Austral cover

On abandoning words: Carlos Fonseca’s Austral

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Carlos Fonseca’s Austral can be approached as a forensic investigation. The form is not uncommon in Latin America, where testimonial and juridical texts recount moments of violence often in a cool, emotionless register. Fonseca’s work, in an incisive translation by Megan McDowell, becomes a puzzle divided into three sections that move across the twentieth century from Europe to South America, intercalated with pages from the unpublished final novel of a woman named Aliza Abravanel. It requires some patient work and careful reading to understand how certain parts connect, and even then, just as in real forensic investigations, there are gaps in the narrative, silences, or absences where the most passionate or violent moments are located.

This is as much as much a book about language as its abandonment. Abravanel is a writer who has gradually lost her physical ability to speak. Aphasia changes her literary style; she zooms out from an intimate first-person to a more abstract, textured language. The black symbols on the page are as important, or unimportant, as silt or fossil dust. Crucially, this abandonment goes beyond the passivity of simple loss. Abravanel embraces the moment beyond her control and transforms it into a different form of seeing and an artistic vision. Sketches for A Private Language/A Dictionary of Loss is the title she chooses for her final work.

When Abravanel’s unfinished manuscript reaches her old friend, the university professor and insomniac philosopher Julio Gamboa, he traces her steps through Paraguay, Argentina, and Guatemala. He is her mirror or photographic negative who seeks, with a certain detachment, to understand her final days. He also abandons language in the sense of leaving the vernacular of the university where he teaches, to open himself to the idioms of the South American land and its surprises, in a lone journey.

Many characters in the book are in some form translators or creators engaged in solitary work, who ultimately give up language in favor of another activity or suffer from their contradictions and irremediable in-betweenness. This gives McDowell’s translation and critical responses to Austral the air of participation. One character ends up trapped in a web of duct tape in a sanatorium, as his brain gets entangled by the contradictions of the theory he dedicated his life to understanding.

Fonseca includes several photographs of Wittgenstein in his book, as a figure of shared devotion by Abravanel and Gamboa. Thought only achieves clarity when it confronts the abyss of impossibility of being communicated: the idea fascinates them both. But the young Abravanel is fascinated by Wittgenstein’s real world moves, his zags from the university classroom to the prisoner camp, while Gamboa focuses more attention on his ideas about a private language, beautiful and impenetrable as a geode.

While the character of Karl-Heinz von Mühlfeld is invested in proving the vitality of speech through miscegenation, Gamboa seems particularly invested in chasing moments of speechlessness, when language abandons its speaker. This is what Abravanel’s private language would serve. Fonseca quotes Tomas Tranströmer in an epigraph: “I come across this line of deer-slots in the snow: a language, language without words.” As Gamboa proceeds with his investigation of Abravanel’s fate, he is confronted with the perceived impossibility of communicating experience. He glosses Wittgenstein, who wrote of how people walk around with different beetles in their pockets and cannot adequately describe the feeling of them to others. In Gamboa’s words: “The Austrian had understood that merely swapping the name of the enigmatic beetle for the word ‘pain’ would emphasize the importance of that dark parable.”

Gamboa prefers to remain an observer, fascinated by those who throw themselves into the world with passion (“the urge some people have to leave it all behind and start over from scratch”), yet forever preferring to return to the expectations others have of him back home. For Gamboa, there is even an error in the thesis one can start over ex nihilo, since lives evolve or change by contagion and interaction, in slower layers. Certain eccentrics, like himself, exist in a quiet, secret dedication to an idea or person, inhabiting other voices through translation or copying (“he had no choice but to follow him to the end of his madness”).

Austral is a testimony twice removed, about the contagion between literature and life. It references both what Gamboa has witnessed and what he has observed others witnessing. He writes down impressions, and when the time comes, he stops writing, letting things settle into place in the grander perspective. To witness and embrace solitude: “Literature is precisely what arises when language founders.” One character recollects a portrait of Edith Sitwell by the Chilean painter Álvaro Guevara, which another character misremembers as a fish on a newspaper. Mad ideas, fantasies, and literature impact the real; one image infects another and makes it transform. There is no such thing as essence; everything transfigures through mutual contagion.

In the same section, the photographer Ignacio Acosta learns of a study of hallucinated flowers called Fleurs imaginaires and decides to photograph real flowers in Araucaria. There he sees incinerated trees and turns these into paintings of flowers, which resemble a close-up of fungus on eucalyptus. The prose shifts subtly into the scientific before one realizes it is doing so: a kaleidoscopic psychedelia, a constant transition and translation of images and perceptions.

Contamination is what makes culture, and such contact can result in new, hybrid forms of art and language that would not otherwise exist and are only possible because of their eternal betweenness. Contagion haunts anthropologist von Mühlfeld, who is studying a real-life Aryan colony founded in Paraguay by Nietzsche’s sister. She sought to find a haven for racial purity, but von Mühlfeld finds that racial “contamination” is inevitable, even encouraged. From this, he builds a theory about the contamination of ideas, one that eventually drives him mad.

The book opens with a description of a postcard, an image of a salt flat mine by Man Ray, La poussière, where the salt resembles mounds of dust. Saltpeter, extracted from the center of South America, is used in gunpowder. Throughout Austral, the explosive effects of colonialism andn neocolonialism continue to echo, long after the historical moments themselves. Fonseca has always been fascinated by the moment when an excess of reason produces unreasonable monsters, as in the Enlightenment attempts to impose civilization and capitalist order.

Characters sometimes experience the explosion of their own cultural identities through the alteration of a word crucial to them: their own name. Alicia Abravanel becomes Aliza Abravanel as she launches into a new continent, and Juvenal Suárez—his birth name erased by Christian evangelical missionaries—reinvents himself as Karl-Heinz’s interpreter.

Dictionaries are prominent, but rather than catalog the old meaning of words, they destabilize or explode their meanings and become strange incubators of the possibility for new definitions. We come across Chilean artist Álvaro Guevara’s Dictionnaire intuitif, composed in French, and an aural dictionary of the Nataibo language based on voice recordings of Juvenal Suárez, the indigenous man who is its last speaker. Such attempts to clarify or reinvent words, too, produce cultural detonations.

Fonseca recounts a Greek tragedy where a riotous banquet is interrupted by an earthquake, which kills everyone in attendance. The poet Simonedes of Ceos, however, happened to step out for fresh air just in time and is able to reconstruct the exact placement of bodies with the help of his mental map, thus saving the diners from anonymous death. Memory, the moral of the story goes, is spatial and can be reconstructed as theater. Following this logic, an artist in Austral dedicates himself to building a replica village where voices in different languages tell their stories about what happened during a local genocide. Art becomes a quasi–déjà vu of life, and ideas a quasi–déjà vu of sensation, just as the zodiac brings the same ancient Greek symbols back time and again, in slightly shifting constellations.

Hidden within all these constellations and labyrinths of philosophy is a love story and a story about the struggle of a writer to find meaning in words. The tone of Fonseca’s book is contemplative, again evoking the idea that all this ultimately will melt like deer tracks in snow. He himself is on the verge of abandoning language; his prose has a lyrical rhythm to it but also a shortness of breath, as if he had to keep pausing to take stock. Art must work hard to repeat and transmute life.

Aliza Abravanel’s story remains incomplete and enigmatic. It is but one more abandonment in this book that destabilizes its own narrative many times, as thought tries to invent a language necessary to read it, keeping its true purpose elusive. The themes of Austral are familiar ones—language, communication, love—but in this novel they find a particular subtlety and poignance. You never prick the same wound twice.




Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator of Latin American literature. Recently she completed a PhD at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge. She lives in Santiago, Chile. Her novella Jazz of the Affections is forthcoming from Subliminary Editions. More from this author →