Imagine this: a novel about a would-be novelist, a writer of “so-called” fictions, or stories inspired by his life in Bogota, Colombia, now living in California, who steals time to write, avant-garde music flowing through his headphones, in the cubicle he occupies at Prudential Investments where he works as a data analyst. When the work day is done he heads home, no not Home, but to The Other Home, a studio apartment in building adjacent to the building (containing Home) and joined to said building by a shared laundry room. This arrangement allows our “hero” to maintain a connection and an illusion of family life with his former wife, Ida, and his daughters, Ada and Eva. Add an unstable sister and a mother, both across country, and a selection of past and present girlfriends, serious and casual, and you have the psychological landscape in which one Antonio Jose Jiménez exists (and sometimes tries to pretend he does not exist).
Aphasia opens during Summer #8 of Antonio’s semi-domesticated or post married life, and his former wife has, as is her custom, taken the girls to her native country, Czechia, to spend time with her parents. Normally their absence would be a green light for him to engage with previous lovers and/or pursue new romances. But this year he is worried about the potential threat such romances might pose to his precariously balanced family life, so he signs up for Your Sugar Arrangements, a site for wanna-be Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies to connect under the name Arturo Ventanas. What could possibly go wrong? Or rather, what does this piece of information, offered on the very first pages of the book, tell us about our friend Antonio? Well, that he is quite capable of reasoning at cross purposes—in fact the entire novel could be described as an exercise in the tangling and untangling of his thought processes through an ongoing stream of remembrances, distractions and denials. A conventional narrative it is not, an absorbing reading experience it is.
This is the second novel by Mauro Javier Cárdenas featuring Antonio though the two Antonio’s don’t line up exactly. In The Revolutionaries Try Again he is an avant-garde music loving data analyst in California who returns home to Ecuador (which, rather than Colombia, is the author’s own native country) where, together with a school friend, he attempts to rekindle the political dreams of their youth. It is a boisterous experimental endeavour with multiple threads and an explosion of narrative styles. By contrast, the present incarnation of Antonio with his creeping middle-age anxieties is a quieter affair, but no less ambitious. Unwinding in a feast of long sentences that extend for pages without a break, Aphasia reads almost like a transcription of its protagonist’s thoughts and experiences shaped by what he thinks, knows and what he thinks he knows. Along the way, the incorporation of transcriptions of conversations he has taped with his mother, his former wife and his sister expand the world in which he exists.
This Antonio-centred world depends on a healthy amount of distraction, imagination and avoidance. His writing and reading drive much of it, his former girlfriends, Dora and Silvina, still occupy his mind, his occasional sugar arrangements complicate matters, his daughters command his affections, Nicola Carati, the hero of the Italian family saga, The Best of Youth, provides him an idealized alter ego, and, when required, Antonio even submits to his role as a data analyst. It’s a busy existence, one that clutters up the file cabinet in his cubicle at Prudential Investments because, if anything, Antonio is a master at compartmentalization. There is plenty he’d rather not think about, including a volatile family life with his father back in Bogota. However, the major elephant-in-the-room element is the current affairs of his sister Estela who, suffering from what seems to be schizophrenia, involve serious medical and legal challenges that continue to surface throughout the course of this novel:
—I don’t intend to write about my sister here, Antonio writes, among my so-called sugar arrangements—nor do I want to give you the impression my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion from thinking about my sister’s misfortunes, Antonio writes, because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time without thinking of the misfortunes that have happened are still happening to my sister—and although of course Antonio’s ashamed of his avoidance, no one needs to know, he won’t tell anyone, and thankfully he no longer believes in a god that can strike him for avoiding his sister’s misfortunes…
So, what will Antonio write about? Everything he insists he won’t write about and more. What he won’t/can’t write about the third person narration carries because what he writes and what he thinks and feels are often at odds. The recordings worked into the text allow key people in his life to speak for themselves to bring their own realities into the mix although not without Antonio’s questions influencing their disclosures. The narrative shifts perspectives multiple times within the same extended sentence yet remains internally driven by Antonio’s thoughts and experiences.
The style with its long circuitous sentences, intentionally repetitive and often uncertain and self-contradictory, will immediately call to mind Thomas Bernhard, and he is among the many literary presences in this book. Antonio, as a writer, tends to perceive and frame things in terms of literature, film and music, so writers and their works—including Sebald, Krasznahorkai, Beckett, Chekov, Virginia Woolf and many more—appear among these pages, sometimes employed in the most unlikely contexts. Encountering these elements is part of the fun of reading this work. And Aphasia is fun to read, falling into the rhythm of the long passages, and riding the waves of Antonio’s contradictory thinking and overthinking.
Essentially, this is a novel about what is going on in the presumably ordered if cluttered mind of its central character and, as somewhat of a counterpoint, in the disordered, psychotic mind of his sister. What has happened and what might happen is secondary to what Antonio thinks about these things, consequently he often acts without seeming to think at all which is, of course, what we all do so much of the time, for better or worse. Yet, this is, at heart, a book about family—the family histories that form us, the obligations they bring, and the complicated emotions involved in creating our own families whether accidental (as for poor Antonio) or otherwise. These are, of course, the themes troubling much of Antonio’s mental real estate. Whether he reaches any insights or not is secondary to the journey itself.
Aphasia by Mauro Javier Cárdenas is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.