The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas (Coffee House, Sept. 2016) Reviewed by Chad Felix

The Revolutionaries Try Again
by Mauro Javier Cardenas
(Coffee House, Sept. 2016)

Reviewed by Chad Felix

A minor miracle has happened in a port town sorely in need of miracles: Guayaquil, Ecuador. Last Palm Sunday, we are told, lightning strikes a phone booth, transforming the city’s best public telephone (“The one public phone at the Calderón that doesn’t filch your coins”) into the city’s only affordable one: in fact, it is connecting people with their friends and family for free. You can speak to them for nothing at all. As far as miracles go, this is a pretty small one: a phone is malfunctioning. But Mauro Javier Cardenas begins his extraordinary debut The Revolutionaries Try Again—a book rife with miracles both useless and unbelievable (elsewhere, a baby Christ effigy weeps a torrent of tears; elsewhere, thousands claim to have experienced the movement of the sun, which is in awe of an Earthly appearance of the Virgin)—here, with a small service to the Ecuadorean people.

It’s telling that this fortunate turns of events won’t even last the day. Leopoldo, one of the novel’s most prominent “revolutionaries,” learns of the magical phone booth through Pascacio, a man who serves as janitor at Leopoldo’s office, and shortly after the story’s telling, the novel begins to reveal its true character. Leopoldo serves as the Chief of Staff to President León Martín Cordero, whose economic policies are part of the reason why Ecuador is in such bad shape. For him, a free telephone is a broken one—and an affront to the economic policies supposedly helping to rebuild Ecuador. Not to mention a threat to his position. And so, after promising Pascacio that he won’t report the phone booth, Leopoldo leaves his office for the day for the park, where, unsurprisingly, a crowd has formed. He approaches the people waiting to make calls to family members, he flashes his government badge, resists bribes, and demands the area’s immediate evacuation. And then, when the area is clear, Leopoldo, double- and triple-checking that no one is around, makes a few calls himself. Exit the whimsy of the magic phone booth. Enter corruption, darkness, violence, and failure.

The Revolutionaries Try Again is Mauro Javier Cardenas’s first novel. It’s worth repeating over and over. The novel took over a decade to write, a fact explained by its bewilderingly intricate composition and disarming self-awareness. Reading this book gives the impression that one had to live through all of it first—and then grow to resent it, and then learn to laugh about it, and then sit down to work and make something great of it. Cardenas knows Guayaquil, having grown up there, and much of his personal life mirrors at least one of the novel’s main characters. Here’s the author responding to the question “Why Ecuador?” in an interview at Electric Literature:

Because I missed my friends? Because I can still speak the highfalutin insult Spanish my friends and I would spitball at each other at my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador? Because I can still see Mazinger chasing Maid Killer across the soccer field of Colegio Javier? Or Microphone Head speechifying by Don Alban’s cafeteria? Because I boarded a plane to the United States after graduation and my friends, even the closest ones, ceased to exist for me?

But the book is so much more than a spirited retelling of one’s youth. It is, as the author stated later in the same interview “the history of my [redacted] lifestages.”

The novel is centered around a group of friends from school who have bestowed upon each other at least one nickname. Together, Leopoldo (Microphone, Microphone Head), Antonio (Drool), Facundo (Maid Killer), Rafael (Mazinger, Robot), and a few others studied at the San Javier religious school under Father Villalba, whose mantras on faith (“Faith challenges the historical progress of the powerful”) and charity (Pascal: “All the efforts of human thought are not worth one act of charity”) shook the group irrevocably. The students’ remembered interactions with this religious leader are among the most memorable in the book for readers, and these experiences have certainly stuck with the students themselves. Sort of. These days, the students’ charitable years do little more than remind them of their former youth and idealism. They recall their time at San Javier, their volunteer work at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín, as if to say to readers and themselves, See? We tried? We were good once—and isn’t that good enough?

But of course the past is never good enough for what the present needs. When Leopoldo calls Antonio for free from the (duly reported) magic phone booth, a plan—and the novel’s primary plot course—is hatched. Antonio will return to Ecuador from the United States, which he’d escaped to right after graduation. And then, just as they’ve always told each other they would, they will change Ecuador. But first they must round out their troika by hunting down their wealthy pal Julio, the man who is to be the pair’s presidential candidate. Neither Leopoldo nor Antonio is foolish enough to believe either have the charisma for the position, but Julio, who is at least passingly interested in the idea, remains aloof and just out of reach. Perhaps because he knows something that they don’t.

I’ll pick you up soon, Julio would say, and when he didn’t show up at Antonio’s apartment on Bálsamos Street, which happened often, Antonio would call him again and sometimes one of the domestics in the kitchen downstairs would answer and spend ten, fifteen minutes searching for Julio in that immense compound, calling out niño Julio, telephone, niño Julio, asking the other domestics if they had seen niño Julio anywhere, and sometimes during the search for Julio the domestic would put the cordless phone down without hanging up, and either because she forgot about it, or because she was summoned to a different task in a faraway wing, or because she figured the odds of Julio answering the phone were the same whether she searched for him or put the phone down on a side table, she would just put the phone down and leave, and sometimes Antonio would wait and listen to the sounds of Julio’s compound, hoping to catch proof that Julio was still there, imagining Julio’s invertebrate double floating above the white piano in the living room because according to Julio he’d mastered the art of lucid dreaming, just as according to Julio he’d mastered the art of speed reading . . .

Such a description might imply that The Revolutionaries Try Again is a book held together by a traditional, if not absurdity-tinged, plot. But Cardenas aims to do more, much more with his narrative materials; his intense desire for excitement and innovation, in fact, makes the experience of reading The Revolutionaries truly unique, an invigorating voyage through literary modernism, the Latin American boom (and post-boom), and the troubling politics of Ecuador and beyond. The trio’s half-baked plot for the presidency is countered by an ingeniously deployed index of styles, ranging from straightforward narration to stream-of-consciousness ruminations, and sections of unattributed dialogue or paragraphs upon paragraphs of creative typography. Throughout the book, sentences can be found floating, strutting, breaking off, traveling from ear-to-memory-to-mouth to ear-to-memory-to-mouth-to-ear-to-memory. Dashes and backslashes cuts voices and strains of thought mid-release. Characters interrupt each other with their own ideas, and even interrupt themselves to follow memories into dark, revelatory interior spaces.

Of the boys (yes, these are adult-aged boys), Antonio is the most interesting. Since leaving school for the States, he has done little more than playact the role of “son of a wealthy Ecuadorean dictator” for the Americans. It hardly matters that he is not, in fact, the son of a wealthy Ecuadorean dictator. Nor is he at all equipped to run a government, despite his early scholarly acumen. The truth is, he doesn’t seem to have thought about such a possibility almost at all prior to Leopoldo’s call. Masha, one Antonio’s many ex-girlfriends, observes him at his going away party:

On the other side of his living room Antonio was dancing in the exuberant way he probably thought American women expected from him, just like his exuberant clothes were probably what Antonio thought American women expected from him, a South American in San Francisco, although his clothes were so outlandish that they looked more like a parody of what Antonio thought American women expected from him, or perhaps his clothes were a rebuff for expecting him to dress like this, or perhaps the extra slim white bell bottoms with the crimson flowers printed on them and his extra tight white linen shirt abloom with ruffles were simply a ploy to make American women think that he wasn’t vain; that he favored the absurd not the vainglorious; that his clothes just happened to be tailored to accentuate his body and just happened to be expensive and that, unlike most Russian immigrants she didn’t associate with, he wasn’t brandish- ing these clothes as proof of European membership.

She marks up his manuscripts in red pen: “Everyone thinks they’re the chosen ones.” Back in Ecuador, he’s simply thought of as the privileged one. He’s the one who ran off to Stanford and to the Haight. What he might consider a shrewd escape has turned him, in his colleagues’ eyes, into a wandering failure. A music lover, but an inept pianist. A fledgling writer with little more than a few lines (but a lot of ex-girlfriends and flashy clothes) to show for himself.“Why are you back, Antonio?” one of Antonio’s colleagues asks him upon his return. “I mean what for? To heap ancient monikers on those who were once your friends?”

When the good pair Antonio and Leopoldo find themselves at one of their would-be president’s notoriously wild parties, along with plenty of their former colleagues, also set on partying their hearts out, it becomes clear that the group, reunited to enact the novel’s plot, has only picked up where it left off: the boys are juvenile, homophobic, competitive but unserious. When they go to parties they simply get drunk and meet girls and quiz each other on inane intellectual subjects they specialized in their precocious youths. The scene brings to mind the writer Lars Iyer’s comic academic novel Spurious, wherein two middling academics, quibbling as ever, ask: What would Kafka do in our situation? Response: Kafka would never have found himself in this place. He would never be at this party. Revolution and change do not come from here. Still, the revolutionaries press on. In their way.

Meanwhile, Cardenas populates his novel with a truly wide and interesting set of secondary characters, most of which exist outside the San Javier group (which could be considered one big tragic character: a portrait of a generation). It is these other characters—with their subplots, charming and heartbreaking, in tow—who give readers a real sense of Cardenas’s range. The radical radio personality, Rolando, and his partner the playwright Eva, for example, are a downright joy to read. Rolando’s on-air personality is irreverent and hilarious:

Check — Check — Is this thing on? — Welcome to Radio Nuevo Día — The station of the people — What would you like to hear? — Call now! — Good morning in the news today the interim president — Or whatever you want to call him — What would you like to call him? — Call now! — Whoever comes up with the best presidential appellative wins — Appella what? — Tive — Chanfle — What do you win? —

Rolando and Eva’s macabre revolutionary live play—which features haphazardly made-up actors playing “pigs,” “clowns,” and the exiled former dictator El Loco (known to history as both El Loco and Abdalá Bucaram; his potential return to Ecuador is a source of tension throughout)—is so bad it might be good. These younger revolutionaries are, if not exactly on to something, at least starry-eyed enough to do something. Later in the novel, Eva goes missing, and the subsequent search by Rolando and his father bring numerous anxieties, heretofore embedded primarily in stray bits of language and the interior monologues of characters, to the fore. Ecuador at this time is a truly scary, insecure place. How do you joke about dictators and would-be dictators and their progeny who have disappeared members of your family, something that we learn is true for both Rolando and Eva?

Cardenas’s readers also learn of a Nadezhda Mandelstam-quoting Russian student (Antonio’s editor and ex); meet two wise grandmothers whose short chapters—“Antonio’s Grandmother Gives Advice” and “Leopoldo’s Grandmother Gives Advice”—are presented entirely in Spanish; a Tuna Fish Empire Playboy (that Julio); and enter the thoughts of a young woman preparing for an interview with “Voice of Witness,” a real-life organization that chronicles the terrors of the third-world in oral histories; and come to know many more characters. It is with these people and their complex, deftly revealed stories that The Revolutionaries Try Again really slices, deflating the madcap world of the boys by adventuring into more serious realms.

There’s a lot that’s miraculous in The Revolutionaries Try Again. But Cardenas’s balance between the arrested development and botched intentions of Antonio and Julio and co. with the stories of recent atrocities might be his greatest feat. It is thanks to this balance that his story is neither wholly cynical or hopeless, and nor is it oblivious to, detached from, or easy on history. Filtering the saga through Cardenas’s defiantly experimental writing style, means readers are left with an extraordinary, unapologetic book, an almost unbelievable debut. The Revolutionaries Try Again is a novel that—if it cannot be called perfect (and it should not be called perfect—can instead bask in the accolades “imperfect,” “messy,” and “difficult.” These adjectives give permission. Now it might become something else. A loose mud cake flung spiritedly into the abyss of history. A harpoon deflected off the back of the Whale (who’s still out there, come to think of it). An ecstatic freedom from which there is no escape.

 

Chad Felix is a writer and musician living in New York. A former bookseller, he now works in independent publishing.