Influenced by the European movements of nineteenth century Symbolism and twentieth century Surrealism, Julio Cortázar combines symbols, dreams, and the fantastic with what seems to be an ordinary, realistic situation in order to expose a different kind of reality that exists in the innermost heart and mind of modern human beings. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Cortázar is fascinated by terror. He uses human beings’ worst nightmares to explore which fears control them and how phobias and dreams coexist with seemingly rational thought. Using symbols and metaphors for subconscious obsessions, Cortázar’s short fictions, unlike those of the Surrealists, are carefully constructed. His journey into the irrational is not a free-flowing adventure; rather, it is a study of a particular corner of the mind that is common to all people.
“Bestiary,” an early story published in 1951, contains many of the elements of poesy and mystery that are characteristic of the nineteenth century Symbolists so admired by Cortázar. The story is told by a child whose scope of understanding and point of view are limited, thereby leaving certain details vague and confusing. Isabel is sent to the country for the summer to stay in a home inhabited by another child, Nino, and three adults: Luis, Nino’s father; Rema, who may or may not be Nino’s mother, Luis’ wife or sister, Nino’s sister, or the housekeeper; and the Kid, who is not a kid but Luis’ brother. The information given about the family is not specific in those terms, but it is quite specific in Isabel’s feelings about each person. The over whelming oddity about this summer home is that a tiger is allowed to roam freely about the house and grounds. The people are advised as to the location of the tiger each day, and they go about their business as usual by simply avoiding the room or part of the fields in which the tiger happens to be.
Life seems to be filled with very typical activities: Luis works in his study; the children gather an ant collection; and Rema supervises meals. Isabel is especially fond of Rema but not of the Kid. Events are relayed that expose Isabel’s true feelings about the Kid and the kind of person she believes him to be. He is surly at the dinner table. Once, after Nino has hit a ball through the window leading to the Kid’s room, the Kid hits Nino; the most disturbing moment, however, is a scene between Rema and the Kid during which Isabel acts as a voyeur, revealing some sort of sexual abuse on the part of the Kid toward Rema. Because of Isabel’s admiration for Rema, she decides to take revenge on the Kid. The culmination of the story is that Isabel lies to the family about the whereabouts of the tiger, sending the Kid into the room where the animal is. Screams are heard, and it is clear that the Kid has been mauled to death. Isabel notices that Rema squeezes her hand with what the child believes to be gratitude.
Many critics have speculated about the meaning of the tiger. Cortázar, in true Symbolist fashion, has himself said that the reader receives a richer experience if no specific symbol is attributed to the animal in this story. As in the works of Poe, constant tension and terror pervade the work, and the tiger’s meaning becomes a relative one—a personal nightmare for each character and each reader.
“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”
“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” begins on a charming note. It is a letter from a young man to...
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his girlfriend, who is visiting Paris. She has asked him to move into her apartment, and, through very delicate language, he tries to convince her that he would disrupt her very orderly and truly elegant apartment. He succumbs to her wishes, however, and moves his belongings, but on the way up in the elevator he begins to feel sick. Panic ensues when he vomits a bunny rabbit, and, while living in the apartment, each wave of anxiety produces another. Soon, he is sequestering ten bunny rabbits in an armoire. The rabbits sleep in the daytime and are awakened at night; he manages to keep his secret from his girlfriend’s nosy maid. The nocturnal insomnia and the constant production of bunny rabbits drive him to jump out the window along with the last one regurgitated. The charming letter is really a suicide note, and the seemingly eccentric but sweet story becomes a horrific account of phobia and insanity.
Cortázar seems particularly fascinated with the unusual placement of animals in these stories. In “Bestiary” and “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” animals take over the lives of people. In another short story, “Axolotl,” the man who visits the aquarium every day to see the axolotl swim becomes the axolotl. The narrative point of view switches back and forth between the man and the sea creature, telling the story from both points of view, but since there is no regular pattern or warning when the point of view changes, it is often difficult to determine inside whose skin readers are. The nightmare of being trapped inside the body of a beast is the human’s experience, and the panic of being abandoned by the man is the axolotl’s final cry. The only hope, as noted by the axolotl, is the creation of art where the writer can become another and communicate on behalf of all creatures—expressing the feelings of all creatures so that none may feel the terror of isolation and imprisonment.
“All Fires the Fire”
The shifting of narrative point of view as well as the alternation of time and place is a technique that Cortázar developed during his career as an author. A later story, “All Fires the Fire,” revolves around two unhappy love triangles. One takes place in modern times and one during a gladiator fight in an ancient coliseum. Again, Cortázar uses animals to provide a menacing tone to what seem to be ordinary failures in romance. In both cases, raging blazes burn the lovers to death. No clear delineation is made when the story shifts scenes. The reader begins to sense these changes as the story unfolds; the scenes are different, but the tension never desists. The author creates deliberate ambiguity so that the reader, who is being intentionally confused by the author, nevertheless receives signals at the same time. Like the Symbolist writers whom he admired, Cortázar, in “All Fires the Fire,” understands the power of the suggestive image and insists that readers use their own senses to feel the intensity of hate, lust, and love in both triangles. Through smell, sound, and sight, the reader gets two complete and distinct pictures that have similar endings. Like the Surrealist writers who unraveled the varying layers of the mind, Cortázar here projects two events that occur at two different times in two different places yet at the same moment in the reader’s consciousness.
Through fractured narration, Cortázar is able to examine how the mind can appropriate different personalities and points of view. The games of the mind are a constant theme in the works of Cortázar, and it is for that reason that a journey into his fictive world is an opportunity to explore the relationship between what seems to be real and what seems to be illogical. Cortázar confounds the reader’s system of beliefs with his manipulation of discourse. He begins the story “Blow-Up,” for example, by stating: “It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.” He continues by telling readers how he writes—by typewriter—making them absolutely aware of the fact that they are going to enter the world of fiction. Although “Blow-Up” begins on this self-conscious trial, which seems to draw an obvious distinction between art and life, its actual theme is the interchangeability of the two. The narrator introduces the reader to the story’s hero, a French-Chilean photographer named Robert Michel, and then becomes him. The story is narrated alternatively in first-person “I” and third-person “he” and becomes a collage of identities.
Out for a stroll on a pleasant November day, the photographer happens by chance upon a scene that disturbs him. Chance is an essential component of the world of magic, the fantastic and the illogical in Cortázar’s short fiction. Chance rearranges preexisting order and creates a new future, past, and present for Cortázar’s characters. The photographer/narrator witnesses a brief moment between a young man, a woman, and an older man sitting in a car—another love triangle with menacing undertones—and creates a history of what might have brought all three to the quai near the Seine. After the particular episode, he creates a future for them of what might happen to each of them afterward. Later, when he himself reflects on the episode, he studies his photographs as if the moments were frozen in time. Strangely, the more he studies his enlargements the more his memory alters. Because he creates a fiction about each of the people involved, the photo and his involvement in their little dramas become fiction as well, and he is not at all certain of what he has witnessed. The whole episode develops into a dream, a game of the mind.
The photographs that he had taken, which were supposed to reproduce reality with exactitude, become a collage of suggestions. Magnified, the photographs reveal even less about what he thought had occurred. The photographer believes that his camera is empowered with precision and with accuracy; he discovers, however, that the artwork has a life of its own that is constantly re-creating itself.
The search for truth in art is the pervading theme in Julio Cortázar’s short fiction. He attempts to break with realist attitudes to force the reader to look beyond that which is ordinary and comfortable in order to explore the realms that seem, on the surface, incomprehensible and fearful. Cortázar believes that as human beings, people must recognize the inexplicable as just that and must admit that they do not have control over everything. The characters in “Bestiary” do not have control over the tiger. The young man in “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” does not have control over the rabbits that he regurgitates. “All Fires the Fire” depicts the characters involved in passionate love triangles whose emotions are out of control. Finally, in “Blow-Up,” the artist’s work has a life of its own.
It was the Symbolist movement that gave Cortázar his stylistic signature and the Surrealists who divulged the irrational to later artists. Cortázar combined his appreciation for both movements and consolidated them with his own voice to create exciting and challenging short fiction.