Austral is the third novel by the Costa Rican-Puerto Rican writer Carlos Fonseca, though the first to be published in the UK, where he lives, working as a professor of postcolonial Latin American literature and culture at Cambridge. The novel begins with a middle-aged academic, Julio Gamboa, receiving a postcard sent from a remote Argentinian artists’ commune on behalf of an ex-girlfriend from thirty years ago, Alicia Abravanel. Their relationship was brief and his memories of it are buried, but she went on to have a successful writing career before suffering a debilitating stroke, which left her mute from aphasia. The postcard informs him that Alicia has died and that she had an ‘irrevocable wish’ for him to edit her final manuscript. Julio drops everything to head down to Argentina, even though he thinks that her dying wish ‘seemed like a mistake, or, even worse, a prank’, doubting ‘the absurd notion that out of everyone, he was the one who knew her best’. It’s a remark that anticipates the reader’s dawning sense of the implausibility of the premise at the book’s centre.
Alicia’s unfinished book tells the story of an eccentric anthropologist who studies the bizarre attempts by the anti-Semite Bernhard Förster and his wife, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (sister of the philosopher), to establish an Aryan colony in Paraguay called New Germany. In studying the failed commune, located in the area that