In The Revolutionaries Try Again, bureaucrat Leopoldo and expat Antonio weigh action and inaction, obligation and apathy, with relation to their own young lives and the life of their country, Ecuador. It’s a particularly galvanizing novel to read in the aftermath of Election Day as it considers the questions—what do we owe? and to whom to we owe it? Of course, The Revolutionaries Try Again (Guayaquil-born and San Francisco-based writer Mauro Javier Cardenas’s debut novel) is much more than that: experimental, funny, many tongued. But as Cardenas and I spoke on the phone this week, we each turned and returned to the new regime, and its uncanny reflections in his dozen-years-in-the-making book.
I felt many echoes of our current political situation in The Revolutionaries Try Again. Do you see your novel in a different way after Election Day? I don’t know if change is the right word, but emphasis. I have also been thinking about this nonstop since the election, and it seems to be getting worse every day. In the novel, I touched upon a lot of things that are really important to me right now and that we’re all talking about. The whole notion of normalization. What are the mechanisms we create for ourselves in order to pretend we are good people? Even if we don’t do anything to show we are good people?
In the novel, Antonio likes to believe he is a good person living in San Francisco, and he’s able to do that is by imagining himself the way he used to be in Ecuador, where he used to help the poor and visit the elderly and so on. Thinking of himself in those terms allows himself to not do anything while he’s in San Francisco. But he does eventually go back.
It’s very easy for us to find ways to pretend that everything’s fine, because then we don’t have to do anything. I’m rereading this book, How Holocausts Happen: The United States in Central America. It argues that the Holocaust is not a unique event in the sense that it can happen again. It depends on these same mechanisms that help us pretend nothing’s wrong. One is the diffusion of responsibility—no one is doing anything so you assume it’s okay not to do anything. Another is what he calls pluralistic ignorance—where we reinforce the notion that nothing’s wrong because no one is doing anything. That is the biggest danger in my mind, indifference. After this whole kind of thing settles down—what in the world are we supposed to do? We’ve already normalized a lot of these things—Obama rounded up like 3 million people, there was already a Muslim registry in the Bush days—we created the right amount of indifference that allowed us to continue to go out to brunch and read good books and all the stuff we love to do. How do I make myself not do that? Do I create a poster put it on my hallway so that I see it every morning?
There are also some parallels with former Ecuadorian president Abdalá Bucaram, or El Loco, and Donald Trump. Everyone who is so-called educated in Ecuador views El Loco as this low-culture thief, as vulgar, as having made his money in shady ways—a lot of the same qualities as Trump. Eva [the girlfriend to one of Leopoldo and Antonio’s former classmates] says something like, “Don’t you guys think we know that? That he is like that?” But then the alternative is this so-called cultured rich person who thinks we’re trash, that we’re not worth anything, and we’d rather see the whole thing crashing down that see you cultured people continue on with your business. There’s no way that Eva thought El Loco would take care of the poor, but the sentiment is, Who gives a crap? At least we’re having fun watching you guys suffer along with us.
Are there lessons that Americans reading this novel can learn as Antonio and Leopoldo consider their responsibilities to Ecuador? There are a number of lessons, right? We can spend a lot of time thinking about what Antonio thinks about: Why do I feel the need to help others? Where does it come from? You can think: Well tfahe world has always been a terrible place. I’d rather write poetry. I’d rather learn to play the piano. Why should I help people who I don’t even know? I think they’re legitimate questions in a way. Antonio thinks about this especially because he’s not as attached to Catholicism anymore. Unless it’s directly affecting you, why should you care about refugees from Central America?
You have to go through those questions as quickly as you can because you have to make a decision. Imagination is a powerful thing. If Antonio were to take part in a protest, he would feel that’s enough. The euphoria of being there, imagining himself changing the world, being this hero—all that’s so powerful that he ends up not doing anything else. Both Antonio and Leopoldo, they still seem to feel that somebody will take account of their actions, that either god or [their former teacher] Father Villalba is watching them in some way. But for us, no one is doing an accounting. We could all retweet all the wonderful activist stuff, whatever, and go home and do nothing. No one calls you to task. That’s one of the major lessons, as Leopoldo’s grandmother tells him, “No plantes parques de diversiones sobre tu inacción.”
You’ve talked about your use of Spanish and experimental techniques (no quotation marks or italics, onamonapia, heteroglossia) in The Revolutionaries Try Again as a kind of revenge against English. Can you tell me a little more about that? It didn’t start as a revenge plot at the beginning. It had more to do with the games I was playing with each one of the chapters. It was very simple and there were no rules: let everything come out the way it comes out and then I’ll edit years later. In the first scene where Leopoldo calls his grandmother, it was so natural for me to write that section in Spanish. I didn’t even think about it. Five, six, seven years later, I was writing the chapters where the grandmothers give advice in English and they were terrible. So there’s Spanish all over the novel. There’s a tilt.
Coming from Ecuador, I didn’t know anything about this vast humanitarian crisis happening on the U.S. border and that no one doing was doing anything about it seemed to me mind blowing. Why would we create this situation and not do anything to fix it? The United States created a big part of the problem by sending over 40 million dollars worth of guns to Central America. If you actually cared about these people, if you thought they were worth something, you would do something. That’s where the revenge part comes in. To be able to include Spanish in a so-called high modernist novel to me became important. It became a way of saying at a minimum that, if my role is to be a novelist in the United States, then it’s also to have Spanish play a role in this novel. We have more than 11 million refugees in the country speaking Spanish today.
What is the role of a novelist in the United States today? The role of the novelist is to write well, about what’s important to you, in the way that’s alive to you. Experimenting with things and long sentences, whatever you want to call it, that’s just me. It doesn’t change because of who’s in power. What changes is, if novelists are given a microphone to talk about things–even if that microphone doesn’t have a wide reach–you should talk. A great example to follow is Junot Díaz. He’s very vocal about his community, my community. But there’s another layer—just because you’re a novelist doesn’t mean you’re not a human being. What percentage of your time do you dedicate to battling the forces of evil? We have jobs, we have families, we have novels we want to write. We have to be able to answer that question. How much do I think I can give?
There are nearly 44,000 undocumented immigrants in San Francisco right now. What if the city loses federal funding due to its sanctuary status? I want to get very specific: What do we do? What are our options? I’m done work with La Raza Centro Legal, a local organization that gives legal advice to immigrants. It’s actually mentioned in the novel. I’ve tutored at Mission Graduates, an organization that serves a large percentage of Hispanic immigrants who have just arrived. Voice of Witness shows up in the novel as well—I heard about them through a book called Underground America about folks in the United States who are undocumented. They are often looking for transcribers, translators. They’re working on a project right now about children who arrive here by themselves. Francisco Goldman wrote about Central American Legal Assistance—they do a lot of legal work in New York to help undocumented immigrants—in the New Yorker. We should be writing about this stuff right now, at the very minimum.
In Catholicism they tell you, when you do a good deed, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In the novel Antonio doesn’t like talking about it either. People will think you are sharing things to look good. But you have to get over it. It’s more important now that we all share how we are feeling, how we are doing, where we have donated. We want to see others doing it because we’re weak. My friend Antonio Ruiz-Camacho posted about his donation to the ACLU, and I had been thinking about donating but hadn’t, and so I did it right then. A lot of people are wondering similar things. Writing about it helps us process it quicker, so we can get to the action quicker.