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Natural History

A Novel

Carlos Fonseca; Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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ISBN10: 0374216304
ISBN13: 9780374216306


320 Pages



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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 hidden forms of the animal kingdom—with camouflage and subterfuge—and she proposes that they collaborate on an exhibition, the form of which itself remains largely obscure, even as they enter into a strange relationship marked by evasion and elision.

Seven years later, after the death of the designer, 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 to the true story of the designer’s family, a mind-bending puzzle that winds from Haifa, Israel, to bohemian 1970s New York to the Latin American jungle. On the way, he 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, who creates models of ruined cities; a former model turned conceptual artist—and a defendant in a trial over the very nature and purpose of art; a young indigenous boy who has received a vision of the end of the world. Reality is a curtain, as the curator realizes, and to draw it back is to reveal the theater of obsession.

Natural History is the portrait of a world trapped between faith and irony, between tragedy and farce. A defiantly contemporary 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.


Praise for Natural History

"Carlos Fonseca unspools a genre-defying, literary puzzle of a novel. Propelled forward by exquisite prose, the book is a credit to translator Megan McDowell as well as to the author."—Christian Science Monitor

“[Natural History] often reminds one of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece 2666 . . . A conceptual detective fiction in the tradition of Ricardo Piglia or Don DeLillo . . . [Fonseca maintains] a rhythm that keeps us in suspense for the entire length of this singular narrative . . . Within this complex game of Russian dolls that Fonseca has constructed, nothing remains more fascinating and enthralling than the experience of reading it. Amidst intertextual references and philosophical winks, Natural History is above all a story that displays the power of a mighty imagination capable of transporting us to a myriad of scenarios and situations, conveyed through entertaining and dazzling prose. Fonseca is, without a doubt, one of the great writers of a new generation.”—Enrique D. Zattara, 3:AM Magazine

“Fonseca’s inventive and distinctive style is a delight that serves up narrative twists at every turn of the page.”The Daily Beast

"For readers interested in climate change and the natural world—but who prefer books a little less on the nose—Natural History offers a layered and at times wonderfully beguiling story about art, history, and mystery that hops generations. Animal lovers will delight at the protagonist’s obsession with creaturely furtiveness and wild animals’ natural ability to self-camouflage. And fans of ambitious structure-benders like Italo Calvino will appreciate the novel’s planet—and decade—spanning mystery that connects 1970s New York to the jungles of Latin America. As the protagonist, a curator at a natural history museum, pieces the clues together, he discovers links between art, science, and religion that change forever how he sees the world."—Amy Brady, Lit Hub

"Like a certain map that appears in its pages, a map in which two versions of a city are superimposed on one another, Natural History reveals a strange reality that lives in the shadows of our own. Carlos Fonseca has written a wonderful, wildly ambitious book that builds a labyrinth from art, politics, religion, love, and obsession."—Chris Power, author of Mothers

“Fiercely intelligent and wildly imaginative—a fever dream of a novel, rich and strange.”—Carys Davies, author of West

"Natural History is a deeply thoughtful, bold, and kaleidoscopic novel, one that, with great audacity and even greater beauty, invites reflection about the weight of legacies and about the masks that make up what we call identity."—Alia Trabucco Zerán, author of The Remainder

"Carlos Fonseca is one of the most gifted and imaginative young novelists in Latin America today."—Chloe Aridjis, author of Sea Monsters

"With Natural History, Carlos Fonseca, a writer of archives, masks, and ruins—that is, a writer with the capacity to create new ways of thinking, an ingenious and obstinate explorer of the abyss—has cemented himself as one of my favorites."—Enrique Vila-Matas, author of the International Booker Prize–longlisted Mac and His Problem

“Everything is contingent in Fonseca’s story, and nothing is quite to be trusted . . . [Natural History] is an elegant meditation on art, inconstancy, and hiding . . . A treat for fans of Cortázar, Bolaño, and other adepts of the literary enigma.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Rising star Fonseca’s new novel [is] a literary tour de force, impressively translated by Megan McDowell . . . Fonseca's challenging and transcendent novel offers a prescient message about media fabrications and the unreliability of history.”—Booklist

“Fonseca’s inventive, complex tale reads like a literary onion, constantly revealing new narratives and layers of meaning . . . 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.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


For years I remained faithful to a strange obsession. No sooner would someone start talking to me of beginnings than my mind would turn to the childhood memory of an old painter I used to watch on TV, who painted dozens of nearly identical...

About the author

Carlos Fonseca; Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Carlos Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica, and spent half of his childhood and adolescence in Puerto Rico. In 2016, he was named one of the twenty best Latin American writers born in the 1980s at the Guadalajara Book Fair, and in 2017 he was included in the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin American writers under forty. He is the author of the novel Colonel Lágrimas, and in 2018, he won the National Prize for Literature in Costa Rica for his book of essays, La lucidez del miope. He teaches at Trinity College, Cambridge, and lives in London.

Megan McDowell is an award-winning Spanish-language literary translator from Kentucky. Her work includes books by Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enriquez, and Lina Meruane. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and Vice, among others. Her translations have won the Valle-Inclán prize and the English PEN prize, and been short- and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in Santiago, Chile.

Rodrigo Ruiz

Carlos Fonseca