Eye on the Indies

Eye on the Indies

A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers

By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Review Editor

Lanie Tankard

Book: Colonel Lágrimas: A Novel

Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, October 4, 2016 (208 pp; $15.99 paperback, $14.99 eBook), ISBN 978-1632061034. Published in Spanish by Anagrama (2015). Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

Author: Carlos Fonseca 

Carlos Fonseca Suárez, who lives in London, is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the Centre of Latin American Studies, University of Cambridge. He earned a PhD in Latin American Literature from Princeton University and is preparing a book manuscript from his dissertation, which was titled “States of Nature: Catastrophe, History and the Reconstruction of Spanish America.” Fonseca was born in Costa Rica and grew up in Puerto Rico. His interests include art history, theatrics in writing, archival fiction, and philosophy. Fonseca’s work has appeared in various literary journals. Colonel Lágrimas is his first novel.

Translator: Megan McDowell

Originally from Kentucky, Megan McDowell now lives in Santiago, Chile. She has translated four books by Alejandro Zambra, one of which earned the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation. In addition to articles in magazines and literary journals, McDowell has also translated books by Lina Meruane, Álvaro Bisama, Carlos Busqued, and Arturo Fontaine.

Publisher: Restless Books

Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison started Brooklyn-based Restless Books in 2013.

Publisher Stavans, a PhD of Columbia University, is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Jewish Book Award. His numerous books include a novel (The Disappearance), a book of short stories (The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories), a memoir (On Borrowed Words), essay collections, edited anthologies, cartoon collaborations, a children’s tale about bullying (Golemito), translations, and multi-volume editions. Conversations with Ilan Stavans is a collection of interviews from his long-running PBS television series La Plaza. He cofounded the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford.

Ellison, co-author with Stavans of Reclaiming Travel, was executive editor at Restless Books and the founding editor of Habitus (a journal of international Jewish literature). His work has appeared in The New York Times and on National Public Radio.

Nathan Rostron is current editor and marketing director at Restless. A former editor at Little, Brown and Company, Rostron helped launch Bookish, an online book discovery startup.

In 2014, Restless established a $10,000 Prize for New Immigrant Writing that alternates between fiction and nonfiction. Setting out as a digital-only publisher, Restless has since shifted to print. Assuming nonprofit status at the beginning of 2017, Restless puts out about eighteen books annually, distributed internationally by Simon & Schuster. The publications include classic great books linked to online teaching videos, facial memoirs of personal nonfiction by diverse writers, and Cuban science fiction. Restless is launching a new imprint called Yonder: Restless Books for Young Readers. As Stavans explained in his blog last fall: “We believe it is essential to teach our children to place themselves in the shoes of others who don’t look or speak like them, to instill in them a lifelong curiosity about the world and their place in it.”

Restless Books is not currently accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions, but fiction submissions open in September 2017.

Review: 

“Who are we, who is each one of us,
if not a combinatoria of experiences, information,
books we have read, things imagined?”
Italo Calvino, “Multiplicity”
Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Carlos Fonseca fashioned the namesake protagonist of his debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, around the real life of Alexander Grothendieck, a mathematician who earned the 1966 Fields Medal. The result radiantly expands the genre of historical fiction so far it breaks the mold.

Who is this Colonel Lágrimas? Straight hair, small hands, Jewish, suffering from face blindness (a disorder known as prosopagnosia), megalomaniac likely gone mad in his old age, now in search of peace before death. He has barricaded himself in the Pyrenees to write his own life story as well as total human history. Yet after decades, he’s still struggling with the project. The man appears to have a serious case of writer’s block engendered by attempts to reconcile his memories with facts. Vast quantities of coffee prove inadequate to help him navigate this maze, even though he “was born in a caffeinated century.” Is his mind slipping? Finally he reaches out to alcohol.

A nattering nameless narrator mediates between the colonel and the reader, peppering the story with asides such as: “It would seem that we too have fallen under the illusion of the hero.”

Within this layered tale, Fonseca ponders the personal, political, philosophical, technological, and literary forces that brought us to the present era. He examines the obsessive consumption of televised images. He considers “the border of what is private.” By framing the colonel’s self-imposed imprisonment alongside the narrator as all-seeing watchman, the author generates a vivid metaphorical panopticon.

Colonel Lágrimas delves into identity: Is it feigned? “To don a mask was to refuse a destiny.” Fonseca explores the role of memories, both real and false, in one’s sense of self. Does the colonel want to remember—or does he want to forget? Here is a man endeavoring to rebrand himself. The narrator tries to enlist readers in a group attempt to unmask the colonel, to draw “a kind of cubist portrait of this tired man” who was born stateless—whose country is the globe. During his youth in Mexico, the colonel met a character called Maximiliano Cienfuegos (a mashup of names from times gone by in Mexico and Cuba). After only one game of chess together, the colonel bombards Cienfuegos for decades in a cryptic correspondence from all over the world.

Fonseca names the colonel’s fictional father Vladimir Vostokov, after an actual Russian priest exiled for criticizing Rasputin. The colonel’s mother is Chana Abramov, an “old actress turned illustrator” who keeps painting a Mexican volcano surrounded by “conquistador heroes.” Then she paints out the figures, leaving a “false epic” on thousands of canvases depicting only a lone volcano. The narrator urges us to find those lost figures, to “follow the footsteps of a story that grows like a volcano.”

Fonseca scrutinizes Colonel Lágrimas, tossing small bits of quantitative information like breadcrumbs via the novel’s storyteller, who occasionally pulls back to muse about this character against a backdrop of world events over the colonel’s long lifetime—portraying the colonel as a brilliant Forrest Gump. Then the raconteur zooms in to focus on what the man’s doing at his desk that very moment. Fonseca becomes both narrative cinematographer á la Bertolt Brecht and pointillist wordsmith á la Georges Seurat, ultimately creating a verbal graph of the last hundred years á la Edward Tufte.

In his approach to fiction, Fonseca joins the tradition of writers such as Colombian Gabriel García Marquez, Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Mexican Daniel Sada, Portuguese José Saramago, Argentine Julio Cortázar, Chilean Roberto Bolaño, and Italian Italo Calvino. I attended a panel when Fonseca spoke at the 2016 Texas Book Festival November 5, where he noted: “Through our novels, style is already a political act. Language has become transparent in a fast-paced manner. A political literary act is to force language to be predominant.”

“Everything is political,” Fonseca underscored, “even not doing something. It’s a political act. In Colonel Lágrimas, I was interested in consumer culture. How or why characters enter or leave politics. Alexander Grothendieck was present at many of the twentieth century’s political events. Then he became one of the best mathematicians of the century. He taught in Vietnam. Eventually he moved to the Pyrenees and said he was going to write the whole of human history in mathematical symbols. How can we question this lack of activity throughout the novel?”

After the panel, I asked Fonseca about the book’s narrator. He later lengthened his reply via a direct message on Twitter: “I kept thinking about your question regarding the narrator throughout the day, and I figured that—besides the cinematographic aspect—and the fact that the colonel is surrounded by cameras almost as if he was in a reality show, the narrative voice became some sort of communal voice that judges the colonel and somehow becomes his own political consciousness. The voice that keeps asking: why did you decide to leave society behind, why did you decide to escape from reality?”

Fonseca portrayed European and Latin American cultures in this novel that he obviously wrote before its publication last fall, yet his enduring allusions resonate beyond continents and eras, particularly in the current Zeitgeist. There’s something hauntingly familiar about the colonel in this “story of an imploding century.”

Nota bene: “lágrimas” means “tears” in Spanish.

Bravo, Carlos Fonseca.

Copyright 2017 Woven Tale Press LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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