Between California and Colombia, the internet becomes home

In ‘Aphasia,’ Mauro Javier Cárdenas explores the liminal spaces of divided language, place and family.

 

In the mid-1990s, the Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet began championing a globalized, hyper-modern literary sensibility he called McOndo. Rather than pulling from the myths and folklore that influenced well-known writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, McOndo united Latin American writers who drew inspiration from pop culture and mass media. In a 2001 essay titled “Magical Neoliberalism,” Fuguet wrote that the word McOndo “began as a joke, a spoof of García Márquez’s magical and invented town of Macondo,” the setting of One Hundred Years of Solitude. In Macondo, history was doomed to repeat itself, often through surreal or enchanted means. But in McOndo writing, history hurtles forward. Fuguet and his cohort embraced a “global, mixed, diverse, urban 21st century Latin America” — a fast-paced, vibrant setting, written in colloquial language and symbolized by airports, movie theaters and malls.

In 2020, the internet is, arguably, the most McOndo place imaginable: global and diverse, “hectic and unmanageable,” the stuff of science fiction turned into unavoidable reality. Online, we can project ourselves into new spaces, test-drive new ideas and identities. Transnational existence becomes a possibility, connecting us in spirit to loved ones across borders — a gift, if sometimes a painful one. As Fuguet puts it, the internet is “more than magical.” And if the internet is McOndo, then the Ecuadorian writer Mauro Javier Cárdenas’ excellent second novel, Aphasia, updates Fuguet’s turn-of-the-millennium ideas for the internet age — and an era of booming migration.

Cárdenas grew up in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and attended Stanford in California, where he still lives. He writes in English, but Aphasia uses occasional Spanish, and its spirit is one of blending and border collapse. Cárdenas contains this in a narrow plot: The protagonist, Antonio, is a Los Angeles-based data analyst and aspiring author struggling to keep his relationships on track while searching for his sister, Estela, who vanished after a schizophrenic break. Estela’s disappearance and reappearance are Aphasia’s main plot points; between them, the narrative shuttles between Antonio’s Californian present and his childhood in Bogotá, Colombia. Many novels have multiple settings and timelines, but in Aphasia, the jumps are constant. A single sentence — and Cárdenas’s sentences tend to be long — can start in present-day L.A., hop back a month, then pivot without warning to 1980s Bogotá.

This mixing of space and time is, astonishingly, neither confusing nor frustrating to read. Rather, it feels familiar. Reading Aphasia bears similarities to the split reality of living on- and offline. It also echoes the deeper divide of existing between countries, establishing roots in a new place while tending to connections in an old one. Antonio infuses his speech with phrases borrowed from his data-services job, as well as with bits of Spanish. He conceives of himself as “simultaneously existing in Bogotá (and) inside a cubicle in the financial district of Los Angeles” — a physically impossible life, perhaps, but, in the 21st century, a kind lived by many in the United States, especially in California.

As befits a novel set partly online and using internet-derived language, Aphasia takes little interest in the physical aspects of life. Aphasia is set primarily in Los Angeles, but aside from its Hollywood-esque self-mythologizing impulses and references to vaguely hippie practices like “constellation therapy,” it could take place anywhere in the urban U.S. Antonio, like his creator, cares little for the off-screen world; “the outside world,” he comments, “barely exists for (me) in retrospect.”

It echoes the deeper divide of existing between countries, establishing roots in a new place while tending to connections in an old one.

No wonder, then, that he relies on technology to carry him back to Bogotá. Like many emigrants, Antonio depends on family members to tether him to home, but it is his iPhone that lets him figuratively travel there. He imagines trips to Colombia by listening to recordings of his mom, who is also in the U.S., reminiscing about her old life. Cárdenas presents these voice memos in chatty, naturalistic dialogue, providing a valuable companion to Antonio’s internet-infused narration. At one point, Antonio recalls a writing teacher who advised him “against writing sentences that seemed to contain two or more sentences from two or more narratives at once.” Cárdenas himself shirks this fictional character’s advice, presenting these liminal, technological spaces as the site of real, reliable connection — and, therefore, perhaps the most important landscape in Antonio’s life.

 

In the internet age, many people tell more than one story about themselves, or lead more than one life at once. This is true for teenagers who hide parts of themselves at home but express them online; it’s often true for internet trolls; and, until we have a COVID-19 vaccine, it will be true for many whose work is deemed inessential. It can be especially true for anyone who lives, like Antonio, between countries, cultures or languages. Aphasia is a novelistic portrait of the internet’s ability to help us elide geographical and personal borders. It dramatizes our growing ability to occupy multiple narratives at once — and proves that literature itself can do the same.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator from Washington, D.C. Her criticism appears online in the Atlantic, The New Yorker, NPR Books, the Poetry Foundation, Public Books and more. Her translation of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s Little Bird: Stories is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2021. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

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