A Certain Lucas
Many literary critics writing in English have suggested that the current boom in Latin American fiction was initiated by the publication in English translation of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1966; published in Spanish as Rayuela, 1963). Even though Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz and many of the publications in English of Jorge Luis Borges appeared earlier, it was Cortázar, who died in Paris in February, 1984, who first brought the revolution in Latin American fiction to a wider public.
Indeed, until the extraordinary success of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, published in English in 1970, Cortázar was probably the Latin American writer most familiar to English-speaking audiences. That public was probably more familiar with his work than they realized: The popular Michelangelo Antonioni film Blow-Up (1966) was based on a Cortázar short story first published in the collection Final de juego (1956; End of the Game and Other Stories, 1963). The subsequent reappearance of that volume in a Collier paperback under the title Blow-Up and Other Stories (1967) is evidence of the success of the film and is one of the principal reasons that Cortázar became a writer whose books were sold at the corner newsstand along with detective novels and the Gothic romances.
Most of Cortázar’s work has been in the genre of short story. Even his “novels,” so designated primarily because of their length rather than because of their form, have a strange tendency to look like collections of stories unified by some motif or central character. The short stories of Cortázar that are fairly traditional in form, if not in content—such as those published in English in the collections End of the Game and Other Stories and All Fires the Fire (1973)—are more accessible to a general reading audience than are the novels, which tend to be so abstruse that they discourage any but the most avid readers of intellectualized games of fiction.
Because A Certain Lucas (published in Spain in 1979 as Un tal Lucas) is a collection of short observations on reality, experience, life, and death, and because Lucas, the character whose observations they are, is an Argentine writer living in Paris (as was Cortázar), several reviewers of the novel have suggested that Cortázar intended it to serve as an autobiographical farewell to his readers and fans.
The novel does narrate what seem to be the final observations of the fictional Lucas; whether this Lucas is a disguise for Cortázar is another question, one that is perhaps outside the province of literary criticism. The concern in this fictional world is the fictional character, and his relationship to the creator out there in the historical world is dubious at most. In fact, the dichotomy of fiction and reality, always a perplexing question for critics and reviewers of fiction, is a consideration that enters frequently into the stories and novels of Cortázar. One of his best, and shortest, stories from End of the Game and Other Stories, “Continuity of Parks,” portrays the reader of a novel the fictional reality of which duplicates exactly the “historical” reality of the reader to the point where the assassin of the fictional reader lurking behind his chair is one with the assassin who stalks the reader of the novel.
In many of his fictional works, Cortázar suggests the complications inherent in the curious process of experiencing the world of art, both as creator and as audience. In “Ways of Being Held Prisoner,” one of nineteen short philosophical pieces which form the middle section of A Certain Lucas, Cortázar repeats the tour de force of “Continuity of Parks.” In this piece, he examines the intertwining of fictional and historical reality that occurs as the reader experiences a narrative. In twentieth century Latin American fiction, only Borges has approached Cortázar in the examination of the complexities of the relationship of historical and fictional experience.
Although A Certain Lucas appears to be a series of disjointed observations which blend together to become a complex portrait of a man, Cortázar has imposed on his material a formal organization without intruding on the novel’s appearance of spontaneity. The material is divided into three parts. In the first of the novel’s three parts, there are twelve short observations on the habits and thoughts of Lucas, primarily in a third-person narrative form. The second part is made up of nineteen sections which present, in a first-person confessional tone, the unnamed narrator’s satiric view of reality. The third part is again a narrative of Lucas’ day-to-day activities, divided into twelve sections primarily in third-person narrative and a thirteenth section—“Lucas, His Long Marches”—in the first-person style of the middle section of the novel.
Thus, the text offers two perspectives on Lucas. Lucas, the narrator, objectifies himself in the twelve sections of the first part and the first twelve sections of the last part, speaking most of the time about Lucas, though occasionally shifting to a first-person form. The narrator speaks for himself in the nineteen sections of the second part and in the thirteenth section of the third part. This last section of the novel confirms the reader’s suspicion that the first-person voice of the middle section of the novel is Lucas’ and that the observer of Lucas in the first and last sections is Lucas himself.
The passage on Lucas’ long marches returns symmetrically to the first piece of the novel, “Lucas, His Battles with the Hydra.” His desire to kill the hydra by cutting off its many heads (one for each decade of his life), so that he can go back to being simply Lucas, parallels the final recognition that his long marches toward Margarita, who waits for him in a pink velvet chair on the other side of the city, require crossing the “snail years” that separate them. Light years are nothing compared to the years of his favorite snail, Osvaldo, who continues to inch along toward the goal, the ultimate union with Margarita. Although there is no indication of who Margarita is, whether a woman or a heavenly body such as those separated from the Earth by light years, the passage recalls one of the philosophical observations of the second part—“Love 77”—in which the lovers, after making love, get up and bathe and get dressed, returning to being what they are not. The truth of existence is in the ultimate union, or unity, whether achieved by lovemaking or by eliminating the various heads of the hydra, the habits and preoccupations that adorn and conceal what Lucas is. What this certain Lucas seeks through the introspective narrative, whether as objectified fictional personage or as confessional narrator, is that unity, the “end of a drawn-out wait” which comes only through loving “long and softly.”
A Certain Lucas is more humorous than most of Cortázar’s fiction, but the essential truths of human existence emerge here as in his other works from an innovative combination of observations on the perception of reality and projections of a fantasized, oneiric experience. In his preface to an earlier book, 62: Modelo para armar (1968; 62: A Model Kit, 1972), Cortázar referred to his fiction as an example of “combinatory art.” The integration of the real and the surreal experiences of Lucas is reminiscent of other fictional characters created by Cortázar and of the writings of other authors who practice a kind of combinatory art. The brilliant mythic representation of death and eroticism in Lucas’ “The Direction of the Look” is dedicated to John Barth, while the “News Items in Public Services,” a sketch about a subway car which houses an elegant restaurant, is rendered in “In a Swiftian Mood.”
The blend of the real and the fantastic in the experience of Lucas is portrayed in such a way that the dual perspective of the novel becomes an essential element not only of the narrative technique but also of the fictional reality that is created. The experiences presented in the pieces narrated in the first person are surrealistic visions of goldfishes injected into the veins of willing subjects, seraphim descending from the heavens to alight on the shoulders of a concert singer, and swimmers exercising their art in a pool of gray grits. These fantasies have their origin in the creative mind of old Lucas. In the pieces narrated in the third person, in which Lucas is the object of the observation, the world is more predictable yet seems equally as strange because of the amusing, nonsensical reactions of others to Lucas’ erratic behavior. Even the surrealistic touches are justified as normal, such as the table that lifts one of its legs when everyone has left the lecture room, “as tables always do when they are alone.” In his creation of this fictional world from two points of view, Cortázar manages to elucidate the complexity of experience. Things are never as logical, or as simple, as most people assume that they are. Lucas, naturally, ends up confined in a hospital at the end of the first part and in the eleventh piece of the third part. He is so unpredictable that society feels more secure without the presence of his outrageous opinions and activities.
A Certain Lucas exhibits all the brilliant narrative and formal techniques evident throughout this extraordinary Latin American writer’s work. Here, Cortázar evokes memories of many of his best short stories from the prime of his career—the transmigration of souls in “Distances” and “Axolotl,” the reincarnation of the dead lover in “The Gates of Heaven,” and the ironic inversions of reality in “At Your Service” and “Blow-Up.”
That Antonioni, in his film adaptation of “Blow-Up,” changed significantly the ways in which the distortion of reality occurs in the short story, indicates an essential fact of fictional literature—there are many cases in which the narrative text explores human experience in ways that can only be expressed through the written word. This is certainly true of Cortázar’s fiction. His extraordinary range of narrative techniques and his exploration of the interplay of reality and fantasy create a kind of fictional text that is successful only through the process of reading. The reader constructs this remarkably diverse universe of Lucas’ experience as he reads it, and that process depends both on the stimulus of the text and the imaginative collaboration of the reader.
Through the complicity of Lucas, the narrator, of Lucas, the witness, of Cortázar’s own intricate personality, and of the reader, A Certain Lucas becomes a philosophical text, a comic but profound analysis of what it means to be alive and aware of oneself and one’s environment.
Booklist. LXXX, May 15, 1984, p. 1292.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, March 15, 1984, p. 263.
Library Journal. CIX, May 15, 1984, p. 994.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 27, 1984, p. 3.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 20, 1984, p. 15.
The New Yorker. LX, June 18, 1984, p. 113.
Newsweek. CIV, September 17, 1984, p. 82.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, April 20, 1984, p. 82.
Vogue. CLXXIV, May, 1984, p. 234.
Washington Post Book World. June 24, 1984, p. 4.