A novel by Juan Cardenas, translated by Lizzie Davis
June 2, 2020 • 5 x 7.75 • 144 pages • 978-1-56689-580-4
The lives of a doctor, his wife, and his patient collide, laying bare the political and personal narratives they have carefully constructed for themselves.
A doctor recruits volunteers for the trial of a new recreational drug that exclusively affects women. Among them is “number 4,” who becomes emotionally involved with first the scientist, then his wife, a well-known visual artist in the midst of a creative crisis. The scientist is oblivious to the atrocities his new drug will bring to the city; his wife is oblivious to the superfluousness of the objects she has committed her life to exhibiting in galleries and museums. Number 4’s presence pierces the couple’s complacency, gradually undoing the many certainties they’ve accumulated in their lives of ease.
About the Author
Juan Cárdenas (1978) is a Colombian art critic, curator, translator, and author of the novels Zumbido (451 Editores, 2010; Periférica, 2017), Los estratos (Periférica, 2013), Ornamento (Periférica, 2015), Tú y yo, una novelita rusa (Cajón de sastre, 2016) and El diablo de las provincias (Periférica, 2017). He is also the author of the short story collection Carreras delictivas (451 Editores, 2008). He has translated the works of such writers as William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Gordon Lish, David Ohle, J. M. Machado de Assis, and Eça de Queirós. In 2014, his novel Los estratos received the Otras Voces Otros Ámbitos Prize. In May 2017, he was named one of the thirty-nine best Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine by the Hay Festival in Bogotá. Cárdenas currently coordinates the masters program in creative writing at the Caro y Cuervo Institute in Bogotá, where he works as a professor and researcher.
About the Translator
Lizzie Davis is a translator from Spanish to English and editor at Coffee House Press. Her recent projects include works by Pilar Fraile Amador, Daniela Tarazona, and Elena Medel, and her co-translation of Medel's Las maravillas with Thomas Bunstead is forthcoming from Pushkin Press. She has received fellowships from the Omi International Arts Center and the Breadloaf Translators' Conference in support of her translations.
Praise for Ornamental
Finalist for the 2021 PEN Translation Award
“With pitch-black comedy, Ornamental, nimbly translated by Lizzie Davis, channels the ways that egomaniacs in science and art—in any field—rise to the top, up the pyramid of capitalism. . . . [T]he rhythm of Cárdenas’s writing compels and reassures, as if driven by the very humanity the lab has helped suppress.” —Nathan Scott McNamara, The New York Times
“[A] work of subtlety and restraint. . . . What makes Ornamental so deeply affecting, however, is not that its pages come together to form a beautiful work of exterior art—though it does—but its ability to cast unease on our interior worlds. . . . Brilliantly executed and cleverly translated, Ornamental leaves us with a fresh understanding of the creation of art and the nature of meaning-making.” —Dashiel Carrera, Los Angeles Review of Books
“In his thrilling novel Ornamental, Colombian art critic, translator, curator, and renowned author Juan Cárdenas masterfully tells the tale of the junction of an experimenting doctor, his wife, and his subsidized voluntary narcotic patient. . . . [E]xpertly translated by seasoned editor Lizzie Davis.” —Ellie Simon, World Literature Today
“In spare and economical prose, Cárdenas sketches a highly stratified world, where drugs link high society and neighborhoods that are 'a single crush of old houses and ruins'. . . . the overall effect offers both thrills and chills.” —Publishers Weekly
“[An] absurdist critique of class inequality. . . . Cárdenas also dabbles in art criticism and curation and uses that knowledge to acidic effect in a social drama that borders on the phantasmagorical. . . . with captivating moments.” —Kirkus
“This is the first of Cárdenas’s novels to be translated into English, with hopefully more to come, as he’s a supremely talented and original writer. Ornamental is a strange, dystopian tale about medical trials, in which a doctor studies women addicted to a mysterious recreational drug. Drugs will sadly always be associated with Colombia, but Cardenas’s surreal examination of addiction and compulsion is a unique and necessary contribution to the conversation.” —Julianne Pachico, The Guardian
“[A]n exhilarating, slippery narrative where the reader knows much truth can be found, if only they can figure out how to decipher it. . . .Cárdenas’s prose is economical yet lyrical; many of his images are veritable objets d’art. . . . Lizzie Davis has done a spectacular job rendering Cárdenas’s novel in English.” —Gillian Esquivia-Cohen, Kenyon Review
“A pointed critique of late capitalism incarnated in today’s manipulative pharmaceutical industry, of rapid modernization in postcolonial contexts, and of facile arts. [Ornamental] 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. 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.” —Sevinç Türkkan, Hopscotch Translation
“Cardenas’s narrative style hangs on outlines and sketches that give the short novel an allegorical heft surprising for its slimness. . . .It’s in the unexpected reversal of focus, from the researcher to Number 4, from the moneyed to the impoverished, that Ornamental commits its boldest act and reminds us of the people sacrificed and ignored by the progress of science.” —Sebastian Sarti, Cleveland Review of Books
“This blow-me-over novel, set in a post-narco-baroque Colombia that could be anywhere, begins with a medical study of women committed to ingesting, in exchange for payment, an experimental and addictive recreational drug. Their dreams go strange, serving as a kind of litmus which registers lurid abscesses in a class-and-youth-obsessed society and in what we mistook to be the women’s ordinary lives. Soon, prophetic graffiti appears on walls around the city. Juan Cárdenas is masterful in his rendering of dreamy dreams, in his evocation of workplace psychology, in his urge to keep shifting the structure of his narrative even while he consistently delivers a prose so energetic, restless, and particular that its astonishing poetic qualities—someone ‘threatening pain with extortion,’ someone ‘signing imagined telegrams of dried monkey meat,’ the night recovering, at last, ‘its vulgarity’—don’t give us any pause. And translator Lizzie Davis is the next generation’s Natasha Wimmer, one of our most rewarding and savvy translators from the Spanish.” —Forrest Gander
"In this disquieting dystopia, impeccably translated by Lizzie Davis, the prose of Juan Cárdenas surpasses the beauty promised by the sinister drug of happiness. A very subtle, smart book indeed.” —Alia Trabucco Zerán
“Cárdenas understands the great possibilities available to literary minimalism, taking advantage of them linguistically as well as politically, in careful strokes of theme and plot. A stunning novel about the entitlement of both the pharmaceutical industry and the art world, but also about desire, addiction, excess, and a security team made of spider monkeys. Perhaps the most damning fictional portrait of late capitalism I have ever read, at once absurd and startlingly relevant, Ornamental is a subtle and beautifully written nightmare.” —Brian Evenson
Praise for Juan Cárdenas
“Ornamento is a novel dense in ideas, witty in style, and close to prophetic in its condemnations.” —Nadal Suau, El Cultural
“A novel of high density—in terms of ideas, plot, and language—Ornamento confirms that Juan Cárdenas is one of the most interesting writers working in the Spanish language today.” —Daniel Saldaña París, Tierra Adentro
“Juan Cárdenas has conceived a maddeningly delightful, genuinely literary novel.” —José de María Romero, Revista de Letras
“The novels of Juan Cárdenas suggest that at times we can come close to understanding the terror of history.” —Edmundo Paz Soldán, El boomeran(g)
“Rich in the lyricism and democratic polyphonies that constitute some of the best Latin American literature. Juan Cárdenas’s prose couldn’t be further from predictable literary language.” —Marta Sanz, El confidencial
“With this story, Cárdenas achieves, once again, a detailed description of the Latin American panorama, not by mentioning places or countries, but via the accents and attitudes of his characters.” —Verónica Figueroa, El País
“The atmosphere of the novel ratchets up its unease by degrees, echoed by the dogs, whose initial unsettling barks become the terrifying howls of chained beasts.” —Teresa Lezcano, Sur
“The works of Juan Cárdenas are disturbing and provocative.” —Catalina Holguín Jaramillo, Revista Arcadia