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.


“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


“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

Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas

  • Coffee House Press 2020

    Translated by Lizzie Davis

    New paperback

    124 pages