New books — From the September 2016 issue

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Then along came THE REVOLUTIONARIES TRY AGAIN (Coffee House Press, $16.95), a high-octane, high-modernist debut novel from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas. The plot follows three alumni of a Jesuit school in Guayaquil, Ecuador: Antonio, who leaves the country for San Francisco; Leopoldo, who remains, and takes a job with the pro-austerity government; and Rolando, who makes a local radio show that tries to rouse the people to action. Ten years after graduation, Leopoldo persuades Antonio to return home to help one of their friends run for office, but the campaign never gets off the ground. No matter. The Revolutionaries Try Again is one of those books in which what happens is less important than how it happens: in streams of consciousness laced with bilingual profanity, and pages of braggadocious dialogue unsoiled by a single quotation mark. The tone slides from crude juvenile humor to righteous outrage to resignation to the despair of losing one’s faith:

And then one day it was over, one day like any other day that intensity, which had expanded inside of them as if making room for everything god wanted from them, went away, leaving behind so much empty space that even in dreams they couldn’t escape what later Father Lucio told them was called desolation, which was a test from god, he said, omitting that this test might never end, as in fact it hasn’t.

My first thought was that the linguistic chaos was meant to replicate the violence of the oligarchs; Antonio, who is writing a short story based on the time he saw his grandmother’s statue of the baby Jesus weep, has a different read on the form — he had hoped for “the possibility of deforming American English as revenge for Americans deforming Latin America with their interventionist policies.” But he abandons his linguistic experiment as “pointless and childish.” Fiction is simply no match for reality. The boys are hung up on a refrain from their youth — “How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice,” which, in Antonio’s narration, morphs into the equally anguished, “How are we to be humans in a world of destitution and injustice.” It would be easier to know how to be human if anyone could hold on to a single memory, but the details from their pasts pile up and are forgotten. Life has too many moments; a person is “encrusted” with them — and too many can’t be shared.

HA076__03HF0-1The final chapter is narrated by Rolando’s sister, Alma, who left Ecuador and entered the United States illegally after she was falsely accused of theft by her employer. Her story is a nightmare disclosed in flashes of assault, hunger, cold, worse — “How can a human being do that to another human being to children,” is her refrain. (Another female character, Eva, is beaten on the street; the violence perpetrated against women further ironizes the neurotic indecision of the male would-be revolutionaries.) Alma’s ESL teacher, Antonio — they are unaware of the connection — has asked for volunteers for the Voices of Witness program. But Alma is afraid of having her words twisted and taken away, made to serve someone else’s ends — to provide catharsis or inspiration or a happy ending, or any kind of ending at all.

Maybe you were right to not tell me anything Estela what’s the point of telling anybody anything profe / come listen to the remarkable story of Alma Alban Cienfuegos who pretends to endure in the end / The End / uff your story made us feel better thank you so much for pretending you’re okay for us have a good one Alma / here we are / please take care Alma.

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