Born in Ecuador, Mauro Javier Cardenas planned to return home after receiving an education in the United States, with the intention of changing the political environment there.
Ultimately, he is compelled by the allure of their youthful idealism, as though by some mysterious force he wants to but cannot deny.
Told in winding sentences propelled by interjections and an almost manic energy, The Revolutionaries Try Again is both ambitious and irreverent, its language as suffused with childhood jest as with profound, urgent questions of purpose.
Cardenas will read from the book as part of Litquake, the 17th annual literary festival that will run Oct. 6-15. Sponsored by The Chronicle, Litquake will present an immense range of topics by roughly 800 authors at 200 events, from conversations between the likes of Michelle Tea and Daniel Handler to readings by first-time novelists Yaa Gyasi and Emma Cline, and panels that range from “New Normal: The Politics of Parenting” to “Equality or Progress: Urban Development in the Bay Area.”
At a coffee shop in Hayes Valley, wearing all black but for a colorful T-shirt and scarf, and holding a motorcycle helmet, Cardenas looks like a bohemian rock star. His dark shades complement a head full of black curls, and he has a serious but animated disposition, ready to laugh in an instant.
Cardenas started his novel more than 12 years ago, toward the end of the dot-com boom. He recalls people waiting in long lines for coffee, expecting to get rich.
“My friends and I would get a lot of pride out of thinking, ‘Oh, we’re different, because we care about the arts,’” he said. “We would just make fun of what was happening.”
But intentions only go so far. In Cardenas’ novel, before Leopoldo beckons him home, Antonio justifies his vanished impulse to return to Ecuador with his discovery of Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf and Alexander Scriabin.
“What are the things that you create for yourself in order not to do what we should be doing?” Cardenas asked. “Antonio creates all these kinds of visions of himself in order to think that he’s doing something when he’s not.”
The author has few such illusions. “I did not set out to write the book to say this will have a political impact,” he said. “I set out very specifically with the goal of creating a weird object that was unique to me.”
To Cardenas, “literature has no role in politics. Literature should be about doing weird things and creating strange objects that didn’t exist before.
“At the same time, I also believe the things we read have an impact on us,” he said. “Now, whether or not we read about the injustices of the world, and that makes any difference — I’m a little bit skeptical. I think the world of literature is slower in many ways; it’s about creating a space for thinking deeply about the world. … It becomes part of our lives, and it can have an impact; it’s just much slower.”
Cardenas explains the place of his own life within the world of the novel as part of a stew: “You have a stew, you’re putting things into the stew, and some of it is your autobiography, some of it is what you read, what you heard — all of this gets combined, and what’s alive on the page is what goes in.”
After graduating with, as he says, “a degree in econ and no idea what to do with my life,” Cardenas enrolled at UC Berkeley Extension, seeking out topics that would interest him. He took a writing course, and came across the novel “Hopscotch,” by Julio Cortázar. “My thinking was, fiction might be the place where I can amalgamate everything that I know.”
At Litquake, he will participate in a tribute to Cortázar, along with Stephen Kessler, Lewis Buzbee, Silvia Oviedo-López and Katherine Silver. They will discuss the late Argentine author’s life and read from his work at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 at Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., San Francisco.
Because there are roughly 10 Litquake events a night, the festival often receives complaints that there are too many options — for instance, Cardenas is also reading as part of “Global Fiction: Litquake’s International Night,” which, he points out, overlaps with a conversation between Claudia Rankine and Sarah Ladipo Manyika.
“The writing landscape has changed here,” Jack Boulware, festival co-founder, said by phone. “There are not the complete off-the-grid-type writers and spoken-word artists that used to be here — it’s too expensive for that kind of stuff to continue.
“But there are a lot of people who bounce around from job to job, and are kind of bohemian in their outlook on what a career path should be, or what their long-term goals are. They seem to still want to go see cool things, and be inspired by cool things.”
Litquake co-founder Jane Ganahl added that although they have tried to scale back the festival, “each year there are more organizations that want to be part of it; each year there are more authors.”
“That’s where things like Litquake become important,” Cardenas said. “Litquake’s a ritual. It’s a ritual in which people who love books gather. And I think that ritual becomes a way of sustaining ourselves while the city is going through all these changes.”
Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones