Book Review: Ornamental

by Kit Maude

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” James Joyce’s protagonist famously says in Ulysses. Reading Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas, a rising star on the Colombian literary scene, one begins to suspect that he took Stephen Dedalus’s statement about history quite literally. Goodness knows that Colombian history has its fair share of nightmares (what country’s doesn’t?), and many find their way into this sparkling novella, explicitly or otherwise.

The novel begins with the personal notes of a pharmaceutical scientist as he tests out a new drug on four female subjects. The opening scene is nightmarish, even before one begins to consider the personality of the scientist or the setting: a converted hacienda, both functional and idyllic, evoking The Island of Doctor Moreau or Gregory Peck’s colonial headquarters in The Boys from Brazil. The book quickly assumes an episodic format, alternating the observations of the callous, misogynistic doctor with the vivid hallucinations/memories of subject “number 4” while on the drug (which, apparently nullified by testosterone, only works on women). As the relationship between the pair develops, Cárdenas begins to introduce other characters and themes: the scientist’s wife, a conceptual sculptor who eventually plays a willing part in a ménage à trois, the owners of the laboratory, bald twins who at one point turn up with spider monkeys to act as security guards at the facility, and descriptions of the architecture in the unnamed but recognizably Colombian city, against a foreboding backdrop full of surreal tableaux and imagery. In spite of the scientist’s calm demeanor and smug satisfaction with his lot in life (like an artist, he reflects, he can invent new drugs at his leisure), violence and disaster never seem far away, although when they hit, it turns out that we’ve been misdirected all along; the real horror, in this story at least, is both graphic and right under our noses.

Taking his lead from contemporary Latin American greats such as César Aira or Mario Bellatin, in Ornamental, Cárdenas presents the reader with a dense but vivid series of reflections about art and its relationship with society and politics, as well as the damage that patriarchal society habitually wreaks upon women. When the scientist’s wife says that graffiti they see from their car window should be erased, is she expressing an aesthetic opinion or yearning for an act of cultural violence? What are the tangible effects of the enormous pressure placed on the female form throughout the history of art? How does capitalist greed distort the simple desire to pursue happiness? In keeping with this approach, Cárdenas has no qualms about asking readers to disregard their expectations of a conventional narrative in favor of an appreciation of the series of vivid visual and intellectual set pieces that flow throughout the book, vignettes that combine beauty with the grotesque, tenderness with violence, absurdity with suffering. As he does so, the allusions and references proliferate—it’s an ambitious burden to place on a hundred pages or so of prose, and there are times when it feels heavy-handed or just doesn’t work. The plot line involving gangs of women roaming the streets in search of the wonder drug reads like an afterthought, and there are some issues with the male gaze that could do with further wrestling.

But at its best, Ornamental is exhilarating in its audacity and absorbing in its intellectual vigor, for instance during subject number 4’s extraordinary revelatory monologue toward the end. This is when the translation by Lizzie Davis really comes into its own. Through Davis’s skilled translation, the clear-eyed albeit bizarre stream of consciousness is conveyed with a flow and lightness of touch that could have easily been lost. Davis also provides a useful postscript outlining some of the themes of the novel and exploring the ways Cárdenas uses language to reflect the contrasts in perspective, background, and character of the different protagonists, just as the evolving architecture of the city, with its growing slums and abandoned office towers, tells a story of its own.

The theme of surface transformation, painting over indigenous carvings with religious imagery, or quite literally changing one’s skin with plastic surgery, recurs throughout the text. It is summed up by the colonial refrain, “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” which is repeated by subject number 4 several times. In Cárdenas’s Ornamental, however superficial such transformations might appear, their consequences run nightmarishly deep.

Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and in addition to The Coachella Review writes book reviews for ÑOtra Parte, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today.