Museo animal. Carlos Fonseca. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2017. 430 pages.
I refer to a sentence from Colonel Lágrimas (2015, his previous novel, which may well be a declaration of literary poetics and of principles of composition: “Our rabbi devotes himself to seeking exits from this story on the verge of ending—a blind alley with no escape routes.”
Fonseca’s novels go against the current of editorial market prescriptions that seek to restrict, or pigeonhole, or enchain words or situations and maintain that this is literature, or at least, a literature that is worth reading. Fonseca’s novels are not from prescriptions, but they are prescribeable. They are also not current. In other words, they do not have an overabundance of speech that passes off as street talk, nor do they attempt to imitate social networks, nor do they compete with the audiovisual empire. They do not aspire to reflect anything, nor portray anything, nor are they in the service of some national or regional cause. That is, Fonseca’s fiction is not current because it is not fleeting, rather it aspires to do what all art that is launched into the void wants to do: to endure. Thus, what Fonseca writes is not current, but it is highly topical: there is, for example, in Museo animal [Animal museum], the cultural world of New York, the Spanish past, a detective plot set in The Enchanted Island, the 2008 economic debacle, and even, read retrospectively, an advance of the overused fake news so in fashion today. And a third preliminary observation: Fonseca’s novels are cumulative and can even overwhelm. They delight in drawing infinite concentric circles that can be revealing. For example, there is a detail connected to the place where I live: Animal museo pauses at the death, on March 22, 1978 in Puerto Rico of the famous tightrope walker Karl Wallenda. Many years later, I would go with my family to see the Wallendas at the circus in Sarasota, in the region of Florida where I live. In February 8, 2017, five members, including Karl’s great grandson Nick, fell from a height of 11 meters. Though injured, they recovered. Fonseca’s micro-stories have repercussions.
How to approach a multipurpose and multifaceted novel such as Museo animal? I offer some keys. In the first place, well-known world citizenship. Fonseca was born in Costa Rica, grew up in Puerto Rico, was educated in the United States, and lives in England. It shows. Museo animal is a global novel in the best sense of the word since it moves through geographical regions and disparate times: New York, Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Latin American jungle, and an unnamed, little mining town. Fonseca specializes in hopping from one location to another, subjecting his characters and his readers to marathon journeys. In the second place, totality (the aspiration to totality). There truly is in this novel a commitment to the idea of genre as a kaleidoscope, as the philosopher and theorist Mikhail Baktin would say, “testimony of the perpetual incompleteness of the world.” And within this idea, there appears, in the third place the world of culture: there appears the artist Edward Hopper, there appears a library with the great Hispano-American novelists, there appears a faithful reader of Rubén Darío, and we could go on. As a fourth method of approach, let us say that Fonseca—both in his previous novel and in this one—frequents maps, masks, mockups, puzzles, enigmatic figures such as Sir Thomas Browne’s quincunx, all of the symbols of the unending construction of identity that is the responsibility of human beings. In the fifth place, and almost as a style brand, Fonseca likes scenes that are almost pictorial: a woman who reads newspapers in a bar, and another one who writes obituaries.
His characters (and here Fonseca greatly resembles Ricardo Piglia, who was his professor at Princeton, as well as Roberto Bolaño, and Jorge Luis Borges a little bit also) write and read and are eccentric, always interesting: the narrator, who works in the New Jersey Museum of Natural History; Trancredo, his fat journalist friend of famous sentences; Giovanna/Carolyn, fashion designer of crazy projects; Yoav Toledano, Israeli travelling photographer; Virginis Macallister, model, mother, a type of interventionist swindler, “the mad woman in the tower”; Alexis Burgos, detective; Luis Gerardo Esquilín, lawyer; the apostle, the character that dominates the last part of the story. This, perhaps, may be a good example of how the author introduces his characters: “It is then, when I open the door, that I see her for the first time; a woman in full youth, beautiful precisely because something in her refused to surrender to the gaze. I remember that she introduced herself by name, but what interested me was a certain nervous tic, that way of pausing midway through phrases as if she had forgotten to mention something and in the midst of the sentence seeming to backtrack only to realize that there was no other way of finishing the sentence” (28).
Singled out by the Hay Festival and by the Guadalajara International Book Fair as one of the voices of the Young Latin America fiction to be most aware of, Fonseca is totally dedicated to the literary and maybe that is his greatest merit. He also knows, Piglianly, that a good novel raises an enigma. Perhaps that is why the first sentence of Museo animal is: “For many years, I remained faithful to a strange obsession” (130) and why the first significant fact is the arrival of a package at the narrator’s house. Thus, Fonseca like anyone who prides himself in being an author, uses literature as tool in understanding his most intense drives, in this case, culture (museo) y nature (animal).
University of South Florida
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis