Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s Aphasia is titled after a musical composition by Mark Applebaum. The piece, first performed in 2010 by Applebaum himself after four months of fastidious rehearsal—Cárdenas saw it live—was originally conceived for singer and two-channel tape. In his performance, Applebaum, the “singer,” does not make a sound. Seated, he moves his hands in a series of gestures illustrated on the score: “centurion greeting” (beats chest), “key turn,” (turns imaginary key), “smell grapefruit,” (holds cupped palm to nose). Applebaum synchronizes these gestures to a motley of garbled vocals from the tape: a demonic cough, a castrated, robotic groan. The resulting illusion is that the singer himself plays the music, when really he dances to it; that his dance is chaotic, when really he adheres to an intricate system of symbols, each of which corresponds to one of 200 gestures within the “nonsense sign language” created for the performance. These symbols, or versions thereof (a laptop, a couple, a policeman), are doodled in squares on the cover of Cárdenas’s novel, where they have been jumbled by the cover artist into the shape of a precarious house.
Let us treat Applebaum’s “Aphasia” as an epigraph for a novel without one. Like its namesake, Cardenas’s Aphasia operates according to a code that makes sense first of all to itself. It centers one person, possibly both composer and performer of the work, who speaks through others, their voices chopped and screwed (by him), ricocheting throughout the theater of his life, possessing him, speaking through (or simply speaking) him. His speech, from the outside, looks something like self-reproach, or like a frantic attempt to communicate in a language understood by no one else.
A Colombian-American named Antonio Jose Jiménez stars in Mauro Javier Cárdenas’s fictional universe, most recently (and with some variation) in Aphasia, the author’s second novel, out in paperback last month. Antonio, as he appears in the new book, is a 39-year-old divorcé; father of two young daughters; son of a constellation-therapy-obsessed mom and dead-to-him dad; brother to a schizophrenic sister (whereabouts unknown) who is convinced that “our family + the Pentagon + Obama are conspiring against her”; “unpublished older novelist”; “fading wise man of the flesh”; database analyst for Prudential Investments; household oral historian; Yale-educated Bogotá boy turned Los Angeleno; former amateur classical pianist; former soccer player, back at it, sore and thermodynamically violent; red-carded loser; “vain fuck.” He christens himself “Arturo Ventanas” when, at the start of the novel, he signs up for a website called Your Sugar Arrangements.
Aphasia is a domestic novel, and Antonio lives at the fringe of a household as disjointed as the one on its cover. Cárdenas opens with a wide-frame shot of the home, delivered in one of the novel’s shortest sentences, which neatly spans the whole first page:
Once again his daughters and his former wife packed their lives and left him to summer in Czechia with Babička and Děda, and unlike the previous seven summers, Antonio wasn’t anxious for them to leave already so he could sleep with former girlfriends or new girlfriends or whomever he happened to meet at bookstores or nightclubs or on the internet, on the contrary, he was anxious that they were leaving him because on the one hand he didn’t want to be without them (Ada, his eight-year-old, was becoming an ace on the soccer field, and Eva, his five-year-old, was already tinkering with the upright piano he’d abandoned years ago), and on the other hand he’d resigned himself to a so-called stable family life in Los Angeles alongside his former wife due to his daughters, so he didn’t want to be alone and risk chancing upon any more women like Dora (philosophy major, S3) or Silvina (science fiction writer, S7) who might remind him of the other lives he could have lived if he’d left his former wife when he was planning to, three weeks before conceiving Ada and three months before he was asked by her parents to marry her, and although one never really knows why one does what one does—at least I like to believe I don’t always know, Antonio writes, so as to feel less programmed by the catastrophes of my childhood—it is likely that his desire to avoid chancing upon any more women like Dora or Silvina who might rattle the family arrangement that was allowing his daughters to bloom beautifully was what led him, on summer #8, to join a website called Your Sugar Arrangements for $69.99 a month.
A sentence of such musculature calls for dissection of commensurate buffness. I’ll try. Aphasia opens in summer 2014, eight years after the birth of Antonio’s first daughter, and spans a year, split into five parts according to the seasons. The first chapter begins here with a convoluted defense, narrated in a third person so close to its subject that the first-person rears its head, of Antonio’s decision to begin paying for sex. (The opening of Coetzee’s Disgrace comes to mind: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”) When Antonio’s former wife, a Czech immigrant, leaves as usual with their daughters to spend the summer at her parents’ home, Antonio decides to pay college-aged women to date him in what he sees as a break from his previous habit of developing long-term affairs, particularly with women who share an interest in literature. It is relationships with these women, “women like Dora or Silvina,” that threaten, for reasons not given, to “rattle the family arrangement.” We can infer that Antonio is trying to transactionalize sex and convert his romantic relationships into “arrangements” in order to preserve another, more nebulous kind of arrangement—that with his former wife, here unnamed, unlike everyone else mentioned—in service of the relationship most important to him: that with his daughters.
If Aphasia opens on an abandonment, whose? Antonio’s daughters and former wife have packed and left. But if his former wife’s formerness provides any indication, Antonio too has done more than his fair share of leaving. He used to be anxious for his family to leave, as it made his own departures more convenient. In this first use of anxious, Cárdenas performs what he has elsewhere described as a “tilting [of] English towards Spanish,”1 since the Spanish ansioso connotes eagerness more than worry. Now—and here Cárdenas tilts us back towards English—Antonio is anxious that they are leaving, because he wants his daughters in his life, and his Don Juanery threatens the domestic life he believes he endures for access to them.
Even Antonio is not entirely convinced of his reasons for joining the website. “One never really knows why one does what one does,” the narrator says, echoing a refrain in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men: “One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.” Antonio then interjects, as if to both qualify and double down on his claim of opacity-to-self: “at least I like to believe I don’t always know, Antonio writes, so as to feel less programmed by the catastrophes of my childhood.” Antonio claims he believes he doesn’t know so that he can feel less “programmed,” (the language already computerized, as throughout the novel), but what is conveyed by Cárdenas’s tumbling free indirect discourse is just the opposite: that Antonio actually feels himself pre-destined by the traumas he’s undergone.
In Aphasia as in the novels of W. G. Sebald, whom Cárdenas cites as an influence (“I like to believe my second novel is a rewriting of W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,” Cárdenas says in a 2016 interview,2 “perhaps the main thing I learn from Sebald is the whole notion of obliqueness”), it is the silences and circumnavigations that are most glaring. This single sentence is stuffed with missing information: Who is Antonio’s wife? What is their arrangement? How former is she? What does it mean to live alongside one’s family? Due to his daughters’ what? And what, precisely, are the catastrophes of Antonio’s childhood? All these questions, the last especially, will come to animate the novel. As one might imagine from the piled-on clauses, digressions, speculations, double-negations, and rhetorical U-turns of the opening sentence, they are answered as indirectly as possible. They are, to appropriate the verbiage of “Austerlitz” himself (applied originally to Belgian military architecture), “marked in general by a tendency towards paranoid elaboration . . . decided in a state of movement, not a state of rest.”
For Cárdenas as for his predecessor, trauma and pain are to be orbited. The oblique subject of Austerlitz is the Holocaust; of Aphasia, domestic violence. The great catastrophe of Antonio’s youth is his father, referred to throughout as “that individual,” who abused Antonio and his sister Estela, the latter of whom develops schizophrenia as an adult. Antonio’s flight from Colombia to the US at age 18—a journey embarked on by his sister and his mother soon after—is a flight from his father, who remains inescapable in their dreams.
Cárdenas has described the novel as a failed attempt to avoid thinking about trauma. Antonio wants to push it down and move on with his life, let the “mind erasers” remove the many unpleasant events of his life from his memory. But he crashes into evidence of his and his sister’s past everywhere he turns, not least in her disorder, which possibly bears some relation to the traumatic environment in which she was raised. As an adult, Estela, unwell and alone, finds herself in an “unfortunate legal situation,” responsibility for which falls into Antonio’s hands. Having threatened to shoot her neighbor during a paranoid episode, she is jailed; having been bailed out by her brother, she makes a run for it. At work, Antonio fields incessant calls and emails from a bail bond agent, asking him to indemnify the company against the exorbitant fees incurred due to his sister’s failure to appear in court. The novel derives much of its narrative thrust from this ongoing saga with Estela, and exerts a kind of moral pressure on Antonio: will he be there for his sister through it all? What does being there for her look like?
Aphasia is two novels smashed into one bifurcate tree. One branch is a cheater’s guide to love, juxtaposing Antonio’s love/sex life with his “erratic attempts” to be a good dad and co-parent. The other is a siblings-and-keepers kind of story, following Antonio’s attempts, alongside his mother, to care for his sister. One features the family he’s made, the other the family he’s made of. What is their relation to each other? Why mash up his sister’s schizophrenia and his affairs? Antonio hazards a half-answer in one of his em-dashed asides: “I don’t intend to write about my sister here, Antonio writes, among my so-called sugar-arrangements—nor do I want to give you the impression my so-called sugar-arrangements are a diversion from thinking about my sister’s misfortunes, Antonio writes, because of course my so-called sugar arrangements are a diversion, but so are all other activities that allow me to pass the time without thinking about the misfortunes that have happened and are still happening to my sister.”
As in Joyce and Woolf, for whom avoidance and repression are the bread and butter of consciousness—see Leopold Bloom, not thinking about Molly’s lover—Antonio’s faulty avoidance mechanisms are hardwired into the narrative style. Perhaps the most striking feature of Cárdenas’s prose is the length of his sentences. Cárdenas writes marathonic, interruptive, recursive sentences animated by what he refers to as an “impulse.” In this sense, he at first glance resembles such long-distance runners as Proust, Bernhard, and Bolaño—or, more contemporaneously, Ellmann, Melchor, and Krasznahorkai. The maximalist sentence is so often called upon in the modernist’s leaky garage house because it is perhaps the best bucket for catching that “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” in search of which Woolf dodged plot, comedy, and Bond Street tailors, which is to say that the long sentence at its best (if not in Cárdenas then nowhere else) is no gymnastic in abstruse gimmickry, but rather a rejection of those hot-dog-shaped language packages of mechanically separated consciousness passed off by some as “realism.”
If the sentence is his art, his method is to write one at a time, what he calls the “long sentence with voices,”3 usually about fifteen hundred words, over the course of a week or two (though at the time of this writing he tweets of being ten thousand words into a sentence). In “poet novelist”4 fashion, Cárdenas reportedly first writes the long sentence using line breaks, then smushes it into a dense block of prose. A given sentence in Aphasia is thus a collage work—of free indirect narration; first person asides; dialogue (real and imagined, virtual and embodied, with the living and the dead); transcripts of recordings (podcasts, experimental music, audiobooks, mic-tests, interviews Antonio has conducted with his mother, his former wife, his girlfriends, his Sugar Arrangements); news stories; passages from other books; accounts of plays seen (Beckett) and authors-to-be-interviewed driven around town (Krasznahorkai); not to mention lists.
At the risk of making metaphor of illness—I am not sure who deserves more credit for this risk, Cárdenas or myself—we might say that the Cárdenesian “sentence with voices” is a schizophrenic sentence: a rogue transformer, assembled with the patchwork scrap metal of a number of sentences, stripped of their periods and welded together with em-dashes. Where Estela receives radial frequencies from satellites with lasers, Antonio receives rapid-fire testimonies from his Sugar Arrangements: “My mother was tired of me biting my sister, Ismene said, and perhaps because she thought I didn’t understand biting hurts other people, she bit me in the face, leaving a mark that was embarrassing to explain at school—I like not being seen, Ophelia said, that’s why I volunteer at Lighthouse for the Blind—my parents escaped from Laos and spent ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Joanna said. . .” The prose bombards, piling one autobiographical testimony onto the next with no periods or quotation marks to separate each voice. Antonio communes with these voices, though he is haunted by them; he elicits their testimonies, transcribes them after the fact. But why is he subjecting these characters, whom he set out to have casual sex with, to extended interviews about their origins? Interviewing, we learn, is a compulsion for Antonio—he obsessively collects and transcribes and translates voice recordings from the women in his life (there are no men). Dora, Silvina, his Sugar Arrangements, Estela, his former wife, and most of all his mother, who speaks in a roundabout way of the violence and predation of his father. Antonio, like the almost-narrator of Austerlitz, becomes a conduit for the true narrators. In this sense, Aphasia is a mosaic of oral histories. These histories are presented in the uniform style with which we have already become familiar: the long sentence, flattened and de-italicized like a block of code, a text file—corrupted.
Like the benevolent Antonio of The Revolutionaries Try Again, bent on returning to Ecuador, Stanford degree in tow, to run for office and save the natives, the young Cárdenas involved himself in humanitarian work: he volunteered as a translator and transcriber for an oral history project that documented the violence of the Colombian conflict. His stint as a transcriber has had a lasting influence on the fiction he has since written; he has said as much.5 You might imagine that what will make you the writer you are destined to become is the precise concoction of Bernhard and Antonio Lobo Antunes you are ingesting, but what really does it is the service project you helped out with some years ago, before you became one of those “cynical emo pretentious types who would tell me how depressing the world was,” to quote one of Antonio’s Sugar Arrangements (she is describing a Novelist).
That influence most obviously manifests in the centrality of transcription to Cárdenas’s oeuvre. His novels center the unique intimacy of one’s encounter with the recorded voice, an encounter in which the listener (here I’m paraphrasing the author) enters a state of heightened attention, free from the need to mentally compose a reply (or, more cynically, a competing monologue) in real time. Less obviously, his early transcription work later materializes in his unusual method for narrating trauma. The testimonies that comprise Aphasia differ starkly from those that appear in the oral history project. One kind of testimony is oblique, the other direct; one relates violent events, the other their imprint on the imagination. His eventual abandonment of oral history prompts us to ask: where does the form fall short? What can fiction do that it can’t?
The latter of these questions occurred to Cárdenas while transcribing an especially difficult interview. In an essay that shortly followed the publication of Aphasia, in the sort of epiphanic prose he avoids in his fiction, he describes a Sunday afternoon of transcription in a café in San Francisco, during which, despite himself, he broke into tears. He paused the audio recording and recomposed his face, or tried to. What had moved him? A sentence, a voice: “Es que a mí me duele”: “It hurts.” The mother being interviewed could not go on describing her son’s murder. In the wake of her unspeakable (and untranslatable) loss, Cárdenas resolved to
focus on what your characters can’t or won’t share if you interview them . . . in other words focus on the interior and excise the exterior—or I would write about characters who knew their interviewers wanted to know about their childhoods to humanize them before they recounted the tragedies that befell them, who questioned the point of sharing anything . . .
We see here a skepticism taking root. Cárdenas suspects that trauma belongs to the “exterior” of a person, and suggests that its solicitation—at least in the context of Voice of Witness, the nonprofit behind the project—perhaps reveals more about the interviewer than the confessor. His aims thus stray from those of Voice of Witness, which, in its own words, “seeks to illuminate human rights crises by humanizing those most closely affected.” Some other titles in the eponymous series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives; Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives; Out of Exile: The Abducted and Displaced People of Sudan. Wherever people are being brutalized, displaced, dispossessed, Voice of Witness is casting its net, harvesting narratives, compiling them into anthologies introduced by fiction writers with humanitarian proclivities (such as Dave Eggers, series editor) and/or human rights activists.
Cárdenas transcribed for Throwing Stones at the Moon: Narratives of Colombians Displaced by Violence (originally published in 2012, out again next year), which bears witness to one of the longest standing internal armed conflicts of the Western hemisphere. In an appended essay, which I’ll condense here, the anthropologist Winifred Tate provides a history of the Colombian conflict and its major actors: leftist guerillas vying for control of the government, state security forces fighting to preserve existing power structures, and paramilitary groups allied with the military, with the drug trade wiring its way through them all—not to mention the US’s lasting influence as both consumer and military aide.
Tate traces this conflict as far back as the 1886 constitution, which established a winner-take-all political system in which corruption and violence festered, culminating in La Violencia of the ’40s and ’50s, a civil war during which 200,000 to 300,000 people were killed. La Violencia “ended” in 1953, when General Rojas Pinilla seized military power; within five years, he was ousted by the Liberal and Conservative parties, which had joined forces to institute the National Front. It was in the wake of this power-sharing pact that Marxist guerilla groups germinated in the ’60s and ’70s, chiefly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Colombia’s military, working closely with the US, trained civilians as “paramilitary” forces to combat the likes of FARC and ELN. All these forces, paramilitary and guerilla alike, dirtied their hands in the drug trade in the ’80s and ’90s, as Colombian cartels, supplying the US, came to control a billion-dollar cocaine industry.
When president Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he doubled down on efforts to balloon the security state and its counterinsurgency and counternarcotic operations, with significant financial and material investment from the US (e.g. helicopters, intelligence, surveillance equipment, as part of “Plan Colombia”), then partially demobilized paramilitary forces, extraditing top paramilitary leaders to the US and doing little else to address the wreckage. At the time of Winifred’s writing, in 2012, neoparamilitary groups were emerging in the wake of Uribe’s failed demobilization; at present, they have crystallized, most of all The Gulf Clan (AGC), based in Antioquia, Uribe’s old stomping grounds.
Perhaps needless to say, the conflict at heart of Throwing Stones is far from resolved. “We do not pretend to provide explanations for Colombia’s human rights problems,” Sibylla Brodzinsky and Max Schoening write in the introduction. “The Colombian conflict is messy, and there is no overarching analysis that can explain its causes and motives or even its consequences.” The anthology is not a history, but a collection of histories, a chronicle of atrocities focused more on the cost to civilians than on the conflict’s political and economic origins. Even in the selection of participants, the editors aim for as much breadth as possible: the narrators are “black, white, mestizo, and indigenous, poor and wealthy; they are peasant farmers and urbanites; they have been driven from their homes by guerrillas, paramilitaries, army abuses, and the random violence of drug traffickers.” All of the speakers are civilians, though of course the line between civilian and combatant is not always clear. Not to mention the many “false positives,” like Carmenza Gómez’s son, who, along with more than a dozen other young men from Soacha, was lured by false promises of work, then killed by the army and dressed up and tallied as a guerrilla or neoparamilitary combatant killed in action.
In a foreword, Íngrid Betancourt lays out the stakes of the project. She acknowledges—like the narrators, like Cárdenas—that remembering a violent regime is painful. But she believes it is a growing pain: “. . . sharing is your way out. Every time you tell your story, you can distance yourself from it, take a step back. You can learn to remember without reliving, and begin to recover.” She speaks from personal experience; in 2002, while campaigning for office in Colombia, she was kidnapped by FARC and locked in a jungle camp cage for six and a half years. Like many survivors of extreme violence and isolation, Betancourt stayed alive by burrowing inwards: “I discovered that whatever happened to me, I could protect the essence of who I was. Therefore, nobody could damage the ‘inner-me.’” In the years since her rescue, she has written and spoken extensively about her traumatic experience, as in her 2010 memoir Even Silence Has an End. Throwing Stones aims to provide a similar opportunity for its interviewees: it is a “window into the indomitable essence of each narrator.” Betancourt finds a therapeutic quality in the sharing and in the subsequent recognition: “There is no better way to heal the wounds of human rights victims—and of society—than for them to receive the recognition of equals: to have their neighbors, their boss, their friends, and their loved ones, understanding what happened.” This sharing, Betancourt argues, has not only the potential to benefit the narrators, but to benefit the reader. As she puts it, the narrators “offer the intimacy of their pain to enrich our lives and to make us reflect. . . . [They] are helping us to become better humans in a world that lacks humanity.”
Thus Throwing Stones at the Moon does not merely present its narrators; it attempts to extract lessons from their trauma. Its title, Brodzinsky and Schoening explain, is a metaphor for the narrators’ “tenacity to persevere and survive against the odds,” as it is very hard to throw a stone all the way to the moon. Given the cause, one feels bad cringing—but perhaps the task is merely to aim the cringe at the right target. The target is sentimentality, and sentimentality is imposed on the subjects by the editors. They lift the idiom from the narrative of “Felipe Aguilar” (I use quotes where the editors, at the narrators’ request, use pseudonyms), a 46-year-old farmer whose wife and three children were gunned down in a paramilitary massacre in Nariño. Felipe speaks of his ongoing struggle to find work, and of the government’s joke of a humanitarian aid program. “The government promises things sometimes,” Felipe says, “but it doesn’t follow through. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. It’s like throwing stones at the moon.” The editors twist this idiom—which, within Felipe’s narrative, strikes me as hopeless—into a symbol of persistence in the face of hardship.
This gesture—the use of a narrator’s phrase to title a section—occurs throughout the book; there are headings of this sort every few pages. The opening section, narrated by “Emilia González,” who survived a paramilitary massacre in El Salado, contains the subheadings “WHEN EL SALADO WAS EL SALADO,” “I LIKE THE MACHETE AND I WORK LIKE A MAN,” “IT’S A MIRACLE THEY DIDN’T KILL US ALL,” “WHEN DOGS HOWL,” and so on. Endemic to the book series, they usually center around a poignant image or turn of phrase, which loses a good deal of its poignancy by having been preemptively fed to the reader, as when a trailer shows the best parts of a film. But the headings are important in that they remind us that the atrocities we are reading about are also a collaboration between narrator and transcriber and translator and editor, as artificial as more conventional narrative forms; the headings rupture the fictive dream in a text otherwise concerned with preserving it.
Cárdenas adopts a similar style for his chapter titles in Aphasia: “WHEN ANTONIO WAS ARTURO,” “WHEN ANTONIO WAS NICOLA,” et cetera. We might see in these titles a mere stylistic overlap, a byproduct of Cárdenas’s having worked on Throwing Stones prior to writing Aphasia. After all, it goes both ways: Cárdenas’s fingerprints are all over Throwing Stones; I would put money on his having translated Catalina Hoyos’s statement that her sister, at the sight of their father’s decaying corpse falling out of the body bag post-plane-crash, “became disconnected from the planet.” (“Dear Mark Applebaum,” Antonio writes at one point, “I want to omit myself from the surface of this world by learning to perform Aphasia.”) And naturally the translated feel of the prose in Aphasia—recall ansioso in the opening sentence—permeates the narratives of Throwing Stones. But the stylistic overlap is so extensive as to feel deliberate: Aphasia is a product not only of the literary influences it proudly wears on its sleeve, but of Cárdenas’s previous work with oral history. And Aphasia is not simply written under the influence of that work, but against it, drawing on the book’s methods and themes to pick them apart from the inside. Reading the two texts in dialogue is clarifying: the relationship between Aphasia and this liberal oral history project is something like parody.
Antonio’s makeover as a Colombian in the first place puts Aphasia into conversation with Throwing Stones. In The Revolutionaries, he is, like his author, Ecuadoran. When Carmen Boullosa asked Cárdenas why he made this change to his protagonist, he said he was trying to establish more fictive distance between himself and Antonio than existed in his debut novel. But the changes transcend Antonio; the father, too, has received a makeover. In the faux-memoir sections of The Revolutionaries, Antonio’s father is a crooked politician, soon to flee the country under charges of corruption. In Aphasia, we receive no such memoir sections, not even in ironic form; we receive no portrayal of the father, only indirect accounts through other narrators; and we receive no mention of the father’s political activities. The Revolutionaries is a farce of local politics, while Aphasia is strikingly devoid of them, though the Colombian conflict, as Throwing Stones reveals, has had very long and spindly fingers, and would likely have touched at least some part of Antonio’s life.
Both Cárdenas and Íngrid Betancourt are after the interior, but find different things inside. Betancourt finds an essence, Cárdenas a coalescence. In Aphasia, Cárdenas does not so much excise the exterior as expose it. If the aim of Throwing Stones is to provide the illusion of an unfiltered, unself-conscious tract of truth, the whole truth, nothing but, from which the interviewer has been omitted, then the aim of Aphasia and its deranged sentences is to make the reader constantly aware of the speaker’s awareness of their presence, and of the narrative manipulations that ensue.
It is perhaps one mistake to believe in an inner essence; it is another to believe that that essence is rooted in trauma. The narrators of Throwing Stones are candid about their traumas. Trauma is, after all, the occasion for their speech. To paraphrase Cárdenas, the narrators are expected to recount the tragedies that have befallen them. So far as tragedy is concerned, the anthology opens with a bang—an especially graphic account given by “Emilia González,” who survived one of the most gruesome massacres of the Colombian conflict. On February 18, 2000, a paramilitary group rounded up the villagers of El Salado on the soccer court and killed sixty of them over the course of four days. The paramilitaries made sport of their killing, executing every thirtieth person they counted, one of whom was a friend of Carlos, Emilia’s son, who stood next to him as his ear was lopped off and a bag pulled over his head. It gets worse, but you get the idea—and that’s all you need to get.
While Emilia is forthright about her experiences of political violence, she is reticent about her family life, using broad strokes to describe major events. She paints an almost unbelievably simple portrait of her marriage: “When I was seventeen, I met my husband, Alberto. He was a cabinetmaker and a carpenter. . . . We never had any problems, no fights, nothing.” Regarding the birth of her first daughter, she says, “In 1977 I got pregnant and had my first daughter. We named her Amelia. I was so happy, because having a child is the most precious thing. My husband celebrated by partying for two days.”
While the narratives in the collection are far from uniform, many gloss like Emilia’s over material that might be deemed—whether by the interviewer, by the interviewee, or both—irrelevant for the presumed aim of the book. It’s that material that Cárdenas takes up as his subject matter. His doing so is not a critique of oral history in and of itself. Rather, his critique is of the relation between trauma and narrative as it figures in this particular oral history project and in plenty of fiction: provide a stable sense of self, directly depict trauma, and establish a clear link between said trauma and said self.
Cárdenas has been more low-key than I in his critique of Voice of Witness, but he lets loose when speaking on trauma in general. He is fueled by a hatred for the “automatisms of trauma.” In a January interview as bizarre and geometrical as Aphasia, he speaks of this hatred:
As soon as I hear that dreadful word [trauma], henceforth to be replaced with the word demipenteract [a partly effaced cube in five dimensions], I see a hand with ruler & pencil drawing a straight line between demipenteract and present dramatic circumstances, and I hear a voice, stylized for your pleasure—it’s not self-help it’s literature, doctor—that explains the sadness of the demipenteracted.
This formal aggression feels like a break from the author of The Revolutionaries, who, when asked why he included untranslated Spanish in The Revolutionaries, spoke of doing so as an act of resistance against English-language supremacists, “a small pebble thrown at the forces of evil,” in solidarity with fellow Latin Americans in the US. No! This is a refashioned Cárdenas, newly skeptical, claiming that his earlier words about the politics of including Spanish in The Revolutionaries were “Latin American kitsch.” If Latin American kitsch means “emphasizing 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,” then Throwing Stones at the Moon is Latin American kitsch, too.
Not that the narrator of Aphasia is exempt from the eternally sticky question of narrative appropriation. As much as a novel about a man who becomes a sugar daddy would seem to be about masculinity (Pola Oloixarac calls it a “comeback of the Self in a spiraling trip into contemporary manhood”), Aphasia just as well breaches the self—or rather, reveals the extent to which that self is constructed through others—in a spiraling trip into contemporary womanhood. In his repeated interviews with the women in his life, Antonio faces the same ethical conundrum as any oral historian, namely the role of the historian in shaping the subject’s account of herself. Cárdenas is keenly aware of Antonio’s role as (dis)possessor and inscribes it into the accounts themselves: “why are you asking me these questions are you going to write about this, Dora said”; “are you recording me don’t record me let me see your phone, Antonio’s sister said.” Antonio authors himself by authoring “his” women.
Why give us the women’s voices as testimonies filtered through Antonio? Why not narrate them directly? Why not, for instance, quote their own writing, as it quotes Antonio’s? J. M. Coetzee, a novelist whom Cárdenas, for all his riotous referentiality, does not cite except for in a passing insult, asks a similar question of Austerlitz. Questioning the formal structure of the book, wherein a narrator documents the monologues of Austerlitz, Coetzee asks why the narration could not have been done by Austerlitz himself. Coetzee’s answer: Austerlitz is Jewish, and the narrator is not:
The story we read in Austerlitz is the story of a man [the narrator] being told the story of the Holocaust—more specifically, a story of trying and failing to repress the Holocaust, of trying and failing to put it (pack it away) in the history books. To the extent that the Holocaust is not part of the living present of the narrator, “Austerlitz” is the narrator’s repressed, a repressed that returns to haunt him.
Aphasia, meanwhile, is the story of a son being told the story of his father’s violence—more specifically, the story of trying and failing to pack it away. To the extent that the father’s violence is not a part of the living present of the narrator, the women in Antonio’s life are his repressed, a repressed that returns to haunt him. After seeing “Krapp’s Last Tape” with a woman named Silvina, he says, “Krapp should have recorded her instead of himself talking about her,” to which Silvina replies, “you think Krapp could withstand hearing her voice directly, Antonio?” And so it follows that Antonio’s mission to withstand hearing their voices directly, in an effort to both quell his loneliness and drown out his inner monologue, to succeed at self-omission, only forces him to confront his father’s legacy, and his own.