Debut author Cardenas explores youthful idealism, friendship, and the legacy of corruption in this novel set in Ecuador.
Leopoldo Hurtado calls his childhood friend Antonio in California and persuades him to return home to Ecuador after a 10-year absence. As classmates at the elite San Javier school, they'd believed themselves responsible for the country's future. Influenced by a radical priest who demanded "How are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?" they catechized the poor and visited the dying. But corruption and instability abound, and the immoral lifestyle of their rich classmate Julio holds an undeniable appeal. Antonio displays a weakness for expensive clothes he can't afford, leading to rumors at Stanford that he's a dictator's son. Will Leopoldo and Antonio run for office, saving Ecuador from corrupt oligarchs? Or will despair, and their own moral failings, prove too great? Connecting threads follow their poor former classmate Rolando who now runs a radio show, his girlfriend, Eva, and his sister, Alma, who embarks on a harrowing journey to the U.S. after Julio attempts to rape her. Cardenas leavens his material with sly humor and references to everything from Neruda and Julio Cortazar to ABBA and The Exorcist. The friends play a made-up game called Who's Most Pedantic? Leopoldo wonders if the Jesuits built rooms with high ceilings "so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?" A statue of the Christ child weeps real tears. Writing sometimes in sentences that stretch for pages, sometimes in fragmented stream-of-consciousness, even briefly in Spanish, Cardenas displays an ambitious intelligence that eschews easy answers. His inclusive sympathy is balanced by an unsparing eye. By the end, Antonio questions his own motives for returning, asking himself "how are we to be humans in a world of destitution and injustice."
A strong debut written with nuance and authority.