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Austral by Carlos Fonseca

Book Review: ‘Austral’ by Carlos Fonseca

Austral

In his new book, Austral, Carlos Fonseca takes readers down the winding path of memory, history, and language and paints a picture of how the three interweave and interconnect. In a story stretched out over more than a century, three continents, and seen from a variety of viewpoints, Fonseca paints a textured and multi-faceted tale of frustration, inspiration, and inventiveness.

Julio Gamboa is living out the life he was supposed to. He won and accepted a scholarship to an American University, completed his degrees, and now teaches in an American University. His teenage friend, Aliza Abravanel, took a completely different path. She vanished down a rabbit hole of creativity and faith in her ability to change the world. He last saw her, when just before he left for University, she decided to travel into a war zone in Guatemala and document the reality – believing herself safe from harm because of her commitment to art.

So years later it comes as something of a surprise when he receives a letter from an artist’s commune in Argentina saying she has bequeathed him her final literary projects to edit. She had been gradually losing her ability to write and speak during her last few years – aphasia caused by a stroke – and her final work needed to be polished.

With his own life at loose ends – he and his wife have just separated – Gamboa takes off on the spur of the moment to tackle the project. What he finds is something far more complex than simply putting a manuscript into a publishable format. For his old friend had gone gone on a journey whose origins dated back to the 1800s and a Germanic anti-semitic commune started in Paraguay, called Nueva Germania, among whose founding members was Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche – the philosopher’s sister. 

Nietzsche

Nietzsche led to a German anthropologist, Karl-Heinz von Muhlfeld, who travelled to Paraguay in the 1950s to visit the remnants of Nueva Germania where he met Juvenal Sudrez, the last surviving member of his people – and the sole speaker of his people’s language. The missionaries who “discovered” his people didn’t just give them Christian names, they also gave them viruses that literally killed them.

The story of Sudrez was relayed by the anthropologist to Abravanel’s father in the form of a monologue and a tape recording of the Sudrez attempting to create a dictionary of his language with Spanish translations. Unfortunately the dictionary was lost when in a fit of madness – he was in a sanatorium by then – von Muhlfeld destroyed the tapes.

Abrayanel only discovered the existence of all of this by reading her father’s diaries recounting his meetings with von Muhlfeld. When she left home she took them with her and carried them around for years while she created and inspired other people. Only near the end of her life did she start working with them, when her own command over language was vanishing. 

While that sounds like a bit of a convoluted mess, Fonseca has done nearly the impossible of tying it all together so it makes sense, and turning it into a lovely commentary on the interrelationship of language, speech, history and memory. 

The people in the book are fascinating. From the historical, Nietzsche who along with her husband really did found the nationalist German colony in Paraguay, to the fictional, each are compelling and intriguing. While some of the characters we only meet through the writings of others, others tell us their stories with passion and eloquence.

With Austral Fonseca has created a magnificent tapestry of people, places, language and history that will having you thinking and wondering about topics you might never have considered prior to reading this book. One thing is for certain; history will never be the same after you’ve read Austral.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of three books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion" and "Introduction to Greek Mythology For Kids". Aside from Blogcritics he contributes to Qantara.de and his work has appeared in the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and has been translated into numerous languages in multiple publications.

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