Photo Credit: Victoria Smith. Courtesy of Coffee House Press.

Photo Credit: Victoria Smith. Courtesy of Coffee House Press.

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Mauro Javier Cardenas’s debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, is a polyphonic, experimental, boldly modernist work that memorializes the youth of a group of men linked by their experiences at an elite Jesuit school for boys in Cardenas’s hometown of Guayaquil. As adolescents, the boys bond through humor and word games, and catechize the poor under the tutelage of their spiritual mentor, Father Villalba. Years later, when his friend Leopoldo invites protagonist Antonio to return to Ecuador from his self-imposed exile in San Francisco so the two can execute a political scheme, Antonio revisits his youth through the lens of nostalgia and disenchantment, moved by “impulses to return again and again, to change something for someone, to become the one who could’ve changed Ecuador.”

The scenes from Antonio’s youth unfurl against a backdrop of political turmoil: while León Febres Cordero cripples the middle classes with his string of austerity measures or “paquetazos,” the country lives under threat of the return of corrupt populist leader El Loco Bucaram. Cardenas also traces the fate of Antonio’s less privileged classmate, Rolando, an angry activist with a radio show, as well as those of Rolando’s pragmatic girlfriend, Eva, and his sister Alma. The book opens with Antonio’s return to Ecuador and ends with Alma’s arrival in the United States. These parallel but inverse migrations anchor the story in two geographical poles, making The Revolutionaries Try Again an avowedly imperfect bridge between North and South.

Cardenas grew up in Ecuador before moving to the US to study economics at Stanford. His writing forges a bilingual multitude of voices that capture a twenty-first-century-migrant sensibility. The novel veers toward the nonlinear and the fragmentary, gesturing at the brokenness and inadequacy of available narratives and their inability to represent the tangled, messy realities of lives caught in the snare of failed neoliberalism. From this brokenness emerges an exuberant, virtuosic language that encompasses song, colloquial speech in English and Spanish, rapid-fire dialogues, fragmentary, elegiac interior monologues, narrative in verse form, and two chapters written exclusively in Spanish.

The Revolutionaries Try Again is a novel of lost illusions. Cardenas confronts such heady topics as social purpose, economic injustice, immigration and violence, and home and belonging and examines how we should react to the daily horrors of poverty and oppression. Antonio wonders when he volunteers at a Guayaquil hospice for the elderly, “How to reply to their soft litanies of pain?” Cardenas refuses to provide easy answers to such questions and seems to doubt our ability to respond to them in the face of a complex and merciless modernity, but he never abandons the work of asking.

I met Cardenas for coffee in Chelsea while he was in New York to read from The Revolutionaries Try Again at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore. We talked about the Latin American novel, the uses of fiction and nonfiction, and US-Latin American relations.

Charlotte Whittle for Guernica

Guernica: The Revolutionaries Try Again begins in Ecuador and is ostensibly about Ecuadorian politics, but there’s something very timely about its release during the current election cycle. What’s it like to be promoting this novel in the Trump era?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Oscar Villalon, who edits Zyzzyva, said he felt the book was an American book in many ways. It has been positioned as a Latin American novel, and it is, but at the same time, it’s an American novel in the sense that I’ve lived here for so long. You see what’s happening around the horrible situation on the border and how little we as a country do, other than talk about walls and pay Mexico money not to let Central Americans in. And this is [under] Obama, of course, who’s the cool guy who we all love, or who most of us seem to love. This has been going on for a very long time, and I think the fact that I’ve lived here for so long is part of the reason the novel ends the way it does. Originally when I came here and started thinking about the novel, I thought I would end it with the people coming down from the mountains and rebelling, but the novel ending with someone in a Voice of Witness interview is a reflection of my experience of living in the United States. To answer your question, it is significant to me personally, because we all have one vote, but we also have these little pebbles—in my case, a novel—and by throwing them, you can say, you know, “Screw you!” Which I know, of course, doesn’t do much, but at a minimum, it’s my little pebble.

Guernica: In its plot and form, as a bilingual novel, The Revolutionaries transcends the boundaries of national literatures and takes on the burden of the interconnectedness of Latin American countries and the US. Is there a sense in which you’re symbolically claiming, or reclaiming, the United States as part of Latin America?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Absolutely. So many Latin Americans have had to come here because of American foreign policy for so long. You go back to the 1950s in Guatemala; there’s a book called Bitter Fruit about how there was a left-wing president who wanted to reclaim the land that had been bought very cheaply by an American corporation, a banana corporation, and this corporation actually went and hired a PR firm in New York, and they convinced Eisenhower that the guy was a communist, and they actually invaded the country and got rid of him. That’s just one example of many, so I think it goes both ways. We were treated as a backyard for so long, and now the backyard is here.

Guernica: As I was reading, I thought I could occasionally discern the ghost of Spanish behind an English sentence. So for instance when you write “External debt, what is?” the words seem to mimic the Spanish “¿qué es?” Is there an attempt at the level of the sentence to let Spanish show through the English syntax?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: It was almost inevitable that the ghosts of my Spanish would show up in the English, and what was important to me was to let the ghosts filter through the language, to not say, “This is how English should sound,” but to say, “English should sound like whatever the hell I want it to sound like,” and hopefully that will work out, and aesthetically it will sound in a way I’m happy about. There are little passages in the novel that give me so much glee to have written, with words like tracalada of thieves—tracalada is a word that’s very local to Guayaquil. And at the level of syntax, it’s a little less direct.

Guernica: Does writing mostly in English provide a degree of defamiliarization or estrangement that’s helpful for writing about Ecuador?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: I think so. Though I’ve said in other interviews one of the reasons I wrote this book is that I missed my friends, which is [true]. At the same time, I didn’t sit down and say, I really want to recapture memories from my youth. That really wasn’t the impulse. The whole impulse of wanting to write about this came later on, when I was in it, and I realized I don’t remember a lot of this and I need to capture it. I do remember distinctly saying to myself, If I’m going to write about stuff I already lived through, I might as well try and find a language that defamiliarizes the experience a little and makes it more interesting. So there are two elements to it: one is, the English does give you distance, because you’re not just relying on juvenile language to talk about the juvenile world, but I also played a lot of games to be able to defamiliarize even my English, and one game I played is very simple: when I was writing about Ecuador, especially in the first chapter, where I was writing about the streets of Ecuador and areas I knew very well, at night I would read books by avant-garde composers, and in the morning I would write about that stuff, and I was hoping the language of the avant-garde would filter into the language of Ecuador. Obviously, many writers talk about the desire to defamiliarize language in order to find something out, and I think that’s part of the game we play.

Mauro Javier Cardenas: There’s such a long tradition of political novels in Latin America, by authors like Fuentes, Asturias, and Vargas Llosa. Do you see yourself as participating in that tradition, extending it, or subverting it? Did you look to those novels to find possibilities for your own, and was there anything there that you didn’t wish to imitate?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: I read all of them, and I do think what I tried to do was ask myself, What is it about those novels that I like and don’t like? To give you a very concrete example, Conversation in the Cathedral, by Mario Vargas Llosa, is a fantastic novel, and it starts by asking the question, “What went wrong with Peru?” It covers a lot of history, and it shifts in time wonderfully, and at the same time, when I finished it, I remember thinking, I love this novel, but it’s trying to do too much, to the point where for me there’s a level of intimacy that’s missing. That was one of the first kernels, because when I was working on my own book and trying to find the focus, there were so many places to go, because you have El Loco and his clan, and you could spend hours writing about this stuff and having fun with it. I really wanted to shift the focus to the characters and their interiority, and that felt to me like an area where I could participate in that tradition. I didn’t really set out to subvert it, but I thrive in opposition to things, so even though I love those novels, of course some part of me is going to want to oppose them in some way. That’s who I am. A lot of these novels focus on the actual dictator, the autocrat, and I got tired of that. I wanted to completely avoid it, so the novel doesn’t enter into the minds of El Loco or León or any of those people. The only right-winger whose mind we enter is the grandson of León, but he was necessary, because I needed somebody to say to the people who are supposed to be the good ones, “No, you’re not.”

Guernica: The novel is as much about masculinity and male friendships as it is about politics and corruption. Is there a link between masculinity in male friendships and the abuse of power?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: One way to think about the novel is that there are two love stories. Actually, a few love stories. There’s a love story between Leopoldo and Antonio and their past, between them and who they used to be. Then there’s Rolando and Eva, which is more straightforward. Then there’s the love story between the boys and Villalba and then between the boys and God. So the question of masculinity is an interesting one because of the constraints placed on males in South America in how they can relate to each other. I’m often asked, “Why is there all this crass language, and [why so many] homophobic comments?” [These things represent] all the ways males in South America often relate to one another, and it seems like there’s no other choice. There’s no other way to talk in a subtler way about emotions and desires, and I wonder what it would mean to talk in that different language about change, instead of saying we are the champions, the chosen ones. I wonder if this masculinity is what eventually lands you in an autocratic world, because the male pose can lead to this autocratic society. I’m the man and I know what to do.

Guernica: The sections dedicated to Eva and Alma are among the darkest and most haunting: the female characters bear the brunt of the violence while the men are idealistic and do a lot of posturing but don’t get around to doing anything. Can you talk about the genesis and development of these female characters, and why you chose to subject them to such terrible ordeals?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Eva’s [point of view emerged after] a friend read the first version of the Rolando and Eva chapter and said, “I want to hear more about Eva.” There were many parts I wrote where I was paying attention to chance and asking myself what could alter the course of events. I never planned to write about Rolando the way I did. It just happened moment by moment, and then Eva showed up later, and then moment by moment, if you have written a chapter where you have these right-wing rich kids who are so casually horrible to others, it became very natural for Eva to be out on the street helping Rolando with his radio show and for these people to be out there casually being awful, confronting Eva and creating a situation where she ends up beaten up on the street. In retrospect, I thought, Oh man, both of the women have a horrible end, but it was the moment-by-moment writing that created that situation.

If you think about the levels of violence against women in Latin America, it begins with the casual violence. [For these characters,] there’s racism, and then there’s the treatment of maids and the casual joke about the Maid Killer who raped the maid in the shower. By high school, that violence is already established. At the next level, they go pick up poor women working on the streets. It builds up to a level where you can so easily and casually beat up somebody on the street because you’re the male and you think you’re entitled to a certain position in Ecuador because you’re rich.

I think Alma experiences the third or fourth layer of violence against women: not only [does she] have to undergo the horrible process of crossing the border, but about 80 percent of women who cross the border get raped, and although I was concerned that the women were bearing the brunt of the violence, I did feel that I didn’t want to shy away from it, because you can’t write about a woman crossing the border without writing about this. There’s a book by Voice of Witness called Underground America, where I got part of the seed of that chapter, which is a Colombian woman crossing the border and talking about her experience.

Guernica: You mention Voice of Witness. Our culture primes us to believe in the utility and virtue of testimony: the memoir is having a renaissance, therapy has replaced religion, and we like to believe storytelling is redemptive, that if we tell our stories it will somehow save us.

Mauro Javier Cardenas: I hate that line, “We tell stories to save ourselves.” I hate that line. It’s Joan Didion.

Guernica: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Yeah, I hate that line. I hate it.

Guernica: Toward the end of the novel, Antonio invites Alma to participate in the Voice of Witness project to talk about her experience crossing the border, and it’s suggested that this is a pointless exercise. It is not redemptive. Alma says, “What’s the point of telling anyone anything?” Eva also suggests that telling Rolando the story of her disappeared brother Arsenio would be pointless. Then there is Efraín’s “useless testimony,” and the fact that Antonio himself is writing a memoir that’s constantly being critiqued. So there are all these statements to the effect that storytelling does not help anyone. If storytelling is useless, does it follow that the novel itself is useless as a response to the very questions it seems to be asking?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Great question. My first inclination is to say yes, all of it is useless. But at the same time, what else do we have? So perhaps the answer is, some of it, or most of it, might be useless, but we have no other ways of calling attention to certain crises we’re living through, and not even we, right, but others are living through. This is an argument I was having with a friend about Voice of Witness, and I was saying it’s useless, and at the same time, after I thought it through, Voice of Witness is working with schools, and thinking about their books being required texts, so maybe, to go back to an earlier comment about seeds of violence, maybe seeds of witness, testimonies, over time, can help create a culture that’s more aware. But where I’m skeptical is that it all sounds too good to be true. It’s almost like we’re telling ourselves that this has meaning in order to feel better about ourselves. But what else do we have? That’s a problem. We can’t all become senators or presidents or ministers, and the question of how you solve the problem of the border isn’t an easy one. It’s not like we can all launch a Kickstarter or write a bookthere’ve been hundreds of books about the border, and we still have the same problem. So I get angry, and perhaps it’s less about my feeling that all this testimony is useless and more my way of raging against my own impotence toward the situations we’re living through.

After my discussion with my friend, I ended up working for Voice of Witness, transcribing recordings of people who’d gone through the civil war in Colombia, and I came up with a few questions I thought were interesting about the role of fiction versus the role of nonfiction. One of them was, what is it that fiction can do that nonfiction can’t in that kind of situation? The answer was very easy, not some great revelation: there are things the interviewee might not want to say, and fiction can at least be a way of narrating the things that are left out of nonfiction. That to me has always been something to keep an eye on: if I’m writing fiction, I need to be aware of what fiction can do that other mediums can’t. If you imagine it as a more conventional scene, it could have been a very straightforward first-person narrative by Alma, but I set that section the night before the interview on purpose so she could wonder about what she wanted to say, because I felt the role of fiction in that setting was stronger.

Guernica: In a more general way, there’s a pervasive sense of futility in the novel, the impossibility of one person effecting change in the face of systemic injustice. There’s a repeated movement toward undermining anything proffered as a potential solution.

Mauro Javier Cardenas: If you think of fiction as a way of thinking deeply about the world, not only as a writer, but hopefully also as a reader, then it becomes important to make sure we’re undercutting these notions we have about what it is to be good in the world. For me, it was important to undermine everything I believe to potentially have a role, because by undermining it, I could at least be a little more realistic about what the gesture really means. [I didn’t want this to] become another text about how great we are as well-meaning liberals, because we’re thinking about this, that, or the other, but that, yes, we’re thinking about these thingsand these characters are thinking about all these thingsbut at the same time they’re horrible, because they live in this world and they think of themselves as good, and they think all these gestures can do something, but at the same time they don’t, so the novel does have this role of saying, “Oh yeah? Well, no.” No, no, no.

Guernica: One of the Jesuit fathers at San Javier asks a question that is repeated to create a refrain throughout the novel: “How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?” It then becomes “How are we to be humans in a world of destitution and injustice?” To what extent was this a starting point, or a guiding question for the novel?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: In a more traditional novel, you might have Father Villalba be the guiding light, scenes of them together doing stuff, and that would be a memory that would fuel them. But I wanted to approach it differently, where the relationship between the boys and this person was already broken, already a little fraught. Villalba says right at the beginning, “You guys are the problem,” and yet they don’t see themselves as the problem. They see themselves as being the ones chosen by Villalba, and yet, he rejects them. The question is fundamental to all of us, what does it mean to be humans in the world?

Guernica: The bilingualism, the transnational nature of the plot, and Antonio’s aesthetic inclinations make this novel quite a cosmopolitan project. What do you think of that as a description of your work?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: I think a lot of writers live and travel in different places, and it’s so natural for so many of us to move to a different place, experience different things that have no boundaries for us but that might have boundaries for others. You know, a guy from Ecuador or Bolivia comes here and falls in love with a French avant-garde composer who writes about birds. It’s not unique to me, and I think the wonderful thing is we’re able to travel and live in different places. The novel would have been so different if I lived in Ecuador, where I didn’t have access to an opera house and Pamela Rosenberg, who brought all these weird operas to San Francisco. That to me is what’s wonderful about fiction too, which is that I can take Messiaen’s birds, I can take my experience of Ecuador, I can take this new language, put it all together and hope to make something that didn’t exist before.

Guernica: How does this kind of cosmopolitanism relate to migrant realities? What is the relationship between a kind of itinerancy that’s chosen and one that’s forced?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: Think of how the novel begins. It begins with this desire to immigrate backwards, and then you have the end with a desire to move here. It reminds me: years ago, I went to a conference called Crossing Borders. I was very young, and Junot Díaz and Francisco Goldman were there, and many other writers who became well known later on. I remember Junot Díaz, he’d only published one book at the time, Drown, and there was a woman there, a bejeweled writer who was obviously very wealthy and seemed to be making a big deal of herself. And Junot says something like, “You know, nobody wants to hear about your fucking immigration story. Nobody wants to hear about you coming to America and being cool.” And I don’t entirely agree with that, but it stuck with me. He also spoke about how we never hear about the victims of the bomb; we only hear about the victors. That stayed with me for years and years and years. I didn’t start writing about Alma until almost ten years later, but I had this notion of what your responsibility is to tell some of these stories about people who are your compatriots, who are coming here in very dire circumstances.

Guernica: There is a lament for the impossibility of return: return to the abandoned home, return to the lost era in which the novel immerses the reader. Is it always impossible to go home?

Mauro Javier Cardenas: I think home is almost like a housethere are pieces missing because you’ve forgotten them, but there’s enough of it that it feels like it’s still there, and then the wallpaper starts changing because you live in different places, and then the music changes, and the characters change because now you have a family, but all of this house, the structure, it’s still you. It’s your life, so the home just becomes an amalgamation of everything you’ve lived through, and it’s still there. I think in the book, especially in its later years, where I was older and things were vanishing from me, I did feel like it changed. In the first chapter, I was trying to defamiliarize some of it, and then later it was like, Oh man, I’ve forgotten so much, so some of the sections became a performance of loss, where the characters can’t remember certain things. I think all of it really becomes a return home. It’s an incomplete return home, but that’s all you have.

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