The Revolutionaries Try Again
By Mauro Javier Cardenas
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by C Pam Zhang
"[N]ot only is he tired of parroting circus loudmouths," reflects Facundo, one of the titular revolutionaries in Mauro Javier Cardenas's novel The Revolutionaries Try Again, "his audience . . . is probably tired of him reparroting from circuses." Facundo is in the act of recording a critique of a corrupt politician, but the person he skewers with such disdain is not the politician—it's himself. And yet he persists in recording. This splinter of self-awareness festers in the heart of even the most revolutionary of acts in Cardenas's debut novel. The naïve reader, trained to consume novels a certain way, will at first attempt to ignore such splinters, such digressions. Until understanding dawns: These splinters are the point.
This book is deceivingly titled. The Revolutionaries Try Again? A minority of the word count is actually devoted to the revolutionaries' half-hearted scheme to wrest power from Ecuador's corrupt establishment. The majority of the novel is devoted to splinterings. This is a book that raises a middle finger to the reviewer's typical toolkit of plot and character. What plot? Scenes duck in and out of time, threads are gleefully unraveled and left undone, the reader rarely allowed the closure of catharsis. (For the record, we don't see the revolutionaries actually revolt). What is the hero's journey? To begin with, there is no one hero. To add to that confusion, our core group of "heroes" rattles a string of perplexing nicknames (Drool, Pothole Face, Maid Killer, Microphone). Because it is not about how one character—a stiff, fixed little game piece on the board game of plot—will be nudged steadily along by the author's hand. Rather it is about how characters exist in a boiling, unstable stasis, an ugly, decades-old stew of identities left bubbling on the stove, each identity bobbing to the surface. An idealistic boy is a cynical man is at once Antonio and Drool and Pothole Face, nerd and immigrant and Stanford graduate and lover and revolutionary. The past, in Cardenas's book, is a swamp that corrupts the present.
Which may be why the body is strangely absent throughout the book. There is a lack of physical groundedness as we are wrenched swiftly and mercilessly from past to present, San Francisco to Guayaquil, first to third person in the space of a page, a paragraph, a line. An unapologetic modernist, Cardenas often refuses to "set a scene" in the way that a hip new fusion pop-up restaurant refuses to "set a table" with salad forks, napkins, placemats. Use your hands! Get messy! Prose comes unmoored from paragraphs, assuming, variously, the shape of a screenplay, a free-form poem, and a brick wall of text riddled with dashes like bullet holes. When Antonio enters a restaurant that he hasn't seen in decades, we get no description of the restaurant's food, the color of its walls, the light from its windows, that the typical writer might linger on. Instead: immediate, rapid fire banter between childhood friends, requiring an intensity of focus that makes the book feel exhilarant, restless, relentless in a way that mirrors the Ecuador it describes.
Because why describe a room when the characters in the room know it so well they don't need to look? Despite its deliberately disorienting style, Cardenas's book is engrossing because you sense that it represents a truly whole world. That is: a world that existed before the book, goes on existing outside the chosen scenes, and will exist beyond it. We readers are eavesdroppers, interlopers catching only the butt end of a decades-long joke we'll never fully understand. The best moments are self-contained, impenetrable, beautiful, like this snatch of memory: "That strange woman in the restaurant lifting the best one from you." That woman never appears again, has no relevance to the revolutionary plot. The language, spun through the perspective of a secondary character named Rolando, is turned inward, whole and smooth and repelling the outside observer. "That." "You." The words are not meant to be descriptive but gestural, keyholes into an inner world to which we are given no key. Such scenes represent Cardenas at his best: joyously interior, written by and for the audience of semi-autobiographical characters.
Yet, for all the book's revolutionary style, Cardenas cannot escape the question of audience. There lurks beneath the boyish ebullience a sense of peevishness at America, and implicitly the American audience. Antonio, the Stanford-educated transplant to San Francisco, sneers at American protestors "waving their flags of self importance and gorging themselves with organic cucumbers before returning to their placid homes." Two chapters are written in the voices of Ecuadorian grandmothers, wholly in Spanish. What to make of these? On the one hand, a reader must admire Cardenas's refusal to pander to the American monolingual. This is one time in which "masturbatory" can be applied as a defiant compliment. But on the other hand, Cardenas can't escape the fact that this book is written largely in English and published in Minneapolis—arguably trapped in that same American, capitalistic system.
As you might expect from a book of thwarted hopes, Cardenas doesn't offer an answer to this quandary, or an escape from the system. No solutions. Only self-awareness. We get recurring chapters titled "Antonio Edits His Baby Christ Memoir," in which said character agonizes over the banality of writing; we get lines like "we, having no alternative, went on, flattening what happened to us into the daily inflow of our lives" that neatly summarize the book's own stylistic strategy. Such summarizing signposts represent rare moments of clunkiness; it seems that the dictators of Plot and Theme cannot be wholly expunged from their reigning positions.
So how does a Gordian knot of a book such as this one "resolve"? By swerving, in its final chapter, into the voice of Alma, a minor relation of a secondary character. In stepping outside the main group of male revolutionaries, whose shields of self-awareness and meta-analysis often render them emotionally distant, Cardenas is playing an effective if deliberate trick. Alma is a woman, an innocent, and an undocumented immigrant whose memories of Ecuador center around domestic family scenes. She's just lost her San Francisco best friend and surrogate family member to the talons of Immigration. Emotionally effective? Yes. Beautiful? Yes. But after 256 pages of being taught—and taught by mostly male revolutionaries—to read skeptically, to shun conventionality, to put aside the hunger for catharsis—the reader cannot help but wonder at the relative directness of writing the final chapter through a female victim such as Alma. The Revolutionaries Try Again ends on a clear moral thesis: Remember the woes of the immigrant! Cardenas has spent his novel teaching us to be skeptics, and the skeptic asks now: What if he had been bold enough to refuse us catharsis? How revolutionary would it be to end on that raised middle finger?