Austral: A Novel

  • By Carlos Fonseca; translated by Megan McDowell
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 224 pp.
  • Reviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
  • June 20, 2023

A cerebral, multilayered tale of memory, loss, and long-ago friendships.

Austral: A Novel

When an unexpected and mysterious letter arrives among the usual bits of mail that Julio Gamboa receives at his office on the campus of a Midwestern university, he is at first certain it has come to the wrong Gamboa. But as he reads the message inside the envelope marked with an unfamiliar name and return address — Humahuaca, a small Argentinian city — a story begins to emerge, one built upon the rickety foundation of a long-ago friendship and the slick surfaces of memory, language, and loss.

Austral, Carlos Fonseca’s third novel, weaves the fictional unfinished works of Julio’s friend Aliza Abravanel with those that Julio carries and uncovers on a journey that takes him from his snowy American life to the mountains of Argentina and the plundered villages of Guatemala. Aliza and Julio met as teenagers in the 1980s, when she came to Central America from her home in the U.K., and just before Julio left his home in Costa Rica to study in the States, where he eventually got a university position, a spouse, and a rather uneventful life.

Uneventful, that is, except for his wife’s recent departure to spend Christmas in Paris with her family and to give him time and space to consider his own future. When the letter arrives with an invitation to come to Humahuaca to edit the now-deceased Aliza’s final manuscript, Julio, somewhat untethered by his wife’s absence and his approaching middle age, accepts.

He is welcomed by Olivia Walesi (the letter writer) and a small cast of young people who live in the artist commune that Aliza had been part of for over a decade. She and Julio lost touch 30 years before, when they parted ways on a road trip into Guatemala’s war-torn towns. While Julio lived a life of academic mundaneness, Aliza became a famous author. In midlife, though, she suffered a stroke followed by aphasia. Olivia fills Julio in on the details, including Aliza’s desire to complete her final work even as language began to fail her. “The bastards called her the Mute,” she tells him, referring to the people of the town surrounding the commune.

Here’s where Julio’s story braids with Aliza’s unpublished manuscript, a complicated and disturbing tale of unlikely friendship and madness among residents of New Germany, Paraguay, where Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (Friedrich Nietzsche’s sister) and her husband founded what was supposed to be a utopian colony based on “racial purity.” Aliza’s book (“novel or memoir,” Olivia challenges Julio to determine) is given its own chapters that run parallel to Julio’s story, and the two overlap and entwine throughout. Soon, Julio comes into possession of another of Aliza’s manuscripts, this one a sort of scrapbook of images, clippings, and notes that she titled Dictionary of Loss.

There are clues here for Julio to follow, a way of moving between what he has come to know and what he has forgotten. Early on in their relationship, Julio’s wife “had made him see that when a person is far from home, nostalgia and memories won’t get them far, and he heeded her words, finally deciding to carve out a path by dint of forgetting.” Aliza’s work and the pursuit of his own understanding draw Julio away from that path and bring him face-to-face with his neglected memories.

This is a complex book that’s often more conceptual than concrete, and despite Megan McDowell’s accessible and artful translation that likely mirrors the accessible and artful way Fonseca writes, a reader might find herself (as I did) having to go over passages again, stopping to look up names from history, art, literature, and linguistic studies in order to fully grasp the effect of the novel’s layering.

At the heart of the story, though, is the mystery of what pulled Aliza and Julio apart all those years ago. What brought him to abandon her in Guatemala? What drove her to stay when he left? The closest the reader comes to understanding is in the final section, when Julio travels to a village in Guatemala and finds an odd “theater of memory” that holds recordings of local oral histories. This is where he and Aliza split, and it’s here he finally faces up to his role in that separation.

The problem with the road, Aliza had written in one of her early novels, is that it produces the illusion of a purpose that doesn’t exist.” And so it is with the multifaceted Austral. Perhaps this is a story about a friendship lost and nearly forgotten. Perhaps it is about the destruction and loss of cultures and language. Perhaps it is about what we remember and what we forget. Whichever, the road of this finely crafted work leads readers in numerous directions, the purpose of the journey as chimerical as memory itself.

Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Tucson.

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