Natural History by Carlos Fonseca
Review by Jonathan Wlodarski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020
Carlos Fonseca’s novel Natural History, originally published in Spanish as Museo animal in 2017 and translated by Megan McDowell, is a startling new entry in the genre of the literary enigma novel. That is, it’s a book preoccupied—and filled—with mysteries. The text is composed of several layers stacked atop each other like palimpsests that peek through each other as the novel progresses. The first layer is the story of an unnamed narrator, a museum curator who unexpectedly befriends the fashion designer Giovanna Luxembourg. She tells him she’s interested in mimicry, disguises, camouflage—that she thinks of fashion as “the art of anonymity in the jungle,” an early indication of the novel’s themes of secrecy, subterfuge, and surreptitiousness. Then suddenly, she dies, but she’s arranged for letters to be sent to our narrator—letters that hint at a bigger mystery.
This is how the novel operates: in each section, something takes us farther down the rabbit hole. First, we watch the narrator learn about the life of Yoav Toledano, a photographer who falls in love with a woman named Virginia McAllister. The narrator tries to track Yoav down, only to discover he’s been living under a different name for quite some time. In the next section, we learn about a model/actress turned con artist named Viviana Luxembourg who gets arrested in Puerto Rico for her crimes; of course, she, too, has been living under an assumed name, and is really Virginia McAllister, who has been missing since the 1970s. Then the novel takes us back further, tracing Yoav, Virginia, and their daughter’s journey to find a boy who has foreseen a world ending in fire. All of this occurs before Fonseca brings us back to the narrative present of the novel, when the narrator visits a posthumous exhibit organized by Giovanna Luxembourg’s estate. The author weaves this web intricately, making a commentary as he goes about whose stories are told and how these stories can be distorted. He achieves this by adding and removing layers of narrative obfuscation: for example, we find out about Virginia McAllister’s life filtered through the proceedings in court before stripping back this frame to present a more unfiltered narration of her trek into the wilderness, which offers a multidimensional portrait of the character that couldn’t be achieved through one method of narration alone.
Beyond the plot and character connections of each section—which deepen the reader’s insight into who these people are and how they operate while simultaneously raising new questions—Fonseca ties his book together with repeated themes. Giovanna introduces the narrator to the quincunx: a pattern like the five on a six-sided die, an image which recurs across the novel. Similarly, we see characters obsessed with fire—Virginia McAllister becomes fascinated with “the mythical figure of her incendiary ancestor, William Sherman,” who razed Atlanta to the ground with flames, and there’s the aforementioned prophet child. Notebooks full of feverish scrawlings abound in this text, archives of information which push people deeper into their own mysteries and while alienating the people closest to them.
The end result is a book full of complex, complicated questions. Fonseca interrogates ideas about art, about histories personal and shared, about fiction and fact, unanswerable queries to which he never provides direct answers—this just isn’t that kind of story. Even his characters are drawn to these kinds of questions; one of the narrator’s friends asks the question, “Tragedy or farce?” every time he encounters a perplexing situation, a refrain that echoes sometimes literally—the narrator himself takes up the question several times across the book—or in the minds of readers as the rest of the novel unfolds before them. Is what we’re reading a tragedy or a farce? Or maybe both?
Perhaps some readers will be frustrated byhow Natural History resists coming together neatly. Ultimately, however, this lack of resolution is the engine that powers the whole story. Near the end of the book’s first section, the narrator remembers his last meeting with Giovanna before her death, how they spend the evening working on a jigsaw puzzle that they never finish. That it remained unfinished sticks with him, the image of the pieces not fully put together haunting him even years later: as he walks through Giovanna’s posthumous exhibition, he says, “I decided to go on walking, to read the quotations scattered before me like the pieces of that jigsaw puzzle we’d left half-finished.” In the same way, this book will linger in readers’ minds long after they’ve finished it, the pieces laid out but never fully attached to one another, teasing the suggestion of resolution without ever offering one.
Carlos Fonseca’s Natural History is an enigma, a riddle without an answer, but one that readers ought to tussle with anyway.
Jonathan Wlodarski is pursuing a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Nat. Brut, and Fairy Tale Review.
Image description: Cover of Carlos Fonseca’s Natural History. Cover shows a yellow bird with large, black dots.