‘Natural History’ is a beautiful, challenging puzzle

A collaboration between a curator and a fashion designer evolves into a mind-bending exploration of perception and truth in this enigmatic novel.

Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
“Natural History” by Carlos Fonseca, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp.

Costa Rican writer Carlos Fonseca’s latest book begins with a simple premise: The narrator, a curator in a natural history museum in New Jersey, receives a call from Giovanna Luxembourg, a prominent fashion designer, who proposes a collaborative project. They are both intrigued by natural patterns and colors that provide camouflage. Obscurity isn’t the usual métier of a designer, but that anomaly only hints at the depth of subterfuge that unfolds in the pages of this wonderfully enigmatic novel.

The two do meet – many times, in fact, over the course of a few years. During their rambling conversations, Giovanna spills intriguing hints about her life and her family, mysterious stories devoid of identifying detail, tales that she never authenticates. “One of these days I’ll show you the papers,” she promises. But she never does. And no exhibition ever comes into focus for the pair before Giovanna succumbs to an unspecified illness.

It is only years later that the curator begins to untangle the facts. His pursuit, which Fonseca lays out in the next four sections of the book, unwinds into a tale that challenges commonly held perceptions about identity, obscurity, and interpretation – and that’s just to start.

The journey begins when the curator accepts delivery of a package that contains a stack of manila envelopes. Carefully tied with string, each envelope holds files – Giovanna’s archives for the proposed project. Each file is meticulously detailed and organized in a manner that defies the evasiveness she had always conveyed in their conversations.

The archive becomes the curator’s treasure map. With academic rigor, he embarks on an adventure to verify the mysterious wisps of the designer’s stories, and maybe discern what is real, too. He follows a trail that reaches across continents and decades, touching on political movements and popular culture. It introduces a colorful collection of characters, including a prominent fashion photographer, a conceptual artist put on trial for the repercussions of her work, and an apparent prophet hidden away in a South American jungle. 

So does he learn the truth? Fonseca seems to argue that the answer would depend on one’s perspective. People don’t see from a singular point of view, after all, so how do we decide what is genuine, what is true? Fiction “truly begins with the one who holds the camera,” he writes.

The narrator does learn facts about Giovanna’s family members and the lives they lived. But he begins to grasp that his understanding of these details is at the mercy of someone else’s telling, whether they’re shared in the words of a news story or conveyed in photographs. Does learning about past events in this way really provide him with a clearer picture of Giovanna, or is he merely accepting someone else’s fiction?

“Natural History” delivers a conundrum of a story, one that depends upon neither events nor characters for its substance. Reading each page requires unwinding a riddle of themes to discover hints and clues hidden in familiar history. Fonseca presses the reader to grapple with such issues as authenticity and subterfuge, challenging the idea that anyone can truly know about the world and its inhabitants. It’s helpful to remember that the story begins with a shared appreciation of naturally occurring camouflage.

With lush prose that owes a debt to translator Megan McDowell, Fonseca weaves the fictional threads of Giovanna’s life into a fabric of real history, grounding his story in events ranging from Sherman’s March to the Sea to the legal battle between sculptor Constantin Brâncuși and the American government that redefined “art” at the turn of the 20th century. Even Andy Warhol gets a mention. 

Yet no matter how seemingly obscure a reference may appear to be, no detail in this book is superfluous. Fonseca ties each one into recurring motifs that illustrate his interpretation of perception and reality, faith and irony, tragedy and farce. Though sometimes inscrutable, he presses the reader to consider the ways that societies communicate – and how, in turn, perspectives shape perceptions in the arts and in politics.

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