Antonio, the main character of Mauro Javier Cardenas’s debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, has modest goals: move back to Ecuador from San Francisco, become president, and fix his native country’s endemic poverty and corruption.
These were also the author’s goals at one point. “When I came to the U.S. that was my plan,” Cardenas says. “I wanted to go back and run for office. I figured that writing the book was my way to decide: ‘Are you going or not?’ Very clearly, I’m not going back,” Cardenas laughs.
Even if Cardenas isn’t quite ready to run for office in Ecuador, Revolutionaries is a rare book—it’s political without drowning in politics, it’s innovative without languishing in theatrics, and it also blends the historically accurate with the personal. It’s part satire, part social commentary, and 100% a good story with rich, compelling characters.
“My hope is from a literary perspective people can enjoy the book without knowing all the historical details,” Cardenas says.
Antonio and his friend Leopoldo want to mount a presidential campaign because through the 1980s and 1990s, Ecuador had a series of corrupt or ineffective presidents. Revolutionaries contains a number of undisguised, real life characters and scenarios. Cardenas tells their stories while also exploring the Ecuador of his memory. “I wasn’t very interested in a political novel that spent a lot of time on the politics,” Cardenas says. “You have to approach it obliquely. Focus on the characters.”
Despite (or maybe even because of) its innovative language, Revolutionaries is a relatively quick read. The tidal force of the sentences and the strength of the character's inner voices pull the reader along: “...yet if Leopoldo never hears another word from strong armed despots like León (no, León isn’t looking over this way), if he doesn’t read another word about these autocrats or caudillos or patriarchs or whatever you want to call them, he would be the, bah, he doesn’t know if he would be the better for it. He just doesn’t want to hear about them anymore.”
The first attempt to tell the story about Antonio’s desire to move back and make a difference in Ecuador arose in 2002. Writing Revolutionaries has taken up so much of Cardenas’ life that it’s hard for him to delineate the before and after. “I went through phases. The three phases of my life,” Cardenas says. “When I first started the book I was 27, I think, and single. Then somewhere in between I had my first and then my second child. I became a parent. I was changing as a human being simply with time passing.”
It took a few years for Cardenas to realize he didn’t want to write a traditional narrative with traditional sentences. “I think the first phase was about figuring out what it means to write fiction for me. I wrote 100-150 pages, which were terrible, and threw them out. The second phase was probably settling in on long sentences I was comfortable with,” Cardenas says.
The novel is written in a free-wheeling, almost dizzying style that changes almost every chapter. A few sections are fairly straightforward and traditional, while some chapters are told with slashes or em-dashes instead of periods, and others run together into one sentence dozens of pages long. To Cardenas, these rhetorical flourishes aren’t gimmicky or flashy, they’re representations of how the characters think and live.
For Cardenas, writing isn’t just about what sounds good on the page, it’s also about having fun. “I get really bored of both the way certain voices sound and the way they look on the page,” Cardenas says. “It’s almost like you don’t want to hang out with the same guy all day. Even your best friend you hang out with for an hour or two, have a few drinks, then you go home.”
Now, after years and years, The Revolutionaries Try Again is finding readers. The Spanish rights to the novel have been sold and should hit Ecuador sometime in 2018. “The hope is that once it’s translated,” Cardenas says, “we’ll see some fun reactions from the characters who are still alive.”
And if some idealistic dreamer comes to Cardenas in a few years with a crazy scheme to leave San Francisco and run for office in Ecuador? “You still have a tiny little bit of a dream that goes ‘Hey, maybe when I retire.’ Maybe I will go back and do something, so it never fully goes away.”
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His fiction and essays have appeared in Nimrod, the Morning News, the Rumpus, and others. He was recently in a magic show written and directed by National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien.