The loose ends of memories: Before by Carmen Boullosa

The opening passage of Mexican writer Carmen Boullousa’s novel Before—the first she wrote, albeit the second to be published—is, at first blush, disorienting.

Where were we when we got to this point? Didn’t they tell you? Who could tell you if you had nobody to ask? And do you yourself remember? Particularly if you’re not here… And if I keep on? Well if I keep on perhaps you’ll show up.

A most unlikely welcome. But then our winsome young narrator is not here either. She greets us from a point beyond bodied existence, beyond a life cut short with the advent of puberty. She is lost in a realm of troubled memories, and in an attempt to find herself, to talk herself back into being, she invents a listener, one who is likewise no longer alive, to whom she can recount her recollections and, she hopes, confront the trauma that has continued to haunt her. “How would I like you to be?” she asks her conjured audience, “I’d like you to be whatever you were!”

As she revisits her past, attempting to start at the very beginning, with her own birth, memories and emotions pour forth in a jumble of childhood anecdotes crossed with her reflections about the limitations of language and the perplexity of familial relationships. Her estranged connection with her own past is palpable. She describes playing games with her older sisters, her fondness for her father, and the sense of security she feels with her grandmother. She paints vivid images of life at her Catholic girl’s school. But she speaks of her mother, whom she insists on referring to as Esther, with an odd, pained distance. And she is hypersensitive to noises, creating a “lexicon” of her own. She finds comfort in the ones that can be explained by the light of day, but fears the insistent sound of footsteps that haunt her in her dreams, that wake her in a state of panic. The steps threatens to envelop her in darkness. She seeks refuge in both practical and enchanted solutions. She feels she just barely escapes their pursuit:

I didn’t know what I could do against this persecution. When I was younger, I stayed in bed or ran to my parents’ bed to let them protect me, but Dad never let me sleep in their room, thinking my nighttime terror was “clowning,” which was the word he used to describe it. Some nights I managed to trick them and stay asleep on a rug at the foot of their bed, thinking their closeness would defend me, but when I was older, let’s say around the age of nine, I stopped having recourse to the rug; if I didn’t stay in bed waiting for the noises to hit me, I walked through the house trying to elude them.

Her memories are not orderly, they vie for her attention, and often require the insertion of backstories to give them context. This allows for an odd logic, a somewhat disjointed storytelling. Some memories bring her unexpected joy, make her feel “alive again,” while others rekindle fears and mock her loneliness, her “opacity” and “sadness.” As a ghost, her connection with her life is complicated, suspended on the cusp of womanhood. The stories she shares often take on magical overtones in the retelling. Some of this reflects the enthusiasm and imagination of childhood fantasy, but as she gets older, an ominous superstition grows. As the narrative progresses, our heroine is winding her way toward an event almost too unbearably painful to return to. As readers we know that her death awaits, but there is another heartbreaking loss that precedes it.

Underlying this fragmented account of a privileged childhood in Mexico City, is the sense that adults and children exist in separate spheres. A rotation of caregivers passes through their lives and the eldest sister takes on some of the surrogate parenting roles, while the mother and father pursue careers and social engagements. When her sisters become young women, seeming to enter overnight a world of brassieres, stockings, and nail polish, the narrator promises that she will not follow suit. She does not realize, she admits when she confesses this, that she has sealed her fate with this wish.

There is an uncanny urgency and intensity to this ghostly coming-of-age story. Boullosa’s own Catholic upbringing in the 1950s and 60s, and the early death of her mother when she was fifteen are echoed here, suggesting that it may have been as imperative for her to tell this tale as it is for her protagonist to share hers. And what better way to create a distance, a place of relative safety, than to root a narrative in the afterlife? Not that any of her narrator’s animated energy or distracted childhood logic is lost in the process. Rather, we are presented with a unique blend of curiosity and innocence, tinged with wisdom and sorrow.

A most unusual and affecting tale.

Originally released in Spanish in 1989, Before is translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, and published by Deep Vellum.

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.

“It has been wonderful to know you”: My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel

September, 1986—spring in Santiago and rumours that the Dictator’s days are numbered are stirring the spirits of the determined, young idealistic members of the resistance. It has been another year of blackouts, street violence and police brutality. The setting is a lower-class neighbourhood where years of unemployment have taken a toll, buildings stand in disrepair, and a certain aging princess has found a castle to call her own:

. . . the scrawny house on the corner, three stories high with a staircase like a backbone leading to the room on the rooftop. From there could be seen the city in the shadows crowned with a turbid veil of dust. It was no bigger than a dovecote with three walls and a railing that was just wide enough for the Queen of the Corner—her hands moving as if playing on a marimba—to hang the sheets, tablecloths, and underpants out to dry.

Her dilapidated dwelling is decorated in style. Boxes festooned with fabrics, ribbons and dramatic imagination stand in for the finest furniture. Our heroine, a balding, drag-queen in her forties bearing the ravages of a rough life, is at last settled. As she embroiders linens for wealthy clients, and sings along with her favourite golden oldies on the radio, she dreams of Carlos, the handsome young student she met at the local store. He had approached her to ask if he could store some boxes of books in her home. She was not the silly old fool she allowed him to think she was, but—those eyes, that virile voice—how could she say “no”? Hopelessly smitten, she swoons like a schoolgirl, and soon more boxes arrive. Before long she agrees to allow a small army of students slip up the stairway to “study” in her rooftop room.

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Thus begins My Tender Matador by late Chilean writer, Pedro Lemebel (1952-2015). With a queerly delightful energy, this is a love story that moves quickly and takes no prisoners. The Queen offers an unlikely refuge and serves as a convenient decoy for Carlos and his fellow Marxists. Caught up in a flutter of fluctuating emotions, especially when a string of days without a word from Carlos send her swinging between anger and anxiety, she berates herself for her infatuation. Her trannie sisters tease her wildly, but express their concerns, while Carlos himself is caught off guard by his own conflicted emotions. Something in the uninhibited joy and performative enthusiasms the Queen reveals moves him like no woman ever has. As her sensitivity to the political realities of the present are heightened, he is sent into revisiting a boyhood sexual initiation.

And yet, can anything come of this flirtatious friendship?

Running as counterpoint to the Queen’s story, is a second narrative stream featuring General Pinochet presented as a hen-pecked, weary, and paranoid old man. His wife’s constant nattering runs him down:

Oh, it’s just not fair; look at all these wrinkles I’m getting on my forehead, Augusto. Look, I have almost as many as you do, and I’m much younger than you are. It must be these difficult times we are living in, all the frights and frustrations I experience at your side. No other woman would have tolerated her husband being treated by the international press as a tyrant, a dictator, a murderer. And even though it is all lies, even though all Chileans know you saved our nation, don’t tell me it hasn’t been embarrassing. Yes, as I said, it’s a nightmare to think that all those penniless Communists who consider themselves writers blow their noses at you.

His only retreat is to sink back into dreams, seeking the comfort of his childhood toys. But even his dreams betray him, shifting into nightmares. What emerges is a portrait of a vain, paranoid, brittle, and homophobic man slowly losing his hold on power.

My Tender Matador is at once highly entertaining and politically astute satire. Lemebel weaves narrative with unmarked dialogue into seamless paragraphs that facilitate playful banter, emotional discharge, and the escalation of tension:

As she rushed down the stairs trying to straighten out her few remaining clumps of hair, she knew she wouldn’t say anything to him; she wouldn’t even bring it up. Anyway, Carlos was so careless she could forgive him for anything, as long as she could see him again in the doorway, like sun rushing out from behind the clouds, to offer explanations…. The young man as beautiful as an emerald was asking for her smile. How about a cigarette? he asked with his strawberry mouth, conquering her again with those puppy-dog eyes. What, did you think I was angry? But we had such a good time. Did you enjoy it? Anyway, the next time I go away, it might be forever. Carlos lowered his voice and looked at the mysterious boxes, and a curtain of emptiness unfurled over the moment. Then something pounded its way into her sissy-boy soul. Something Carlos was telling her contained a shard of truth. A fear, a foreboding, something intangible that darkened his pretty boy smile.

The flowery imagery and campy energy is infectious. The outrageous queerness that the Queen performs with her fellow transvestites is crude, and in today’s gay community which often endeavours to downplay and reject obvious femme presentations, there is a brash coarseness that rarely extends into contemporary gay-themed literary fiction. But the Queen of the Corner is not a caricature. She is drawn from the heart. A cross-dresser himself, Lemebel knows her intimately, and her story offers a romantic comedy into which he can throw his passions and concerns and allow them to play out on the page. In his obituary for The New Yorker, author Garth Greenwall portrays Lemebel as:

…a writer who called himself a “queen” (una loca) and “a poor old faggot” (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition. Lemebel defined himself against establishments of all kinds: against Pinochet’s military dictatorship, but also against the Marxist resistance that condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice; against the neoliberal consensus behind Chile’s “economic miracle,” but also against the L.G.B.T. activists who Lemebel believed were making commodities of queer suffering and queer lives.

Look closely, and one can see all of these undercurrents coursing through the repartee, antics and drama of My Tender Matador.

But it is the simple human need to love and be desired that gives it its soul.

Translated by Katherine Silver, My Tender Matador is, to date, the only one of Lemebel’s novels to have been translated into English.

A methodical madness: Colonel Lágrimas by Carlos Fonseca

On a cold winter day, in a remote location high in the Pyrenees, an old man is bent over his desk intent on completing an ambitious, eccentric project. Time is against him. He is an enigma—reclusive and unknowable. And the goal of Carlos Fonseca (Suarez)’s infectious debut novel, Colonel Lágrimas, is to attempt to unravel and piece together the true identity of this strange man and the circumstances that led him to this place. But it’s no ordinary investigation and the colonel at the centre of attention is a military man only in his own imagination. He is, or rather was, a brilliant mathematician, a cryptic solver of abstract puzzles, who at the height of his fame, suddenly retreated from academia, embarking on a strange journey toward isolation and obscurity.

Our guide in this inquiry is a playful voyeur who follows the aged recluse through the course of a single day, spinning a fragmented, nonlinear narrative of anecdotes, historical asides, interruptions, and discursions. At times we are invited to observe our subject as if through a lens, sometimes zooming in to a level of pixelated hyper-reality. At other times we watch as an invisible (or unnoticed) presence, slipping into the frame to rustle around in his photographs and letters when the colonel is asleep or otherwise occupied. As readers we are complicit. Curiosity is mixed with a sense that we are invading the secret world of a man lost to the caprices of a second, doomed childhood:

Where is the border of the private? Where is the sentry to tell us when we should stop, draw a line, move no closer, and have a little respect? We imagine that at some point, when we’re getting too close, we’ll no longer see him and only the pixels of the background will be left, atmosphere with no storyline.

The pleasure of the intruder.

Much more than an exercise in intellectual and linguistic experimentation, the hero of Colonel Lágrimas is loosely based on the strange life of Alexander Grothendieck, the enigmatic German-born mathematician who played a major role in the development of modern algebraic geometry before suddenly abandoning his career in mid-stride, ultimately spending his later years in seclusion. Fonseca, who was born in Costa Rica and raised in Puerto Rico, grants his colonel a Mexican birth, a Russian Jewish mother given to painting the same volcano day after day, and anarchist father who fatally throws his lot in with the Spanish Republicans. There are crossovers and echoes with Grothendieck’s life which held its own share of mystery. But here we have a character on whom the spotlight can be dialed in much closer, even if we can never get inside his head, so to speak. In an interview published in Numéro Cinq, Fonseca describes his novel as the product of an intersection of his obsessions with the elusive German mathematician, with archives and archival novels, and with Chuck Close’s large portraits often composed of “pixels” created out of mini-paintings. Stylistically he says he sees his writing as, in some sense, a product of his origins, that is, as “the strange offspring of the Puerto Rican baroque writing, on the one hand, and Costa Rican minimalism and experimentation, on the other.”

Thus, by playing the voyeuristic detective narrator’s close observations of the colonel’s daily routine and his current effort to record the lives of three imagined alchemical divas against a collection of historical anecdotes we begin to build an image of an old man racing against time to contain an essence of a history he is trying to forget. Woven into the narrative are descriptions of faded photographs, aphorisms from his father’s notebook, and postcards from a long correspondence with Maximiliano, a Mexican who gets inextricably bound in his former hero’s eccentric archival efforts. Themes repeat, patterns form. And binding it all is the regular appearance of a doodled spiral of barbed wire and a complex algebraic equation that are assumed to be connected. Gradually, layer by layer, a picture starts to take shape.  The fragments are the pixels needed to construct a fuller portrait of the life of our solitary subject.

His is a life that crosses many of the major events of the twentieth century—the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, Vietnam—albeit a step out of time or logic, forever anachronistic. We learn that our “young colonel” rejected his past and began a lifelong pattern of slipping behind masks at an early age. He headed off, on his own, to occupied Paris, when he was ten. Within a few years he had adopted the role of an orphan. Later, having earned respect as a mathematical genius, he suddenly tosses it all to teach math in Vietnam during the war. At present, on the day we spend watching him in his absent-minded pursuits, he is engaged in writing the “autobiographies of other people,” his trio of historical divas. Or are they a means of assuaging a guilt that has driven his odd behaviour? That is not an easy question to answer.

There are two ways of approaching the colonel. You can see him from a distance, his romantic profile like a tired genius who finally surrendered to the madness of endless projects. Easy to see him in this genius-like aspect, prisoner of dementia, a captive of the memory of his traumatic childhood. More difficult though to approach him to the point of belief, to where we believe in his projects. To see him up close in his more criminal profile: no longer a genius, no longer mad, but rather a man who waited, patiently, until the day came that would strip him of his talent so he could sit down to write what he always wanted.

As a portrait of our stateless colonel is fleshed out in what is more a process of questioning, refining, and focusing possibilities—attempting to solve an individual life as an algebraic equation—it is impossible not to feel pity for this man who struggles with writer’s block, has an unknown audience waiting outside his bathroom door as he sings in the bath, is observed as he dresses up in his finest regalia, and critiqued as he performs a drunken oratory in what he can only assume is the guarded privacy of his own home. Examined as a collection of data, analyzed and psychoanalyzed in his waning days, he will not be allowed to slip quietly into obscurity.

And whether that would secretly please him or not, we will never know.

Colonel Lágrimas is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell and published by Restless Books.

By the “sun of the dead”: Wolf Moon by Julio Llamazares

The moon has not come out tonight either. The night is like a cold black stain on the outline of the beech groves, which climb up the mountain and into the fog like ghostly armies of ice. It smells of rosemary and shredded ferns.

Our boots slosh through the mud searching for the elusive surface of the ground with each step. Our sub-machine-guns shine in the darkness like iron moons.

We carry on climbing towards the Amarza Pass, towards the roof of the world and solitude.

Set in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain in the years following the collapse of the Republican front in Austrias in 1937, through the end of the Spanish Civil War and beyond, the above passage from the early pages of Julio Llamazares’ novel Wolf Moon could stand as a refrain that will echo down through the pages that follow. Inspired, the author tells us, by his childhood hero, Casmiro Férnandez Arias, one of the countless resistance fighters who led his brothers and comrades to seek refuge in the wilderness where they would be relentlessly pursued to their deaths or driven into exile, the result is a skilful blend of thrilling adventure, harsh natural beauty, and heartbreaking loss. An epic tale rendered with power and lyric intensity.

Wolf Moon is part of the Spanish Season of the World Series published by Peter Owen in association with Istros Books. It is in keeping with the high quality established with the debut Slovenian Season issued last fall. Born in Léon Province in 1955, Llamazares studied law but soon left for a career in journalism and literature. He released several volumes of poetry before turning to fiction. His poetic sensibility is especially evident in the present work, his first novel, originally published in 1985.

The desperate circumstances of the four Republicans at the heart of this story is immediately evident from the opening passages. The leader, Ramiro, is hiding in a ruined hut with his brother Juan, a fellow villager, Gildo, and the narrator. They are on their way over a mountain pass hoping to reach a region closer to home. But remaining hidden is critical. They must restrict their travel to the hours after nightfall and they must be on a constant alert for Franco’s Guardia Civil. “Daylight, we are told, “is not good for dead men.” Containment, darkness, and the tedium of waiting are recurring themes as they seek concealment, first in an abandoned mine, and eventually in a camouflaged cave where they will remain for years:

Since we got here I’ve scarcely felt the terrible moaning of the beast in the depths of my stomach, which bayed despairingly so many times in the final months of the war. It was even worse during the five days when we did not eat at all as we fled across the mountains, in the rain, from a more physical beast, more human and bloodthirsty, which pursued us implacably. It is as if the dampness and cold of the cave have penetrated my bones and my soul, imprisoning me here, lying beside the fire day and night with no interest in eating and talking or even peering through the mouth of the cave to look at the hard, overcast sky.

The narrative has a distinctive lyrical quality. This is most apparent in the strong presence of the natural elements. The landscape, weather, flora and fauna are continually evoked. Nature can be seen as a critical protagonist throughout—an aid, a threat, and a constant force to be reckoned with. As an account of years of seclusion in a wild environment this enhances the reader’s sense of connection with the characters and their plight. Wisely, Llamazares has chosen to make his narrator, Ángel, a school teacher. The tension, the emotion, and the striking bucolic imagery all work well through his voice, in tune with his sensitive, poetic personality. Otherwise, the language might risk feeling a little forced or melodramatic.

Over time, the fugitives engage in cautious contact with their home villages and families, but always at great risk to all involved. Tragic losses do occur, and the little band shrinks and becomes more isolated as the guardias continue their pursuit unabated, even after the war ends. The fugitives, the “men from the hills,” have taken on the status of mythic legend over time, fueling the official pressure to drive them out. In the end, those who survive will be those who manage to make it into France where the Spanish resistance will continue into the 1960s. What Wolf Moon captures so effectively is the alternating claustrophobia and physical exposure of life in hiding and on the run. It is a tribute to the incredible endurance of the young men who sacrificed the best years of their lives deep in the mountains—hungry, injured, and clinging like ghosts to the shadows—and the price paid by their families and the rural communities who likewise lived under continual fear and threat during this time.

It is, like many a great epic, a powerful testament to the futility and human cost of war.

Wolf Moon is translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillip-Miles.

Round and round: 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara

The unnamed protagonist of 33 Revolutions, a stark, relentless portrait of life in Castros’ Cuba, is a divorced, black man—a misfit who chafes against the collective tedium of his existence until he is forced to decide, like so many before him, what, if anything, holds him to his wretched island nation. The revolutionary bloom is long off the Communist rose that once held his hopes and enthusiasm. With weary resignation, he shuffles off to his ministry job day after day, enjoying the few privileges afforded by the little bit of extra money sent to him from his mother overseas, but it is a hollow existence:

Duty and desire. Angrily, he bangs out his dilemma on the typewriter until the paper is perforated with periods and commas. His desire is to be alone in his office, in this city, in this country, and never to be disturbed. Monotony is expressed in a thousand ways and acquires various signs. Work, radio, new bulletins, meals, free time: I live in a scratched record, he thinks, and every day it gets a bit more scratched. Repetition puts you to sleep, and that sleepiness is also repeated; sometimes the needle jumps, a crackling is heard, the rhythm changes, then it sticks again. It always sticks again.

33Threaded through the thirty-three brief chapters of this slender novella, are two repeated refrains: the scratched record and the suffocating tropical heat. This imagery is employed so incessantly that it begins to wear a groove that could, in a longer or less deftly handled work, easily become irritating. Instead, the sheer beauty of the language lends the repetition a peculiar freshness. And that is exactly the intention. Tedium and repetition can be borne, can even seem bearable. Until one day it isn’t, and then all bets are off.

The author of 33 Revolutions, Canek Sánchez Guevara, inherited a proud and defiant spirit  from his grandfather, the famous Marxist revolutionary who fought alongside Fidel Castro. At the age of 22, he rejected the dictatorial politics of his homeland, and left for Mexico where he became a writer, graphic designer, and heavy metal guitarist. He was dedicated to writing and speaking out against Cuba’s single party system and its attendant human rights abuses until he died unexpectedly in 2015, at the age of 40. This hypnotically engaging novel allows his voice to continue on.

With a sense of absurdity that Kafka would appreciate, Sánchez Guevara creates, in his hero, a man who is aware that he stands at odds with the world around him. He finds refuge in books and an incongruous fondness for avant-garde music. He is aware that his life is paradoxical, verging on metaphysical weirdness that is both a blessing and a curse. And this painful self-knowledge does nothing to protect him from the monotony that curses his days or the vivid nightmares that haunt his sleep. He understands his reality all too well:

He looks down at the sea again and drinks straight from the bottle. Behind him, the dirty, beautiful, broken city; in front of him the abyss that suggests defeat…. We win by isolating ourselves, and in isolating ourselves we are defeated, he thinks. The wall is the sea, the screen that protects us and locks us in. There are no borders; those waters are a bulwark and a stockade, a trench and a moat, a barricade and a fence. We resist through isolation. We survive through repetition.

As this ceaseless repetition begins to weaken him, our protagonist’s disaffection grows. An undercurrent of protest starts to build within him, fueled by the oppressive heat and boredom. He had long managed to hold his distance, to stand apart from both the street corner reactionaries and the huddled gossips distorting what the rumours passed down to the masses—but this continual buffering against the insidious mechanisms of state control, starts to wear him down like, well, the needle on a scratched record.

The heat is criminal—it melts neurons, incites to violence, multiplies fertility tenfold. There isn’t a beer for miles around (or water, or a barley drink, or anything that can be bought with national currency). Nothing belongs to me, he thinks. And what about me, do I belong to anything? (The scratched record plays insistently.)

His rebellion starts passively, opting out and feigning sick, but in that act the course is turned.

He finds himself drawn to the shore. His experiences, not only of the city around him but the uncertain and desperate promise that waits beyond the waves, is mediated through the lens of his camera. The frame of the viewfinder becomes his means of contextualizing himself in the world and a focuses his hopes for a possible future elsewhere. Everyone seems to be leaving—his doctor, an old friend from school, groups of kids clinging to rafts of questionable seaworthiness. The camera with its ability to play with depth of field, becomes his tool in an attempt to tell an alternate story, take control of and document his own fate.

This brief novella hits hard. Harder perhaps in the light of Fidel Castro’s recent passing, and in the desperation of migrants risking the seas for a better life elsewhere. The anguish that comes through personal and powerful, and it is more important than ever that we stop for a moment to listen.

33 Revolutions, by Canek Sánchez Guevara is translated  by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions.

You say you want a revolution? The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas

DROOL: I wish we could have gone to Stanford together, Leo.

MICROPHONE: I haven’t thought about you in years.

DROOL: We could’ve spiked our Who’s Most Pedantic with courses on phenomonlogy,  econometrics, non-retrogradable rhythms.

MICROPHINE: Only what end continues, pig.

DROOL: I would’ve been happier staying in Guayaquil with you and arguing with you about everything.

MICROPHONE:  Yet another half truth.

DROOL:  I’m sorry Leo I . . .

MICROPHONE: You really think you have to confess all this to me?

DROOL:  Everything’s implicit and not implicit.

MICROPHONE: Do you feel better now?

DROOL:  Momentarily. No.

MICROPHONE: How many times do you have to re-imagine a heart-felt reunion until it replaces  the memory of our paltry reunion?

The attempt to write a review of Mauro Javier Cardenas’ debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, finds me a little at a loss for words. Fortunately, Cardenas is never at a loss for words. Words tumble forth, careen across the page, distort the lines between English and Spanish, (falling entirely into Spanish for two short chapters extolling, if titles be trusted, grandmotherly advice), and, sometimes, sometimes he offers snatches of dialogue, scripted even. This is a multi-voiced celebration of language, capturing in its best moments, the complicated mess of thoughts, emotions, and memories that course through the minds of his protagonists.

revolutionariesThe beating heart of The Revolutionaries lies in nostalgia for the idealism of youth, and the loss of faith in one’s ability to be a force for change. It is, essentially, about growing up, and the inevitable sadness that entails. Yet old dreams, it seems, die more readily for those who have the least to lose; whereas they crumble in agony for those who have little to begin with, and thus the most to lose.

The central character is Antonio. Upon graduation from an exclusive Jesuit-run boy’s school in Guayaquil, he had had the good fortune to be able to leave Ecuador, to study at Stanford University. In the US, he soon fell in love with avant-garde music and flirted with the notion of becoming a pianist. By the time we meet him he is working as a database analyst, projecting a life built on myths that draw on the appeal of his Latin American exoticism. He allows others to imagine he comes from a family of great wealth, and strains his credit cards to dress the part. He is living the migrant’s life of fantasy-meets-reality and it’s taking a toll:

I drink so I can bear talking to people, Antonio wrote. I acknowledge my conversational alcoholism. The more people converse with me, the more alcohol I am bound to imbibe. My liver, that most handsome of organs, was heard gossiping to my other organs about the absurdity of my social neurosis. Thank god my kidneys stood up for me and said shut up liver, you’re drunk again.

When his childhood friend Leopoldo calls him from Ecuador to report that there has been a coup and suggest that perhaps it is finally time for them to have a horse in the political game, Antonio heads home after twelve years away. What unfolds, more than productive action moving forward, is a replay of past memories, mediated by banter between the two friends, and featuring cameo appearances by other members of their former social group. They fall into using old nicknames, and rekindle past glories and grievances. Behind it all is a deep nostalgia for a time in their lives when their faith was grounded in a belief that they could make a difference in the world. As adolescents, under the guidance and inspiration of their beloved Father Villalba, the boys would visit the ill and catechize to the poor—they harboured a sense of being chosen, and Antonio even dreamed of becoming a priest for a while.

A third friend whose story plays out against those of Antonio and Leopoldo, is Rolando. He had not enjoyed the same relative financial advantages as the others, and together with his girlfriend Eva, he is struggling to broadcast a little reactionary radio program for better or worse. Their concerns are more immediate, the risks they take are greater, and even if the effect is small, they are actually trying to do something. But their relationship is complicated by unspoken losses—Rolando’s sister’s escape to America and Eva’s brother’s disappearance and death.

This is a novel that is looking back and stumbling forward at once. Little progress is made. That is the point and that is not the point. The realities of Ecuador’s political and economic uncertainties are an ever present backdrop, one that steps forth with particular brutality toward the end in the stories of the two female characters. But all of the main male characters seem to be mired in their own pasts, for all their vain talk of revolution. What rises to the surface is a profoundly human blend of nostalgia, loss, guilt, casual racism, sexism, and masculine insecurity. But there is also humour. This book is a startlingly infectious read.

To bring the story to life, Cardenas employs a wide range of narrative techniques from the modernist to the boldly experimental–slipping in and out of perspective and style as needed to keep a strong link to the interiority of most of his key characters. One chapter which follows Antonio’s thoughts upon his return to his mother’s home in Guayaquil, consists of a single sentence extending over twenty pages. Elsewhere, too, long sentences—interrupted by asides, imagined banter, or stretches of dialogue—are common. Here Antonio, preparing to meet with Leopoldo for the first time since his return, thinks back to their teenage games (Drool and Microphone were their respective nicknames):

… although Antonio doesn’t remember the exact content of the Who’s Most Pedantic exchanges by Don Alban’s cafeteria, he does remember that their game consisted of refuting each other about everything, spoofing the pompous language of the demagogues, priests, themselves, digressing manically about reforms they would enact to transform Ecuador—external debt, what is?—Leopoldo shaking Antonio’s hand whenever he won and declaring Always Above You, my friend, and if Leopoldo were a woman, Leopoldo would have been at ease in Antonio’s life in San Francisco because all of his friends in San Francisco had been women, as opposed to his former life at San Javier, where all his friends had been teenaged boys who expressed their affection by taunting each other with homophobic insults or misogynistic interpretations of the language between husband and wife—where’s your husband, Drool?—Microphone’s at home ironing my shirts, where else?—and if Leopoldo were a woman Antonio would be able to say, I’ve missed you, Leopoldo…

The tone is decidedly different when the narrative turns from Antonio, Leopoldo and their more privileged classmates, to focus on Rolando and Eva. Here the pace is even more frantic. Their protest is immediate—on radio airwaves and street corners. With rumours that El Loco, the flamboyant former President, Abdalá Bucaram, who ruled Ecuador for less than a year in the mid-90s, might be returning, Rolando reaches out to the poor and dispossessed on his makeshift radio station:

Ladies that’s the perfect segue to our contest about what would you like to call our interim president?—Puppet of the oligarchy—Very nice Doña Aurora—Pompous pajorreal—We’re warming up folks—Bestia con terno—Keep them coming comrades—Radio Nuevo Día / la radio al día—Up next how to cook a seco de chivo without the chivo—Baah—Speaking of chivos—El Loco is said to be returning from exile in Panamá—Who’s voting for that thief?—If you tell me you’re voting for Loco I’ll go loco—Has anyone seen the mansion of this leader of the poor?—Call now!

By engaging a range of narrative voices—at the personal and the socio-political level—visions of romantic idealism meet the harsh realities of class division. The shifts in perspective and energy keep The Revolutionaries Try Again moving at sharp pace, yet for all the sensation of being in freefall, Cardenas’ novel is, in fact, a tightly orchestrated achievement. In an interview published at Electric Lit, Cardenas shares a spreadsheet tracking the characters, conversations and narrative styles employed in one scene of the book. And this attention to detail at the formative level is what makes this cacophonous work succeed. Transitions between monologue and dialogue, present and past, are so smoothly handled that the reader is swept along with the sheer literary enthusiasm. But make no mistake, this is a novel that is as enjoyable to read as it is fundamentally melancholy and devastating at its very core.

The Revolutionaries Try Again is published by Coffee House Press.