Austral by Carlos Fonseca

Carlos Fonseca eases you into his epic storyline layer by layer, deepening his text with segue after segue, that you have to be alert to notice and say: that’s a segue! Deeper in, deeper in, like you’re sinking into delicious, desirable quicksand.

Julio is from a hard-scrabble family in Costa Rica. His older brother, the family’s first hope, ends up a street tough and criminal. Julio, made of less stern stuff, is however, bookish. It turns out being bibliophilic is his secret power. Fast forward to an adult Julio, professor of literature at a snowy midwestern campus.

I liked it that the adult Julio is compared to his wife’s dog…a modest, frightened little canine who trembles in fear as he is packed up by his owner, Julio’s soon-to-be ex-partner. The relationship has broken up and his now lost love is heading for Europe with her anxious animal.

After the breakup, Julio will end up in an artist’s colony in Argentina, where there will be another, more life-affirming dog named Clarke. I’ve already restarted my reading of Austral once. I got lost in dark passageways. Austral is a mountain of literature which repeatedly restarts itself.

The word “austral” refers to the south. The name “Australia” is derived from it. This is at least the second time, almost in as many readings, that I’ve encountered the theme of a failed, or at least problematic, diaspora. The first was several books back in If I Survive You. There’s also a strain of ethnic lostness in Bliss Montage, another recent reading.

Julio has received a letter from Olivia, a woman unknown to him, who brings an iconic name back into his life, a flaming love from his youth, her dual name a sign of cultural migration in itself: Alicia/Aliza. Alicia Abravanel.

Alicia Abravanel: novelist. The fictional career of a fictional novelist, with fictional books described in detail.  Her early “novels” were autobiographical. I was intrigued by Abravanel’s newer project: An ambitious tetralogy based on the classic four elements, where “human traces” would be subsumed into vast cosmic movements.

The third novel in this series of four is the last published so far. Comparative Meteorology, widely praised, as you might guess, was devoted to air. The earlier novels covered fire and water. The first two hundred pages of the “air” novel treats of the semiotics of cloud formations. You can guess that human appearances in these novels of the classical four elements are rare, or oblique. It’s a fascinating idea for a set of avant-garde novels although I expect they would be purgatory for the reader. Fonseca is reinforcing a complex metaphor of human transience.

The manuscript of the final novel in the series was centered on “earth”. Olivia said it was to be called “Strata”. But the posthumous manuscript that Julio is offered from Alicia’s friend Olivia is titled “A Private Language”.

If you’re familiar with any Anglo language philosophy from the earlier twentieth, you know that “private language” is a loaded term. It refers to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument that the meaning of words doesn’t depend on our subjective sense of them but on the use of words in “language games”. Broadly and roughly, you may think of yourself as having a soul, but the meaning of “soul” or your individuality is out in the world of affairs, not inside your head. Your sense of “where your self is” and what your self is, is being challenged by this kind of analysis. I was pleased that Wittgenstein makes a personal appearance later in the book in a manner typical of Austral: in a book within a book, in a reaching kind of metaphysical scrapbooking dictionary (a book) within Austral.

Austral is jammed with references to writers, artists and thinkers. If you know who they are, it helps with your reading of Austral. But you don’t have to know who any of them are to appreciate the book. Who you don’t know puts you on the threshold of new learning. There are more wonderful books in the world than any of us can ever get to. Carlos Fonseca’s new book, which itself functions as a compendium of books, both real and fictional, reminded me of that.


Fonseca is setting up the reader up for an appreciation of human vanishing. Throughout Austral, a parallel tracing of people, documents and landscapes will, like a wilderness trail, lead the reader forward. But the reader will need to do the work of following the clues in this deep probing literary mystery story. It’s a novel of ideas where the characters tend to get submerged. You’re hoping our hero Julio survives in the story’s cognitive surge


Alicia Abravanel loses the power of speech. Olivia bitterly reports that the town’s gossips refer to Alicia as “The Mute”. She’s also referred to as “the mute gringa”. The opening of Austral has quoted Tranströmer and Canetti respectively on silence, excerpts:

Wilderness has no words.


a man who unlearns the world’s languages…

Also later, Juan Rulfo: No, there is no way to judge the depth of the silence…

Olivia tells Julio that it’s up to him to decide whether Abravanel posthumous manuscript, which he will edit, is a novel or a memoir. Fonseca is teasing the reader into uncovering the complex sense of reality that the author is limning.

Austral steps into the body of Alicia’s posthumous manuscript, underscored by a shift to all-italics: In the late 19th century, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, the famed thinker’s sister, together with her husband, founds a “racially pure” all-German colony in Paraguay called “New Germany”. The object of the colony is to shield the German “race” from Jewish influence. After three years, the colony fails. Elisabeth’s husband commits suicide. But she returns to Europe to find her philosopher brother a syphilitic invalid. She takes advantage of Nietzsche’s helpless state to re-engineer his philosophy as a foundation for Nazism, turning Nietzsche’s ideas into race theories that he never would have endorsed.

Still within Alicia’s novel/memoir, in italics: seventy years later, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Third Reich, Karl-Heinz von Mühfeld, a pioneering anthropologist, becomes fascinated with the idea of the lost “New Germany” colony. He wishes to use its bizarre history to reaffirm his contrary theory that great cultures are mixed, not “pure”.

But Karl-Heinz von Mühfeld’s health declines. He becomes paranoid about germs, wearing white gloves and dressed in white linen everywhere. His native companion, Juvenal Suárez, representative of an about-to-be dead culture, dresses in contrasting black linen. Imagine Juvenal (not his indigenous name) being the last speaker of his lost community’s language. That would be a private language indeed…Von Mühfeld’s growing craziness leads to his invalid status in a sanatorium, resembling somewhat the fate of Nietzsche.

Alicia’s father, Yitzhak Abravanel, with a degree in sociology, translates some chapters of von Mühfeld’s last book, The Impurity of Pureness. This, together with his Jewish sounding name, brings him to the attention of von Mühfeld, who asks to see him. They play chess in the sanatorium. Yitzhak learns von Mühfeld’s story.

By this contact with Yitzhak, the story of New Germany, by degrees, is brought to the attention of Alicia, via the discovery of her father’s diaries…which sounds like a neo-Gothic plot line.

Recall we are still within Alicia’s text that is within Austral. We are still in the land of italics…in the manuscript that Olivia declares may be fiction or memoir, leaving it to editor Julio to decide. “A long chain of narrators trying to understand by retelling a story…”


I have tried in this review to convey the sense of a reading experience. I’m also thinking about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my hometown, which is currently renovating its galleries for “the art of indigenous peoples”. The new galleries will be white, gleaming and flooded with light. The better to enhance the viewing experience of the lost civilizations of the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas, the conquered peoples of the South Sea Islands and Africa. Cultures that had been, and are presently, fighting off the enforced silences that sometimes have been imposed on them by countries that speak European languages. Those histories are also relevant to the stories and concerns of Austral.

In Austral, Carlos Fonseca is pouring out labyrinths. He liquifies them, spilling them out over the reader’s head, an anointing into vanishing languages and peoples.

Austral is signifying the hell out of itself, including with its evocation of the earth through land artist sculptures (a la Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt). Austral is an enigma machine. It’s symbol, mentioned several times in the book, is the spiral. The words “enigma, “spiral” “labyrinth” and “puzzle” all come up in the book.

Is there a faith in this novel that despite all the nullity, something lasts? Dual streams of memory and oblivion engage in mortal combat in the pages of Austral, with Julio serving as an everyman witness. Will Julio find his courage in the end? We should praise a novel that raises more questions than it answers, since they are such good questions. Austral will be available in May from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.