Crooked Symmetry: Cárdenas’s «Ornamental»

Crooked Symmetry: Cárdenas’s Ornamental, translated from the Spanish by Lizzie Davis

by Sevinç Türkkan

Ornamental coverCárdenas, Juan. Ornamental, trans. from the Spanish by Lizzie Davis. Coffee House, 2020, $16.95, 124 pages. ISBN 978-1-56689-580-4

I came across Juan Cárdenas’s Ornamental when the PEN literary awards committee sent me a folder of 205 e-books to evaluate as part of my jury duty for the 2021 PEN Translation Award. The list was hefty and rich, featuring translations from across 25 languages and by some very prominent writers and translators. As I began scrolling through the titles assigned to me, patiently reading each against the award criteria and narrowing down to a longlist, the herculean task became more manageable. I nominated Lizzie Davis’s translation of Ornamental by the Colombian writer Juan Cárdenas. Davis has skillfully captured the spare and economical prose, navigated masterfully the shifts in stylistic registers, and made creative word choices without letting the reader forget for a moment that the book’s nightmare is Colombian and universal at the same time. 

First published in 2015 in Spain, Cárdenas’s Ornamental is a pointed critique of late capitalism incarnated in today’s manipulative pharmaceutical industry, of rapid modernization in postcolonial contexts, and of facile arts. It showcases the impact of economic exploitation on the human body and desire, and probes the complicity of arts, architecture, philosophy, and language in capitalism’s crooked dynamics. The novel’s explicit focus is the exploitation of blue-collar women in Colombia. By the end of the novel, nobody is immune to this disenfranchisement. 

“Ornamental” means decorative, “adding beauty and attractiveness,” and applies to “things that are decorative rather than essential; adornments, embellishments” (OED). The translator leaves us with an elusive adjective in the English title, perhaps suggestive of the nameless drug at the heart of the novel that both represses and induces unrest. The Spanish ornamento is a masculine noun for ornament and ornamentation, for molding in architecture, and is suggestive of moral quality and vestment for clergy. Not surprisingly, Cárdenas’s novel develops all these aspects of the word into interrelated and overlapping thematic threads. The reader needs to carefully trail the insidious green hue across the pages of the novel to understand the “crooked symmetry.”

In an interview, Cárdenas tells us that after he spent 16 years in Spain, he returned to his home country Colombia and settled in Bogotá, a city whose architecture he describes as a mix of old and new, and a reflection of modernity in Latin America. This architecture becomes a mise en scène for his initial idea to write a novel about an ecstatic drug that affects only women. Cárdenas’s interest in architecture and literature as art forms susceptible to exploitative ideologies is supported by the epigraphs that preface the novel. The first is by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos and the second by the Colombian poet Leon de Greiff. Although both modernists, Loos condemns ornament in architecture while de Greiff flaunts stylistic devices in poetry. Essentially a metacommentary, these two epigraphs subtly set the stage for a novel that enacts the art’s potential to mask exploitation.

A doctor, his wife (an artist), a former colonial hacienda converted into a modern pharmaceutical lab, four drug test participants (numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4), upper management, dog and monkey guardians, a henchman, cocaine parties, art industry people, the city, taxi drivers, dangerous neighborhoods, and “Colombian women” populate the narrative. Nobody has a name; some are just numbers. They could be anybody, at any place subject to late capitalist exploitation.  

The novel opens with the arrival of four drug test subjects, all women and of “inferior classes,” to a well-protected lab in the outskirts of a nameless Colombian city. While three of the subjects fall asleep upon the injection of the drug, number 4 remains awake and delivers surreal monologues. The doctor finds it “useful” to transcribe them and wonders whether these are “memory or a senseless-drug-induced invention.” Number 4 describes the first monologue, a dreamlike narrative about a self-indulging mother, as “what happened at her mother’s house a few weeks ago.” Subsequent transcriptions suggest parental abuse, refer to a period of post-colonial violence and civil unrest in Colombian history, quote Hernán Cortés’s colonization mantra, “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” and subtly mock the impact of abortion laws on working-class women in Colombia, the “conflict between faith and reason.” Ultimately, the transcriptions reveal a female body trapped in domestic, colonial, nationalist, and religious exploitation, and now, as a volunteer test subject on a stipend, exploited by late capitalism.

The asymmetrical structure of the novel is itself a comment on and critique of expectations for artificial symmetry in literature. The novel consists of four sections (“Grace,” “Economy 1,” “Economy 2,” “Crooked Symmetry”) each of uneven chapters that become shorter and more nightmarish as the narrative progresses. “Grace” reveals the callous conditions under which the drug is developed and tested. The narrative ingeniously juxtaposes the formal, rational, orderly, almost classicist discourse of the medical establishment with the poetic and spontaneous recollections by number 4. In the second section, the drug turns out a huge profit for the establishment as it creates riots and heavyweight disturbance in the slums. A band of “Colombian women” addicted to the drug organize riots and sack suppliers. The doctor’s lousy marriage to his artist wife turns into a “shipwreck.” The third section, “Economy 2: What Number 4 Said When No One Was Listening,” is a dream-like narrative of matricide. Finally, in a section of a series of nightmares, the doctor confronts his conscience in spite of his reason.

A master of the minimalist style, Cárdenas is also an astute art critic. Pointed descriptions of incongruous modern settings are at the heart of his narrative: the sterile lab, its manicured garden, the city’s tall buildings, the rational corporate offices, the cold art gallery, the streets at night, the slums down south, the rural neighborhoods. The newly refurbished lab combines the colonial style of an old hacienda with functional hallways and modern lab premises: “The end result is a kind of great montage that allows one to pass, with the mere opening of a door, from the stately austerity of the big plantation house to an industrial front room that feels something like a gigantic warren.” The doctor’s words succinctly summarize the impact of rapid transition from the colonial era to industrialism in Colombia, each exploiting the natives in its own right. The comparison of the lab to a warren cannot be more fitting.

For the doctor’s wife, the aloof artist, “meaning is an accident, a surplus. The only thing that really matters is geometry.” A graffitied wall with political messages is “garbage,” “monstrosity,” “poor porn.” Once the drug leaves his lab, the triumphant doctor calls himself “an artist just as [his wife] does.” Emboldened by the drug’s market success, the doctor calls his work new feminist, egalitarian, democratic, surpassing class barriers: “Because my art, unlike my wife’s, doesn’t just unite the intellectual elite. My art is for everyone, for anyone, no previous study required, nor gifted interpreters of some hermetic language, no liturgy. The only field of legitimization is the market. Or, to be precise, the body and the market.” 

The body, indeed! This body is not only that of Number 4, though. The doctor’s body and mind suffer equally. The novel ends with the doctor’s transcriptions of a series of his own nightmares:

[…] the garden at the foot of the lab’s colonial façade […] Every leaf the shape and size of a mask, as if in answer to the row of four identically stoic owls gathered on the branches. The owls appear to whisper among themselves as they watch, watch over the promenade, like the owls in the old stories who warn or threaten or bear an ill-fated message. But on closer inspection, I realize the owls are simply devouring the fruit of the tree, a fruit that’s brown on the outside and a shrill orange inside, fleshy like a mammee or a sapote. One of the half-eaten fruits falls at my feet. I pick it up to examine it and notice that there are fragments inside, bits of nail, hair, teeth encrusted in orange flesh. I begin to pull them out with my fingers and that’s when I realize they’re not external to the fruit but part of the fruit itself. Another day I dreamed that hunger drove me to devour the fruit, which tasted the way food gone bad in the refrigerator smells. Another, I dreamed the fruits fell to the ground and, once there, began to writhe like hairy rats, and then the owls feasted, falling upon their prey, which when seized by the predators, let out piercing shrieks. The only thing that carries over from one version to the next is the end of the nightmare, the terrifying image that always ruptures the dream: number 4 emerges from behind the tree, fruit in hand, and walks towards me, smiling.

By the end of the novel, the doctor’s rational language begins to resemble that of number 4. In a novel of no redemption, perhaps the only winner is poetic discourse. 

I read translated literature to connect with my linguistic others, to get out of my skin, and see the world through the eyes of those I may never meet otherwise. Cárdenas’s novel and Davis’s translation did just that for me. Davis has masterfully rewritten Cárdenas’s novel in English and contributed to the circulation of Spanish-Colombian literature in English translation. As the editor of Coffee House Press which published Ornamental, Davis enjoys the opportunity to be visible: her name is on the cover of the translation, her bio follows that of the author’s, and her 3-page commentary is appended at the end of the book. This is Coffee House’s bold and generous gesture of celebrating works in translation and translators. I join them in this celebration!

Sevinç Türkkan teaches comparative literature and translation studies at Oberlin College. Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Places by the Turkish writer, journalist, and human rights activist Aslı Erdoğan was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

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