Cardenas’s The Revolutionaries Try Again is a delirious account of several Ecuadorians attempting to wrest control of their country from the hands of brutal oligarchs and buffoonish populists.
How aware were you of Ecuador’s political situation while growing up there?
I can’t remember a time when León Febres Cordero, our macho-man president during the ’80s, and El Loco Bucaram, the self-proclaimed leader of the poor who ran for president three times between 1988 and 1996, weren’t part of my airwaves. Leon sending tanks to surround congress, El Loco fighting the oligarchy with a whip—all part of the same radio station...
In the book, Antonio, a Stanford-educated Ecuadorian, feels impelled to return home—an “impulse... extensively documented in literature as a terrible idea.” Is there something inherently quixotic about the exile’s urge to return to, and reform, his native land?
For years I didn’t own a sweater. Any minute now I’m going back to Ecuador, I would tell myself, even though there was no outward indication that I was planning to return. I’ve wondered if I wrote this novel to settle my urge to return. Or perhaps by spending 12 years writing about Ecuador while living in San Francisco, I was able to have it both ways, returning without returning. The urge to reform by leaving and then returning to one’s native country belongs in its own pantheon of quixotism. A Latin American prepares himself to reform his country by studying in the U.S., a country known for its preposterous interferences in Latin America? At least no fictional Ecuadorians were harmed by studying economics at the University of Chicago.
The novel deals with serious subjects but is also infused with banter, spoofs, and sarcasm. Why this opera buffa element to the story?
In dramatizing what Antonio Lobo Antunes calls the immense present that engulfs everything, I allowed almost everything that’s relevant to my characters to coexist. Spoofs have to coexist with injustice, because spoofs are central to my characters. Spoofs and banter and nicknames are not just the only ways [the characters] Antonio and Leopoldo related to each other in high school but also the ways they reenacted those years when they still believed they had been chosen to save Ecuador.
What motivated you to veer away from “the flat world of Best American realism,” as Antonio calls it?
Summoned to explain yourself to God, who doesn’t exist, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to show up with a storybook instead of with an accusatory monologue that desperately amalgamates all the literary traditions you think you know? What’s wonderful about fiction is that Pierre Menard and your granny can cumbia in the same sentence inside a novel sequenced on birdsongs. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar, my entry into the world of novels, accommodates not just narrative but the writings of a fake literary critic, alternative sequences, and humorous snippets. Why else write, I probably didn’t think back then, if not to create my own Hopscotch?