Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 296 pages. $16.95.
According to Transparency International, Ecuador is currently one of the most corrupt nations on Earth. It has a corruption score of thirty-two out of one hundred, putting it many points below squeaky-clean Denmark (ninety-one), yet just above oligarchic Russia (twenty-nine) and theocratic Iran (twenty-seven). In practice, this means that its public sector is awash in bribes, nepotism, and embezzlement, and while it has seemingly improved its hygiene since a low of twenty-two in 2009, there are nonetheless ongoing claims that Rafael Correa’s government is still so corrupt that it is even prepared to muzzle Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute for reporting on the activities of the Cotopaxi Volcano.
Its situation is therefore somewhat grim, yet Mauro Javier Cardenas is on the scene to offer his compatriots some whispers of hope. The Ecuadorian writer has delivered his debut, The Revolutionaries Try Again. While it is, indeed, very much a novel rather than a political manifesto—it depicts four childhood friends as they regroup in adulthood and aim to change their country’s politics for the better—Cardenas reveals, via some stunning and shapeshifting prose, that politics in Ecuador isn’t as straightforward as it appears on its surface, and very often it amounts to little more than a vain exercise in egobuilding and self-fantasy.
Take Leopoldo, the first of the principals we meet in The Revolutionaries Try Again and a staffer for former President León Martín Cordero, who is now the Mayor of Guayaquil (and who is quite obviously based on actual ex-President León Febres Cordero). We find him (Leopoldo, to be precise) in the absurdly comic opening chapter trying to use a pay phone that’s stopped charging for calls, capriciously exploiting his status as a member of Cordero’s entourage to disperse the queue that’s formed around it: “This telephone is in violation of code 4738 of the telephony guidelines established by the city council in 1979 [. . .] Those who continue to operate it can and will be prosecuted.” This gambit partly backfires when the crowd almost predictably begins offering him various bribes—“Green mangoes, ripe bananas, photographs of their loved ones, plastic rosaries, a bag of lentils”—but in so backfiring it furnishes a clear and amusing hint of just how tenuous his and his friend’s pursuit of political reform is going to be.
That is, it proves itself tenuous precisely insofar as corruption has penetrated the depths of Ecuadorian politics and society, thereby making it impossible for anyone to get ahead without playing along with the impropriety that surrounds them. Cardenas expresses this fatalistic idea not only in tales of crooked officials, but in the very focus and fiber of his quick-fire language, which stands as the novel’s primary, if sometimes maddening, virtue. From the very beginning, it busily abounds in motifs of contamination and environmental despoliation, taking in rivers that can’t support “any more muck, a bit more and the stench won’t let us breathe,” and a soil that invites such questions as, “Does the mud beneath him smell like vinegar, sulfur, or piss?” In drawing such images of pollution and contagion, Cardenas bluntly highlights the pollution and contagion that’s gripped Ecuador, where the gatekeepers to positions of power and influence are so decadent that young upstarts like Leopoldo and his friends can’t enter these positions without allowing this decadence to pollute them in turn.
As for these friends, they’re an instructive troupe vis-à-vis the novel’s overall meaning and significance, not least because economics graduate-cum-struggling writer Antonio appears to be modelled after Cardenas himself. Like Cardenas, his economics degree comes from Stanford University and, like Cardenas, his passion is literature, even if he admittedly “didn’t know how to write the kind of fiction he wanted to write.” However, unlike Cardenas, he returns to his hometown of Guayaquil upon the implorations of Leopoldo, although we could just as easily say that The Revolutionaries Try Again itself represents Cardenas’s figurative return to Ecuador. Teaming up with the mayor’s trusted aide, he agrees to support Leopoldo in his bid to have another, much wealthier schoolfriend elected president in the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, Rolando—another former alumni of Antonio’s beloved San Javier High School—launches his own pirate radio program, on which he ham-fistedly attempts to broadcast a politically charged play with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Eva.
What’s interesting, albeit initially irritating, about The Revolutionaries Try Again is that the plans of these four past and present chums, the plans that form the supposed centerpieces of the novel, are skirted around almost evasively. Instead of hearing precisely how Leopoldo and Antonio’s friend Julio is “to run for president” and how “Leopoldo and Antonio would act as his invisible advisers,” the entire novel hits the reader with a barrage of reminiscences and anecdotes. For the most part, these refer to the school years of those concerned, to the times when Antonio and Leopoldo were caught up with “organizing daily prayers at recess, promulgating to their classmates that joining the apostolic group was imperative,” and above all with “teaching catechism in Mapasingue.” From such constant flashbacks—and especially from the story of the “baby christ” that was found on the farm of Antonio’s family and that served to mark them all with a distinguished air of election—there emerges the heavy sense that, more than anything else, the main characters all regard themselves as special, chosen, unique, and that their political ambitions are little more than a way of maintaining this illusion of uniqueness in the here and now.
This suspicion is amplified at various points. As he touches down in Guayaquil after more than a decade in California, Antonio uneasily asks himself, “do you really think your paltry exposure to the poor has marked you instead of just serving as an excuse to feel like a chosen one?” Later on, Leopoldo poses himself much the same question, ending recollections of his valedictorian speech with the grilling, “who did you think you were going to impress? were you trying to inspire yourself to be something other than what you turned out to be?” With such passages and self-recriminations, it becomes apparent not only that their quest for political power is a quest for the prestige and distinction that comes from such power, but also that the novel is more about the universal theme of self-exceptionalism than it is about Ecuadorian politics.
Sadly for the protagonists of The Revolutionaries Try Again, the bases of this exceptionalism undoubtedly reside in the past, just as they apparently do. As emphasized by a Joycean stream of consciousness narrative that dizzily blends fleeting memory with firsthand experience, they can’t let go of a past that lends them a nostalgic aura of importance, even if it means confusing them as to the reality of their present, a present in which priests demand, “how are we to be Christians in a world of destitution and injustice?” The latter is a question they repeatedly seem to neglect, believing that they can miraculously transcend their situation and reform it at a magical distance. It’s why they’re doomed to remain in the fantasy of a half-forgotten yesterday.