International Boulevard

11.2 Million Pages Later, a Novelist Finds the Fame He Sought

Fifteen years ago a prominent Panama lawyer sat down for lunch around a huge lobster with an Argentine writer and critic. Behind the veneer of a rich and successful financial lawyer, Ramon Fonseca had an uninspired and second rate novelist sleeping inside him, a novelist who yearned to one day become “Garcia Marquez,” as Christian Kupchick found. From Anfibia, Ramon Fonseca long before the Panama Papers leak made him famous:

In its infinite ebb and flow, reality never ceases to amaze. As the viral news spread with repercussions felt around the world, I remembered a small related anecdote. It happened when the 20th century had just begun and 2001 was agonizing in our country, foretelling our most-feared apocalypse, one headed by some of the same major players who now govern us, and that victimized some of those who helped put them there (amnesia is an illness with no return, we know; “destiny’s neurosis”, the great Segismundo called it: compulsive repetition.)

I found myself in Panama at the time, in Bocas del Toro, far from any offshore dreams. There, where on his fourth trip Columbus thought he had found Eden, a fun-loving group of young people, very well-stocked with alcohol, were paying homage to the good life. They were young professionals who had studied at North American universities: The future opened before them like a flower and gave them the gift of that small party.

At one point, one of them asked me where I was from. When I told him, he brightened: “I’m a lawyer and I work at my father’s practice, commercial law, and we have many clients in Argentina”. As often happens in small countries, he gave several last names thinking that we all knew each other. In fact: I knew all of them (another coincidence: many of the surnames he cited are back in the news today).

When he asked me if I too were a lawyer, I was afraid of letting him down. But my friendly companion was again as surprised as he was euphoric: “My uncle is also a writer! Of course, first he is a lawyer: the best there is in our field”. It is necessary to clarify that to be a writer in Panama (a profession as odd as that of an ant acupuncturist or an igloo builder), you must first have a dignified title — accountant, engineer, proctologist or ham radio operator — to later exercise your hobby properly. I wanted to know who his uncle was and when I heard his name, I explained that I had a meeting with him a couple days later. The news occasioned more raised glasses. He asked me to give his uncle his best.

There are no streets in Panama City. I mean, there are streets, but many of them do not have names. Location is given by landmarks. When I got into the shared taxi, I told the driver: “I’m going to Mr. Fonseca’s office”. No more direction was necessary. He left me outside a large building guarded by invisible forces. On the door of his office, along with his name, place names stacked up where the lawyer-writer conducted business: “Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Virgin Islands, Abu Dhabi, Bahrein, Lichtenstein, Luxembourg…”. I like geography, but I detected that the common denominator between these places had nothing to do with that discipline.

Ramon Fonseca, at the time, was a mix between an attractive middle-aged man and a successful executive. Elegant (I wanted to believe that his suit was Armani, but I have been unable to tell) and friendly, he seemed like any mother-in-law’s dream. We discussed literary questions, although the entire conversation had a slightly anachronistic tone: He occupied himself with praising Sabato and Mallea; not Borges, “a bit inaccesible”; nor Cortazar, “a bit vanguardist”. From those writers on he did not know anything. Literature had stopped half a century ago.

When midday arrived he provided lunch. Facing down an intimidating lobster Thermidor, we continued discussing literature (I was genuinely interested in a few writers from his country and Central America), until after the third glass of an exquisite Chilean camenere, the good man started to confess.

He was separated, but maintained a good relationship with his ex-wife (“after all, the mother of my children,” he added discerningly). There were two kids, a couple of siblings about to enter their teens, and in honor of his passion for fatherhood, he had taken a vow of celibacy until they were grown. This statement, exhibited with pride, should have alerted me to something, but maybe the carmenere and the place names did not allow me to register it immediately. Ramon Fonseca said he also had a “little weekend house” (a “condo”) on Taboga Island, where Gauguin had made a stop before heading on to Haiti. He had finished outfitting it with furniture brought from Polynesia and offered for me to visit. I thanked him, but kept my distance. Then came the final attack.

“Look, it’s like this,” he said. “Everything I have done in my life up until now has been successful. Maybe my marriage didn’t work the way it should have, but I had the woman I wanted, the most wonderful one I could find. Professionally, I couldn’t ask for anything more: The future of my family is taken care of for several generations. And yet I still have ambitions for something more.” When I asked him what that might be, Ramon Fonseca was silently before he solemnly declared: “I want to be Garcia Marquez”. It seemed to me that the lobster’s tentacles trembled. I tried to explain that, while his desire was commendable, it would difficult to turn himself into a clone of Gabo, or even to imitate his aesthetic. He stopped me. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I’ve expressed myself well. It’s not that I want to be him: I want to win a Nobel Prize. I already have everything else. I’m lacking real importance.”

He proposed it as another natural step in his journey. He could have aspired to start a farm of immortal chickens on Neptune or discover the fountain of youth. It was all the same. He proposed it like Balzac’s alchemist in “The Quest of the Absolute”. A few years later, I learned that an editor was struggling fruitlessly with one of his novels but did not hear much else. I still have some of his books, with titles like “The Open Window” and “The Island of the Iguanas”, generously dedicated to me.

Even though fiction evidently was not his thing, yesterday I came across his name again. Ramon Fonseca finally found real importance.

Christian Kupchick Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.

TAGS:Argentina Corruption Scandal Financial Haven Mossack Fonseca Offshore Panama Panama Papers Ramon Fonseca
  • Iddhis Bing

    He became, instead of a novelist, a poet of the double-entry accounting book, a man able to hide mountains of money inside the virtual spaces of tiny islands. A kind of magician! Everything he touched disappeared. But he got things backward: the pleasure a novelist or a poet gives is in making things we’ve never seen before dance before our eyes. I somehow would not be surprised if he is presently in hiding.