Mauro Javier Cardenas took 12 years to write his debut novel. In that time, he says, it began as a "terrible" short story and briefly morphed into a political satire. What eventually emerged is an exuberant book about two young men trying to create a better world.
The Revolutionaries Try Again, out today, follows Antonio, a Stanford graduate and Ecuadorian immigrant who returns to his hometown to help his best friend run for political office in Ecuador and save the country from corrupt oligarchs. The novel is a whirlwind tour through the current and past political climate of Ecuador, punctuated with the beauty of a young and lasting friendship. Cardenas writes in long, winding sentences and refuses to use quotation marks. In everything—its syntax, its tone, its story, its language—the book screams of revolution.
I talked to Mauro on the phone last week about where this novel came from, why it took him so long to write, and how literature and politics are hopelessly, undeniably intertwined.
Today's the publication day for your debut novel! How do you feel?
I’m feeling very aware of the fact that your first book only comes out once. Whatever comes with that experience, I want to enjoy.
If I think about who my favorite writers are, like Laszlo Krasznahorkai and António Lobo Antunes, [they] were very obscure until recently. But one of Krasznahorkai's books [The Melancholy of Resistance], which is a masterpiece, sold 5,000 copies book in 10 years. Antunes was dropped by his publisher. I feel like, well, if it takes me 10 years to sell 5,000 copies, that’s fine. Good thing I have a day job, or I’d be worried about it. But I’m excited to go from writing alone in the dark for 12 years to people being able to read my work.
Twelve years is such a long time to work on one piece. What happened?
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. I don’t have any pictures of myself when I was five holding a storybook that I had written. I wanted to go on to do politics. We all try to invent meaning in our life, and for me, I thought that would be through politics. Writing was just another hobby for me like learning piano. It all really started when I went to a summer writing workshop. There was a writer named Alan Cheuse who was really familiar with Latin American literature. He took an interest in my work, even though I’m sure it was terrible. I had a short story about Antonio going back to Ecuador and doing nothing. And Allen was the one who said, "This is a novel.”
The first phase of the 12 years was me trying to figure out how to write a novel, and then quickly realizing that many of the novels I was reading were not really what I wanted to do.
So how many versions of this book did you go through?
I threw away like 100 pages of satirical writing that was just making fun of Ecuador. Partly it had to do with age. I was 27 when I started the novel, and not really willing to engage with certain emotions. As a young male I wasn’t really ready to do this. But then my first daughter was born and then the second one, and suddenly I was feeling [those emotions] every day. If you’re a single young male, you can avoid a lot of emotions easily.
The narrative of this novel is very serious, but it’s filled with sarcasm, spoofs, and pretty funny banter. Why did you choose to do this?
I don’t know if this is the case for American men, but for me it’s the way that we are allowed to relate to one another. There’s a movie that I watch—I call it my crying movie—The Best of Youth. I was noticing that every time the friends relate to one another, they relate the same way that I relate to my friend. There’s this way of demonstrating emotion that’s created because we’re not allowed to express affection in more direct terms. Instead there are all these jokes and bantering.
I like to believe that I approach those things nostalgically. These are the ways that I used to relate to my high school friends.
How much of the political climate in Ecuador were you aware of while you were growing up?
When I was very small, Ecuador had this president, Jaime Roldós Aguilera. He was very popular, very young, and he had big glasses. He was a sign of hope, even though we all know that life is hopeless in many ways. We all need to believe that life is hopeful, and that’s how he was perceived. He was our JFK in some ways. I used to go out onto the balcony and imitate his speeches. I don’t remember it, but [my mother] says it’s true.
Then of course, Aguilera dies in a plane accident after a year or so of being president and that was a big national tragedy. What I was interested in was, what could it have meant to a boy that was imitating his speeches and suddenly he’s gone? I don’t mean this in a melodramatic way, but my entire life was surrounded by politics. [An oligarch] happened to live three blocks from where I lived, and his grandson was a classmate of mine. My mother used to do nails and hear all about the corruption [from her clients]. My father worked for the government. All of this was part of our life and part of my lives.
Do you believe that literature is inherently political?
I’ve obviously heard arguments where if you write about a guy in Brooklyn who’s staring at his coffee, it’s political because you’re not engaging with what’s happening. Part of me is like, yes, that’s true. But part of me is like, well, you know literature is this weird thing. We all love to believe that literature changes lives, and that it’s key to civilization. I’m not one to argue against that because I have a book coming out.
But at the same time, I am very cynical. I’m not sure that literature changes anything. Most often, the people reading these books don’t have to worry about having food on our table or being massacred. Just because you’re aware, that doesn’t mean you should be patting yourself on your back. Just because you read a novel about the injustices in a country doesn’t mean you are going to go out there and do anything.
I don’t think there’s a single quotation mark in this book. Can you talk about why you chose to use that syntax?
When you read 100 novels, you get tired of certain things. Quotation marks are these ridiculous birds or flies that I don’t really need. They really bother me on the page, and I don’t like them. Many of my sentences are very long and they are a single stream of thoughts. For me to put more emphasis on one thought versus the other didn’t make any sense. To try and isolate those words as something special bothered me. So, quotation marks are out. There’s no italics for the same reason. Because it grates on me. I don’t understand why would you do that. It’s all the same.
Antonio says in the book that he writes the way he does because “the possibility of deforming American English as revenge for Americans deforming Latin America with their interventionist policies.” Is that true for you?
Absolutely. The relationship between English and Spanish is not neutral. The United States has had a policy of treating Latin America like their backyard. All of their interventions in Latin America have been for the worse, and there have been horrendous consequences. [For] Chile. Guatemala. El Salvador. One of the consequences, which we are seeing now, is those policies ended up forcing people to leave their countries and come here. Of course it’s ridiculous and childish to think that this is my revenge, but also it is in a way.
If I as an Ecuadorian immigrant who has had the luxury of reading and writing this stuff, then [use] language where Spanish can deform English [so] that tilts English toward my own [Spanish] sounds, then I’ve succeeded. I thought about it in terms of, if another Latin American who lives in the United States reads this, it will sound natural. Whereas for others who don’t speak Spanish, it will sound a little more chaotic. That was the effect I was after.
You’re releasing a book about revolution and local politics in the midst of an election year. How do you feel about that?
There are two chapters in the book that exist mostly for the purpose of pissing off Republicans. And those two chapters are the ones in Spanish. There’s more reasons than that for them to be there. To me, the thought of a Republican getting to the section of my book and thinking, “Goddammit, speak English,” was very important to me.
Because we have a racist candidate running for president, it becomes even more resonant.The fact that we have a humanitarian crisis at our border and we don’t talk about it in those terms and instead we have to waste our time talking about a wall is heartbreaking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.