Just before the dawn of the new millennium, a curator at a New Jersey museum of natural history receives an unusual invitation from a celebrated fashion designer. She shares the curator’s fascination with the secrets of the animal kingdom—with camouflage and subterfuge—and she proposes that they collaborate on an exhibition, the nature of which remains largely obscure, even as they enter into a strange relationship marked by evasion and elision.
Seven years later, after the designer’s death, the curator recovers the archive of their never-completed project. During a long night of insomnia, he finds within the archive a series of clues about the true history of the designer’s family, a mind-bending puzzle that winds from Haifa, Israel, to bohemian 1970s New York to the Latin American jungles. As he follows this trail, the curator discovers a cast of characters whose own fixations interrogate the unstable frontiers between art, science, politics, and religion. An aging photographer, living nearly alone in an abandoned mining town where subterranean fires rage without end, creates miniature replicas of ruined cities. A former model turned conceptual artist becomes the star defendant in a trial over the very soul and purpose of art. A young indigenous boy receives a vision of the end of the world. Reality is a curtain, the curator realizes, and to draw it back is to reveal the theater of the obsessed.
Natural History is a portrait of a world trapped between faith and irony, tragedy and farce. An urgent and impressively ambitious novel in the tradition of Italo Calvino and Ricardo Piglia, it confirms Carlos Fonseca as one of the most daring writers of his generation.
Fonseca's inventive, complex tale (after Colonel L grimas) reads like a literary onion, constantly revealing new narratives and layers of meaning. Fonseca follows a curator at a New Jersey museum of natural history who receives a phone call from fashion designer Giovanna Luxembourg. They share an interest in the quincunx, an elemental pattern where "nature and culture came together in the repetition of a five-pointed shape," and Giovanna proposes a collaboration. They have many conversations while working together, but their joint exhibition remains incomplete. After Giovanna dies seven years later, the curator receives a bundle of envelopes with notes from their unfinished project. The curator starts reading them during a night of insomnia, and gradually learns about the history of Giovanna's family. Fonseca then interjects the story of Israeli photographer Yoav Toledano, who travels to South America in the 1950s, lured by "the poetic resonance" and solitude of Tierra del Fuego, while delving into religion, philosophy, and theories about photography and archives (the text contains a series of interstitial photos and is designed to mimic file folders). The various characters' perspectives blur the line between memory and fantasy, and their charm will keep readers along for the very intricate ride. Fonseca's innovative puzzle box of a novel packs a powerful punch.