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Juan Cárdenas: Ornamento (Ornamental)

This novel is set at some unspecified time in a not too distant future in an unnamed Colombian city. Something called The Violence had taken place, defined as when the struggle between liberals and conservatives obliged the latter to take desperate measures to thwart the spread of idolatry, communism, and freemasonry. What was involved and the outcome are not discussed. We know that there are still guerrillas but then there are guerrillas anyway in Colombia at the present time. We get a description of the centre: the buildings in the old financial centre, which are now no more than forsaken relics of late-fifties Creole functionalism. The point is that things have changed but the whys and wherefores are not terribly important. What is important is that drugs appear to be legal, helped by suitable bribery to Congress.

None of the characters are named. Our narrator works for a drug company and they are developing a new drug and testing it on four women, known only as No 1 No 2, No 3 and No 4. No 4 will play a major role in the book but she remains nameless. The drug comes from a flower in the genus Datura commonly used by rural women in the cordillera to make artisanal soaps. It was noted that it had an effect on the women washing their clothes so it has been developed and is now being tested. Interestingly, it only seems to have an effect on women as testosterone seems to dull its effects.

Our narrator had given a sample to the four women. The first three fell asleep though all later reported to have experienced considerable pleasure. No 4 stayed awake and had talked non-stop. No 4’s utterances are key to this book and, throughout the entire novel, will continually interject into the narrative. She had dropped out of college but seems highly educated and knowledgeable – self-educated, she claims – and is now a single mother, bringing up her son

One thing she talks about a lot is her mother, who seems to have had a lot of plastic surgery, which has left her both hairless but also with highly sensitive skin. As a result she needs creams gently rubbed into her at various intervals and it seems to be her grandson who does this, rubbing the cream into his naked grandmother.

We will follow the progress of the drug, as it is developed and marketed. If you’re sad, it makes you happy. If you’re too wound up, it calms you down, if you need energy, it gives you some. It’s a dangerous drug because it gives you what you need, always, a smart drug that can fill in for anything, meet any desire. It could satisfy anyone.

Demand becomes so great that there are riots as women try to get it, with heavy-handed police repression.

Our narrator is married to an artist (she is known only as his wife). She likes drugs, too, though cocaine is her drug of choice and, early, in the book, it gives her tachycardia and a spell in hospital. However, she is happy to try his drug and, indeed, takes both the new drug and cocaine. The couple have no children and a fairly open marriage. She had an affair with a young man writing his graduate thesis on her work, and our narrator says he did not care. No 4 is now brought into the mix. Indeed, our narrator even considers leaving his wife for No 4, though a threesome takes place first.

Her art is criticised (This woman believes she can create an artistic masterwork simply by taking refuge within her refined (read rarefied) taste, but in the end, comme ci, comme ça.) She is very hurt by a review of her latest exhibition. Despite this, the architect of the building where our narrator works (the bald man) regularly buys her work.

For Cárdenas, it is clear that pleasure, but only surface pleasure, is what counts. The thing is what dies, the thing is what’s spent, what erodes, and from there, the useless sensation of beauty, the ornamental effect, what lasts, the living fossil of action. Because there’s no thing without action. The clue is in the title and the quotation from Austrian architect Adolf Loos. Loos wrote an essay called Ornament and Crime that criticised ornaments in useful objects. No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level … Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength”.

Cárdenas has gone a bit further, criticising useless ornamentation, such as the narrator’s wife’s art, good taste, as well as cheap thrills, such as drugs. We see this towards the end, when the narrator and his wife escape towards the country, reconnect with nature and admire unknown petroglyphs, now defaced by Christian iconography.

This is certainly an interesting addition to the ever-growing amount of Latin American books with a dystopian edge to them. It is clear that, with all the problems Latin America faces, writers there are at the forefront of seeing how and why the world is going wrong and where it might lead. The result is invariably not pretty.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Editorial Periférica
First English translation 2020 by Coffee House Press
Translated by Lizzie Davis