the process, not only in what is written but also in the almost invisible gestures done during writing. By providing the camera to the narrator, Fonseca takes advantage of the well-known congenital limitations of photography and by extension cinema, its reduction of the world into specters, the pathos of its subjects’ transformation into mere images:
For example here: a grimace emerges in the middle of a dream. A solitary hand sinks into the archive, fumbles about for a few seconds, and rises to the surface again holding a photograph. If we turn it over, we see that it is dated: Hanoi, 1969. It shows a man with the look of prison, a gaunt, cadaverous face in mid-grimace: his eyes wide open as if posed in madness. . . . In these surroundings so of their times, the man at the center, with his glasses and his haunting gaze, seems so in his element that we sense he is a man who has finally coincided with his age. But then we see, on the second look, in a third glance, the idiosyncratic grimace that identifies him. The Colonel’s grimaces deny the stability of face with the same comic force with which they agree to disappear in masks.
It is with the narrator himself that style finds a formal space to explore its undercurrents. This exploration necessarily becomes density, even baroque if we were tempted to read it within the Latin American tradition. This foregrounding of language, this virtuosity in the handling everything from ideas to the very texture of language works as a kind of push not toward plot but, through the many parallel stories woven by the Coronel, like an arabesque. This is what the reader is left with after witnessing the efforts of a character who is doomed to fail, and a failure that is nonetheless told in jest, without falling into the temptation to adopt an ironic distance.
Colonel revitalizes the notion of a literature that exists for and from the moment of writing, and it avoids the accompanying unchecked optimism in the possibility of transcendence by foregrounding failure. We are reminded of the pure effort, an idea coined by Ortega y Gasset in order to describe Don Quixote’s adventures and King Philp II’s construction of El Escorial. Both gargantuan in dimensions, much like the Colonel’s Vertigos of the Century, they exemplify those projects that foreground will over structure and design, so as to find their justification in effort itself. They are doomed to fail and inevitably result in a sheer state of melancholy, arguably Iberian and Latin American.
I guess it is unavoidable to end with a discussion of the tradition. Latin American writers have often dealt with challenges springing from the historical and problematic relation between cultural production and politics. The place of the intellectual in the continent has been a highly contended matter, and what we see in the Colonel is a kind of embodiment of the its different stages: from an “enlightened” academic in its universal (mathematical) labors, to the political subject attempting to participate in the movements of his time, to the forgotten hermit attempting to memorialize his own life. If anything, Colonel is a novel that attempts to work out the difficult question about the place of the contemporary intellectual.
And of course, there is also a very deliberate take on the Latin American tradition in a return to history. Fonseca’s book attempts to regain a historical consciousness at a time when history appears only as an elegy. But it does so in a way that bypasses previous approaches that included mythical interpretations, utopian readings of revolutionary promises, or an effort to place Latin America within modernity. Fonseca’s almost Benjaminean approach allows for a look at history without having to depend on grand narratives.
For its wide and global range of influences, for its mastery of style, for its successful insistence on the creative moment as an almost structural narrative principle, Colonel Lágrimas constitutes a bright debut. There is much that we can expect from young Fonseca.
Diego Azurdia is a Guatemalan freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. With degrees in literature from Columbia University and Stanford University, he specializes in 20th-century and contemporary Latin American culture but has also written extensively on Continental Philosophy. He is currently finishing his first novel.
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