“What does it mean, Masha? When all our narratives have been cued up for us?” a character asks early in The Revolutionaries Try Again. Mauro Javier Cardenas clearly wants to rip through your established preconceptions of what narrative and a novel should be. His debut novel resists you with every page. Reading it feels like being dropped in the middle of an inside joke told by people you don’t know, who never give you the setup so you can’t understand the references. It’s uncomfortable and disorienting; it’s easy to walk away. No one seems to change. There’s no buildup to a climax. Cardenas doesn’t seem to care what you want.
And yet, if you allow the words to wash over you so you can experience the creativity and boldness of the author’s narrative styles, the novel occasionally has a jolting and refreshing effect—moments where the ponderous style of the book matches the theme: young, idealistic motivation slowly being killed.
Set primarily in the 1990s, the novel tells the story of three childhood friends from Guayaquil, Ecuador who were at the top of their high school class. Their progressive ideals were inspired by their favorite instructor, a radical priest named Father Villalba. They felt anointed, as if “they had been chosen to change Ecuador… and it was precisely that notion of having been chosen to change Ecuador that had allowed them to rise above their circumstances while they were still students at San Javier.”
Antonio goes on to study politics and literature at Stanford (much like our author). Leopoldo stays to work with Léon Febres Cordero, the former Ecuadorian president, as he battles El Loco, The Crazy One, born Abdalá Bucaram, a politician who runs on a populist message that should resonate with readers who followed Donald Trump’s rise in the United States. The third friend, Rolando, falls into creating wild, seldom-listened-to radio plays.
Upon reading the first chapter, the reader might assume that this novel will follow the tenets of South American magical realism. Lightning strikes a pay phone and the impoverished people of the city are able to make long distance telephone calls to their relatives throughout the world for free. The government is unhappy about this, and Leopoldo is sent to shut the phone down. But Cardenas is just teasing; this is where the magical realism ends and the stylistic experiments begin. From that phone booth, Leopoldo calls Antonio after years of silence, hoping his friend will return and follow through on one of their childhood goals: to run for elected office as “an outsider could sweep the elections and effect real change.”
Antonio has been leading a bohemian-meets-bourgeois life in San Francisco, trying to write, having drinks, having sex, not writing anything worthwhile. As he edits his latest piece, he begins to question what role an author plays in society. “Just because I was born in a poor country doesn’t mean I’m obliged to return, right?” The highlights of this novel are the two chapters of Antonio’s writings and musings. Cardenas shows us Antonio’s memoir followed by a harsh critique by its author. It’s a great call-and-response technique, and it provides comic relief.
Meanwhile, Rolando is planning his radio broadcasts with Eva. In one of the more stylistically challenging chapters, as Rolando and Eva discuss their political beliefs and how they will affect the broadcast, Cardenas uses dialogue and description separated by dashes, without reminding you who said what:
– What’s disgusting is that swine what’s the point of our radio if we live under a system that allows El Loco to run for office again and again? – which is the wrong thing to ask – already he can feel his irritation coursing through his voice – The point is to inform them – already he’s angry at how unconvincing she sounds when she says that the point is to making their lives better . . . – we’re conscientizing the people – she doesn’t say – we’re veering the discourse toward a truth they will willingly accept as just – she doesn’t say – through art we will transcend our condition – she doesn’t say – Get out – she does say – Go away – she does say – Fine – Okay
When the main characters reunite in Ecuador, the drama from their high school cliques resurfaces as the political movements around them intensify. Nothing seems to change. Antonio asks himself:
if all the NGOs and nonprofits of the world ceased their activities… would anyone notice?—just as it was pointless and childish for him to imagine the possibility of deforming American English as revenge for Americans deforming Latin America with their interventionist policies, and if he continued in this vein there would be nothing left, everything’s pointless, congratulations, Antonio, now what?
Paragraphs and sentences in this novel can run for several pages. Chapters are sometimes written completely in Spanish. Nicknames are used before their associations and meanings are revealed. The rug is constantly pulled from under us; we are made to feel unsafe. One of Antonio’s friends, Masha, preempts a reader’s criticisms of this novel’s lack of focus: “You claim to despise so called conventional fiction…. You seem to purposely exclude any clues as to why you’re throwing all these words at us…. How can we distinguish the important and serious from the less important?” It’s a fair criticism of this work. Despite the fun Cardenas is clearly having in setting up stylistic hurtles, the work comes off as cold. I found myself yearning for a little straightforward realism and character development at times.
The Revolutionaries Try Again becomes tiresome in its attempts to be as iconoclastic as possible. In this sense it seems more related to the later novels of Elfriede Jelinek, which throw everything at the page in the hope that the reader can divine something, than the work of Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, or Julio Cortázar, to whom Cardenas has been compared. Many times I wondered if Cardenas had one day picked up James Joyce’s Ulysses and was so fascinated and elated by the first three chapters—which are convoluted and full of reflexive references that you’ll only understand by the end of the book—that he chose not to finish the rest. Cardenas even has a cat meow orthographically as “Mrkrgnao,” echoing Joyce’s odd spelling of the sound. So at least that proves that Cardenas did read Ulysses’s chapter four.