Not Conjectures but Delusions: A Q&A with Mauro Javier Cardenas

Article by mark

There are certain novels that announce their significance in simple and subtle ways: the style, the language, the sense of entering a space you haven’t been before. When starting THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN, the debut novel by Mauro Javier Cardenas, I found myself returning to the first few pages over and over again, mostly to grasp what was taking place and to keep my footing. Important books demand this. Important books insist that you adjust your thinking, sometimes even your reading habits, because the space you’re entering is something wholly new. Think THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH. Think ABSALOM! ABSOLOM! Think THE LAST SAMURAI.

In short, THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN is the story of three childhood friends reuniting to transform Ecuador and its politics as adults. It is a story of friendship and lost idealism and living life in a country surrounded by corruption. It is stylish, daring, dense and polyphonic; voices and ideas are braided together seamlessly. It is also a Latin American novel written in English by a native of Ecuador and it’s astounding. Does THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN make demands on the reader? Does it insist you revisit passages, both for the brilliance of the language but also to understand the rapid bursts of ideas? You bet it does. And we should all be thankful for it.

I had the chance to send Mauro some questions and he was kind enough to answer, discussing the relationship between Spanish and English, politics, literary influences and much more.


Brazos Bookstore: You grew up in Ecuador. Was there ever a question of what language you would write your novel in? Did writing the novel in English come easy?

Mario Javier Cardenas: I love that mid juncture in DISTANT STAR by Roberto Bolaño when the narrator says “and from here onward everything’s conjecture.” Let’s call my attempts to answer your question not conjectures but delusions (what’s more personal than one’s delusions?) since I do / don’t remember what I thought in the year 2002, when I started THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN.

My Spanish is too juvenile, I think I thought. My Spanish, despite all the Spanish language novels I’m reading, seems determined to remain in the slang swamp of Colegio Javier, my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil. In other words I couldn’t write a sentence as simple as “Antonio se comió una lagartija” without veering into “Antonio se jameo un lagarto igua a tu viejo conchadesumadre.” I prefer the second veered sentence, sure, but even back then I must have intuited the limitations of the lagarto show.

English, on the other hand, can be approached as a system, I think I thought. Vladimir Nabokov, I think I thought. I was also taking piano lessons, and I’d read about a piano technique to equalize the strength of all fingers, and I think I thought I had an advantage over the natives because words in English were already equalized for me since they didn’t come with trees of associations. Later I was attracted to the project of interfering with American English, which was less about equalizing and more about tilting English toward Spanish.

As you probably know, the United States has an illustrious history of horrendous interventions in Latin America, and many of these horrendous interventions are partly responsible for so many Latin Americans immigrating to the United States, so of course the relationship between English and Spanish isn’t neutral. We need more novels written in Latin American English, I think I thought. Perhaps if English tilts toward Spanish, we, as Americans, will have a tougher time accepting despicable American policies like paying Mexico eighty-six million dollars “to capture and deport young people fleeing endemic Central American violence, in many cases sending them back to an almost certain death,” although of course it’s less about tilting the language and more about having more Latin American American policymakers.

For me Latin American English doesn’t simply mean sequencing words from both languages but tilting English to sound like my strand of Spanish such that, for some natives, the language will sound chaotic and / or exuberant, while for Latin Americans living in the USA the language will scan. Carmen Boullosa, the first Latin American who read my novel, picked up on my Latin American English immediately. I hope there will be more readers like her in the years to come.

BB: Were you able to go back to Ecuador during the writing of the book? How often do you have a chance to return?

MJC: I returned to Ecuador almost exactly when I had spent as many years in the United States as in Ecuador. I didn’t partition the years until after I had purchased my plane ticket. My mind’s an expert at erasing my past without my consent (or with a consent I am not aware at having granted), so I can’t remember too much about that trip. I stayed at the apartment I grew up in on Balsamos Street. Leon Febres Cordero, our former president and mayor of Guayaquil, didn’t live nearby anymore. The houses on my block were wrapped in wires with skulled signs that warned of high voltage. I remember these wires because I photograph them. No great drama unfolded inside of me upon encountering my old room, which had been emptied, just as I had already imagined it. I couldn’t stand the right-wingers of Guayaquil so I fled to Cuenca, a colonial town in the cordillera where my progressive aunts and uncles still live. I was three years away from finishing THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN. My version of Guayaquil, the one based on what I had lived through, was almost complete, so I was probably also fleeing the version of Guayaquil I hadn’t lived through. I remember walking around Cuenca, thinking of Guayaquil and marveling at a sign outside a funeral home that said “We rent chairs.”

BB: REVOLUTIONARIES is dense with voices and styles that all combine to make a polyphonic, often funny look at youthful idealism and the disappointments that come with age. Was achieving the style difficult for you or did it come naturally?

MJC: To write a novel where anything can happen, I think I thought. To write a novel like, say, “Truth is Marching In” by Albert Ayler, [an album] which contains a hymn coursing through a carnival of voices, noises, rumors, sure, I think I thought, okay, but what does this mean in practice? I noticed my long sentences, for instance, which come natural to me, would often rely on affirmations and negations invalidated as uttered, as the narrator of THE UNNAMABLE says, so in some chapters I manufactured a rule that I couldn’t use conjunctions like “but”, “nevertheless”, “however.” I noticed conventional novels often follow the same zzz pattern of story-backstory-story, for instance, where the backstory is supposed to illuminate the story, bargh, so I explored alternatives. At the Q&A after the last West Coast performance of Merce Cunningham’s Dance Company, a dancer explained that in one of the dances Merce had developed seventy micro sections that were unrelated to one another, so I decided to write chapters with 70 unrelated micro sections (I only managed 30 or so). These micro sections weren’t wholly unrelated though: they were all written by me and I anchored them on a radius of associations centered on one character.

BB: Do you consider REVOLUTIONARIES a political novel or more a social satire, or both?

MJC: I used to think of THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN less in terms of political novel or social satire and more as a vague amalgamation of books I was reading at the time. I would imagine asinine potions like: it shall be a novel with the scope of CONVERSATION IN THE CATHEDRAL by Mario Vargas Llosa + the intimate indirection of AUSTERLITZ by W.G. Sebald. Or: it shall contain the performance of interiority in TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf + the playfulness of HOPSCOTCH by Cortázar. And here I can either build on what I just wrote or counter myself by providing proof that I must have thought of THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN in terms of political novel and social satire. Proof One: I discarded the first 100 or so pages of THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN that I wrote from 2002-2005 because they were unadulterated social satire. Proof Dos: After reading AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH by Marquez, THE FEAST OF THE GOAT by Vargas Llosa, and I, THE SUPREME by Augusto Roa Bastos, I didn’t want to hear another word from autocrats or caudillos or patriarchs or whatever you want to call them. So I decided not to perform the interiority of Ecuador’s autocrats and focus on those who lived under their influence instead.

BB: There’s no question how ambitious and daring your book is. Was there a guiding principle or idea that helped you along while writing REVOLUTIONARIES? Perhaps a certain book or author you could turn to if things got difficult?

MJC: I’ve wondered if, before I even developed my own so-called aesthetic principles (to call them something), some of which I even wrote down (the question isn’t what is the appropriate syntax for a character but rather how does the character behave inside the syntax ascribed to him, etc.), my guiding principle was, more or less: what would a studious kid always on the verge of being thrown out of school do? Perhaps this is why at the time I was also drawn to the image of William Gaddis as an old man finding faults in THE RECOGNITIONS but still admiring the mischief of the adventurous young man who wrote it. Another image that often came to mind was that of a hat. I could never remember the exact quote, so I always had to search for my hat, as I am about to do now (Stanley Elkin + Dalkey + Hat): “I had a wonderful conference yesterday with a graduate student who told me, among other things, that writers write for emotional reasons, and I said No, writers do not write for emotional reasons—they write because they want to make something. I asked her if she knew the Stephen Sondheim musical with the number about making a hat—‘a hat, a hat, I made a hat where there never was a hat.’ That’s so moving to me I choke up when I tell you about it, and I said that’s what writing is about, that’s what all art is about: you’ve made a hat where there never was a hat!”

Where’s my hat? Coming soon, September 6th!

Since my answer’s already a bit long, let me end with a minute sample of books that emboldened me along the way: AVA by Carole Maso (oh what glorious fragmentation!), ZONE by Mathias Enard (oh what glorious speed across time!), and INQUISITOR’S MANUAL by Antonio Lobo Antunes (oh the freedom of delirium!).

BB: I love asking this question: Is there a novel or author who isn’t translated from the Spanish (or Portuguese) that you think should be?

MJC: Sometimes the literary world resembles high school. Someone with so-called authority claims Juan Villoro’s non-fiction is better than his fiction, then everyone else repeats the same claim without ever having read any Juan Villoro, and therefore Juan Villoro’s fantastic novel, EL TESTIGO, remains untranslated. Como decía la Pepa: ya basta.


The Revolutionaries Try Again Cover Image
$16.95
ISBN: 9781566894463
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - September 6th, 2016

THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN goes on sale September 6, 2016.


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