FEBRUARY 25, 2017
IN 2002, Newsweek ran a piece titled “Is Magical Realism Dead?” Having all but shouted yes, the article cited a number of then-recent attempts to move away from what many Latin Americans viewed as their continent’s defining, if not stigmatizing, literary mode. Newsweek’s primary focus was the McOndo movement, so named as a sardonic jab at Gabriel García Márquez’s mythical seaside town, Macondo, but also pointing to a generation saturated in McDonald’s and condos. The McOndos were co-founded in 1996, when Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet and his friend Sergio Gómez edited an anthology of uncompromising, hyper-modern stories by Latin American authors that had nothing to do with flying carpets or a hundred years of rain. Instead, wrote Newsweek, the collection contained “irreverent, often aggressive, scatological riffs on contemporary urban life, told to a backbeat of sex, drugs and pop music.” Whereas writers from the New Latin American Boom of the ’60s and ’70s — which produced such luminaries as Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, and Carlos Fuentes — were centered on conventional Latin American issues and lore, the McOndos embraced an ever-evolving, globalized world instead of inventing ones that failed to deal with their modern lives.
So what happened to the McOndos? If they effectively killed off magical realism in Latin America, why aren’t more readers north of the border familiar with their work? Or that of the Mexican Crack Generation, which preceded the McOndos and similarly attempted to reinstate the complex blend of genres, styles, and literary structures of Borges and Cortázar? Influential Salvadoran author Horacio Castellanos Moya believes there’s a simple explanation. In a piece on his friend Roberto Bolaño for Guernica, he claims the McOndos and Cracks didn’t offer the US audience anything new. “[I]t was very difficult to sell the North American reader on the world of iPods and Nazi spy novels as the new image of Latin America and its literature,” he writes. Instead, Castellanos Moya says, the New York literary establishment was looking for a Bolaño, someone to fill the void left after magic was replaced by Macs. But the McOndos and Cracks, he suggests, distanced themselves so far from magical realism — and from the violence and political corruption that swept the continent in previous decades — that they omitted the factor that makes Latin American lit compelling to the rest of the world in the first place: Latin America itself.
Around the time the McOndos were making waves, Bolaño was only just beginning to publish the works of fiction that would earn him The New York Times’s declaration as “the most significant Latin American literary voice of his generation.” None of his books were published in English until the year after the Newsweek article ran, which was incidentally the same year Bolaño died, at age 50. This timing, Castellanos Moya says, was no accident as it relates to his literary success in the States, but his books dramatically reshaped US readers’ perception of what Latin American literature could be:
The novelty for the American reader is that he will come away with two complementary messages that appeal to his sensibility and expectations [for Latin American literature]: on one side the novel evokes the “youthful idealism” that leads to rebellion and adventure. But on the other side, it can be read as a morality tale, in the sense that “it is very good to be a brazen rebel at sixteen years old, but if a person doesn’t grow and change into an adult person, serious and established, the consequences can be tragic and pathetic,” as in the case of Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima [the central characters in Bolaño’s seminal work, The Savage Detectives].
With his sex-crazed, poetry-obsessed literary dissidents and left-wing idealism, Bolaño did more than fill the void. He threw the floodgates open for another generation of Latin American writers — including popular Argentina-born Andrés Neuman and Juan Gabriel Vásquez, from Colombia — who identify with both local and global concerns, and who acknowledge the atrocities of the past while looking forward with hope.
Most recently, a young Ecuadorian writer named Mauro Javier Cardenas has emerged, standing in Bolaño’s shadow. His debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, captures both the starry-eyed vision of a younger generation and the “tragic and pathetic” results of failing to come to terms with adulthood. Cardenas’s book, however, recasts these messages for an audience as familiar with authoritarian regimes and the works of Thomas Bernhard as they are with Pink Floyd’s The Wall and anime. Drawing on everything from pop culture to Ecuadorian politics, and posing questions about faith, morality, and devotion to one’s country and ideals (all expressed in a deviant postmodern style), Cardenas’s spellbinding book should appeal to McOndo devotees and Bolaño fans alike. But The Revolutionaries taps into something more comprehensive and universally conscientious. “In dramatizing what António Lobo Antunes calls the immense present that engulfs everything, I allowed almost everything that’s relevant to my characters to coexist,” Cardenas told Publishers Weekly in a recent interview. Indeed, The Revolutionaries is not only a deeply self-aware novel, in that it feels deliberately unwieldy, but one that’s also aware of its influences, which include Portugal’s Antunes, W. G. Sebald, and Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai. It’s a novel that redefines the Latin American identity in a world characterized by social technology and ever-blurring ethnic boundaries.
Set amid the tumultuous decades that followed the suspicious death of Ecuador’s first democratically elected president in 1981, The Revolutionaries depicts the reunion of a group of friends who attended an elite Jesuit school in the coastal city of Guayaquil, where they catechized the poor as members of an apostolic group. Now adults, they’re determined to right their country’s wrongs — that is, if they can solidify a plan. Leopoldo is a bureaucrat serving as an assistant to onetime president and current mayor of Guayaquil, León Martín Cordero; Cordero is seeking his second bid for president against another former president, known as El Loco, who was ousted during his first term. But Leopoldo secretly leverages his position so he can help put someone else in office: Julio, the smart, wealthy troublemaker from their school days, whose primary credential is that he owns a lucrative business in the tuna industry. Leopoldo calls up his old friend Antonio, who’s been living in San Francisco since earning a degree in economics from Stanford. Leopoldo’s call should be just the thing Anotonio has been waiting for. His plan in leaving Ecuador was to get an education from a prominent American university so he could return to fulfill his childhood dream of serving the poor and helping indigenous Ecuadorians receive clean water and jobs. The problem is, Antonio likes San Francisco, as well as the expensive clothes he buys, even if he can’t afford them. But since the only place he could score a job was at Bank of America — not exactly the finance career he had in mind — he reluctantly agrees to meet up with Leopoldo to hear out his half-formed proposal. Or maybe he’s just curious whether being back in Guayaquil will restore his former passions and thus his sense of direction.
Cardenas’s portrayal of idealism is both comically bitter and paradoxical. The novel alternates perspectives, mostly following Antonio, but also hops inside the heads of some of his former classmates. The most notable of them, aside from Leopoldo, is the outspoken political dissident, Rolando — the only one who seems actively motivated by his convictions. While Antonio and Leopoldo are busy reminiscing about the past and attending ritzy parties at Julio’s house, Rolando attempts to rouse the proletariat on the air with a politically defiant radio broadcast from Mapasingue, the hillside slum where Antonio and his friends used to visit the poor. Along with his sort-of-girlfriend, Eva, Rolando stages live plays and satirical programs mocking Cordero and El Loco. But when one of the plays Eva has written comes to a chaotic end (think live political effigies dressed as pig-clowns in spray-painted shirts), distraught Eva calls Rolando a terrorist and disappears, while “Rolando doesn’t know whether to say that was a disaster or that was amazing.” He’s energized by the disorder, even if he didn’t quite get his point across, and if it means he now has to devote his energy to tracking down Eva.
By contrast, Antonio’s passion for sustaining the poor has all but dissipated. His return to Ecuador not only fails to reignite his erstwhile exuberance, but it also sends him into a fog of nostalgia as he recalls his early dream of becoming a priest and subsequent loss of faith, the nights he and his friends spent drinking in the park, and the theoretical game he and Leopoldo used to play called “Who’s Most Pedantic?” Whereas Rolando’s still unable to see the hopelessness of his resistance efforts, Antonio is all too aware that impoverished Ecuadorians stand little chance against the corrupt political machine — a revelation he owes in part to his move to the United States. When an eminent political science professor at Stanford asked in one of Antonio’s classes what “was the most stable form of government,” Antonio
raised his hand confidently and did not wonder why no one else was raising their hands when the answer was so obvious, standing up in a room full of Caucasian American students who would one day attempt to set policies for Latin America and Antonio said dictatorships, Professor Karl, which apparently wasn’t the right answer because everyone laughed.
He discovers that the American dream tastes bitter, and that the world is bigger than he could have imagined. And unlike the poverty-stricken Ecuadorians he intended to serve, most of whom could never fathom the degree he’d go on to earn, he at least has a say in the matter of his destiny.
In another defining moment, Antonio stands atop Mapasingue and overlooks the city below. Cardenas expresses Antonio’s restlessness in an extended inner monologue, layering one parenthetical vision within another as though Antonio’s thoughts are echoing inside his head, leaving him with an objective view of the alternate paths he might have taken:
(Antonio arrives at Stanford, learns what to do to change Ecuador, returns to this same spot atop Mapasingue where, moved by the perpetual inequities around him, he decides to commit himself to saving his people (Antonio arrives at Harvard, learns what to do to change Ecuador, joins the International Monetary Fund, and pontificates about what to do to change Ecuador (Antonio arrives at Yale, meets a beautiful English major who worships Artaud, decides he has the strength of character to do without expensive clothes, applies to a graduate program in experimental literature)))
As Antonio’s heightened global awareness leads him to realize he’s just as helpless as anyone else, his increasing indecision as an adult leads him to another kind of idealism: that of the striving artist.
But Antonio doesn’t exactly have a great track record of finishing what he’s started. After abandoning his dream of becoming a priest, Antonio had considered a career as an avant-garde classical music composer. After that (but before becoming a banker or considering a run in politics), he decided to take a stab at writing. Here again his ability to control his destiny comes into question. Shortly before leaving San Francisco to return to Guayaquil, Antonio’s friend Masha finds a copy of one of Antonio’s stories with what she considers surprisingly harsh feedback she’d left him in the margins about a year earlier. “Can a man really be held accountable for his own actions?” she’d written. “His behavior, even his character, is always in the merciless grip of the age, which squeezes out of him the drop of good or evil that it needs from him. In San Francisco, besides the accumulation of wealth, what does the age ask of your so called protagonist? No wonder he never returns to Ecuador.” The irony is that the manuscript is buried among moving boxes, the message possibly forever lost to Antonio. Instead, it’s easy to imagine the criticism is actually intended for a young Cardenas, whose life story mirrors Antonio’s in more ways than one.
Like his protagonist, Cardenas left Guayaquil for Stanford, where he also earned his degree in economics. And while he originally intended to return to his country to get involved in politics, as Antonio finally does, Cardenas decided to pursue a literary career instead. “I wanted to go back and run for office,” he told Kirkus Reviews. “I figured that writing the book was my way to decide: ‘Are you going or not?’ Very clearly, I’m not going back.” Instead, he sent Antonio back, not so much to exorcise the demons of his past, perhaps, as to give credence to what Masha, a painter, deems an unlikely goal for a young Latin American like Antonio:
Had she somehow subscribed back then to the asinine notion that one couldn’t just barge into art, as Antonio had been desperately trying to do, without a lineage that justified one’s so called artistic inclination? Her father was a physicist and her mother had been a violinist and, unlike Antonio, she grew up alongside the Western Canon but she hadn’t become a great painter.
That Antonio’s success is unlikely has more to do with his indecision, however, than with his ethnicity. And as though to affirm himself in this, Cardenas makes it clear that he’s familiar with both the Latin American and Western literary canons, as he demonstrates in the novel’s shape-shifting forms and invigorating prose.
Flip to any page in The Revolutionaries and you’ll spot traces of his literary idols — some of whom he references in the book (Sebald, Cortázar, Proust) and others he’s interviewed or written essays about (Javier Marías, Castellanos Moya, Krasznahorkai). A 20-page chapter is composed of a single-sentence monologue, while two others are entirely in Spanish; an interview with an emigrant reads like a pieced-together audio montage; songs, chants, and curses, both in English and Spanish, pepper the text, which uses such minimal or nontraditional uses of punctuation as to make Cormac McCarthy, or even Faulkner, feel like a beach read. Gradually, periods are replaced by commas and then hyphens and slashes, until we find ourselves lost (in the best sense of the word) in a splintered stream of consciousness that mimics Antonio’s restlessness and the country’s fractured politics. The blazing pace and broken style give the text a sense of immediacy, suggesting Cardenas is bored or impatient with modern conventions, or else that he’s after a more precise, and concise, depiction of human consciousness. In an essay published in BOMB, Cardenas says as much while exploring what he admires about one of his book’s clearest influences:
Antunes’s narrators, as if emboldened by an attentive audience, infuse their monologues with more of themselves, allowing their memory of other people’s monologues to burst into their own […] or letting in half dreams and shards of remembered phrases […] and how much more intimate can a body of work get than that of a writer who composes increasingly complex monologues so that his narrators can share more of themselves?
These monologues are clearly inspired by the work of Krasznahorkai, whom Cardenas interviewed at City Lights in 2012, and whose long, digressive sentences Cardenas openly admires. In the interview, which was also published in Music & Literature, the Hungarian writer discusses his conflicted relationship “between the fictional language and the spoken language.” Noting his tendency toward mimicking spoken language in his books, Krasznahorkai says, “When you want to convince somebody about something, […] you use only long sentences, almost always just one sentence […] because I needed less and less the dot, this artificial border between sentences.” So what is Cardenas trying to convince us of with his long sentences and experimental forms? In his author statement, he makes it clear: “For twelve years, while writing The Revolutionaries Try Again, Poetics by Aristotle became the enemy’s manual: other people’s rules. Plot and friends seemed to me as constraining as the business rules of day jobs.” In other words, he’s not beholden to the rules of the past, or of his continent’s literary forebears. While there are countless examples of his enchanting, dreamlike sentences that defy convention, a fragment of one stands out, from a passage when Antonio’s trying to understand the impact religious experiences have played in his writing and general indecision:
[A]lthough he wanted to write about his impulse to become a Jesuit priest when he was fifteen or sixteen, he wasn’t interested in dramatizing his impulse to become a Jesuit priest through scenes and reversals and recognitions from the time of Aristotle, yes, let us please not follow the pious Ecuadorian boy who, after a series of intense religious experiences, including the apparition of La Virgen del Cajas, which Antonio was absolutely not going to write about for anyone in the United States (Leopoldo had been there, too), loses his faith as everyone eventually does, no, dramatizing his impulse to become a Jesuit priest with scenes and reversals and recognitions seemed to him contrary to everything he valued about fiction (his first adult encounter with fiction had been Borges, and it was only after he enrolled in an introductory fiction class at the Berkeley Extension that he was shown the flat world of Best American Realism[.]
Like Antonio, Cardenas isn’t satisfied with the limits expected of him, both as a writer and as a Latin American.
For Cardenas, however, the way to move beyond the “flat world” of literary tradition is not by trying to reinvigorate it, or by outright defying it, as other contemporary Latin American authors have done, but by fusing it all together, including the writer’s influences, experiences, and obsessions. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature points to this general tendency in Latin American prose: “One could perhaps say that in the broadest possible terms, modern Latin American literature exhibits the same restless coexistence of the very modern with the somewhat archaic and anachronistic.” But Cardenas expresses his restlessness in a way that is true to the modern Latin American, which is to say he’s deeply conflicted, brutally honest, and aware of his place in the world. Or as he explained his stance to Publishers Weekly: “Summoned to explain yourself to God, who doesn’t exist, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show up with a storybook instead of with an accusatory monologue that desperately amalgamates all the literary traditions you think you know?”