The Itch of Idealism: New Novels from Mauritius, Ecuador, and the United States

Books and Digest Editor

New works by Ananda Devi, Mauro Javier Cardenas, and Jane Alison show the dizzying heights of dreams and the crushing descent to reality.

Courtesy of Deep Vellum

On most international rankings of African countries — such as economy and quality of life — Mauritius, a small island 700 miles east of Madagascar, is a perennial first. Among its achievements this island nation can boast is a 90% literacy rate, a low-crime rate, a thriving tourism industry, and, in 2015, Africa’s most competitive economy. In other words, the island is wealthy and healthy; even lower-income individuals aren’t living in the squalor that is rife throughout the continent. Not for nothing, Mauritian travel brochures depict white women in flowy dresses wandering white beaches on the country’s coastline; there’s also a groomed gentleman sipping lychee martinis at some boardwalk bar within Port Louis, the capital city. That’s the Mauritius travel companies like to showcase. The Mauritian writer Ananda Devi’s novel Eve Out of Her Ruins, tells a less glittering story.

Follow the base of Signal Mountain, which overlooks Port Louis, to the city’s outskirts, and eventually you’ll arrive in Troumaron, a fictional stand-in for what amounts to be St. Louis’s rougher neighborhoods, or more prescriptively: “a sort of funnel; where all the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.” That description is given by Saadiq, known by the epithet “Saad,” a would-be poet and romantic. He is the first of the novel’s four narrators to speak, and within a few sentences of his introduction, he informs the reader that Troumaron isn’t the kind likely to grace any gussied-up travel pamphlet: “The city has turned its back to us… between the city and the stone are our buildings, our rubble, our trash. The eczema of paint and the tar beneath our feet. A children’s playground has become a battleground with needles, shards of broken glass, hopes snaking into nothing.”

This serpentine movement also commands the path of Eve Out of Her Ruins, and its hypnotic story has been notably championed by Nobel laureate J.M.G Le Clézio (who provides the foreword) and adapted into an award-winning film. Its allure is engendered by multi-narration:monologues passing from one speaker to another. We learn first of Saad’s yearnings for Eve, a teenage girl who sleeps around with the local boys in return for protection and with her teacher in exchange for special tutelage (take what you will with that innuendo). Saad desperately wants Eve to himself, but rather than return Saad’s affections, she lavishes them upon the third narrator — Savita, a fellow student. Their sapphic adorations cull the ire of the miscreant, the novel’s fourth speaker Clélio, a member of a local street gang.

Ananda Devi, courtesy of French Institute Alliance Française

Poetry plays a big role in Eve Out of Her Ruins. Poetry is the shared language between Saad and Eve, and plotted throughout the novel are dreamy messages of the sort usually written by starry-eyed teenagers who feel the world is against them: “you open your mouth and let in a hot wind that burns away the danger of remembering.” Saad’s dresses himself in his affinity for verse. He doesn’t just admire Rimbaud, for instance, he calls him “his double.” Still, Saad’s romanticism is short-sighted: “Saad talks about poetry when we’re alone,” writes Eve. “Still he has no idea about the poetry of women.” Eve’s budding relationship with Sativa confuses all of the boys in the book, a bewilderment both girls seem to cherish: “You’re the world’s beauty, its light.” Their intimacy is a bubble that Clélio and his gang, and to a less threatening extent Saad, would like to pop.

Clélio wants to burst many people’s balloons. He’s a complicated character — he seeks out brawls rather than sharpen his natural musical abilities: “I tell myself that if one more old lady asks me to sing Marinella, I’m kicking her straight to hell.” Clélio knows he’s an asshole or “a little shit,” to use his words. He’s been in and out of custody for numerous assaults. He resents his brother Carlo for leaving the family for France, and the defective clothing his mother brings him from the factory where she works. His thirst for mayhem is only tempered when he’s plucking his guitar and singing in Mauritian Creole (left untranslated). Eventually, his anger appears to get the best of him when he directs it toward the one beautiful thing in the book — the romance of Eve and Sativa.

Where the first half of the novel is meditative, Devi uses the second to focus on plot. Sativa is killed and Clélio jailed as the prime suspect. The shift is a bit startling and the poetic mood of the narrative is slightly dispelled in favor of advancing the story. What brings it back to the poetic is another murder, the killer’s confession, and the promise of the convicted. The result is an elegiac whodunit that owes much to Jeffrey Zuckerman’s masterful translation. It’s the sedulous care of his English that allows Devi’s astonishing lyricism to shine rather than dip into platitude, to allow the thoughts of teenagers to seem profound to an adult audience, and to bring us a story that stays with the reader long after its read.
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Courtesy of Coffee House Press

Where a translator might leave a phrase or passage untranslated for effect, a bilingual writer can utilize two languages to great effect. The Ecuadorian-born, American-educated novelist Mauro Javier Cardenas is a marvel of bilingualism, and his astonishing new novel The Revolutionaries Try Again is a testament to Cardenas’s Nabokovian verbosity. Not since Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity have two languages been so animated within a single text.

The short and simple of the novel’s plot for the Ecuadorian presidency hatched by old classmates, among them Leopoldo, a Guayaquil city official, who opens the novel with a phone call to Antonio, an ex-pat Stanford graduate living up the bohemian life as in San Francisco. Leopoldo is calling from a pay phone made free by a lightning strike and liberated from public leaching by a quick flip of a badge. “There’s massive protests around the country… We always wanted an audience and here at last. I think we have a chance, Antonio.”

Antonio at first seems like an odd choice for inciting revolution. Back in San Francisco, he has taken to reading New Directions books — Pelevin, Tsypkin, Sebald are all name-dropped — writing his own “ersatz novel” (called his “baby christ memoir) and learning the piano by blasting classical compositions on repeat out of a car stereo. We see just enough of Antonio as cultural aesthete to give him a certain color for his return to Guayaquil. His girlfriend Masha makes crippling marks in red pen to his manuscript “Everyone thinks they’re the chosen ones. See About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson.” Later Masha and Antonio are sitting in a room listening to Alvin Lucier’s experimental composition “I Am Sitting in a Room.” Outside the door are the guests of Antonio’s going-away party. He’s leaving for Ecuador and has chosen now to tell Masha. By eschewing division between dialogue and narration, Cardenas is able to pull us uncomfortably close to the conversation.

“I’m leaving. I was going to call you and tell you. To Ecuador? Where else, Masha? Berlin, Barcelona? New York? Guayaquil has one performance arts center named after one of our presidents praised by Reagan for his strong armed tactics. The shows mostly comedies there? Antonio laughed. Then he sat down on the bench by his bed and cried … Imagine a different life in Berlin or New York, where you could walk out of operas like Messiaen’s every week.”

So Antonio returns to join Leopoldo and other former classmates from the San Javier, a religious school, to change Ecuador: revive its economy, inject it with culture and put a puppet in the presidential chair. That’s the main thread, and the boys will make some movement on that front — megaphone barking from pick-up truck (which doesn’t last long); partying at their candidate’s mansion (which does) — but Cardenas is too good of a stylist to merely narrate his character’s cockamamie scheme for revolution. As highlighted above, he is stylish to the point of ballsy: where one sentences runs to twenty pages, and another forward-slashed to pieces; where not one, but two chapters are written entirely in Spanish (how many Spanish-speaking American writers have longed to do that).

Mauro Javier Cardenas, courtesy of Coffee House Press

This might sound as equally hare-brained as inciting a revolt, but Cardenas uses invention to give every chapter its own voice and story. There are pages of Antonio’s manuscript where he describes his father’s return to the church; there are flashbacks to San Javier and the travails of the priest who runs it; there are the radio plays broadcasted by a cracked-out DJ and his playwright wife who later goes missing; there are recollections of why Antonio fled Ecuador, his somewhat awkward return to a Reiki obsessed mother and his grown friends, and of course there is botched plot and subsequent police interrogations. If only the boys had listened to the advice of their grandmothers (the all-Spanish chapters of the book are monologues from their abuelitas. As a grandson of an El Salvadoran / Mayan woman, I couldn’t help but relate). The humor is as rich as the prose:

Rolando wanted red flyers – blood red – sickle red with red captions and etchings of veins promulgating the rebirth of Radio Rebelde on the hills of – No Rolando no one wants blood or veins and here the sickle never tickled – why did Eva always have to undermine him with silly rhymes? – which he thought but didn’t say – Besides the name of your radio’s too Cuban.

And the realities beneath it as complex as Cardenas’s own synopsis (in an interview with the Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker, he demonstrated charts and methods accumulated and utilized in the ten years it took him to write this).

NB: As a Stanford alum, Cardenas joins an astounding generation of writers — Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Tony Tulathimutte, Karan Mahajan, and Jenny Zhang who have graduated from that university and gone on to write paradigm-punting works. Maybe the bandwidth from Silicon Valley has an effect on Palo Alto’s water reserve, but for some reason, these particular writers have made a notable impact in the last four years to gainsay the valetudinarianism of the novel, electrify journalism, and vivify poetry. Like Tulathimutte in particular, Cardenas is conjuring a modish and streamlined maximalism that soaks postmodernism and hyperrealism in multicultural and social media colloquialism. The Revolutionaries Try Again could be spun as the The Recognitions of our age, with Otto reborn as Antonio. In any case, it’s revolutionary.
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Courtesy of Catapult

There are social revolutions and there are personal ones, among them discovering happiness outside of love. This underlies the narrative of novelist and translator Jane Alison’s comically melancholy “non-fiction” novel Nine Island. Its narrator J is a divorcé, now in her 50s, recently relocated to one of Miami’s Venetian Islands, calling as her company an old cat and the Roman poet Ovid, whose stories of sexual encounters she is translating (a translation that exists). Her own dalliances with lovers old and new are incomparable to the one man that got away, known as Sir Gold, a presence that remains largely in her mind than as a character. Her reason for being in South Florida isn’t to alight or rekindle any more flames of romance, it’s to decide whether to permanently blow out their candles. She makes this clear from the first page:

So I’ve sailed the seas and come to—

No. I’ve sailed no seas. I’ve driven south down I-95, driven south for days, until 95 stopped and I was back in Miami.

No country for old women.

I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.

What a delight to be free of that maddening monster, lust!

So Plato claims Sophocles said.

Could be.

What is also apparent is Alison’s full command of a style which walks a fine line between full-on awareness of interior monologue and complete presence of exterior experience. In other words, you’re not reading J, you’re in her head à la John Malkovich as filtered through the brain of a Latin prosody scholar holed up on on a swanky beach-side condo. Like her contemporaries Claire Louise-Bennett and Jenny Offill, this makes for dazzling juxtapositions of concerns. Notice how J is equally adept at breaking down the origin of eroticism:

Penia (female, = Want) raped Poros (male, = Want Nothing), because she wanted what he was.

The child Penia bore, the child of Want and Want Nothing?

Eros, a.k.a. Love.

You can spend some time pondering the logic and logistics of this.

As she is breaking down the components of concrete:

Water + Aggregate + Cement

Aggregate = crushed limestone (for example)

Cement = powdered (e.g.) limestone

Limestone = calcium carbonate from skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as (for instance) coral

J’s thoughts naturally gravitate to erudition, which add a color to her interactions within the physical world. The concrete is of concern because the condominium’s concrete pool, where J takes daily laps, is cracking and will need to be replaced…with the occupants money. So much for meditation. And because this is a glass condo, she can espy her neighbors’ relationships, from amorous to banal, which intensifies the conflict between her not-easily peelable desire for love and her equally difficult acceptance of solitude. Love, in some form, has not fully dried up. She befriends another resident N and her husband P, and tends to an injured duck. Another friend K — who voices her opinions of Js dating life exclusively through text messages — warns J of the temptations of an anti-Sir Gold, a man simply known as the Devil who hits her up with mildly-flirty messages. “He’s poison” warns K, later doling advice on attracting other men: “Go get highlights. I can tell from here the gray is showing. Men don’t like gray.”

Jane Alison, courtesy of the University of Virginia

Because Nine Island reads like a prose poem, the plot is never able to supercede J’s existential and feminine perspicacity. This is a novel you’ll want to read with a highlighter: every page contains a least one quotable remark, even if her wit can elicit uncomfortable giggles: “Does it seem fair to you that there’s such a difference between the words “misanthropy” and “misogyny”? How about “anthropologist” vs. “gynecologist.” In other words, J doesn’t have much luck finding a male companion who isn’t a bit of a louse. Which brings back the original intent of the book: is it worth surviving the psychological and emotional abuse of fleeting romances in the hopes that one will eventually find a Sir Gold in the eye of storm? While J is reconciling this, another character’s actions bring the book to an unexpected conclusion that opens up in J a sort of altruism and, very briefly, to a larger quandary: the relationship between mortals and immortals, at least those everlasters whose works or actions survive beyond the grave. To that she returns to bask in the words of the one lover that will never damage her psyche: Ovid.
by Ananda Devi
translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Deep Vellum
$14.95 | 160 pp.
by Mauro Javier Cardenas
Coffee House Press
$16.95 | 288 pp.
by Jane Alison
$16.95 | 240 pp.

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