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Defamiliarizing the Familiar: An Interview with Mauro Javier Cardenas

By Jessie Chaffee

Mauro Javier Cardenas’s debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, was recently published by Coffee House Press. An experimental, modernist work, the novel is told in a multitude of voices, styles, syntaxes, and narratives forms, and includes two chapters entirely in Spanish. We discussed influences, experimentation, politics, and how he—“as an Ecuadorian, Latin American, South American who has been living in the United States for so many years”—approaches language.

WWB: What was the initial inspiration for The Revolutionaries Try Again?

MJC: I started thinking about writing the book when I was much younger. The original idea was what would it mean for a character to do what I was not able to do, which is follow through on my original plan to come to the United States, go to the best school in the world, and prepare myself for the so-called great task that awaits me, and then actually go back to Ecuador. I made it all the way through the good university part and then that plan fell apart. But I was very interested in exploring what is it that drives someone to have this desire—and to still have it even if she or he has no intentions of returning. That was the original kernel of the book, and then from there obviously a lot more happens beyond Antonio returning.

WWB: One of the things that’s exciting about reading the book is that, in addition to Antonio’s voice, there are many other voices in the novel, and also a variety of ways in which the story is told. There is traditional narration and there are stories within stories. There are chapters that are straight dialogue and others that are stream of consciousness. Did you consciously decide on constructing the book in this way, or were there elements that emerged in the writing process?

MJC: The voices and the syntax of Antonio and Leopoldo began as a traditional long sentence—the typical long sentence that you perhaps find in European and Latin American modernism—where you’re moving forward by qualifications and digressions and negations. That was natural for me in the beginning because what excited me about fiction was a combination of possibilities that I learned first from Cortázar and Borges, and then the kind of sentences that Virginia Woolf wrote, which I like to call “the performance of interiority” because they focus on reactions and thoughts and feelings. I love those kinds of sentences so I knew I wanted to write sentences like that and that’s where I began.

There were a few forces that had an impact on the rest of the book. I’m sure this happens to everyone after you read a lot of novels—you know a few things about yourself when it comes to fiction and you start disliking certain things. I learned that I get tired of hearing the same voice after around page 200. It can be the most wonderful voice—it could Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, which was fantastic—but after 200 pages, I don’t want to hear the voice anymore. This isn’t a literary judgment. But I knew for me it was important [to have different voices in the narrative]. So that if ten or twenty years from now I were to read my book again, I would want to read it all the way to the end.

WWB: So it keeps it exciting for you as well.

MJC: Absolutely. And there was also a desire to find different ways of writing fiction. The Rolando chapter was an important turning point because I didn’t want to write Rolando using the same long sentences I was writing for Antonio and Leopoldo. I wanted to find some other way of exploring him. Often when writers are asked about style or voice, they say, “Well, the character dictated it to me.” I wanted to explore [the opposite]—the idea that you could potentially pick a random syntax and that would create the character. And so the syntax of Rolando began with the syntax of a novel called Summer in Baden-Baden [by Leonid Tsypkin], which uses em dashes all over the place. I picked it at random—I hadn’t even read it—and I said, “Well, let’s see what happens if I use this syntax.” And what that syntax did was it forced Rolando and everybody in Rolando’s world to be very chatty because it facilitated this movement in time, and it facilitated jokes. So that world was forged through the syntax. After I was done with that chapter, I said, “Okay, now I want to infect the rest of the novel with this syntax.” I wanted Rolando to invisibly interfere with all of the pseudo-modernist long sentences.

I wanted to explore [the opposite]—the idea that you could potentially pick a random syntax and that would create the character.

WWB: The novel is set in Ecuador. With the exception of several sections that are completely in Spanish—when Antonio and Leopold’s grandmothers are speaking—it is written in English. And yet throughout you convey a very strong sense of the place and the language of that place. Were there any specific devices or approaches that you used capture the feel and the language of the place.

MCJ: That’s a great question, and I can answer it in a few ways that may seem to be a little bit contradictory. When it comes to the language [I use in my writing], there are some things that come naturally and there are some conscious decisions that I make. In the United States there is a lot of discussion about language—“English is the official language,” “English should be spoken in this way,” “Here are your Elements of Style,” “the Chicago rule of whatever.” There are all of these rules about how English should be written. And that always felt ridiculous to me. What I experienced very early on in reading fiction—in reading Nabokov, for example—is that the wonderful thing about language is that people like Nabokov or Aleksandar Hemon can come to this country and disfigure language in ways that are new, and that are a little more interesting. Of course just because you’re from a different country, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be successful in disfiguring the language.

I think the first step is to read everything you possibly can so that you master the language. And then I asked myself, “How do I—as an Ecuadorian, Latin American, South American who has been living in the United States for so many years—how do I approach the language?” And that required me saying, “I’m going to approach it in the way that sounds good to me.” The sounds of the language are the sounds of things that are mine.

As you were saying, the language helps create the sense of place. And now the contradiction is that one of the things that I was doing in certain chapters (the first chapter is a good example) was consciously trying to defamiliarize the language that I was using because I was writing about things that were familiar to me. In retrospect, it’s kind a weird exercise because it’s already defamiliarized by the fact that I’m writing English instead of Spanish, but then I’m also not writing because I want to reproduce the past in text. That isn’t the objective. I was more interested in saying how do I use this material that is alive to me in a way that’s interesting to me?

And so in the first chapter, for instance, what I would do is that in the evenings I would consciously read books about the American avant-garde—John Cage and Morton Feldman—and when I sat down to write the next morning, I would hope that the images, the language of that world that was completely unrelated to what I was writing was filtering in and amalgamating in such a way that what I came up with was something different. There’s one little nugget in the first chapter that is probably my favorite part of the whole book just because it actually worked! In a scene at the beginning there’s a long digression—a digressive monologue where a guy is speaking about his neighbor who “thinks her jars have a different spirit than her cans.” That came straight out of an interview with John Cage where he was talking about someone who said that every single object in the world has its own spirit, and that the role of the musician is to uncover that spirit.

I was consciously trying to defamiliarize the language that I was using, because I was writing about things that were familiar to me.

WWB: The writer Carmen Boullosa has compared you to Bolaño and Cortázar, and other people have called your book the new Latin American novel. How do you see your work within that context? And are there other people with whom you feel your work is in dialogue?

MCJ: I think the influences came in phases. The first phase was very early, as a young man, when I read works by Borges and then Cortázar. They were significant influences for me simply because, unlike many of my peers, I didn’t grow up reading novels, I didn’t grow up reading fiction, so I equated what fiction should be with Borges and Cortázar. I remember during college, when I’d started reading fiction, I called my mother and said, “I’ve changed. I don’t do math anymore. I am reading a lot instead.” And she said, “What are you talking about? When you were a kid, you used to read all the time, but you only read the encyclopedia because that’s all we had at home.” She would always buy these big sets of encyclopedias, and that’s what I would read. (No wonder I love Borges’s “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”!)

I encountered Borges by chance. I was staying with somebody during my winter break and she had Ficciones. For that to be my foundation for fiction was a great thing because it taught me that fiction can be anything. It can be a fake essay; it can be a guy making up Don Quixote again, word for word. And what I took from Cortázar, from Hopscotch, was that sense of play and intellectuality. I love the fact that Hopscotch starts with that super silly Cesar Bruto epigraph. I loved that sense of play. Years later I got to read the lectures that Cortázar gave at Berkeley in which he has a whole section about play in fiction. For me that was really important because it aligned with my own personality. I’m not a very serious person—of course I take my work very seriously—but my disposition is unserious. So Borges and Cortázar were two important influences at the beginning. They were like spiritual grandfathers, in a way.

Virginia Woolf was definitely an influence, and António Lobo Antunes was a revelation for me because the rhythm of his sentences made a lot of sense to me, and the flow—his movement in time—is just amazing. I still remember the day I read his work for the first time. I started the book and thought, “This is it.” It was wonderful. There are many others who have reinforced my excitement about fiction along the way. Thomas Bernhard is a writer that I’ve grown to love more and more over the years. When I read his work when I was younger, I thought, “Why is this guy complaining so much?” but as I grew older, I understood where that anger and grief came from. László Krasznahorkai was also an influence—not only reading his work, which is fantastic, but he was here in San Francisco and I had a chance to interview him and drive him around town. And to hear him speak just like some of his characters speak—in long and digressive monologues and with an intensity that sort of comes from within—that to me was what I was after.

For [Ficciones] to be my foundation for fiction was a great thing because it taught me that fiction can be anything. It can be a fake essay; it can be a guy making up Don Quixote again.

I like to believe my second novel is a rewriting of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz—it isn’t, but it is in some very oblique way. The whole way that Sebald begins that novel—he’s talking about architecture for a long time and we have no idea why, and it only comes out later that it’s all connected. That to me was fantastic. Perhaps the main thing that I learn from Sebald is the whole notion of obliqueness.

And one more! A book that I still read every year is By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño. That was the first Bolaño I read, and when people ask me about historical fiction, I say, “That’s the perfect historical novel.” Because it does what fiction should do—you approach the subject obliquely until you can’t anymore. It’s interesting to me having read that as my first Bolaño because there is no other Bolaño novel like that. The big novels are nothing like that—although 2666 does have that certain transcendental digression. It seems like there is this desire to find transcendence in story after story after story.

What I found wonderful in 2666 is that there is a feeling that anything can happen. I love that idea. I love that when I’m writing I am able to start a sentence and to have no idea where it is going to go. You can start a sentence and anything can happen. You can even have sentences—I have a few sentences in the book that I call “verbless sentences”—when you start with a noun, you start with a character, and then there’s no verb associated with it. And to me, that’s the joy of fiction. That sense that anything can happen.

WWB: Will the novel been translated and how involved will you be in the translations?

MCJ: It hasn’t yet. We just signed the Spanish rights. I was asked about wanting to translate my own book, and to answer, I went back to Sebald: when he was asked why he didn’t translate his own novels, he said, “Because I can see the end at the horizon and I want to finish my own books.” But there is an area where I think I’m going to get involved. I made a conscious decision that this novel wouldn’t be set in an unnamed South American country that, “wink-wink,” we all know is Ecuador. I wanted it to be set in Ecuador specifically. And no matter how silly we sometimes think nostalgia is, nostalgia is important to me and nostalgia for my country is important to me, and so I want the language in Spanish—especially when the boys are talking—I want that slang from Guayaquil to be there.

 I love that when I’m writing I am able to start a sentence and to have no idea where it is going to go . . . to me, that’s the joy of fiction. That sense that anything can happen.

WWB: I recently read your piece in The Millions about “filling in the blanks,” which reminded me of Antonio—within the novel he’s working on a manuscript about his past and he’s obsessed with “getting it right.” And we witness what he edits out because it isn’t true to his experience. You’re working in fiction, of course, but also drawing on life. What does “getting it right” mean to you, especially in those moments when you’re filling in blanks in one way or another?

MCJ: I think getting it right in fiction has a number of dimensions. One of them is a more global one—how do you know when the novel is done? To me, simplistically speaking, it is once your radius of associations fills up that you’re done. Once all the lights are on. That’s kind of “getting it right.”

I think for each individual section, getting it right means engaging with the material I have at hand and making decisions about where I want to invent and where I don’t. There were many cases where I felt at ease with the notion of writing against blanks. To me it was more interesting because I felt in many ways that Antonio and Leopoldo have all these blanks and holes in memory. Part of what they struggle with in the book is to make sense of the sources of their desire to reunite and to change something. But those sources are all filled with holes. It’s important for me to have the characters engaging with the holes in their memories and saying, “Well, why is it that I still think about my volunteer work if I can’t remember any of it? What does it mean to me?”

So that to me was definitely a place where I made conscious decisions not to invent. Whereas in the Rolando chapters, I had more freedom in a way. I was freer to invent because Rolando had a completely different setup. Sometimes I describe the novel as having two main love stories—the love story between Antonio and Leopoldo and their past, and the love story between Rolando and Eva. But then there are a few more—there’s the love story between Eva and her brother, and the love story between Rolando and his sister, and then the love story between all the characters and God. If we talk about the novel in terms of love, then that also determines what I want to invent and what I don’t want to invent.

WWB: You spoke a little bit about the book that you’re working on now. Do you feel comfortable speaking more about that?  

MCJ: I have come to see the first novel in many ways as a place where I was able to develop the type of sentence that I felt I was looking for, that was flexible enough to accommodate everything that I find important—memories and dialogue and imaginary memories and imaginary dialogue and references, all of it, right? So these kind of long sentences with interjections are the only kind of sentences that I write now. In the second book there’s no sentence that is below the 1000-word mark. In fact, every paragraph is one sentence. I’m working with these kind of sentences because I’m after exploring the movements of the mind— although saying “the mind” feels a little too intellectual, because it’s not really the mind, but it’s all of the self. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean when all these things are flowing through you, and how do I dramatize them?

WWB: Do you feel that your work is political? Do you think that fiction is invariably political?

MCJ: When it comes to the role of fiction in politics, especially living in the times in which we’re living here in the United States—with all the shootings and this horrendous political situation we’re in—my view has been manifold. I’ve said before and I still say that the novel doesn’t necessarily have a role in politics. I don’t set out to write a novel in order to affect anything. I set out to a write a book that is true to what I think fiction should be and true to myself and what I’ve read and my experience—it’s not anything new to say that the novel is a weird object in the world that didn’t exist before.

At the same time, the novel exists in a world where you have people saying, “English should be the only language,” a world where people hear someone speaking Spanish and say “Go home” or “Speak English.” And so to me, to have a novel that has Spanish in it—there are two short chapters in Spanish—it’s my own kind of very small little pebble thrown at the forces of evil and hopefully maybe a source of solace to the many Latin Americans who live here.

It’s not anything new to say that the novel is a weird object in the world that didn’t exist before. At the same time, the novel exists in a world where you have people saying, “English should be the only language.”

Those two ideas don’t have to negate one another. When I wrote those short chapters in Spanish, there are many reason why I wrote them, but one reason was that we have a political party that is racist, and because we have so many people that are racist in this country, and I love to think about them opening the book and reading it and getting tremendously upset about the fact that there are two chapters in Spanish. I think the existence of certain kinds of novels has an impact, even if it is minimal. The immigration problems that we have, the horrendous situation at the border—all of these things become important. In a way I could even argue that the political impulse was there, I just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

Somebody said to me that the book felt very American in many ways, and I thought about that because I’m often positioned as a Latin American author who has written a Latin American novel in English. But at the same time, it’s definitely an American novel because if I hadn’t lived in the United States, I wouldn't know as much as I know about the situation on the border. And I wouldn’t have ended the novel in the way that I did. Because originally I thought the novel would end with revolution. But it doesn’t end on that note. It ends with somebody trying to decide what to say or to not to say about their experience at the border. And so to me that’s a reflection of being an American and living in the United States. And also of the fact that I’m Latin American, and I of course feel tremendous empathy with fellow Latin Americans who had a horrible experience crossing the border.

WWB: It makes sense that you don’t necessarily set out to make a political statement, but simply by expressing the world that you see, and giving voice to that, it is political.

MCJ: Exactly.

WWB: And the inclusion of Spanish—without framing or qualification—was very powerful.

MJC: Thank you. And I think I said it before: I love Words Without Borders. That’s where I first read László Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf, where I first read Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya when it was still far away from being a book in English translation. I love that Words Without Borders exists and that I’m able to sample the world before the books are out.


Mauro Javier Cardenas grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and graduated with a degree in economics from Stanford University. Excerpts from his first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press, 2016), have appeared in Conjunctions, the Antioch Review, Guernica, Witness, and BOMB. His interviews and essays on/with László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and António Lobo Antunes have appeared in Music & Literature, the San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and the Quarterly Conversation.

Published Nov 2, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jessie Chaffee

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