Ecuadorean Mauro Javier Cárdenas discusses radical grammar, Spanish, and US politics.

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Mauro – critics and fellow writers have spoken of Aphasia, your latest book, as reimagining what the novel form can be. Is this something you set out to do? Did form precede story, or story precede form?

Whosoever reads too many novels will despair at the sameness of novels, I’ve often thought – at the excess of conflict / action / resolution, for instance, at the figurative language straining to elicit images of Stirring Novelist, at the tiresome stagecrafting of suffering, at the pantomimes of poetic diction and so on, and so yes, in order to avoid despair – ha! – I’ve tried to empty the novel of everything I hate about novels. How transgressive, some readers have pointed out, we get it, you write outside the rules, blah blah blah, and although most of the time I prefer to join them in their mockery – because it’s more festive that way – sometimes I want to say to them, but I don’t want to die of boredom, or, if I’m in a more transcendental mood – run! – I don’t write these performance-of-an-impulse sentences to be transgressive or experimental or to sour your Mai Tai, no, I write them to attempt a representation of life that doesn’t replicate the recycled murmurs of our lives. How exciting to read outside predramatised forms, those readers never say, thank you, at last we understand.

There are many writers in Aphasia, some dead, some alive, and some – like László Krasznahorkai – who you have met and interviewed in the real world. I’m interested in the process of rendering in fiction a character’s thoughts on a writer whom you have spoken to at length. Is that an uncanny process?

When you spend so much time thinking about imaginary situations, the distinction between memories, imaginary memories, dreams, films, and what you imagine while you’re reading becomes irrelevant while you’re writing, so despite my fondness for my memories of László Krasznahorkai’s monologues about monologues in San Francisco – a monologue is someone trying to convince you of something, László Krasznahorkai said, but in my books no one listens – they exist in my mind alongside Korin’s monologues in War & War, Antonio’s monologue in Aphasia about Korin’s monologues in War & War, and everything else directly or indirectly related to them. What I’ve come to find uncanny is remembering: to be in San Francisco and see myself in my bedroom in Guayaquil, for instance, listening to ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses on the radio for the first time – and me recording the radio on cassettes – thirty-three years ago.

So much force is derived from your style in Aphasia. I’m thinking particularly of the interesting things you do with speech – using multiple comma splices to mean the reader is unclear who, precisely, is speaking, until after the fact of having read a few clauses (your answers here are good examples too!). Could you talk to me a little about why and how you deploy this grammar in your long (all 1,000-plus-word) sentences?

If a neuroscientist were to place electrodes on my head, trying to determine what happens to my mind when I read The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, which contains those long sentences whereas the Proofreader says Yes, this symbol is called deleatur and it reminds me of a snake that changes its minds just as it is about to bite its tail, and someone responds Well observed, sir, for however much we cling to life, even a snake would hesitate before eternity, the neuroscientist might be surprised by the spikes in my neuroelectronic representation of elation, especially if he’s a strict grammarian, and I might try to explain and say But without style it’s just ledgers of life on a page, doctor, and as long the author’s somewhat consistent on whatever rules she chooses for her style, we her readers will follow elatedly, Well observed, sir, for however much we cling to other people’s rules, we shouldn’t ask our writers to do so lest they resign and become accountants.

In an attempt to make sense of a fragmentary, perhaps traumatic life, Antonio reads and writes a lot. Do you think reading or writing can indeed make sense of our world? Is one better than the other, for that?

The answers are no and neither, but that isn’t any fun so let’s focus on Antonio’s mind, which is devoid of an active imagination due to his altered state ever since his sister’s altered state occasioned her escape from her trial proceedings, and since Antonio needs his active imagination to read and write fiction, he can’t do either, rereading instead of reading – rereading being a less taxing process of reconstitution – and transcribing audio recordings of his mother and former wife instead of writing fiction. Let’s take a turn toward self-help just to aggravate the ghost of Cioran. In Aphasia, there are three chapters titled after three so-called realist American short stories, which rely on a traditional Aristotelian reversal for their emotional effect – in other words the kind of stories Antonio claims to detest – and which he rereads to reconstitute the fantasy that he possesses the emotional range to care for his sister – those reversals acting as microscopic shocks – and it is perhaps his reconstitution of this fantasy that allows him to care for his sister, and in one sense that is the sense he’s after.  

Aphasia is, of course, deeply concerned with language, and how language is both produced by and produces identity. There are a few moments in the book where Spanish is left untranslated, and where the choice to speak/write in either Spanish or English is of personal significance. Could you talk to me about whether that’s also significant for you?

When I was asked about my inclusion of Spanish in The Revolutionaries Try Again, my first novel, I spoke at length about how, in a country like the United States, where some of the non-Latin American natives might flash their guns if you speak Spanish in public, including Spanish in a novel in English has a political dimension, and yet now, upon further reflection, I think those comments of mine could be categorised as Latin American kitsch – that is, emphasising what the non-Latin Americans in USA want to hear, which is that Latin Americans in the USA are the victims of outsized injustices, which allows the non-Latin Americans in the USA to feel superior to the Latin Americans in the USA – other examples of Latin American kitsch include those dreadful essays about the agony of losing mi español or about reclaiming California from Joan Rivers, or those book covers full of Virgens de Guadalupes, or those novels filled with melodramas of tíos and mamis – and so I’ve lost interest in including Spanish in my novels in English beyond a joke or two, like when Antonio is asked why he doesn’t write in Spanish or why he writes sentences that seem to contain more than one story at the same time and in his mind he responds pues ya ve que no he cambiado en nada, profe. None of the above is meant to discount the unconscionable injustices some of my fellow Latin Americans have to endure in the USA. I just think it’s too facile to include an abuelita or two in a novel in English and then make a big stink about it being political just to receive the patronising acclaim of the non-Latin American natives in the USA.

My final question is about being an Ecuadorean in the US. Obama is mentioned in Aphasia (I won’t ruin things by going into the complexities of that); during your writing of the book, there was another president; and the book was first published in the US on the very day that the US voted for a third. How much of the tumult of the political landscape of the country you have now lived in for years is in this book – in your writing at large?

My favourite American literary performance of the last four years goes as follows: a wealthy American writer who’s married to a Republican Ivy Leaguer publicly claims to be afraid of the president, which results in wide acclaim instead of wide derision since no one wants to point out – because that would be so mean – that the only impact the lazily nefarious American president has on this writer’s household is less taxes. I share this 2019 American classic because I’ve been trying to clarify for myself what the tumult of American politics means to me outside of these performances of virtue. Most American writers categorised as sophisticated aren’t directly impacted by the tumult of American politics, and the ones that are directly impacted – because they don’t have the right papers, sufficient funds, the right shade of pale – are patronisingly subcategorised as POCs.

And now – at last – to answer your question: I seem to prefer writing about characters in an altered state of mind, and what can be more mind altering than the American government tailing your family on your way to school and apprehending your dear father simply because he doesn’t have the right papers and you having to record it on your phone so that someone out there will take pity on you and demand that he be returned to you?

Mauro Javier Cárdenas was born and brought up in Guayaquil, Ecuador and studied Economics at Stanford University. His debut novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, was published in 2016. He was awarded the 2016 Joseph Henry Jackson Award and in 2017 was included in the Hay Festival anthology Bogotá39, a selection of the best young Latin American novelists working today. 

Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.

Photo credit: Victoria Smith.

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