Chloe Aridjis You wrote your doctoral thesis on the representation of natural disaster and catastrophe in art and literature, so how often did the notion of catastrophe, in this case man-made, enter your thoughts while writing this novel? Did academic themes migrate into its arena—that is, the catalogue of twentieth-century disasters man brought upon himself? Both natural and man-made disasters could be read as an outburst of tension that's been building over time. And this raises the question of bearing witness, as your protagonist does, to historical events... And, of course, you have the character who paints the same volcano over and over again.
Carlos Fonseca As you say, I wrote my thesis in tandem with the novel, and to some extent the novel became the secret flipside of the dissertation—the place where I could take certain ideas to their limits. One of these ideas was that the twentieth century had turned universal history into a museum of ruins. In particular, I remember reading, in the year prior to writing the novel, an essay by Walter Benjamin, where he talks about the angel of history as he who, propelled by the storm of progress, contemplates how the past has been reduced to a giant pile of debris by the catastrophic passage of time. I remember thinking about that scene and telling myself that the task of the novelist was not unlike that of the angel imagined by Benjamin: the contemporary author must also, to some extent, make whole what has been wrecked. The twenty-first century author must reconstruct, out of the ruins of the twentieth century, an image of the past that would allow us to imagine a future. The novel then emerged as an attempt to imagine a Borges-like protagonist—the colonel—that, in the manner of a collector, writes a universal encyclopedia in an attempt to make whole what has been wrecked.
This is ultimately a question about witnessing. What does it mean to bear witness to a catastrophe? When I decided that this protagonist was going to take as its basis the life story of the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, I did so intrigued by a simple question: How could it be that this man, who had been present, as witness, at many of the catastrophic events of the twentieth century—from the Spanish Civil War to the Holocaust, from May 1968 to Vietnam—had decided at the end of his life to seclude himself from society, to become a hermit? Why had the witness decided to seclude himself from political reality and devote himself to the composition of a universal theory capable of explaining history in mathematical terms? Perhaps, I thought, this was a new way of bearing witness: the only adequate testimonial way of interacting with a century that had been marked by a constant repetition of man-made catastrophes.
Perhaps it was while thinking about the idea that history is a constant repetition of an original catastrophe that I decided the mother of the protagonist would spend the whole second world war painting the same Mexican volcano over and over again. The reference there was to the eccentric and fascinating Mexican painter Dr. Atl—the teacher of the Mexican muralists—who later in his life became obsessed with volcanoes and started painting each of them more than a thousand times. I thought his gesture, in its obsessive absurdity, was the embodiment of a terrifying truth: the twentieth century was a constant chain of catastrophes, and as such, it asked for a witness capable of recording this absurd repetition. The protagonist of the novel is, in this sense, a man who collects bits and pieces of historical data in an attempt to reconstruct history.