October 2, 2020KR Reviews

Tear down the Icons and Raise the Idols: On Juan Cárdenas’s Ornamental

Translated by Lizzie Davis. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2020. 144 pages. $16.95.

On Good Friday 1519, Hernán Cortés and his men disembarked onto the shores of Chalchihuecan in the Yucatán Peninsula. While the soldiers set up camp, raising the rustic structures they would later use to claim territorial dominion, the ship’s carpenters worked under the direction of the priest to prepare for Easter mass. The local Mexica people watched with amusement as an altar and a cross were erected in the sand, but the equal importance given to shelter and worship was entirely befitting the conquistadors. The official motive of their expedition was not gold, not even land, but religion. They were there to spread Catholicism, “the one truth faith”otherwise, Cortés reasoned, their war against the indigenous nation would be unjust.

As Cortés and his soldiers advanced from the port, he christened Veracruz toward Tenochtitlán, the capital of what is commonly known as the Aztec nation; the Spaniards engaged in double-pronged imperialism, ensuring the colonization of the land through violence and of the people through Catholicism. “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” Cortés preached, according to contemporary chronicles. As they crossed Mexica territory, the Spaniards destroyed temples, idols, and other symbols of indigenous religions, replacing them with crosses and icons of the Virgin Mary.

Religion may no longer be the powerful’s preferred tool of domination, but Cortés’s method of controlling the masses through ideology is still in use. Juan Cárdenas explores the ideologies that colonize our minds today in Ornamental, a captivating novel that suggests capitalism is now our one true faith.

Ornamental is a novel about drugs, but not the kind North American readers expect from a Colombian author. There is no Pablo Escobar, no Medellín Cartel, no hired assassins, or mules or mansions. Instead, there is an unnamed doctor, a respectable, upper class man working in a modern scientific lab. He takes relaxing walks around the grounds in the company of dogs and monkeys, like Saint Francis of Assisi in a lab coat, and spends his evenings partying with his wife and her friends. The drug he produces is recreational, effective only on women, and he fancies himself an artist whose work is democratic, bringing artificial joy and well-being to women of all social strata.

His delusion of contributing to some democratic ideal seems laughable till the repressive implications of his work become apparent. The novel’s unnamed city suffers enormous wealth disparities, and the first section of the book is rife with signs of lower-class unrest. An uprising seems imminent. “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” says test subject number 4 in one of her drug-induced monologues at the lab. “The revenge of the idols. The Great Revenge. The dismemberment of the icons at the hand of the idol incarnate.” Instead of curing society’s ills, the doctor cleaves to the privileges afforded by his place in what he considers the natural social order. The drug he produces is a palliative, a shot of morphine to ease the pain of the marginalized and keep them complacent. This seems to work, until he invites working class number 4 into his private life.

Number 4 is a transgressive figure even when safely confined in the lab. While the three other blue-collar test subjects sleep under the effects of early versions of the drug, she remains awake to deliver surreal monologues about borders and rules and how she defies them. Her discoursesthose recorded in the lab and the one given its own chapter, “What Number 4 Said When No One Was Listening”are transgressive in both content and structure. In sharp contrast to the orderly observations and judgements of the doctor, who neatly segments his story into numbered chapters, Number 4 delivers labyrinthian discourses that seem to begin in the middle of some greater story never fully defined. These monologues mix fragments of memories and observations of contemporary reality with references to distant historical events (such as the Spanish conquest and the indigenous resistance) and more recent struggles between oligarchs and populists fighting for the disenfranchised. The result is an exhilarating, slippery narrative where the reader knows much truth can be found, if only they can figure out how to decipher it. The doctor does; the glass walls of his comfortable life crack.

Cárdenas’s prose is economical yet lyrical; many of his images are veritable objets d’art. The doctor’s description of test subject Number 2 illustrates the interplay between these elements:

It’s the first time I notice her face, marred by who knows how many crude cosmetic procedures: lips like sausages, the nose of a teacup pig, layers of makeup applied as if with a spatula. There’s so much movement there, so many undulations, that for a few seconds, in the semidarkness of the room, the borders of her face appear to melt like colored candles. That face: pure excess, a blaze of intentions, spending for spending’s sake, rampant adornment. At moments a certain effect of the light bestows a sudden velocity upon the whole, like watching two tropical birds mate in a cage.

The doctor’s disgust is vividly and poetically rendered while still squarely anchored in a classist critique of the excessive ornamentation of the lower classes who strive (and fail) to attain the grace of the elite. The doctor, of course, would never fall into lyric adornment simply for the beauty of the image or a word’s sound. As he himself says later on, all ornament has a purpose. Here, his ornamentation, applied in the name of scientific description and in the best of taste, serves to contrast Number 2’s “rampant adornment.”

Lizzie Davis has done a spectacular job rendering Cárdenas’s novel in English. Hers is a careful, thoughtful translation that captures the author’s prose style, and the nuances of socioeconomic class and history embedded in Cárdenas’s language in a way that is both faithful to the original and accessible for readers unfamiliar with the Colombian context. An added bonusher “Translator’s Note” at the end of the bookis an insightful essay on the novel, one that will enrich any reader’s experience of the work, whether they access it in translation or in the original Spanish.

In her “Note,” Davis writes, “On the level of plot, the conflict is won by those wallsby rational, ordered discourse, smooth and functional surfaces, the conditions called for, in this case, by those who hold power. The novel ends not with any comforting resolution but with a return to the vortex of late capitalism. The scales tip back in the direction of privilege, or they never tip away. Evil can be observed but not upended; our irredeemable characters can’t right a world gone wrong.” Maybe so; but perhaps art such as Ornamental can help the reader recognize the ways our minds are colonized. Perhaps it can help us begin to challenge the icons to which we have been made to pray.