Carlos Fonseca’s newest novel Natural History is more than a story I wish I had written. It is a story I wish I had lived. A fantastic and even phantasmal tale of a quest, a work of art masquerading as a scam, and a contemplation on human lives, the novel is an incisive discussion about the nature and meaning of truth. It is also about the 1960s and their aftermath, the literal and figurative existence of fire, and love faded and otherwise. Reminiscent of Roberto Bolano’s novels in tone and approach, Natural History is a dream that is real and reality that is a dream.
The reader is introduced to the narrator through the narrator’s remembrance of an invitation to meet a reclusive fashion designer. The designer goes by the name Giovanna and lives in New York City. The narrator lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was because of a paper he wrote for a scientific journal when he was a graduate researcher that he is invited to meet Giovanna. Even though the narrator has moved far past that time in his life both in terms of years and interests, he accepts the invitation. A limousine picks him up and drives him to a building in the Bronx? There he meets the fashion designer and begins an ongoing conversation with her and with himself. Each time he receives the invitation he waits for the limousine which then takes him to an undisclosed location. Over time, he discovers that Giovanna is dying from an unnamed disease. After her death, he thinks about her considerably less until several manila envelopes are hand-delivered to him by her estate. This is where the book begins—with the delivery of these envelopes.
Fonseca’s narrator steers the reader into Giovanna’s past; the mystery of her childhood and parentage, the reason she was so alone. His curiosity leads the reader to a tale of an Italian adventurer who discovers photography and becomes a world famous fashion photographer and chronicler of the Sixties. His passion for photography is lit when he discovers that “a camera could make an anarchist smile.” His favorite subject is that anarchist who is also a fashion model descended from General Sherman, whose path of fire destroyed much of Georgia during the US Civil War. His arson is the genesis of many fires uncovered throughout the tale. The photographer and model fall in love, discard everything but that love and embark on a quest to a South American village of mystery where it is rumored a child leads his disciples to a new world. Giovanna is but a child herself and is taken on the journey. It ends in the photographer’s realization that the quest is just a scam to pull in western seekers; it involves child labor and drug trafficking. He takes his child to a doctor and leaves. The mother remains—still enamored with her quest despite the deceit all around her.
There’s a village that is mostly deserted because of the underground fires burning there. In a surreal scene, the narrator discovers the photographer in this village, befriends him and then leaves. The model disappears from the world’s view, another casualty of the Sixties and its excesses. The reader discovers along with the tale’s narrator that she is living in Puerto Rico, planting false stories in the press, and causing the stock market to dip and dive. Her home is a half-built hi-rise inhabited by squatters. Almost by accident, she is discovered there and arrested for financial crimes. In other words, her manipulation of the stock market is criminal according to those who run the market and make the laws. Her defense is that she was merely creating art exploring the nature of money. Her inspirations are numerous and include Subcomandante Marcos and the anarchist novelist B. Traven.
Bourgeois law often has very little tolerance for art, especially when it treads on certain totems considered sacred in capitalist society. Foremost among these hallowed concepts is the concept of money. After all, this is the basis of capitalist culture—the existence and accumulation of money. There may be other gods the bourgeoisie claim to worship, but the only one they will kill for is the one they call money. The novel’s description of the trial and the model/artist’s defense of her actions is a clever discourse on the value society places on something with little intrinsic meaning or value. Of course, she is convicted. Money really is sacred in a world where nothing else is.