Julio Cortázar

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Richard A. Young (essay date fall 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5765

SOURCE: Young, Richard A. “Prefabrication in Julio Cortázar's ‘Lugar Llamado Kindberg’.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 4 (fall 1991): 521-34.

[In the following essay, Young provides a stylistic analysis of “A Place Named Kindberg.”]

“Lugar llamado Kindberg” (“A Place Named Kindberg”), a short story by Julio Cortázar, first published in 1974 in a volume titled Octaedro, has a narrative economy that is one of the author's trademarks and consists of very few elements: two characters, a restricted space, and a simple chain of events that unfolds in a short period of time. One rainy day, while driving through Central Europe, a traveling salesman of prefabricated materials, an Argentine named Marcelo, gives a ride to a young female hitchhiker named Lina. They arrive after nightfall at a hotel in a place called Kindberg, a town to the southwest of Vienna. They share a meal and, as Marcelo anticipated, spend the night together. On the following day, they renew their journey and, some distance beyond Kindberg, stop for coffee. There Marcelo leaves Lina to find another ride and continues alone. A few kilometers along the road, driving at excessive speed, he runs into a tree and is killed.

Through the narration of this simple sequence of events, two fairly conventional and well known themes are combined: a man's encounter with a “femme fatale” and the longing for the adventure of youth that this stirs in him. The interest that the story holds, however, is not just in the events used to present these themes, but in the manner of their presentation. “Lugar llamado Kindberg” is told by a primary narrator, absent from the text, who incorporates the words of the characters into his narration through extensive use of direct and indirect free discourse, as the following representative passage clearly shows:

… Marcelo valija y portafolios, Lina mochila y chapoteo, la invitación a cenar aceptada antes de Kindberg, así charlamos un poco, la noche y la metralla de la lluvia, mala cosa seguir, mejor paramos en Kindberg y te invito a cenar, oh sí gracias qué rico, así se te seca la ropa, lo mejor es quedarse aquí hasta la mañana, que llueva que llueva la vieja está en la cueva, oh sí dijo Lina, y entonces el párking, las galerías resonantes góticas hasta la recepción, qué calentito este hotel, qué suerte, una gota de agua la última en el borde del flequillo, la mochila colgando osezna girl-scout con tío bueno, voy a pedir las piezas así te secas un poco antes de cenar.


(… Marcelo valise and briefcase, Lina knapsack and slogging, the invitation to dine accepted before Kindberg, so we can talk a little, the night and the rain shrapnel, no good going on, better for us to stop in Kindberg and for me to invite you to dine with me, oh yes great, that way you can dry your clothes, the best thing is to stay over here till morning, it's raining it's pouring, the old man is snoring, oh yes, Lina said, and then the parking shed, the resonant Gothic galleries to the desk, how nice and warm this hotel, what luck, the last drop of water on her bangs, the knapsack hanging teddy bear girl scout with good uncle, I'm going to get the rooms now so you can dry out a little before dinner.)


Here, as in the rest of the story, the narrator moves freely between his own discourse and that of the characters without any formal acknowledgement of the shifts involved. However, the two characters are treated differently. There...

(This entire section contains 5765 words.)

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is no interiorization in the case of Lina, while the interior discourses of Marcelo are numerous, even if it is sometimes difficult to decide whether they should be attributed to him or the narrator. In the preceding fragment, for example, the words “una gota de agua la última en el borde del flequillo, la mochila colgando osezna girl-scout con tío bueno” (“the last drop of water on her bangs, the knapsack hanging teddy bear girl scout with good uncle”) appear to reflect Marcelo's thoughts, but could just as easily be considered a description belonging to the basic speaker. As a result of difference in attention given to the characters, Lina is known only through her own external discourses, what she says, or through the perspective that Marcelo and the narrator have of her, what they say or think about her. By contrast, both the interior processes and the exterior discourses of Marcelo abound in the text, so that much of the story is presented from his point of view, without his actually becoming the narrator,2 and the relationship between the two characters is presented from a decidedly masculine perspective.

The importance attached to Marcelo's discourse, particularly his interior discourse, accounts for much of the character of the text. For example, the disordered narrative chronology—which juxtaposes incidents from his earlier life, his meeting with Lina, and their arrival at the hotel—results as much from the randomness of Marcelo's recollections as from the narrative strategies of the primary voice. Thus, the emphasis given to a number of words and images that figure repeatedly, almost obsessively, throughout the text as recurring motifs derives principally from Marcelo: the repetition of the name “Shepp,” Marcelo's use of the terms “teddy bear” and “snot-nose” to refer to Lina, references to Lina's knapsack, the tickle in Marcelo's stomach when he realizes he will sleep with Lina, the aspirin she proposes to take against the possibility of catching cold, the rain under which they first met. These and other terms, like elements of a particular code developed within the story, not only serve as constant points of reference, but also convey the impression that the text is developed on the basis of a certain number of repeated elements.

In some instances, the meaning of the terms in question evolves as the story progresses. For example, the word “burbuja” (“bubble”) occurs five times. On the first two occasions, in the same sentence, it establishes the difference between Marcelo's safe, comfortable existence and the more adventurous lifestyle of Lina:

la burbuja burguesa protectora de una billetera de viajero sin problemas, la lluvia estrellándose ahí afuera contra la burbuja como esa tarde en la cara blanquísima de Lina al borde de la carretera a la salida del bosque en el crepúsculo


(the protective bourgeois bubble of traveler's checks and no problems, the rain exploding outside there against the bubble as that afternoon it had on Lina's white face by the side of the road as she came out of the woods at dusk)


The meaning acquired here is retained, for when the word next appears, the intended hint at Lina's inclusion within Marcelo's world (“tan bueno estar así, sentirse seca y dentro de la burbuja” [99]: “how nice to be like that, feeling dry and inside the bubble” [43]) can only be derived through reference to its earlier use in the text. However, when the same word appears a few lines later in the context of what Marcelo is thinking while watching Lina eat lettuce, it has undergone a significant transformation: “una manera de plegar las hojas con el tenedor y masticarlas despacio canturreándoles Shepp con de cuando en cuando una burbujita plateada plop en los labios húmedos” (99: “a way of folding the leaves with her fork and chewing them slowly humming Shepp to them from time to time a [little] silvery bubble plop on her damp lips” [43]). On the one hand, the diminutive “burbujita” is characteristic of the language used by Marcelo with respect to Lina; on the other, the term has acquired a new referent. Whereas it was initially a metaphor for Marcelo's comfortable bourgeois life, it is now associated with Lina, a change confirmed on the final occasion that the word appears, when it refers to her saliva, “la burbuja que tiembla entre los labios” (105: “the bubble that trembles between the lips” [49]), after she and Marcelo have made love. Thus, through this word and its changing referent, the change that takes place in Marcelo is traced. The substitution of the protective bubble of Marcelo's bourgeois life for the bubble he sees on Lina's lips is itself a metaphor for the adventure on which he embarks the evening that he gives her a ride in his car and spends the night with her in Kindberg.

The sequence of events narrated in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” is similarly traced through references to fire. To begin with, it refers literally to the fireplace in the hotel bedroom where Lina dries herself from the rain. However, the first references to the fireplace already suggest a metaphorical meaning when Marcelo thinks of it while he and Lina are dining and associates it with the double bed in the room (96). The same association is maintained in two subsequent references (102, 104) and, finally, when their lovemaking begins before the fire and continues in the bed, the literal and metaphorical meanings are fully combined:

acercándose a la osezna acurrucada contra la chimenea, sacándose los zapatos junto a ella, agachándose para sentarse frente al fuego, viéndole correr la lumbre y las sombras por el pelo suelto, ayudándola a soltarse la blusa, buscándole el cierre del sostén, su boca ya contra el hombro desnudo, las manos yendo de caza entre las chispas, mocosa, osita boba, en algún momento ya desnudos de pie frente al fuego y besándose, fría la cama y blanca y de golpe ya nada, un fuego total corriendo por la piel


(going over to the teddy bear huddled by the fireplace, taking off his shoes beside her, crouching down to sit facing the fire, watching the light and shadows run across her loose hair, helping her take her blouse off, looking for the catch on her bra, his mouth against her naked shoulder now, his hands searching among the sparks, snot-nosed little bear, at some moment both of them naked now standing in front of the fire and kissing, the bed cold, white and suddenly nothing now, a total fire running over his skin)


One last reference to fire, the dying embers in the fireplace and the glow of cigarettes (105), completes its use as a means of describing the trajectory of the encounter between Marcelo and Lina.

Finally, the brief affair between the two travelers is also represented through repeated references to Lina's hair. On the one hand, together with other allusions to Lina's appearance, they indicate Marcelo's attraction to her. On the other, they also show the distance between the two characters and emphasize that their acquaintance is merely a brief interlude. Both aspects are found in the first reference on the first page of the story:

y entonces le sopla por encima vaya a saber por qué pero tan bonito ver que el flequillo de Lina se alza un poco y tiembla como si el soplido devuelto por la mano y por el pan fuera a levantar el telón de un diminuto teatro, casi como desde ese momento Marcelo pudiera ver salir a escena los pensamientos de Lina


(and then she blows on [the soup], who knows why, but in that way seeing Lina's bangs rise up a little and tremble as if the blowing on the hand and the bread were about to raise the curtain in a tiny theater, almost as if from that moment on Marcelo could see Lina's thoughts come out onstage)


The image of the theater is repeated when Lina looks at Marcelo “desde el teatro de su flequillo” (98-99: “from the theater formed by her bangs” [43]) while they are still eating, and occurs again toward the end after they have made love for the first time and Lina is falling asleep:

y quién sería ése debajo del flequillo donde el pequeño teatro resbalaba ahora húmedo hacia el sueño


(and who could that be under the bangs where the little theater damp now slid into sleep)


The idea that the show is over and that the curtain has come down on their brief affair is finally referred to in the description of Lina on the following morning, “el flequillo tapándole los ojos” (107: “the bangs covering her eyes” [51]), as she and Marcelo are about to part.

Each of the terms described in the preceding paragraphs provides a synthesis of a particular aspect of “Lugar llamado Kindberg.” When the bubble, the fireplace, and Lina's hair are first mentioned, they acquire a meaning that serves as a point of reference for when the terms are mentioned later so that adjustments to their meaning and the development of Marcelo's encounter with Lina may be measured. Thus, the story evolves in part on the basis of a network of intratextual references, the significance of which is more apparent when seen in comparison with other features of the text.

There is nothing particularly original about any of the repeated images in the story, which are really quite commonplace. However, they are an indication of how Marcelo thinks and of his tendency to view his situation in the light of preestablished ideas, a condition also reflected in repeated recollections of the past. In fact, Marcelo's inclination to see the present in relation to his past is already announced in the first lines of the story through a play on possible translations of the name of the town of Kindberg: “Llamado Kindberg, a traducir ingenuamente por montaña de los niños o a verlo como la montaña gentil, la amable montaña” (95: “named Kindberg, ingenuously translated as child mountain or called gentle mountain, friendly mountain” [39]). Thus, throughout his brief encounter with Lina, Marcelo is constantly thinking of the past, particularly his childhood, the long-lost loves of his youth, and his failure to have lived either as freely or as fully as he believes she is living. She therefore becomes the embodiment of all his unfulfilled hopes and opportunities. Indeed, the extent to which Marcelo engages in repetition and in seeing the present in the terms of earlier experiences not only gives added meaning to the fact that he is a salesman of prefabricated materials, but provides a basis on which to read the story as a whole. It is not just that he is presented as one who tends to see everything in the terms of conventional images and earlier experiences, but that much of the story is itself derived from previous literature and history through links that may be identified through consideration of a series of extra- and intertextual references.

On the basis of allusions to contemporary culture, there can be no doubt about the historical time in which the story narrated in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” is presumed to occur. The references—to Paul McCartney; to Allen Ginsberg, the poet of the “beat generation”; to hippies in California and Copenhagen; to the jazzman Archie Shepp and the musical group the Mothers of Invention—place events in the late sixties or early seventies. It is exactly the context of the counter-culture to which a young person like Lina, disillusioned by society and unwilling to conform, would belong. Moreover, it is through her association with the culture of her time that she strikes such a contrast with Marcelo. He, too, knows the music of Archie Shepp, but, although he listens to his records, their spirit has not become a part of him. He does not know how to “live” them like Lina, and, when he recalls the music of his own generation in response to the few bars of Shepp that Lina is always humming, it is an entirely different tune, a tango, that comes to his lips.

References to the American filmmaker Romero are to George A. Romero, director of The Night of the Living Dead (1968), alluded to in the story, and are part of the historical context in which events are placed. That is to say that Lina's suggestion that the youth of her day are zombies, like the figures of Romero's movie, is consistent with the drug scene of the hippie counterculture of those times. However, the allusion to Romero is more than a passing reference. It occurs four times in the text (96 [twice], 98, 106) and each time the youth are referred to as “fossils, wandering corpses.” This insistence may not have any great significance by itself, but does bring a macabre note into the story, drawing attention to other sinister elements it contains, the fact that events take place at night, that they end with Marcelo's death, and that Lina's responsibility for it is insinuated. At one point in the course of her conversation with Marcelo at supper she refers to the death of a bird:

una vez en Avignon cinco horas esperando un stop con un viento que arrancaba las tejas, vi estrellarse un pájaro contra un árbol, cayó como un pañuelo


(once in Avignon hitchhiking in a wind that tore the tiles off the roofs I saw a bird fly into a tree, fall just like a handkerchief)


Not only is the incident a clear premonition of the way in which Marcelo is to die, but, at the end of the story, juxtaposed to the description of him in death, the text returns briefly to Lina, as if to make a final association between them:

se incrustó a ciento sesenta con la cara metida en el volante como Lina había bajado la cara porque así la bajan las ositas para comer el azúcar


(he was squashed at [160 kilometers per hour] with his head bent over the steering wheel the way Lina had lowered her head … because a bear cub always lowers its head like that to eat sugar)


Although there are a number of elements in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” that might be taken as points of departure to unravel further the meaning of the story, the references to Romero's The Night of the Living Dead are among the most useful. These references, as has already been suggested, stand out because they introduce a macabre note and have the initial effect of drawing attention to certain elements of the story. Among them, because of the atmosphere it conveys, is the description of the hotel in Kindberg where Lina and Marcelo spend the night. It is an old hotel with dark corridors. When they park the car they are met by “la vieja alumbrándoles el camino con una linterna de época” (97: “the old woman lighting their way with a period lantern” [41]). Out of the parking lot, they follow the echoing Gothic galleries to the reception desk, and the room they are given, with its fireplace and Franz Josef table, has a large Hapsburg bed and full-length mirrors. The description has a particularly visual quality that, given the reference to Romero's film, recalls a certain type of Gothic movie. Indeed, although Austria is not exactly Transylvania, the arrival of the couple at night in the midst of a storm at an old, dark hotel in nineteenth-century Gothic style is reminiscent of certain scenes from movies such as those based on Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) or others in which the Gothic atmosphere is the context of the return of spectres from the past to haunt the present.

Although some of the elements of the story referred to so far have a particular form in “Lugar llamado Kindberg,” they are not exclusive to that text, but appear in different guises in a number of Cortázar's pieces of short fiction. The desire felt by a male to free himself from the bonds of a routine existence imposed by his age, domesticity, and bourgeois respectability as a result of his attraction to a woman whom he perceives to be a freer spirit living outside the regimented norms of social convention occurs frequently in Cortázar's writing. Thus, the characterization of Lina as a hippie who refuses to accept commitment and responsibility, whom Marcelo thinks of as a hooker (“es un yiro” [98]), is consistent with the female figures, Josiane and Anabel, who appear in stories such as “El otro cielo” (“The Other Sky”) and “Diario para un cuento” (“Diary for a Short Story”). In some instances, the basis for the description of such a relationship between a man and a woman, conventionally presented from the male perspective, is derived from French lyric poetry of the nineteenth century from Baudelaire and after. In others, it reflects social attitudes in Argentina, which are themselves expressed through certain cultural phenomena, such as the lyrics of tangos of the first half of the twentieth century, especially the thirties and forties. However, Cortázar also draws considerably on the Gothic and Romantic traditions of literature written in English during the nineteenth century, as represented in particular by the work of Edgar Allan Poe and John Keats.

The affinity felt by Cortázar for the work of Keats is not simply a matter of speculation. In 1955, in Buenos Aires, he published his translation from the English of Vida y cartas de John Keats by Lord Houghton, and, when he left Argentina for France in 1951 he took with him an unpublished manuscript on the work of the English poet entitled La imagen de John Keats.3 Among all of Keats's works that have had some impact on Cortázar's, one of the most significant is the ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which contains many of the elements conventionally associated with the attraction of the male for the female and its fatal consequences.4 Keats's poem begins with a question put by the lyric voice, which asks a knight-at-arms why he looks so woebegone: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering?” (Keats 109). In his reply, the knight narrates his encounter in the country with a lady. He made garlands to adorn her, put her on his horse and rode with her, ate the food she gave him, and went with her to her “elfin grot.” There, when he falls asleep, he dreams:

I saw pale kings and princes too,
          Pale warriors—death-pale were they all;
They cried, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci
          Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam,
          With horrid warning gaped wide;
And I awoke, and found me here
          On the cold hill's side.

(Keats 110-11)

Keats's poem is itself related, at least insofar as its title is concerned, to a much earlier French work of the fifteenth century belonging to the tradition of the courtly lyric that became part of the English poetic tradition as a result of a widely known translation of about 1450 that was once thought to be an original poem by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400; see Ousby 79). All these texts, including Cortázar's “Lugar llamado Kindberg,” showing the tragic consequences for the male of his encounter with the female, indicate the pedigree of the theme, which has migrated across national and linguistic boundaries. His story, however, is closer to Keats's version in several respects. The enigmatic quality of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” in which the fate of the knight, foreshadowed by his dream, is implied more than it is explained, is preserved in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” in the insinuation that Lina is in some way responsible for Marcelo's death. Moreover, both texts project an atmosphere of antiquity through reference to former times. In the case of Keats, this derives from the identity of the ailing wanderer as a “knight-at-arms,” a term that is evocative of the age of the medieval knights and the Arthurian legends. In Cortázar's story, the association with the past is initially provided in the text by the evocation of the Gothic, which underwent a revival in the nineteenth century and produced a pseudo-medieval style, evocative of an earlier age, but there are also further precise references to older times.

When Marcelo wonders under what conditions he will sleep with Lina, he refers to the sword traditionally placed between a man and a woman to keep them apart:

preguntándose si no se haría la dificil, si al final la espada legendaria en la cama, en todo caso el rollo de la almohada y uno de cada lado barrera moral espada moderna


(wondering whether she'd play hard to get, whether in the end the legendary sword in the bed, in any case the rolled-up pillow and one on either side moral barrier modern sword)


The same idea crosses his mind as he and Lina are returning to their room after supper, while she wonders about the former status of the hotel: “seguro que fue un palacio, hubo condes que daban fiestas con candelabras y cosas” (104: “this certainly must have been a palace, there were counts who gave parties with candelabra and things” [48]). Her comment is readily reminiscent of the “pale kings and princes” seen in his dream by the knight in Keats's poem. As a modern counterpart of this knight, Marcelo carries Lina in his car rather than on his horse. But, like the knight, he too is wandering, between two commitments—“ando vagando entre dos obligaciones” (97), he tells Lina, using the same gerund (“vagando”) earlier associated with Romero's zombies and the youth of Lina's generation—and he is completely beguiled by the woman he meets. By the same token, Lina has characteristics that make her a modern counterpart of the lady of Keats's poem. In “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” the knight explains,

I met a lady in the meads,
          Full beautiful—a faery's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
          And her eyes were wild.

(Keats 109)

In “Lugar llamado Kindberg,” Marcelo also meets Lina in a natural setting, by the side of the road at the edge of the woods, “al borde de la carretera a la salida del bosque en el crepúsculo” (96). Moreover, she too is associated with nature, not just through the freeness of her spirit and refusal to conform to social norms, but in the names, “osita,” “osezna,”5 given to her by Marcelo, which also make her a creature of the woods akin to the “faery's child” in Keats. Finally, as we have already seen, in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” much is made of Lina's hair and her singing, details that also relate her to the female figure of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”

In view of the preceding observations with respect to the relation of “Lugar llamado Kindberg” both to Keats's poem and a Gothic context, we might well be prepared to consider Cortázar's story as an innovative adaptation of earlier works of literature. However, there are questions that still remain to be answered concerning the death of Marcelo and the identity of the two principal characters. The representation of Marcelo as Argentine is consistent with the language in which the story is written and with Cortázar's tendency to address the question of cultural displacement in his fiction, undoubtedly reflecting his own experience. On the other hand, no such explanation is immediately forthcoming to explain why Lina is Chilean. Indeed, the Gothic context of the story would seem to make it more appropriate for her to be European, thereby enhancing the meaning of the text as a tale representing a Latin American's encounter with the myths and legends of Europe. However, Cortázar also has a tendency to combine cultures or superimpose one on another, as in “El otro cielo” and “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”), in which he achieves a cultural fusion through the exploitation of anachronisms that transcend the limitations of space and time. In the light of this situation, it is therefore appropriate to look for responses to the questions that are still unanswered in quarters other than those we have already explored.

As it happens, there is a legend from colonial Chile, the general content of which is sufficient to provide us with what is missing. It concerns a member of the aristocratic Lisperguer family, Catalina de los Ríos, also known as “La Quintrala,” who died in 1665. She was considered responsible for numerous murders, including those of her father and lover, and was generally able to escape punishment. The memory of her that survives is of a vampirish monster whose sexual aggression led to dire consequences for her victims (see Galdames 115, 511). It is not possible to make a direct association between Cortázar and the story of La Quintrala with the same certainty as the association between him and Keats, but the historical data and the legends to which it has given rise are very well known. Cortázar could have learned of them through a number of old and relatively recent versions, including films, plays, a dramatization for radio, and a very popular novel entitled La Quintrala, by Magdalena Petit, first published in 1932 and reissued in a number of subsequent editions. When we turn to “Lugar llamado Kindberg,” we find that several elements of the legend are applicable. Lina is Chilean and her name is an abbreviation of Catalina. There are indications of her promiscuity, although the information may be suspect because it is provided by Marcelo. For example, he congratulates himself when she suggests they share the same room at the hotel:

voy a pedir las piezas así te secas un poco antes de cenar. … Lina mirándolo toda flequillo, las piezas qué tontería, pide una sola. Y él no mirándola pero la cosquilla agradesagradable, entonces es un yiro, entonces es una delicia, entonces osita sopa chimenea, entonces una más y qué suerte viejo porque está bien linda.


(I'm going to get the rooms now so you can dry out a little before dinner. … Lina looking at him all bangs, the rooms what foolishness, just ask for one. And he [not] looking at her but the [agreeable-disagreeable] tickle, so she's a hooker, so she's a delight, so little bear soup fireplace, so another one and what luck, old man, she's quite pretty.)


Later, as they are about to return to their room after supper he doubts his luck, but then rationalizes:

tenía que ser idiota para plantearse problemas cuando había sido ella en el gran corredor negro, ella chapoteando y contenta y dos piezas qué tontería, pide una sola, asumiendo por supuesto todo el sentido de esa economía, sabiendo y a lo mejor acostumbrada y esperando eso al acabar cada etapa


(he had to be an idiot to make problems when it had been she in the long, dark hallway, she splashing and happy and two rooms what foolishness, ask for just one, assuming of course all the meaning of that economizing, knowing and probably used to it and expecting it at the end of every episode)


Finally, as already suggested above, her involvement in the death of Marcelo is clearly insinuated, even if the nature of her complicity is somewhat enigmatic.

In view of the scope of the network of associations and intertextual references uncovered through the preceding commentary, it is evident that the simple sequence of events narrated in “Lugar llamado Kindberg” is, in fact, a surface veneer that covers a complex semantic structure. Although “Lugar llamado Kindberg” appears to be the simple story of a sexual encounter between a man and a woman, underlying it are different manifestations of the myth of the spider woman, an atmosphere derived from the Gothic aesthetic, and the theme of the lost opportunities of youth and the attempt to recover them in later life. Although the temporal setting and the characters of the story are modern, an entry into the past is obtained through reference to film and to the Gothic environment, itself one of the most frequently used contexts in film for the evocation of legend. In this instance, however, Cortázar's story does not draw solely on one historical past. It is derived from traditions related to different historical times and geographic areas, thereby transcending the conventional limitations of space and time. This characteristic is not, of course, unique to “Lugar llamado Kindberg,” but is one of the methods consistently employed by Cortázar to represent the encounter between different cultures, as well as between the past and the present. Thus, the Latin American who finds himself in Europe is not only incorporated into the myths and legends of the old world, but continues to be pursued by those of his own continent, like Marcelo, whose travels in Austria lead to an encounter with a modern version of Catalina Lisperguer. “Lugar llamado Kindberg” consists therefore of a very appropriate synthesis of a medieval legend, as derived from Keats, and a Gothic atmosphere into which the story of a Chilean vampire has been very skillfully incorporated. In our reading of the text, then, we bring to bear a certain number of prefabricated elements that we find transformed in the story, just as Marcelo, the salesman of prefabricated materials, contemplates his situation in the terms of preconceived and repeated images, or simply the experiences of his own past.


  1. References to the original story are to Cortázar, “Lugar llamado Kindberg” 95-107. Translations are by Gregory Rabassa, from Cortázar, “A Place Called Kindberg” 39-52.

  2. Without using a technique such as that derived from Poe's “Ms. Found in a Bottle” and exploited by Cortázar in “Manuscrito hallado en un bolsillo” (“Manuscript found in a pocket”), also published in Octaedro, Marcelo could not, in any event, narrate a story that ends with his own death.

  3. See Ana Hernández del Castillo for a commentary on aspects of the relationship between Keats and Cortázar.

  4. For example, Ana Hernández (31) has commented on the significance of the poem to Cortázar's “Cuello de gatito negro” (“Throat of a Black Kitten”), another of the stories published in Octaedro.

  5. Both terms in Spanish mean “bear cub” as well as “teddy bear,” the translation most consistently used by Rabassa.

Works Cited

Cortázar, Julio. “A Place Named Kindberg.” A Change of Light and Other Stories. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Knopf, 1980. 39-52.

———. “Lugar llamado Kindberg.” Octaedro. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987. 95-107.

Galdames, Luis. A History of Chile. Trans. Isaac Joslin Cox. New York: Russell, 1964.

Hernández del Castillo, Ana. Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortázar's Mythopoesis. Purdue Monographs in Romance Languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B.V., 1981.

Keats, John. The Poetical Works of John Keats. Ed. George Sampson. Edinburgh: W. P. Nimmo, Hay, & Mitchell, n.d.

The Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George Romero. Image Ten, 1968.

Ousby, Ian, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.


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Julio Cortázar 1914-1984

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Julio Denís) Argentine novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, and dramatist.

The following entry presents criticism on Cortázar's short fiction from 1991 through 2003. See also Julio Cortazar Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 10, 13.

Cortázar is one of the seminal figures of the “Boom,” a surge of excellence and innovation in Latin American letters during the 1950s and 1960s. Influenced by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, Cortázar is considered to have enlarged literary tradition with a consistent inventiveness of style, language, and theme. Like Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and other contemporary Latin American writers, Cortázar combined fantastic and often bizarre plots with commonplace events and characters. Much of Cortázar's fiction is a reaction to the Western tradition of rationalism to represent reality. To this end, he experimented with narrative identity, language, time, space, and form in his short stories.

Biographical Information

Cortázar was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1914. At the age of four, he moved with his parents to their native Argentina, where they settled in a suburb of Buenos Aires. An excellent student and reader, Cortázar began writing at a young age and completed a novel by the time he was nine years old. After earning a teaching degree, Cortázar taught high school from 1937 to 1944. During this time Cortázar began writing short stories. He taught French literature at the University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina; however, by 1946 he had resigned from his post after participating in demonstrations against Argentine president Juan Péron and moved to Buenos Aires, where he began working for a publishing company. Also in 1946 Cortázar published his first short story, “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), in Los anales de Buenos Aires, an influential literary magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. Between 1946 and 1948 Cortázar studied law and languages to earn a degree as a public translator. In 1951 Cortázar published Bestiario, his first collection of short stories, and also received a scholarship to study in Paris, where he became a translator for UNESCO. In 1953, collaborating with his wife, Cortázar completed translations of Edgar Allan Poe's prose works into Spanish. Later that year he adopted France as his permanent residence. Throughout his life Cortázar traveled extensively—primarily between Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the United States—often lecturing for social reform in Latin America. He continued to publish writings in several genres and to work as a freelance translator from the 1950s until his death in 1984.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Many of Cortázar's short stories are representations of a surreal, metaphysical, horror-filled world that prevailed upon his imagination. In these works, he often expressed a conflict between unreal and real events by allowing the fantastic to take control of the mundane in the lives of his characters. Significant in this transformation from the ordinary to the bizarre is the compliant acceptance of extraordinary events by Cortázar's characters. His fascination with the double, a character's other, or alter ego, and his related concept of “figures,” or human constellations, is evident in numerous short stories. For example, in “Lejana” (“The Distances”), Alina Reyes, a wealthy South American woman, becomes obsessed with visions of a beggar woman living in Budapest whom Alina believes is her true self. She travels to Budapest, believing she will relieve the woman's suffering and her own by assuming her real identity as a beggar. After the women embrace on a bridge, Alina is left standing in the bitter cold as the beggar woman walks away in Alina's body. Cortázar often employs motifs in his fiction based on games, children's play, and music as representations of humanity's search for an existence that surpasses limits imposed by logic and reason. With “El perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”), he not only incorporates the syncopated rhythms of jazz music to illustrate this search, but also begins to explore existential questions and focus on the inner lives of characters. Modeled upon jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, the eponymous pursuer of the story is protagonist Johnny Carter, a character whose inability to articulate what he seeks is a source of anguish, while his talent for intuitive expression through music allows him to approach reality beyond ordinary existence that has been closed to most of humanity. In contrast, the narrator, a jazz critic and biographer, is entrenched in the analytical delineation of Johnny as he writes his biography—a book that is incapable of authentically portraying the artist's life.

Cortázar addresses complexities in the relationship between art and life in several works, and his short stories also reflect his concern for political and human rights while upholding his belief in open-ended art, in which he states it is the writer's responsibility “never to recede, for whatever reasons, along the path of creativity.” Cortázar evidences his political convictions in several works, including his early short story “Reunión” (“Meeting”), a fictional account of the Cuban revolution as told by Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara, and “Segund vez” (“Second Time Around”), in which Cortázar utilizes the repressive political situation in Argentina during the 1970s, when citizens often disappeared under false arrests, as a backdrop for his delineation of a woman's experiences surrounding an official summons. According to critics, the narrative voice, which changes from the first-person perspective of a bureaucrat to the third-person limited perspective of the woman, and then back to the bureaucrat's point of view in the last sentence, emphasizes the mysterious and omniscient nature of the summons, creating an Orwellian sense of institutionalized paranoia that extends that work beyond the Argentine government to encompass other Latin American totalitarian regimes.

Critical Reception

In Cortázar's short fiction, contrasting elements such as the fantastic and commonplace; past, present, and future; reality and dream; and the self and the other, blend to suggest multiple layers of meaning that invite varied interpretations. Critics have suggested that Cortázar strove for this ambiguity as a means to express what may exist beyond humanity's rational perceptions. His stories are often characterized by humor despite their generally serious themes, and they are noted for his technical innovations in point of view, language, and form. Moreover, there have been psychoanalytical and feminist interpretations of his stories. Along with his novel Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch), Cortázar's short stories have established him as a leading voice in modern literature. Critics regard his contribution to Latin American literature as profound.

Sally Harvey (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Harvey, Sally. “Dominator-Dominatrix: Sexual Role-play in Julio Cortázar's ‘La señorita Cora’.” In Love, Sex & Eroticism in Contemporary Latin American Literature, edited by Alun Kenwood, pp. 99-106. Melbourne: Voz Hispánica, 1992.

[In the following essay, Harvey delineates the sexual power dynamic in “La señorita Cora.”]

As critics have pointed out on various occasions,1 Cortázar's short stories have lacked in general the attention they deserve. “La señorita Cora,”2 which is the focus of our study here, is no exception. In spite of its literary merit, it has warranted only scant mention in broader studies on Cortázar's work. On such occasions, critics have tended to view it as an outstanding example of Cortázar's art of narration, both in terms of the “múltiple punto de vista,” or multiple perspective, achieved by juxtaposing interior monologues and conversations, and his move towards deeper psychological studies of his characters.3 What throws even more light on this short story, however, is a study based on the interplay of the different characters and their relationships. In this article I hope to show how, on a closer reading of “La señorita Cora,” it becomes obvious that what we are involved with here is sexuality, and the struggle for dominance, principally between Pablo and the young nurse Cora, but also between Pablo and his mother, Cora and the mother, and Cora and her boyfriend, the doctor Marcial.4

“La señorita Cora” is the story of an adolescent male Pablito, who goes into hospital to have his appendix removed, but, owing to unexpected complications, does not recover from surgery. Characteristically, Cortázar does not intrude into the narrative, but gives us a multiple viewpoint through his use of interior monologues and dialogues, letting his characters speak for themselves, unconsciously revealing their psychological make-up and respective strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, through the title of the story and the lines of the folk-song heading the text, he gives us a clear pointer as to the direction it is going to take. As we shall see, the title, “La señorita Cora,” is to represent firstly the distance which Cora initially tries to keep between herself and Pablo, by refusing to allow him to address her directly by her first name, and later the distance which Pablo himself establishes as he, in turn, exerts his dominance over the young nurse. The sexual undertones to the story are again signalled in the lines of the folk-song, with their reference to a relationship made problematical by age difference, with the title itself, “The trees that grow so high,” establishing the phallic imagery which is to be a constant throughout the story.

The first relationship in which the female is the dominant partner is introduced through the opening interior monologue of the mother, who reveals herself as being dominating and over-protective towards her son, refusing to recognise that he is on the threshold of manhood: “Después de todo tiene apenas quince años, y nadie se los daría, siempre pegado a mí ahora aunque con los pantalones largos quiere disimular y hacerse el hombre grande” (87). Any references to the husband are minimal. It is clearly she who wears the trousers and expects to take control of the situation. Forced to relinquish her tight hold on Pablo as he enters hospital, she deeply resents being replaced as her son's guardian by the young nurse, “esa mocosa de enfermera” (87). This is not, however, a simple case of an over-anxious mother. Sexual implications are clearly present in the relationship and it is jealousy and suspicion which surface, rather than motherly concern, as she is told that she is not allowed to stay with her son: “yo me pregunto si verdaderamente tiene órdenes de los médicos o si lo hace por pura maldad. … No hay más que mirarla para darse cuenta de quién es, con esos aires de vampiresa” (87-88). When she does not see Cora the following day, deprived of a chance to re-establish her dominance directly—“me hubiera gustado encontrármela a la enfermera de ayer para verle bien la cara y ponerla en su sitio nada más que mirándola de arriba abajo” (90)—she makes a point of exerting her authority by reporting Cora to the doctor: “aproveché para decirle que me había llamado la atención la impertinencia de la enfermera de la tarde” (9l).5

Pablo clearly resents his mother's treatment of him, aware of the impression she is making on Cora, and his embarrassment becomes more and more acute as his attraction for Cora grows: “mamá cree que soy un chico y me hace hacer cada papelón” (88); “me hubiera querido morir de rabia” (93). Cora, for her part, sums him us as a typical “mother's boy” and determines to treat him as such, addressing him in the familiar form and taking away his sweets as if he were a little boy, actions interpreted by Pablo, no doubt correctly, as taking out her dislike of the mother on the son: “Seguro que todavía estaba enojada por lo que le había dicho mamá …” (89); “Seguro que estaba furiosa por lo de mamá y se desquitaba conmigo, de puro resentida” (89); “estoy seguro de que está resentida por culpa de mamá” (95).

Pablo's self-consciousness and growing anger, however, are far from being those of a little boy. Cortázar makes it quite clear that these are the reactions of an adolescent who does not want to be belittled in front of a woman to whom he is already attracted. Cora sums this up in a conversation with Marcial when later she tries to rationalise the situation: “todo empezó mal por culpa de la madre … el chico tiene su orgullo y le duele … quiso hacerse el grande, mirarme como si fueras vos, como un hombre” (106). Similarly, Pablo's interior monologue bears witness to the fact that the nurse has had a considerable effect on him: “La enfermera es bastante simpática”; “me puse colorada porque me tomó de sorpresa que me tuteara”; “quería seguir enojado con ella pero no podía” (89). From this point on the relationship becomes one of sexual interplay, as the initial reversal of traditional sexual roles, with Cora clearly acting as dominatrix, gradually changes as Pablo little by little assumes the dominating role.

Although the mother's presence in the hospital diminishes as Pablo's condition worsens and she is able to visit him only briefly, the confrontation between the two women is ever-present, precisely because of the sexual implications inherent in their relationship with Pablo. Thus, as Cora's initial irritation and antipathy towards “El nene de mamá” (92) gradually give way to a growing attraction for him, her opposition to the mother grows. Cortázar focuses our attention on the awareness of both women of Pablo's growing physical attributes: the mother leaves the room during the visit of the doctor De Luisi—“porque ya está grandecito” (90); and Cora's later comment echoing these words—“Ya sos un chico crecidito” (94)—is subsequently picked up by Pablo himself on page 95. Pablo's confused psychological state as he hovers on the brink of moving from the oedipal stage to that of the an adult male is clearly mirrored in turn by his confusion between Cora and his mother in his semi-conscious state when he is coming round from the anaesthetic after his operations. Thus we see that the situations of the two women have now been reversed and at this point it is Cora's turn to resent jealously the mother's role: “vieja estúpida. … Las conozco a éstas” (101).

Cortázar uses sexual symbolism throughout the story to accentuate the male/female relationships and physical attraction between the characters. Pablo, who takes it in his stride when an older nurse explains to him how temperatures are taken in hospital (90), is acutely embarrassed when Cora goes through the same procedure: “‘¿Te lo sabés poner?’, le pregunté, y las mejillas parecía que iban a reventársele de rojo que se puso” (92). Cora begins by regarding things in a rather worldly fashion: “pero con los chicos de esa edad siempre pasa lo mismo” (92). She tries to keeps the barrier between them, insisting he calls her “señorita Cora,” naïvely thinking that she will be safe if she keeps a symbolic distance. At this stage she is clearly in a role of dominance, again taking a symbolically active sexual role as she shaves Pablo in preparation for his operation: “Le tuve que bajar yo misma el pantalón hasta la mitad de los muslos” (93). Yet even now her attitude is complicating itself, and she too is affected, so that what should be routine nursing duties take on a deeper significance: “pero me seguía fastidiando algo en él que a lo mejor le venía de la madre, algo más fuerte que su edad y que no me gustaba, y hasta me molestaba que fuera tan bonito y tan bien hecho para sus años” (94).

All Pablo's senses are awakened when Cora washes and shaves him for the operation, and he reacts with a violence of emotion which reflects all his sexual attraction for her and consequent frustration at his impotence in having to submit to her domination: “y yo hubiera querido morirme, o agarrarla por la garganta y ahogarla … le vi el pelo castaño pegado a mi cara … y olía a shampoo de almendra” (94-95). His attempt to gain ground and establish a position of equality by addressing her on first name terms is quickly rejected: “‘¿Usted se llama Cora, verdad?’ Me miró con aire burlón, con esos ojos que ya me conocían y que me habían visto por todos lados, y dijo: ‘La señorita Cora’” (95). In spite of showing a moment of tenderness—“le pasé la mano por la mejilla. ‘No te aflijas, Pablito,’ le dije”—Cora is determined not to lose control of the situation, and her desire for domination is again stressed when, for a second time, she rejects Pablo's request to be allowed to call her by her first name: “‘Puedo llamarla Cora, ¿verdad?’ … pero sabía que no era el caso de ceder porque después me resultaría difícil dominarlo, y a un enfermo hay que dominarlo o es lo de siempre” (96). By this stage she is well aware of Pablo's nascent masculinity and his attraction for her: “Y sí, son siempre lo mismo, uno los acaricia, les dice una frase amable, y ahí nomás asoma el machito” (96). Their position is further exacerbated when Cora has to give him an enema—an action again with obvious sexual connotations, as his physical prostration and her dominance and control symbolise the reversal of usual sexual roles. Cora still tries to take this lightly, but her words belie this; a sense of triumph is now tinged with compassion: “por una parte me hacía gracia estarle viendo el culito a mi joven admirador, pero de nuevo me daba un poco de lástima por él, era realmente como si lo estuviera castigando” (98). Nevertheless, her continued use of diminutives is clearly a put-down to Pablo—“Así me gusta, todo un hombrecito” (98)—and when she leaves, Pablo's frustration breaks forth and we see his longing to assert his masculinity, illustrated here by the phallic imagery as he mentally plunges a knife into her chest: “nadie, nadie puede imaginarse lo que lloré mientras la maldecía y la insultaba y le clavaba un cuchillo en el pecho cinco, diez, veinte veces” (99).

It is after Pablo's operation that Cora's resistance breaks down, in spite of her efforts to maintain a nurse/patient relationship. As a female responding to both facets of Pablo's personality, she is aroused by both her own maternal instincts and her growing sexual attraction for her patient. Now, as he clasps her hand, there is a noted change in her terminology, filled with sympathy and affection: “Pero sí, m'hijito, estoy aquí. … Sí, querido. … Qué fuerza tenés en las manos, me vas a llenar de moretones” (100). In spite of his critical condition, we see that it is Pablo's strength which is now being stressed, as Cora comments favourably on his physical appearance: “Sos bien bonito, sabés, con esa nariz un poco respingada y esas pestañas como cortinas, parecés mayor ahora que estás tan pálido” (100).

Pablo's thoughts too show how their communication is growing: “casi no tuve que decirle nada, porque se dio cuenta en seguida” (102). Every time he takes over the dialogue, the physical attraction he feels is reaffirmed by sensuous and sexual imagery: “Tiene un pelo precioso, le brilla cuando mueve la cabeza. … Me gusta que me mire así” (103). Cora is still in a role of dominance, as we see from the description of her taking Pablo's temperature and giving him an injection, both episodes again having clear connotations of the male sexual role and recalling the enema episode mentioned earlier: “empezó a frotarme el muslo con un algodón mojado. … ‘Ya ves,’ me dijo sacando la aguja y frotándome con el algodón. ‘Ya ves que no duele nada. Nada tiene que doler, Pablito.’ … me pasó la mano por la cara” (104). But this time, as the act is repeated, the erotic connotations are clear, and Pablo's previous acute embarrassment is replaced by sexual arousal: “lo primero que le veo es siempre el pelo … el pelo cerca de mi cara, una vez me hizo cosquillas en la boca y huele tan bien … me frotó un largo rato antes de pincharme y yo le miraba la mano tan segura que iba apretando de a poco la jeringa” (106-107).6

From this point on Pablo begins to assert himself, and his masculinity starts to come to the fore: “Y no le voy a decir señorita Cora, no se lo voy a decir nunca. Le hablaré lo menos que pueda y no la pienso llamar señorita Cora, aunque me lo pida de rodillas” (107). As if in recognition of or submission to this, Cora allows him to take his own temperature for the first time. He then symbolically asserts himself by at last calling her Cora to her face: “Usted es mala conmigo, Cora” (110). This time Cora does not contradict him; rather, she immediately responds, although Pablo instinctively rejects her attempt at physical contact: “Casi sin darme cuenta estiré la mano y quise hacerle una caricia en la frente, pero me rechazó de un manotón” (110). When Pablo again asserts himself—“Usted no sería así conmigo si me hubiera conocido en otra parte”—Cora, despite her attempt to laugh it off, is at the same time deeply disturbed. She withdraws indignantly, and mentally resolves to go back to a strictly nurse/patient relationship: “En fin, ahora sabíamos a qué atenernos, en el fondo era mucho mejor así. Enfermera, enfermo, y pare de contar” (110). Yet, in spite of this, we see how she feels herself drawn to him and is reluctant to leave: “No sé por qué me quedé más de lo necesario … a lo mejor me quedé para que siguiera insultándome, para ver hasta dónde era capaz de llegar” (111).

Thus, as we draw towards the climax, Cora's stress manifests itself more and more. Whilst trying to make herself believe she wants a distance kept between them, at the same time she resents any form of rejection from Pablo or interference from anyone else, jealously noting the fact that he has been speaking to another nurse when he is so short with her: “sé que con la galleguita estuvo charlando a mediodía … y me dejó hacer sin una palabra, con los ojos fijos en la ventana, ignorándome” (113). As she becomes increasingly attracted to Pablo we also see a marked change in the nature of her relationship with her boyfriend, Marcial, and once again the theme of sexual role-play comes to the fore. At the start of the story Marcial is clearly presented as the dominant partner, not only because of his traditional male role of superiority, but also by dint of his age and position as her superior in the hospital. Initially Cora shares her derision for Pablo with Marcial: “Esto tengo que contárselo a Marcial, se va a divertir y cuando mañana lo vea en la mesa de operaciones le va a hacer todavía más gracia” (97). However, once she begins to feel physical attraction for Pablo her relationship with Marcial is inevitable affected. Her main interest turns to finding out what went wrong during Pablo's operation, and she begins to lose interest in her sexual relationship with Marcial. Thus we see that she resents his attempt to kiss her (101) and later, although she uses the excuse that someone may see them, she displays a similar attitude when she is at home with Marcial who says: “después fue a darle la inyección y cuando volvió estaba de mal humor, no quería saber nada conmigo” (105). Marcial is clearly perplexed: “Nunca entendí mucho a Cora pero esta vez se fue a la otra banda” (104). Although he succeeds in winning her round on this occasion—“de a poco se la fui cambiando, y al final se puso a reír y me contó …” (105)—so that she talks rationally to him about her problems, once she is back with Pablo the situation again reverses. Thus, as Pablo becomes the dominant partner in his relationship with Cora, Marcial progressively loses his own dominance and control over her. We see from insertions in the narrative that Marcial is still very much present in Cora's thoughts and that she continues to confide in him (111-12), but her tension and confused feelings are again shown as she resents any intrusion on his part between her and Pablo: “hubiera querido que Marcial se fuera y me dejara sola con él” (114). He becomes still more perplexed at Cora's angry reaction when he finally arranges at her previous request to have her relieved as Pablo's nurse: “Está bien, hacé como quieras, tanto quejarte la otra noche y ahora te sale la samaritana. No te enojés conmigo, lo hice por vos” (114-15). Effectively he has now lost Cora to Pablo, as we see from her subsequent interior monologue: “Sí, claro que lo hizo por mí, pero perdió el tiempo, me voy a quedar con él esta noche y todas las noches” (115).

From now on Pablo's condition deteriorates still further. Another operation has to be performed, and he slowly goes downhill. Nevertheless, as Pablo approaches death, it is he who holds the upper hand in the relationship, controlling Cora in precisely the same way as she previously did him, retaining his position of dominance by rejecting any attempt at a more familiar relationship.7 Thus their earlier roles are reversed as it is now he who insists on keeping a distance by using her full title: “‘Llámame Cora,’ le dije. … Me miraba callado. … ‘Señorita Cora,’ dijo después” (115). By the end of the story, Cora has finally admitted to her own feelings and no longer desires any barrier. It is clear that she has surrendered totally both to her own emotions and to him, and her position has moved from one of dominance to impotence as she is reduced to pleading: “‘No, Pablo, no’, le pedí, besándole en la mejilla muy cerca de la boca. Yo voy a ser Cora para vos, solamente para vos'” (115); “‘Pablito,’ le dije. ‘Por favor, Pablito. Por favor, querido.’ Volví hasta la cama, me agaché para besarlo” (116). Pablo, however, has learnt his lesson well and, as he deals back to Cora the same treatment which she initially gave him by refusing to yield to her pleas, we are reminded of the nurse's own earlier words: “sabía que no era el caso de ceder porque después me resultaría difícil dominarlo” (96). With his last words, “Me gustaría que viniera mamá” (116), Pablo has played his trump card by rejecting Cora and calling for his mother, and it is the mother who, at the last moment, gains the upper hand over the nurse as Pablo gives her presence preference over Cora's.

Thus, in both power relationships Cora ends up the loser and, by the end of the story, Pablo has moved from a position of impotence to one of dominance over both the female characters who previously had dominated him. It is now he who is controlling the actions of both his mother and Cora, and hence indirectly affecting the latter's relationship with Marcial. It is only Pablo's death which will put Marcial back in any position of control, as Cora's final thoughts show: “después sabía demasiado bien que no tendría ninguna necesidad de volver a ese cuarto, que Marcial y María Luisa se ocuparían de todo hasta que el cuarto quedara otra vez libre” (116), but we are left to assume that Pablo will continue to dominate the lives of the two female characters for a long time to come.


  1. Alfred Mac Adam, for example, points out how works prior to Rayuela have been neglected: “Ocurre a veces que la prehistoria de un autor se pierde cuando publica la obra que lo lanza a la fama” (El individuo y el otro. Crítica a los cuentos de Julio Cortázar [Buenos Aires: La Librería, 1971] 11). Lorna V. Williams also notes that “Hay pocos estudios dedicados a los relatos de Cortázar” (La cuentística de Julio Cortázar: teoría y práctica [Michigan: Ann Arbor, 1985] 1), as does Carmen de Mora Valcárcel in her preface to Teoría y práctica del cuento en los relatos de Cortázar (Seville: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-americanos, 1982).

  2. Julio Cortázar, “La señorita Cora,” in Todos los fuegos el fuego (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1966). All references to “La señorita Cora” are from this edition.

  3. Critics briefly mentioning Cortázar's use of multiple viewpoint include, for example, Anderson Imbert, who comments on the juxtaposition of the characters' different feelings towards each other (Teoría y técnica del cuento [Buenos Aires: Marymar, 1979] 89-90); María Cecilia Quintero Marín (La cuentística de Julio Cortázar [Madrid: Universidad Complutense, 1981] 237-41); and Alfred Mac Adam, who considers that “el cuento es más una meditación sobre las posibilidades narrativas que una obra de arte acabada” (136-37). Joaquín Roy, on the other hand, in his interesting study, Julio Cortázar ante su sociedad (Barcelona: Ediciones Península, 1974), in which he places Cortázar's work and characters specifically in an Argentinian context, sees Pablo's situation as an example of “la innata soledad de todo adolescente” (214), whilst Lorna V. Williams comments on the style and presence of the author (137-39).

  4. Carmen de Mora Valcárcel, whilst categorizing “La señorita Cora” under the “componente ritual” of “erotismo” (88), does not elaborate, her main focus on the stories being on the fantastic and the short story as a literary genre. Antonio Planells, in his comprehensive and perspicacious study, Cortázar: Metafísica y Erotismo (Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, 1976) is the only critic to go into any detail on Cortázar's use of eroticism in “La señorita Cora” (107-10). However, he does not deal with the theme of sexual domination but rather sees the story as an illustration of the characters' inability to form loving relationships, and Pablo in particular as a product of the false society in which he lives.

  5. This hostility and jealousy felt by the mother towards Cora no doubt are also exacerbated by the fact that her husband is not immune to Cora's attraction. Pablo notes in this regard: “Pensé que mamá iba a soltarle alguna de las suyas pero la miró nomás de arriba abajo, y papá también pero yo al viejo le conozco las miradas, es algo muy diferente” (92-93).

  6. As well as creating an atmosphere of sensuality by giving erotic connotations to descriptions of seemingly routine acts, Cortázar also depicts the growing attraction between Pablo and Cora and the interchanges between the two through the conventional image of the pair of doves nesting in the patio outside the hospital, “un paloma que arrulla y la paloma que le contesta” (111), an image which is repeated on page 115. Planells says of this: “Las imágenes eróticas que forja la mente de Pablo (y que tienen como objeto amoroso a la señorita Cora), llegan a plasmar en la contemplación poética de un casal de palomas que se arrullan frente a la ventana de su habitación” (109).

  7. Pablo's feigned indifference and deliberate rejection of Cora no doubt are due in no small measure to his being piqued by jealousy over Cora's relationship with Marcial. This relationship is clearly in his mind at the end of the story as we see from his mental dismissal of the pair when Marcial comes to tell him that a second operation is necessary: “Váyase con él y béselo en el pasillo, tan dormido no estaba la otra tarde cuando usted se enojó con él porque la había besado aquí. Váyanse los dos, déjenme dormir” (114).

Principal Works

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Bestiario 1951

Final del juego 1956

Las armas secretas 1959

Historias de cronopios y de famas [Cronopios and Famas] (short stories and other writings) 1962

Cuentos 1964

Todos los fuegos el fuego [All Fires the Fire, and Other Stories] 1966

El perseguidor y otros cuentos 1967

End of the Game, and Other Stories [also published as Blow-Up, and Other Stories] 1967

La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos. 2 vols. [Around the Day in Eighty Worlds] (short stories and other writings) 1967

Ceremonias 1968

Ultimo round (short stories and other writings) 1969

Relatos 1970

La isla a mediodía y otros relatos 1971

La casilla de los Morelli (short stories and other writings) 1973

Reunión 1973

Octaedro 1974

Antología 1975

Vampiros multinacionales: una utopia realizable 1975

Los relatos. 4 vols. 1976-85

Alguien que anda por ahí y otros relatos 1977

Un tal Lucas [A Certain Lucas] 1979

A Change of Light, and Other Stories 1980

Queremos tanto a Glenda y otros realtos [We Love Glenda So Much, and Other Tales] 1980

Deshoras 1982

Nicaragua tan violentamente dulce [Nicaraguan Sketches] 1983

Cuentos completos 2 vols. 1994

Presencia [as Julio Denís] (poetry) 1938

Los reyes (poetry) 1949

Los premios [The Winners] (novel) 1960

Rayuela [Hopscotch] (novel) 1963

62: Modelo para armar [62: A Model Kit] (novel) 1968

Pameos y meopas (poetry) 1971

Libro de Manuel [A Manual for Manuel] (novel) 1973

Cuaderno de bitácora de “Rayuela” [with Ana Maria Barrenechea] (notebooks and criticism) 1983

Salvo el crepúsculo (poetry) 1984

El examen (novel) 1986

Sarah E. King (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8610

SOURCE: King, Sarah E. “Julio Cortázar: The Fantastic Child.” In Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar, edited by Jaime Alazraki, pp. 115-32. New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1992, King regards the examination of childhood as a central theme in Cortázar's short fiction.]

“What—is—this?” he said at last.

“This is a child!” Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her …

“We only found it today. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!”

“I always thought they were fabulous monsters!” said the Unicorn.

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

“It is perhaps childhood which comes closest to ‘true life.’”1 This statement, made by André Bretón in his First Manifesto of Surrealism, is echoed by Medrano, the fatally adventuresome protagonist of Julio Cortázar's first novel, The Winners, when he confesses that childhood remains for him “the most profound part” of his life.2 Given Cortázar's consistent quest to gain access to some “truer life,” one which he glimpsed, or intuited lay beyond the realm of our ordinary, everyday awareness, this statement by one of his first protagonists is highly significant. For Medrano, like Horacio Oliveira in Hopscotch, like Johnny Carter in “The Pursuer,” and like Alina Reyes in “The Distances” (and the list could be extended) are all typical of a type of character found throughout Cortázar's writings—both his novels and his short stories—characters who are insatiable seekers, each compatible with the following well-known self-description offered by Oliveira:

It was about that time I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.3

Judging from the frequent appearance of children throughout Cortázar's writings, many of whom share basic characteristics with their adult counterparts listed above (or perhaps vice versa), it would seem that Cortázar concurs with Franz Kafka's assessment of the child as “the only incorruptible searcher after truth.”4 In establishing the association between the employment of the figure of the child and the major concerns of Cortázar's writings, Luís Harss goes so far as to say:

All themes in Cortázar, in one way or another, constitute a transit, a passage—frequently explicit—to the heaven of childhood.5

If this might be said to be exaggerating the case somewhat, it is not entirely farfetched to say that children, in various guises and to varying degrees of prominence, occupy a central place in Cortázar's fiction.

For the most part, it is in the short stories that Cortázar fully ventures into the territory of the child. In the earlier collections (Bestiario,Final del juego) the voices of children are heard directly in those stories which employ a child-narrator: “Después del almuerzo” (After Lunch), “Los venenos” (The Poison), “End of the Game.” In the story “Bestiary,” although told in the third person, events are seen largely from the naive perspective of the child Isabel, and the narrative is interspersed with her fragmented, elliptical letters to her mother. Other stories, such as “A Yellow Flower” and, from various later collections, “Silvia,” “In the Name of Bobby,” and “Summer,” all employ mature narrators, but each focuses on some type of adult fascination or obsession with the childhood world. And, in Cortázar's final collection of short stories (Unreasonable Hours), the title piece is at once a last retrospective look at childhood through the writer's eyes, as well as a meta-account of the act of recalling and reliving childhood events.

Of considerably less interest in the examination of the childhood theme are those few short stories in which children appear more as recurring motifs than as realized personalities—stories such as “La puerta condenada” (The Blocked Door) “Return Trip Tango” and “Las fases de Severo” (The Phases of Severo). What is significant about these last examples, however, is that the less prominent child-figures in each share their passive category with the majority of their novelistic siblings. That is, with the notable exception of Jorge in The Winners, who plays a pivotal, albeit unconscious role in the life and death occurrences on board the Malcolm, most of the juvenile figures who appear in Cortázar's novels are minor characters in the extreme. In this category belong the still-infant Manuel of A Manual for Manuel, and la Maga's Rocamadour, who plays more the role of an inconvenience than of a character in Hopscotch. These silent novelistic children, then, are the antitheses of their outspoken short-story counterparts. Not unexpectedly, it is among this latter group of children who appear in the more autonomous settings of the short stories that we will find certain fundamental traits which place his fictional children among the major emissaries of Cortázar art.

In a 1978 interview with Ernesto Bermejo, Cortázar talks about his affinity to children and his fascination with the childhood period of existence.6 This discussion goes a great way toward explaining, at one level, the frequent occurrence of presumably naive characters in the Argentine's writings. There are two separate, but related, aspects of Cortázar's predilection for childhood themes which emerge from this conversation. First, from various autobiographical anecdotes which he has revealed in this and other interviews, it is clear that the writer still recalls, with astonishing clarity, even the minutest details and seemingly trivial specifics of events which took place in his own childhood days in Banfield. It is an epoch which he evokes with apparent ease despite many elapsed years, one which he has referred to as a unique territory, a privileged time out of time.7 But, in addition to being close to his memories of childhood, Cortázar seems also to have remained close to the child he was as well. In fact, it is not without a certain amount of boyish pride that Cortázar confesses a kindredness to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, that other child of fiction who never grew up. In commenting on his own much-remarked youthfulness of both appearance and outlook, he recalls how:

In my earliest years … I read that classic of English literature, Peter Pan … and I identified to a certain extent with him. Once a woman in Buenos Aires told me: “you should have been called Peter Pan,” and it struck me, because it coincided with that very assimilation of the character that I had already noted definitively.

(Bermejo 48)

In addition, Cortázar also professed a certain rapport with children:

I communicate well with children. I have a good relationship with their world because I don't try to impose my own structures to gain entry. And a child understands that perfectly.


A well-known photograph of Cortázar surrounded by youthful admirers (while one intractable pre-cronopio “tootles” the camera-man) would seem to corroborate this statement. But by and large, there seems to be little doubt that for the most part the numerous children who inhabit the territories of Cortázar's fiction are the product of the self-exploration of the author's own seemingly ever-present past. Cortázar acknowledges this without equivocation in that same interview:

In general, the children who circulate throughout my stories represent me in some way.


That there is a considerable autobiographical element to be found in the childhood events recounted in such stories as “Bestiary,” “Los venenos,” and “Unreasonable Hours,” is a fact readily attested to by Cortázar on more than one occasion. As he goes on to tell Bermejo, “The depth of sensibility of the little girl Isabel of ‘Bestiary’ is mine, just as the boy of ‘Los venenos’ is me.” Just as in another interview, this time with Evelyn Garfield, he dutifully details the real-life infantile attraction and subsequent disillusionment which comprised the premise of the latter of those two stories.8 And clearly, the recurrence of Banfield as the setting for a number of the child-narrated or childhood related evocations shows that the writer is not at all loath to include, undisguised, this or other well-known or easily identifiable elements of his own childhood days. Another minor example of this might be the frequency of fatherless or female-run households in these stories. Yet, despite these rather blatant autobiographical interjections, it is clear that autobiography, per se, even of the hybridized, fictionalized type so popular in recent childhood memoirs, is not a central concern or motivating purpose in Cortázar's art. Rather, these elements seem to be present in the majority of cases to lend an authenticity to the children who are, as Rousseau and others maintained they ought to be, the heroes of their own stories—considered not as “incomplete adults” but in their own right.9 Nevertheless, without insisting on a necessarily autobiographical reading of Cortázar's childhood related stories, it is interesting to note the extent to which they share characteristics with the non-fiction Childhood genre—as will be seen shortly in discussing the child's perspective of time and space.

In the meantime, it is important to note that for the most part it is in the stories of the earlier collections that the childhood world is most often portrayed as an autonomous region which, while it inevitably intersects with the adult world, appears to be of interest in and of itself. In this category belong all of the child-narrated stories, as well as the bits and pieces of childhood recollections to be found in Cortázar's essays and poetry. And even in those later stories which involve adults in some way “possessed” by children, the focus ultimately falls on the secret, unfathomable closed order of the child's world. Inevitably, it is this second, alternate world which proves to be the more powerful of the two, and which works a type of irresistible reversed Pied Piper charm over the adults, whose own reality becomes controverted by the more compelling reality of the child. It is important to emphasize here that thus far no distinction has been made between the positive and negative portrayals of children by Cortázar. This is due to the fact that the writer himself appears to draw no such rigid distinctions in his exploration of the early period of life. Angelic or demonic, what marks Cortázar's fictional children is an authenticity, a trueness to self that comes closer to the heart of Cortázar's art than any mere fairy tale version of good and evil might have.

A great deal more could be said concerning Cortázar's quest for authenticity via the childhood motif, along with such themes as the importance of play and ritual and the conception of childhood as “a time outside of time.” But such broad categorization robs much of the enchantment from the universe of the child as Cortázar presents it. It is a universe of primordial cronopios, which simultaneously taps into a number of the universal archetypes traditionally associated with the figure of the literary child, but at the same time is full of idiosyncrasies and nuances that indelibly stamp each portrayal of the child with Cortázar's unmistakable mark. Through the combined forces of memory, imagination, humor (and, inevitably, the influence of vast readings) Cortázar arrives at the representations which comprise what he himself has called “the museum of childhood” (Territorios). Only after examining—and enjoying—the contents of this museum can or will any attempt be made to justify its existence as central to Cortázar's work as a whole, or to identify in the omnipresent figure of the child an almost inevitable manifestation of what Luis Harss reminds us is a constant in Cortázar's fiction, “the nostalgia for a lost kingdom.”10


If, as Cortázar intimated in the essay just cited from Territorios, his childhood recollections constitute a type of museum to which he returns periodically, attracted by the “enthusiasm and wonder” of his former self, the return to childhood via his fiction can be said to provide the reader with a similarly refreshing anti-intellectualized—which is not to say always idealized or necessarily light-hearted—departure. And while the time of childhood for Cortázar remains, as we have said, a type of non-specific illo tempore which defies a definitive position in history, the place of childhood in the Argentine's fiction has become, by antonomasia, the town of Banfield.

The explicit setting for Cortázar's “childhood stories” is not always Banfield, nor in those stories in which the town is specified is it always the case that it is described in any detail or given any special attention or significance. But, paradoxically, it is perhaps this very lack of insistence on place which lends verisimilitude to the child's limited perspective. This is especially true in two stories which specifically name Banfield in a single off-handed line, and never again refer to the town by name in the text. These two stories are “Bestiary” and “Los venenos.”11 In the opening paragraph of the latter, the excited young protagonist, preoccupied with the new machine and the art of ant-killing, knowingly mentions “the ants of Banfield,” the only direct naming of the place which will provide the setting for the narrator's first amorous disillusionment. Even more cursory is the literal “reference-in-passing” made to Banfield in “Bestiary” as the town left behind as little Isabel sets out on her adventure into the country:

they were passing through Banfield at top speed, vavoom!


These scant references, for all that they may seem trivial to the point of insignificance, capture an essential facet of the limited juvenile perspective through which the story is projected. There is no need for the young protagonists to further elaborate on Banfield any more than an adult narrator would feel any need to specify in what solar system the events he was describing took place. That is, for the child, the home town—here Banfield—in effect comprises his or her entire universe. The idea of Banfield as the safe, all-encompassing haven of childhood is borne out in the first of these stories by the fact that the event that will signal the turning point in the protagonist's childhood, in effect, the first abrupt introduction of betrayal into his universe, occurs simultaneously with the outside intrusion into the closed world of Banfield by the arrival of cousin Hugo. This outsider from the capital descends on the suburb like the proverbial City Mouse with accouterments that inspire both jealousy and disdain in his young cousin:

It was plain to see that he was from Buenos Aires, with his clothes came books by Salgari and one on botany, because he had to prepare for his first year exams.


Again in “Bestiary,” Banfield will be associated with the secure world of the child, and this time it is the native protagonist's excursion away from the town which will coincide with the disruptive event destined to alter the previous state of innocence and tranquility. The reference is scant but suffices to establish the dichotomy between Banfield and adventure. For Isabel, Banfield represents security, Mamá and the dull Inés, knitting, boredom, or simply the bland everyday reality (“rice pudding with milk, very little cinnamon, a shame”) while Los Horneros, the Funes' home, is adventure, the unknown, the tiger, Nino “hunter of cockroaches” and “country intermingled with the taste of Milky Way and … menthol drops” (79). These two early examples, which situate the time of childhood in the space of Banfield, are only a foreshadowing of the extent to which Banfield becomes almost synonymous with childhood in Cortázar's writings. Clearly, in strictly biographical terms, it is not remarkable that Banfield should be associated irrevocably with the writer's past. But the method of recollection of the town in the strictly biographical context of the essays, as compared to the similar evocations of Banfield in the short stories, serves to demonstrate the large extent to which the latter depend upon the element of memory rather than of pure invention. There is little appreciable difference between the “phosphorescent summer sky of Banfield” evoked in Territorios as compared to a similar scene described in “Unreasonable Hours.” Just as the gleeful acts of infantile rebellion recalled in a footnote in A Certain Lucas do not differ greatly from the prepubescent insurrections mounted in “End of the Game.”12

Regardless of the genre in which they appear, in fact, such scenes—whether in the stories or the essays—tend to adhere almost to the letter to the archetype of the evocation of the place of childhood as described by Richard Coe in When the Grass Was Taller, wherein he points out “the significance of the insignificant” when examining the childhood world.13 As we have said, the presence of Banfield is only one indication of the extent to which Cortázar relies on his own childhood recollections in creating his fictional children. So it is not surprising that what is applicable to the factual portrayals of childhood in the essays should apply likewise to the short stories which employ a child's perspective. Although set in Buenos Aires instead of Banfield, the method of evoking the child's environment in “Después del almuerzo” (After Lunch) is similar to that employed by other writers of the Childhood genre, according to Coe's assessment of the latter:

The child's world is a small world. Obvious as this statement may sound, it has implications which affect the literary reconstruction of that world, and which may not be so immediately apparent. The child's world is confined to a few streets or to a few fields; it is a path down to the beach along which every fence and every stile is known intimately by name, and the names remain as incantations; it is a “private domain,” a “little world apart,” a “small but very personal world,” in which the names of streets were like the names of continents on a map of the world.


The observations made in this statement could easily have been made regarding the following passage from the Cortázar story:

… Besides, I was accustomed to walking through the streets with my hands in my pants pockets, whistling or chewing gum, or reading comic books while watching with the bottom part of my eyes the sidewalk blocks that I know by heart from my house to the streetcar, so that I can tell when I pass in front of Tita's house or when I'm about to arrive at the corner of Carabobo.14

Still another autobiographical aspect enters into the slightly different presentation of Banfield—although still connected with the childhood motif—which occurs in Cortázar's later writings. In at least two notable instances, Banfield ceases to be merely the setting for the child and becomes, via the recollective processes of adult characters, synonymous with the lost age of childhood. This equation appears both in the scenes of recollection by Andrés in A Manual for Manuel and finds what is perhaps its most blatant expression in the short story “Unreasonable Hours” from the author's last collection, which will end the cycle of child-related narratives on a note of deep nostalgia.15

In both cases, the immediacy of the Banfield of the child-narrated accounts—both briefer and more matter-of-fact in tone—is replaced by the hazy, somewhat romanticized versions of the town filtered through the nostalgia-laden perspective of the adult memory process. For Andrés, an exiled Argentine in Europe (hence the alluded-to autobiographical aspect), Banfield becomes almost the symbol of his irrecuperable, you-can't-go-home-again past. Childhood in that setting is presented as a safe garden in contrast to the adult's disenfranchised Parisian existence. Thus the past, full of a soporific kind of familial security, “My grandmother talking to me in a garden in Banfield/a sleepy suburb of Buenos Aires” is contrasted with the dispossessed, orphan-like uncertainty of a stranger in a strange land: “What a strange thing/being an Argentine on this night/knowing I'm going to an appointment with no one …” (357).

This passage constitutes a type of deja vu of an earlier scene minutely recalled by the character known as “the one I told you” who, through what he calls a mechanism of memory, is able to describe in great detail

the smell of jasmines … in a town in Buenos Aires province a long time back when his grandmother would get out the white tablecloth … and someone lighted the lamp and there was a sound of silverware and plates on trays, talking in the kitchen, the aunt who would go to the alley with the white gate to call the children who were playing with their friends in the garden next door or on the sidewalk and there was the heat of a January evening, [his] grandmother had watered the garden before it grew dark and you could get the smell of the wet earth … the honeysuckle covered with translucent drops that multiplied the lamp for a child with eyes born to see things like that.


Clearly, in this passage the writer has moved beyond the mere concrete reality of Banfield as backdrop to arrive at Banfield as subject, almost analogous to childhood itself. Again, Coe's observations regarding the phenomenon of childhood recollection bear some striking similarities with how Cortázar portrays this same process via his fictional characters. In discussing the relationship between mobility and memory, Coe asserts the following:

The child who was born, grew up, lived, and died in the same village or hamlet was less able to distance his adult from his immature self than the child who, having passed his early years on some remote farm, estate or sheep-station unidentifiable from the atlas, came later to roam among the great cities and capitals of the world. Even the childhood experience itself becomes more vivid when it contains not one but two clearly distinct modes of being: the one commonplace and familiar, the other abnormal and ecstatic, a “summer-holiday self,” moving in a magic dimension, far away amid the dunes and the forests, the towering grasses and the multicolored panoply of butterflies and unfamiliar birds.


Andrés, looking back at Banfield from exile in no less a “capital of the world” than Paris, is a clear example of the distancing effect of nostalgia, and it is not difficult to see in the scene depicted earlier—with its jasmine-perfumed air, white table-cloth, children playing in balmy temperatures and dewy honeysuckle—the very epitome of the “magic dimension” to which Coe alludes.

Without a doubt, however, the short story which most echoes this “summer-holiday self” conception of childhood, in contrast to the commonplace and familiar atmosphere which pervades stories such as “Los venenos,” is “Unreasonable Hours.” The paean to Banfield in this story establishes the memory of the town as being inseparable from that of childhood itself:

And along with all that there was, of course, Banfield, because that's where everything had taken place; neither Doro nor Aníbal could have imagined himself in any other town except Banfield in which the houses and the playgrounds were then vaster than the world itself.


The reference to the size of the houses is a first indication of the subjective “inaccuracies” of the child's perspective, to which the story gradually reverts. And while the following description may at first appear to be realistic, there is an “otherness” about it that converts this small insignificant town into a type of Shangri-La of childhood:

Banfield, a town with its dirt roads and its Southern Railway station, with its vacant lots that in summer, during the siesta, crawled with many-coloured locusts and, at night, seemed to congregate timorously around the few street lamps … with a vertiginous halo of flying insects around each glowing bulb. Doro and Aníbal's houses were so close to each other that the street was like one more room, a place that kept them together day and night … And summer, always; the summer of holidays, the freedom of playing games, time theirs alone, without school timetables or bells calling them to class, the scent of summer in the hot air of the afternoon and night, in the faces, sweaty after winning or losing, fighting or running, laughing and sometimes crying but always together, always free, masters of a world of kites and soccer balls and street corners and sidewalks.


From the emphasis on Banfield as distant in space we move in this short story to an emphasis on its distance in time, and if the place is now colored even more deeply by nostalgia, it is because the description is intended to paint a more faithful portrait of memory than of Banfield per se. So it is that the character will recall with perfect inaccuracy a Banfield which existed in eternal summer, in what is almost an exact translation of the “summer-holiday self” perspective of childhood typical of the genre. Luís Harss has noted that a number of Cortázar's “childhood stories” occur in summer, citing as examples “Los venenos,” “Bestiary,” and of course, “Summer” itself.16 Not only should “Unreasonable Hours” be added to this list, but moreover, it can be seen as almost the “metatext” of the entire “childhood cycle” of stories in Cortázar's fiction. That is, here the very modus operandi of the story is the process of recollection and the writing of one's childhood experiences. So it is not the actual suburb of Banfield any more than it is merely the events of childhood that are the real subject here; rather, it is the recollection of Banfield tinged with nostalgia, the process of reliving the past via another process, that of writing, which preoccupies the writer.

A considerable amount of space has been devoted thus far to situating Banfield as the quintessential “place of childhood” in Cortázar's fiction. This is because while Banfield does not figure in all of the childhood stories, it is a recognizable recurring motif in what is largely a pattern of shifting, sometimes contradictory, images of the child. Most of the alternating perspectives of the enigmatic child-figure which appear in Cortázar's work center around ideas already hinted at in the earlier discussion. As was noted, aside from the dichotomy we have seen between those stories which are narrated from the child's own perspective and those in which the child is seen through the eyes of an adult character, another important distinction arises if the child being viewed by the adult is his own former self. Other important aspects to consider in relationship to Cortázar's ever-dynamic portrayal of the child-figure is the way that the writer plays with the boundaries between autobiography and fiction, the limits of the mundane vs. the magic (some of these stories, such as “Bestiary” or “Silvia” have a neofantastic element—the tiger, the ephemeral Silvia herself—while the surrounding anecdote remains largely quotidian).

Viewing these stories as a group will make possible a discussion of these themes as well as of one final significant dichotomy which figures considerably in our overall perception of Cortázar's fictional children: the Blakean opposition between innocence and experience. For as we shall see, Cortázar's fascination with the young does not preclude the portrayal in his art of the darker side of innocence.


Having begun by looking at the “where” of childhood, it is time now to turn to the “who,” that is, to examine more closely the question of the various voices through which Cortázar will narrate the events of childhood. Looking first at the general nature of the children portrayed in Cortázar's fiction, once again the autobiographical would seem to provide insight into the fictional. A look at two of the non-fictional incursions into Cortázar's own past, one the already mentioned essay from Territorios, the other an introductory note in the poetry collection Salvo el crepúsculo (Save Twilight), provides a partial portrait of Cortázar the child (at least as he is perceived by Cortázar the adult).17 The first of these essays recalls a precocious, sensitive boy who takes delight in the surrounding universe but who also experiences the dawning realization that this very enthusiasm will in some way set him apart, not only from the adult world, but from his less inquisitive playmates as well. It is a sensation of being “different” which Cortázar recalls experiencing more than once, and which he sums up in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe's “Alone”:

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—(18)

In the two Cortázar stories we have seen which are narrated entirely in the child's voice, “Los venenos” and “Después del almuerzo,” the young child narrator in each case shares this remembered category of the child as loner. The betrayal by Lila of the protagonist of “Los venenos” is exacerbated by the fact that she was in effect the only person whose company he had preferred over solitude. And secretly, he had even thought of her as in some way sharing his aloneness:

After Lila left, I began to get bored with Hugo and my sister who were talking about typical orchestras. … I went to my room to look for my stamp album and all the time I was thinking about how Lila's mother was going to scold her and how she was probably crying or else that her sore was going to get infected the way they do so often … Probably Lila was thinking of us, alone in her house there (that was so dark, and her parents were so strict) while I was playing with my pen and my stamp collection … Better to put everything away and just think of poor brave Lila.


Except for “poor Lila,” the young narrator seems to shun the company of his peers. He openly spurns his sister, not only for the unforgivable shortcomings of being both younger and a girl, but also for her unabashed adoration of their cousin Hugo. And he apparently thinks only slightly more highly of the latter, partially because he knew so many stories by heart, but mainly because Hugo, too, disdains the sister: “Hugo laughed at her in secret, and at those moments I could have hugged him” (33).

In the story just mentioned, the preference for solitude on the part of the child could well be attributed to a type of pre-machismo-cum-sibling-rivalry. This tendency toward solitude is magnified to the point of pathology in “Después del almuerzo,” wherein the narrator's introversion is exacerbated by the embarrassingly noticeable, although undisclosed impairment of the brother. As does the boy in the previous story, the child here will also try to take refuge in the solitude of his room, amid his books:

After lunch I would have liked to stay in my room and read, but Mama and Papa came almost immediately to tell me that this afternoon I had to take him for a walk … The first thing I said was no, let someone else take him, could I please stay in my room and study.


But unlike the child in “Los venenos” who has companions and rejects them—who is a loner by choice—here we have a glimpse of the far more pathetic figure of the lonely child. (Luc, the sickly and timid avatar of a failed life in “A Yellow Flower” is another example.) To a much greater extent than the child in “Los Venenos” the narrator of “Después del almuerzo” seems to be all alone against an alternately hostile and hypercritical adult world (with the exception of the sympathetic but ineffectual tía Encarnación).

The third example in Cortázar's repertoire of child-loners is probably the most enigmatic of all the child-figures to be found in the Argentine's stories. Unlike the two preceding examples, in “Summer” it is a girl-child who seems even initially almost disquietingly self-possessed, polite, but as if removed from the world of her mildly perplexed baby-sitters. Upon arriving at the summer cabin, she tacitly establishes a distance that gives her a subtle form of control over the two non-nonplused adults:

Florencio had left his car in the village square, he had to take off right away; he thanked them and kissed his little girl, who had already spotted the stack of magazines on the bench. When the door closed, Zulma and Mariano looked at each other almost questioningly, as if everything had happened too fast.19

Shortly thereafter, Zulma, portrayed as a tentative, childless-mother type, seems all but superfluous as she attempts to interact with the little girl, only to meet with rote manners but little success, as the child seems totally absorbed with her magazines:

Zulma asked the little girl if she was hungry, she suggested she play with the magazines, in the closet there was a ball and net for catching butterflies; the little girl said thank you and began to look at the magazines; Zulma watched her for a moment as she prepared the artichokes for dinner that evening and thought she could let her play by herself.


It is as if the child's solitude here is a weapon, repeating, but with greater success, the withdrawal into books as an attempt to combat the adults' intrusions which was seen in the previous story.

Closely related to this concept of the child as loner—a measure of the extent to which the child interacts with his or her peers, with well-meaning adult intrusions, or declares his independence from others—is that of the precocious child, who, from an early age exhibits the maturity, wisdom, or simply the autonomy usually associated with the adult world. The predilection Cortázar seems to have for creating this type of child marks yet another common trait shared by his fictional projections and the complex child he remembers as his former self. The enigmatic “nena” of “Summer,” like the two young narrator-protagonists of “Los venenos” and “Después del almuerzo” all exemplify the youthful version of the hybrid between the child and the adult which so pervades Cortázar's art. The essay “On Feeling Not All There” deals precisely with this intermediary state, beginning with the following admission/boast:

I will always be a child in many ways, but one of those children who from the beginning carries with him an adult, so when the little monster becomes an adult, he carries in turn a child inside and, nel mezzo del camin yields to the seldom peaceful coexistence of at least two outlooks onto the world.


The precocious child, then, for Cortázar, is merely an early stage—as opposed to an inversion—of the type of adult character the writer typically employs as protagonist; one who, like the writer himself, has the capacity to be adult and yet maintain a child-like attitude towards things, one that is “positive, enthusiastic, with a sense of playfulness, of the gratuitous …”20 As children, the three figures we have been discussing all possess, de facto, the capacities listed here. At the same time, the precociousness of each places him/her among the ranks of the aforementioned children who carry the adult with them. This becomes of particular significance in those stories narrated by children, for without this “double aperture”—the mixture of the ingenuous and the sophisticated—a forced choice would have to be made between the complexity and the maturity of the mode of discourse and the authenticity and believability of the child's voice which is presumably being employed.

Clearly, the use of the oxymoronic precocious child as narrator constitutes one ingenious solution to this dilemma. Another method of overcoming this inherent contradiction is to employ the other end of the analogy outlined by Cortázar, the grown-up narrator who, as the writer has described, “has not renounced the child's vision as the price of becoming an adult.” (Around the Day in Eighty Worlds 21) Such adults who, it would appear, occupy yet another of the well-known Cortázarian interstices—this time between childhood and adulthood—heavily populate the otherwise largely all-adult worlds of the Argentine's novels. Horacio Oliveira, Medrano, Andrés, Johnny Carter, not to mention the list of their female counterparts, headed by la Maga, Paula, Alina Reyes and even Talita, all can be said to exhibit what has come to be known in popular psychology as “The Peter Pan Syndrome.”21

In the short stories involving “actual” children who come face to face with these children-at-heart, the results of such a confrontation often involve an element of fantasy somewhat reminiscent of the bittersweet atmosphere surrounding childhood which J. M. Barrie's original “boy who refused to grow up” conjures in the mind. This is especially the case in the story “Silvia” whose writer-narrator, almost certainly a Cortázar persona, is fascinated by the children's games and rituals (which are seen as an annoyance or distraction by the other adults) and who is rewarded by glimpses of the phantasm they have invented. A more disquieting example of an adult who enters into the fantasy world of the child is seen in the eerily ambiguous “In the Name of Bobby.”22 As in “Silvia,” the ability of the grownup to enter into the child's perspective, however fleetingly, creates a propitious opportunity for the adult's secret fantasies and repressed desires to be expressed indirectly.

Nor is it incidental that it is the aunt in the story “In the Name of Bobby” who sympathizes with the child's fantasy world. She is in fact only one of a fairly considerable number of aunts and sometimes uncles who exist as adult accomplices to the child in Cortázar's stories. In “Después del almuerzo” as was already mentioned briefly, it is also the aunt who is the only sympathetic adult in the story. There is something almost childish in the conspiratorial way that she offers the young narrator comfort:

Aunt Encarnación must have noticed that I was upset about having to go out with him, because she stroked my hair and then she bent and gave me a kiss on the forehead. I felt her slip something into my pocket. “So you can buy yourself a little something,” she said into my ear, “And don't forget to give him a little—it's preferable.”


In “Los Venenos” it is the uncle who seems to be as excited as the child is by the new “toy,” a fact which Cortázar conveys with ironic humor:

“They're all going to die,” said my uncle, who was very pleased with the way the machine was working, I stood alongside him with dirt up to my elbows, and it was plain to see that this was a man's job.


In “Bestiary,” too, there is a similar relationship of complicity between Isabel and the “adoptive aunt” figure of Rema, the two becoming literal accomplices by the story's end.

Again, an amusing autobiographical anecdote in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds indicates that this type of secret alliance between nephew and aunt occurred in the writer's own past. The essay “On the Sense of the Fantastic” offers the following confession:

One obtains a more complete notion of my abominable realism during this period [childhood] when I confess that I often found coins in the street—coins that I stole at home and casually dropped while my aunt studied a store window, in order to pick them up afterwards and claim the right to buy candy. My aunt, on the other hand, must have been quite accustomed to the fantastic, for she never found this too frequent occurrence strange, but actually shared my excitement, as well as an occasional caramel.


The conspiratorial role between child and aunt or uncle which we see in each of these examples is something of an extension of the somewhat bland but nevertheless applicable archetype of these marginal relatives and their relationship to the child which Coe outlines in his study of the childhood genre. He describes the archetypal “avuncular” relationship as one which supplies warmth and affection without the demands and complexities which accompany parental love. Coe then describes the common portrayal of aunts and uncles as the “bringers of gifts” and makes reference to the all-important characteristic of “trustworthiness,” which he claims is their “essential quality, at any event in the eyes of the still-young child” (160).

Similarly, in “Silvia,” the fact that the narrator, who identifies more with the children than with the other adults at the gathering, is a writer by profession is not accidental. In the absence of a sympathetic aunt or uncle, the artist becomes a second type of (frequently eccentric) adult figure who will be deemed trustworthy by the child. The well-established literary convention which associates the mind of the poet with the child's mentality does not appear for the first time in Cortázar's writings with this story. In The Winners, it is Persio, the erratic poet-translator, who enjoys a secret communication with the eight-year-old Jorge who, the former insists, “knows things that … he'll later forget” (87).

In “Silvia,” while the child-poet affinity is more obliquely presented, the mutual attraction between the narrator and Graciela, the little girl who instructs him in the rudiments of the children's fantasy-world, is evident. She plays a type of coy Alice to his Charles Dodgson, sitting fleetingly on his lap, rushing off again to rejoin her playmates and generally treating him with an off-handed sort of affectionate tolerance. There is a whimsical irony to the role reversal which has her patiently explaining the details of Silvia's appearances to the narrator, an obligation she feels, as he wryly notes, “based on her notion that I am a little dim” (187). Both this relationship and that of Persio and Jorge, secret alliances formed between poets and children, seem closely related to Cortázar's belief in the innate poetic capabilities of the latter. In his conversation with Bermejo, he humorously cites Cocteau's somewhat petulant statement on the subject: “all children are poets except Minou Drouet.” Who, Cortázar goes on to explain:

was that little monster who had written a book of poems at eight years of age, a bit prefabricated by the mother, and who all of France admired.

And he goes on to note that

it's true that if you leave children alone with their games they do marvelous things … With writing it's the same. The very first things that children tell, or that they like having told to them, are pure poetry; the child lives in a world of metaphors … of permeability. 16-17

This last description, that of the child's world as one of “metaphor, acceptance and permeability,” explains not only those stories by Cortázar which depict an affinity between children and writers literally, but also explains why in other stories it is most often that character who is a writer who retains the closest ties with the child who was his former self. We have already seen how it is Andrés, the self-appointed chronicler of the activities of la Joda in A Manual for Manuel, who slips most easily into “a past that becomes more present every day” (19). But it is not only such fictional characters as Andrés or the narrator of “Silvia” who experience this phenomenon, for Cortázar himself has attested to an equally extraordinary memory:

I remember many details, a quantity of things that have happened …, in short: une recherche de temps perdu; I am lost in that, in an interminable and detailed recollection.

(Bermejo 16-17)

We have already noted that “Unreasonable Hours,” the last Cortázar short story to embrace the childhood theme, deals more with the process of remembering childhood—through writing—than it does with children or childhood, per se. In light of the above quote, the narrator seems almost to be speaking for Cortázar when he contrasts his own recollective abilities with those of others:

I never knew quite why, but time and again I returned to things that others had learned to forget so as not to slouch through life carrying all that past on their shoulders. I was certain that among my friends there were few who remembered their childhood playmates the way I remembered Doro …


In addition, the story seems to come very close to explicitly defining Cortázar's lifelong fascination with remembering and writing events from his childhood, to which he apparently assigns a value similar to that assigned to his past by the character, Aníbal, when he speaks of childhood as

things that could not be relived but that became somehow present, as if a third dimension opened up within the memories themselves, lending them a frequently bitter but much longed for proximity.


As we have seen, Cortázar has employed various narrative perspectives in his attempt to regain access to this “third dimension.” The voices he has employed in this pursuit range from that of the child to that of “child-like” adults and even to thinly veiled personae who represent the writer himself communing with children. But regardless of the narrative voice employed in these stories, it is clear that in presenting the complex figure of the child, Cortázar has never completely abandoned that one child's voice which he seems to hear very clearly despite distance in time and space: his own. It is on this voice that he seems to rely most heavily in re-creating the vox puerilis of the child-narrated stories, just as it is largely memory which supplies the details of the childhood realm in those tales in which it occurs.

The child's role in the writer's lifelong quest for a secular millennium has been twofold. The child himself is perceived by the Argentine as a quintessential seeker in his own right, while childhood, as a contiguous territory through which we have all passed, is presented in Cortázar's works as a metaphorical destination, another name for a time and space which is lost but which we may again encounter: the kibbutz of childhood.

Cortázar's preoccupation with nostalgia, both personal and collective, however, is more a longing for the future than for the past. And if the child becomes a favorite emissary/metaphor for Cortázar's message of a barely glimpsed alternate reality, it is no doubt for one quality, above all others, which is valued by the writer: the child's greater degree of authenticity.

When Cortázar envisions “rescuing” the child who exists, sometimes buried beneath layers of social conditioning, in every adult, it is to this authentic, ideal child-self that he refers. It is for this reason that the majority of his adult protagonists, each embarked upon his or her own form of a quest toward greater authenticity, must prerequisitely exist as an interstitial being, a hybrid between the child and the adult states. At the same time, the abstract values assigned to the childhood phase of existence do not blind Cortázar to the assets (or the short-comings) of the flesh-and-blood variety of child: spontaneity, enthusiasm, passion, imagination, creativity, rebelliousness and humor. It is by accessing all of these qualities, as well as the more mysterious, darker aspects of the child as enigma or transgressor, that Cortázar finds the adequate voice via which he projects himself through the complex, kaleidoscopic prism of the child-narrator.

It is not difficult to comprehend the allure of the child for a man who once proclaimed, “I detest solemn searches” (see Harss, Into the Mainstream). Nor do we need Cortázar's confession of a life-long affinity with the character Peter Pan to convince us that in many ways, in the best sense of the phrase, the Argentine, like Barrie's prototype, never entirely grew up. The curiosity and humor which naturally, unaffectedly mark the child's perspective, seem never to have abandoned Cortázar. He in turn, never forgot how to listen to that child-like voice—long dormant in many adults—which remains skeptical toward the limited arguments of the purely rational, suspicious of all that is not genuine.

Seemingly, much that delights us in Cortázar's art can be attributed to that thriving inner child, who remained a friend and an accomplice to the writer throughout his lifetime. Perhaps it was this childish alter ego, peeking over Julio's shoulder, who whispered those conversations in “glíglico” recorded in Hopscotch into the writer's ear; the same “paredro” who dictated the child-like antics of that other infantile pair in 62: A Model Kit or recalled the childhood trauma of putting on a sweater for “No se culpe a nadie” (Don't You Blame Anybody); who puckishly named the group of merry pranksters in A Manual for Manuel la Joda; or, who could doubt it, helped compile that humorous catalogue of misfits and iconoclasts called Historia de cronopios y famas (Cronopios and Fames). In all of these cases, Cortázar, listening to his child-like muse, traded solemnity for humor, without sacrificing seriousness. It was and is a serious business, this rescuing of the child. As the body of works which are his legacy attests to, Cortázar was seemingly successful in rescuing his own inner child. Just as he remained faithful until the end to his larger quest of rescuing the dormant child in all of humankind.


  1. André Bretón, First Manifesto of Surrealism as quoted in Reinhard Kuhn, Corruption in Paradise (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1982), 229.

  2. Julio Cortázar, The Winners, trans. Elaine Kerrigan (New York: Pantheon, 1965), 182.

  3. Cortázar, Hopscotch (New York: Random House, 1963), 7.

  4. Franz Kafka in a letter to his sister Elli, Autumn 1921, as quoted by Reinhard Kuhn in his Corruption in Paradise; The Child in Western Literature (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1982), 36.

  5. Luís Harss, “Infancia y cielo en Cortázar,” in Julio Cortázar. ed. Pedro Lastra (Madrid: Taurus Ediciones, 1981). (My translation.)

  6. Ernesto González Bermejo, Conversaciones con Cortázar (Barcelona: EDHASA, 1978), 48. Subsequent references appear in the text. (All translations mine.)

  7. “Esa hora fuera del tiempo … Una condición privilegiada … un instante de temblorosa maravilla …,” in Cortázar, “Las grandes transparencias” (The Great Transparencies), in Territorios (México: Siglo XXI Editores, 1978), 81.

  8. Evelyn Picon Garfield, Cortázar por Cortázar (México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1981), 81.

  9. As quoted by Richard Coe, When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984), 27.

  10. Harss, “Infancia,” 267.

  11. Cortázar, “Bestiary,” in the collection End of the Game and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Harper and Row, 1967); “Los venenos” (Poisons) appears in Final del juego (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Sudamericanas 1978). (For “Los venenos”: my translation; subsequent references to “Bestiary” appear in text.)

  12. Cortázar, A Certain Lucas, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Knopf, 1984).

  13. Coe, When the Grass Was Taller, 127.

  14. Cortázar, “Después del almuerzo,” in Final del juego (v. note 11), 139. (All subsequent translations mine.)

  15. Cortázar, A Manual for Manuel, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 353. The passage cited here was previously discussed in this context by Harss—see above. The story “Unreasonable Hours” appears in the collection of the same name (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1983), 102. Subsequent references in text.

  16. Harss, “Infancia,” 264.

  17. Cortázar, “De edades y tiempos,” Salvo el crepúsculo (México: Editorial Nueva Imagen, 1984), 39-40.

  18. Cortázar, “On Feeling Not All There,” in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, trans. Thomas Christensen (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 19.

  19. Cortázar, “Summer,” in A Change of Light and Other Stories, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 4. Subsequent references in text.

  20. Garfield, Cortázar por Cortázar, 67.

  21. Dan Kiley, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1983).

  22. Cortázar, “In the Name of Bobby,” in A Change of Light (see above); “Silvia” first appeared in Ultimo round (Last Round) and is translated in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds.

Brett Levinson (essay date July-December 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7861

SOURCE: Levinson, Brett. “The Other Origin: Cortázar and Identity Politics.” The Latin American Literary Review 22, no. 44 (July-December 1994): 5-19.

[In the following essay, Levinson considers the “return to origins” theme in “Azolotl” and discusses the link between origins, identity, authenticity, and Otherness in Latin American thought.]

The “return to origins” is one of the recurring themes of Latin American cultural criticism and literature. The discussion has assumed many forms, but a more or less “dominant school of thought” has established itself, one that associates the return to origins with the recovery of a former authenticity and/or an “Other” (once held, now lost) subject position.1 The following study will not challenge this association of origins, authenticity and Otherness but reevaluate it by creating an intersection of Julio Cortázar's 1956 tale “Axolotl” and a hermeneutics that could perhaps best be labeled “radical” since its purpose is to get to the roots of the “return to origins” topos. My goal is to demonstrate how this hermeneutics can help reconfigure certain aspects of contemporary Latin Americanist debates concerning post-colonialism and identity.


“Axolotl” narrates the tale of a nameless man (and perhaps a homeless, family-less and jobless one, given that the story makes no mention of a home, a family or a job), living in Paris, who becomes obsessed with certain salamander larvae (“axolotls”) that he observes daily in an aquarium. Eventually, he himself turns into an axolotl. The perspective of the narrative, therefore, appears to be double, as the story alternates between an axolotl's and a man's (as well as between a past and present) viewpoint: “Hubo un tiempo en que yo pensaba mucho en los axolotl … Ahora soy un axolotl” (421).

These bizarre axolotls are linked to the Aztecs in many ways. The narrator, in fact, refers twice to the Aztec features of the axolotl's face. One must note as well that the word “axolotl” is of Nahuatl origin—atl (water) and xolotl (doll, toy, mythical personality)2—, and that these salamander-larvae have inhabited the waters of Mexico for centuries. But perhaps the most important connection of the axolotls and the Aztecs concerns the signifier axolotl itself. As the narrator points out, the Spanish word for the salamander is ajolote;3 the French signifier is axolotl. The tale, for reasons which are not at all clear, employs only the French spelling (the narrator tells us what the Spanish word is, but never actually uses it).4 This decision not to translate into Spanish grows even more curious when we consider the narrator's use of the Spanish definite article los (as in los axolotl) when designating these larvae. In other words, to refer to the salamanders he combines a Spanish syntax with a French lexicon when he could have avoided this awkward structure by utilizing either los ajolotes or les axolotl(s). Further adding to this mystery, the narrator does not recur to the expected plural French form, axolotls, leaving the “s” out. Of course, “tl” is an extremely odd French combination, and the “tls” (the plural) is even odder. It would not be unusual, then, for a French speaker to retain the singular axolotl when referring in writing to more than one axolotl.5 Even so, one cannot help but feel that, with the phrase los axolotl, the narrator is treating axolotl as a kind of proper name—a foreign one, of course—since, indeed, in the expression los axolotl a plural article appears with a singular noun; and virtually the only time such a structure is used in Spanish is with family or proper names: “los Smith.”

Whether we can come to terms with the above philological oddities remains to be seen. What is sure is the following: the tale makes a deliberate effort to hold onto the signifier axolotl (ajolote will not do), this French word that comes from a distant time/place, and has not evolved, has not changed to conform to the language's modern phonemic patterns. No doubt Cortázar, in choosing the French spelling, wants to retain the “tl” phoneme, which is extremely prevalent in Nahuatl. Yet in using axolotl rather than ajolote Cortázar also preserves the word's “x.” This “x” recalls a very unusual “x” within the language, the one in México, a word derived from Mexictli, an Aztec war God. “X” of course, while a relatively uncommon Spanish letter, does appear in a number of words; yet its pronunciation is usually “sh” (Mexictli), “s” (tlaxcalteco) or even “cs” (conexión). Rarely is it pronounced like a jota as it is in México or mexicano.6 In fact, words within Spanish that were once spelled with an “x”—if that letter was or has come to be pronounced as a jota—are most often, in modern times, written with the “j.” Indeed, this explains the “j” of ajolote.

Certainly, then, there is something unconventional about the “x” of mexicano, and this unconventionality is signaled by the “x” of “axolotl.” But by maintaining the “x” Cortázar not only emphasizes the link between the a-x-olotls in the aquarium and their me-x-icano “origin”; he also emphasizes the lingering presence of the Aztec-Mexica universe within Western modernity. Apparently, however, such a presence is difficult to read or translate. This tells us why it appears as an “x,” an unknown. In fact, and as we shall see, “Axolotl” is very much about an “x” structure: not only about crossovers (cultural intersections) and crossing over but also about a pure signifier, an “x,” which does not refer to a signified but which instead marks a spot—the spot, precisely, of the axolotls.

In any event, this invocation of the Aztec or Mexica world points up the story's dialogue with the aforementioned “return to origins” theme. “Axolotl” concerns itself (at least at first glance) with the plight of an alienated (and nameless) man, possibly a Latin American,7 living in Europe, who comes into contact with a now imprisoned, but once non-colonized, autonomous, “Aztec” being, space and identity—with the “roots” of Latin America, with a kind of origin: “un remoto señorío aniquilado, un tiempo de libertad en que el mundo había sido de los axolotl” (426).

Identity and identification are in fact the story's main focus. Thus, the man-observer indicates that the first time he looked through the glass of the axolotls' aquarium he immediately identified with the larvae: “comprendí que estábamos vinculados, que algo infinitamente perdido y distante seguía sin embargo uniéndonos” (422). Even though he recognized that axolotls were infinitely far away, the observer felt a secret connection. This impression is reiterated later in the text: “Y sin embargo estaban cerca. … La absoluta falta de semejanza de los axolotl con el ser humano me probó que mi reconocimiento era válido, que no me apoyaba en anologías fáciles” (424). Once more we see that not despite, but because of the absolute distance (“la absoluta falta de semejanza”) between observer and “observee,” human being and axolotl, modern man in Europe and “premodern Aztec” creature—such unlikenesses aside, the two are “vinculados,” tied, extremely near, perhaps identical.

This last citation concerning “easy analogies” and the “absolute lack of similarity” is of particular importance to the story as a whole. An analogy—at least, traditionally—assumes that two distinct or separate beings possess some sort of familiar (even if repressed) resemblance; they are different, but never absolutely dissimilar. How then can there be an analogy of absolutely unlike entities, the man and the axolotl? At least two possible answers surface.8 The first is that the observer and the axolotl, modern man and Aztec, secretly belong to the same family, in which case the story is unambiguously about the link between identity and origins: about the repressed relationship of the modern (Latin American?) man and the pre-Columbian worlds, one in which the precolonial subject represents the lost authentic self (“algo infinitamente perdido y distante”) of the contemporary, colonized person. Within such a reading the “lack of similarity” is not “absolute” (since the man and axolotl, in fact, are not completely dissimilar) as the narrator himself claims; the narrator's use of this adjective can be attributed to his initial misunderstanding of the man/axolotl relationship.

The second possibility is that the story develops an alternative notion of analogy, one which is not based upon similarity and difference but solely upon difference: upon the uncanny bond, the strange being-together of unrelated entities.9 I use the term “uncanny” here because this kind of bond recalls the thesis put forth by Freud in the well-known essay by that name. Indeed, for Freud uncanny moments occur precisely when a person finds him- or herself in contact or at one with (at home with) the stranger, the un-familiar or the unrelated entity—a stranger, who is most often the person's own double. The second feasible reading of the “analogy” of “unlike entities” can be stated as follows: in “Axolotl” the protagonist, eying the axolotl, witnesses the awful return of his own “lost” or repressed double, a double that is both analogous to him (since it is his double) and absolutely un-familiar (not of his family or kind, uncanny: one here thinks of a corpse, which is simultaneously absolutely unlike and perfectly like the living being). This interpretation can be supplemented by recalling the “los axolotl” phrase, where “axolotl” appears to function semantically as a proper name. Is it possible that when the nameless man observes the placard with the word “axolotl” written upon it, he unconsciously beholds his own true, but lost or missing family name (which provokes the ensuing obsession with axolotls), the name of the father, and hence the name of the origin? Is it not also possible that this “true name” is at the same time foreign to him, an unreadable sign (the “axolotl” or the “x” as the narrator's uncanny name, as his representation or “double”), as if the man's own roots and name were somehow improper, not his own but those of an Other?

Below, I shall broach these questions, as well as the two opposed readings of the above-mentioned “analogy,” more carefully. Now, however, I shall abandon these conflicts and inquiries so as to examine another crucial element of “Axolotl”: the manner in which the narrative toys with the discipline of anthropology. Indeed, it is with the precise mind-set of a zealous anthropologist that the man-protagonist directly observes, and desperately attempts to understand, the “indigenous” axolotls, these “cultural Others.”10 At the end of the story (when he is an axolotl), in fact, he confesses that this was his true goal, to know the Other/axolotls more fully, “conocernos mejor” (427). Yet his obsessive observations do not yield the desired knowledge. The reason for this is rooted in the story's treatment of the theme of observation itself, of vision—the vision of the axolotls. “Sus ojos, sobre todo, me obsesionaban” (424), the protagonist says; and further down: “Los ojos de los axolotl me decían de la presencia de una vida diferente, de otra manera de mirar” (424). The axolotl, we note from this second quote, is Other, not because it necessarily possesses another way of living, but another way of looking. What distinguishes the axolotl, what makes it different, Other, is its “mirada”: how it sees the man. And since it is this look that defines the Other as other, the observer, to familiarize himself with that Otherness, must witness himself from the axolotl viewpoint. He does not need to see the Other nor to see the Other seeing him, but to see like the Other, to occupy the eye-site of the object that he is studying. In short, to truly “see” the Other the man must be the other eye. He must surrender his position as subject-observer of the Other, and become the Other itself.

And this is exactly what the protagonist does. Responding to the call of the axolotls—in his disturbed state he hears them screaming “Sálvanos, sálvanos” (425)—he forgets his “human side,” and moves into the Other's place: “Sin transición, sin sorpresa, vi mi cara contra el vidrio, la vi fuera del acuario, la vi del otro lado del vidrio. Entonces mi cara se apartó y comprendí” (426). But strangely, what he understands is very little:

Sólo una cosa era extraña: seguir pensando como antes, saber. Darme cuenta de eso fue en el primer momento como el horror del enterrado vivo que despierta a su destino. Afuera, mi cara volvía a acercarse al vidrio, veía mi boca de labios apretados por el esfuerzo de comprender a los axolotl. Yo era un axolotl y sabía instantáneamente que ninguna comprensión era posible. El estaba fuera del acuario, su pensamiento era un pensamiento fuera del acuario. Conociéndolo, siendo él mismo, yo era un axolotl y estaba en mi mundo. El horror venía—lo supe en el mismo momento—de creeme prisionero en un cuerpo de axolotl, transmigrado a él con mi pensamiento de hombre, enterrado vivo en un axolotl, condenado a moverme lúcidamente entre criaturas insensibles

(426-27, emphasis added)

He then later adds that: “Ahora soy definitivamente un axolotl, y si pienso como un hombre es sólo porque todo axolotl piensa como un hombre … “(427).

What horrible message is Cortázar attempting to convey with these last passages? The answer hinges on the questions of knowledge and comprehension, implied by the presence, in these citations, of a plethora of signifiers that are related to knowing, learning, thinking and understanding. The man as observer, it was noted, wants to comprehend the axolotls. Yet he fails to obtain this understanding since he can only observe the creatures from an insufficient, outside perspective. It is suggested that the home of the axolotls, the inside of the aquarium, is the site where true understanding of this Other is located. The man supposes that while he cannot comprehend the Other due to his removed standpoint, the Other understands itself (or at least this Other understands itself better than the man does). Therefore, if he can become Other, directly experience the Other's existence rather than merely observing it, he too will begin to obtain that knowledge or understanding. Moreover, he will come to understand not only this Other, but also himself since he identifies his true self in that Other-axolotl.

We would do well to put the above ideas in other terms: in the eyes of the narrator of “Axolotl” the truth of both the Other and the self is a question of being. Let us recall that the man, as he narrates the story, is an axolotl (“Ahora soy un axolotl”): “axolotl-ness” is his being. In classical metaphysics, of course, being and truth are intimately connected. Being (in Latin, esse) is the essence that transcends all earthly, and therefore false existence (ente); it is verity and authenticity itself. Being is true being. This explains why, for the alienated man-observer, truth about the Other is so associated with being the Other, and why being the self (being who one authentically is) is so tied to true knowledge of the body that occupies the place of this self, namely, the axolotl. The man-observer believes (consciously or otherwise) that he will obtain true self-understanding by understanding the Other; and he will obtain such understanding only by being (ente) this Other that he is (esse).

But Cortázar places his story within this metaphysical framework with clear subversive intentions. In the first place, and as we have already seen, the man's eventual conversion into an Other-being yields almost no understanding at all; his being an axolotl does not allow him to comprehend the axolotls: “Yo era un axolotl y sabía instantáneamente que ninguna comprensión era posible.” Indeed, as the man passes to the other side, he continues “pensando como antes, saber.” In other words, what this man comes “to know” through his actual experience as an axolotl is that all thinking, all understanding, all expression (“son incapaces de expresión” [427], the man-turned-axolotl says of axolotls)—all knowledge except knowledge of the fact that the axolotls cannot be known—pertain to this side, the side of the man-observer, of the Same, of non-experience. Previously I suggested that “Axolotl” is narrated from two perspectives, that of the axolotl and that of the man. Now, however, we see that the tale can only include one eye-view, one vision: the man's. For even as the man-observer passes over to the Other's place of being/seeing, his descriptions and discourse necessarily remain those of the Same: “si pienso como un hombre es sólo porque todo axolotl piensa como un hombre.” He can only “comprehend” or “see” his new being (even his new way of seeing) via the “outside,” discursive structures of the old one, structures that cannot reach the axolotls. In “Axolotl,” in short, there are Others (axolotls), but no Other perspectives, no alternative discourses.11 The axolotl can speak (he or it appears to be narrating the story, after all), but not as an axolotl. Or to put this in different terms, in the story the locus of enunciation and the enunciation itself, being and expression, ser y pensar (the only activity that the axolotls perform, in fact, is to think: “lo único que hago es pensar” [427]) are radically unhinged.

Cortázar presents us, therefore, with an is, a presence (“Now I am an axolotl”) that is Other than every possible form of re-presence or perception. For I cannot overemphasize the fact that, even though the axolotls as such cannot be represented or “known” via any discourse (neither by the man's nor by those of the axolotls themselves), they are not absences; nor are they exclusions or silences in any strict sense. On the contrary, as signaled by the man's repeated references to both the piercing, inescapable stare of the axolotls (axolotls cannot close their eyes for they have no eyelids), and to the pain that this stare inflicts upon him, the axolotls are affective, irreducible presences. They also possess a kind of “voice” since their uncanny being places a powerful demand (“Sálvanos, sálvanos”) upon the observer; and a demand, a call, is a form of “speech.” But the main problem of the tale concerns neither speech nor presence but, as mentioned, represence, repetition or, to put this another way, semiotics. Why semiotics? Because in semiotic theory since Saussure, a signifier or a sign attaches itself to a signified through repetition.12 C-A-T refers to a certain furry, domestic animal not for any essential or phenomenological reason (hence Saussure's notion of the “arbitrariness of the sign”), but because people of a given culture once repeatedly affiliated this signifier (or one like it) with said furry creature, and because a cultural convention formed through these iterations. Yet the “axolotl” cannot be re-presented or repeated by such a semiotic system; in the story, as we have seen, all semiotic constructs pertain to the man's side, which is unrelated to, and hence cannot relay the axolotl side. Thus the axolotl resists integration not only into every semiotics, but into every tradition. (We recall that the word “axolotl” belongs to French, this linguistic tradition, but has not been “translated” into “traditional” French patterns; we recall also that the narrator chooses not to translate “axolotl” into Spanish, as if the word—as such, with the “x”—, could not be integrated into that idiom.) Indeed, a being that cannot be repeated, that is singular, “untranslatable,”13 cannot be properly assimilated into a community since communities are groups that share certain conventions (a sharing which makes communication, community, possible); and conventions, like semiotic systems, come about through repetition, representation. A pure sign, the axolotls, therefore, are as they are: axolotls, an unassimilated signifier. All of which means that in “Axolotl,” the a-X-olotl itself, the X literally marks the spot, the sheer, non-conceptual presence of the Other.

But “Axolotl” is not about the plight of axolotls. It is about Latin America, whether or not the man himself is a Latin American.14 In Cortázar's writings, of course, the Latin American experience is portrayed as one of radical alienation (see, for instance, Rayuela). Cortázar's Latin American, in other words, is an axolotl: a being forced to dwell as a prisoner inside alienating Western structures and discourses (even if that person happens to live in Latin America itself)—structures and discourses that this person must nonetheless use if he or she is to live or speak at all. In fact, Cortázar's Latin American is so profoundly assimilated into Western constructs that this point is easily repressed: the person, having lost touch with his/her otherness, forgets it, and begins to feel at home while inside foreign constructs.

These Western constructs, while no doubt hegemonic, are not homogeneous since they harbor a myriad of disconnected, “foreign” fragments of lost histories and times (which explains why so many of Cortázar's texts are about the traumatic return of these Other times). Thus Cortázar's interest in axolotls (and in the “x” in México), in these traces of a destroyed Nahuatl/Aztec culture that survive within the modern epoch, while at the same time resisting modern structures. In other words, within Cortázar's vision of Western modernity, there co-exist various histories: the history of Western modernity plus the ruins of detached Other histories that modernity has managed to crush and/or “house” (assimilate), but not completely eliminate.

Paradoxically, however, Cortázar texts such as “Axolotl” critique (both implicitly and explicitly) all notions of hybridity, synchronism and pluralism. Cortázar, that is, does not believe that the resistant remnants of the past are signs of other cultures still alive within Western or Latin American culture. Indeed, he holds that the odd fragments that occupy modernity are not “cultural” or “historical” at all; yet nor are they transcendental, ahistorical or transhistorical. Instead, they are untimely: historical bits and pieces that are disconnected from all former and current civilizations and histories, all previous, existing and potential re-presentations (hence the axolotls themselves, which contain vestiges, the “x,” of the Mexicas but which, as salamander-larvae, were obviously never actual members of the Mexica civilization).

Only now are we truly prepared to understand “Axolotl.” In “Axolotl” an alienated man gets hooked on an untimely fragment, an Other (an axolotl) that he believes is a sign of his lost self, one that he has forgotten or repressed. Through his obsession he is traumatically yanked out of the Same and towards the world of this “Other,” a world that now occupies his entire existence. Yet the man's transformation alters his pre-understanding of this Other: experience with “origins” demythifies the myth of origins. For when the man-observer turns into an axolotl he does not recuperate his former “I,” his lost essence. In fact, his understanding of the axolotls as a true self that was lost and might (or might not) be retrieved, turns out to be a fantasy generated by the distance between Self and Other. It was only because he was not an axolotl that he was able to imagine the axolotls as a (lost) property of himself. But by living the fantasy the protagonist voids the fantasy, cuts the tie. As an actual axolotl, he learns that the axolotls are only axolotls, the Other: “Pero los puentes están cortados entre él y yo, porque lo que era su obsesión es ahora un axolotl, ajeno de su vida de hombre” (427).

An equally important aspect of the protagonist's metamorphosis is one related to an idea that was suggested above: the protagonist is not only like the axolotls, he is an axolotl. The reason that he can draw an analogy between himself and the absolutely distant Other is because he is that Other. If the narrator is a Latin American (but the “if,” in fact, is here unimportant: the situation of both the axolotls and the man is analogous to the Latin American situation, whatever the man's “origins”), he is not only Other than the Conquerors (the West); he is also, like the axolotls themselves, Other than the indigenous worlds that the Conquerors conquered. For Cortázar, the transition from the history of indigenous civilizations to the history of Latin America is one of rupture, not of progression (“los puentes están cortados entre él y yo”). Cortázar's alienated man-axolotl is not Other than he originally was, Other than his former essence, but simply and irreducibly Other: Other, and not otherwise.


In an odd, but nonetheless important way, “Axolotl” is caught up in the analytic situation as described by Lacan. For Lacan, of course, the analysand assumes that the analyst, precisely due to his/her position as analyst, has always already gained access into the patient's unconscious: he or she occupies the site of knowledge, is the subject-supposed-to-know. Thus the patient supposes that he/she can know the source of his/her anxiety (lost in the unconscious) only by occupying the analyst's place: by situating him- or herself at the site of knowledge, by seeing or listening to that self from the analyst's station. Yet in Lacan's scheme the analyst possesses no such knowledge; he/she “knows” only because the analysand supposes that knowledge.15 The analyst, in effect, functions as a mask, which itself functions as a lure, as Lacan's petit object a, the impossible (and always misrecognized) object of desire. The patient desires the analyst's position because he or she “incorrectly” views the analyst as a being who hides (and thus holds) the patient's veiled secret. The subject's desire to occupy the analyst's position is hence the desire to grasp his/her own complete, but lost Truth (in brief, the Phallus)—which was in fact never present, only supposed.

My intention here is not to offer a detailed reading of the subject-supposed-to-know. I bring up Lacan only to make a small point concerning “Axolotl.” In fact, the axolotls, these creatures that stare silently at the man without ever closing their eyes, these thinkers, are the very embodiment of the terrifying witness,16 of the omniscient “reader,” of this Lacanian subject-supposed-to-know. They are “subjects” that call the narrator towards his or her own desire, which here is the desire for complete self-knowledge—knowledge which, as we have seen, can be procured only by obtaining both knowledge of the Other and the Other's knowledge (the Other's place). The protagonist's conversion into an axolotl can thus be read as his coming to see first-hand the particular nature of this Other knowledge (as self-knowledge): there is none. The fact that the axolotls are “larvae” supports this interpretation since “larva” in Spanish (as the narrator points out) has the secondary meaning of “mask.” The axolotls are the masks that (supposedly) possess and disguise the man's truth, but in fact disguise no such (self)understanding.

The importance of these ideas is increased when we reconsider the fact that, in “Axolotl,” being, comprehension and Truth are united. The protagonist posits the axolotls not merely as subjects-supposed-to-know but also as subjects-supposed-to-be. The alienated man, as noted earlier, views the axolotl's place as the locus of a lost essence (being), of a true subject position. His desire to occupy that space is thus his desire to be who he is: to recover from his inauthenticity, to “fix” his alienation. Yet the “truth,” he learns, is that such a becoming (as a coming into being qua coming into subjectivity) is impossible. This is not because that truth or authenticity is beyond the man's reach but, on the contrary, because he has already reached it. He is, a priori, who he is: his unknowable, estranged existence, his situation (the “now” of “Now I am an axolotl”), his finitude, is his essence (an axolotl essence). The axolotl, the Other, is not the “lost,” “ideal,” “utopian,” or “unreachable” Self that transcends the protagonist's estranged condition but the vehicle that pulls this man towards a shocking experience with that very condition. The axolotl-man is an axolotl (a Latin American?), and that is a situation from which he cannot recover. He is pained in relationship to no health, estranged in relationship to no homeland or Self: he is Other, not Other than he is.


I am not sure whether I am reading “Axolotl” with or against Cortázar. In these final two sections my intention, in any case, is not to locate the truth of the text, but to use it as a point of departure for the rethinking of the “return to origins” theme. We have already seen that, in the story, human and/or Western epistemological structures govern both Same and Other, not only the man's, but also the axolotl's side of the glass. But as we have also seen, the story includes a presence that this hegemonic Same never controls, never accounts for: the axolotl itself. For even after the Same speaks for everything in the story, the Other qua Other (the axolotl) still is. This seeming paradox can be resolved only by considering the question of affect, feeling. The man, we noted, feels the stare of the axolotls as they inflict pain upon him. The axolotl is Other than the man, but it is also in contact with him (which explains how the axolotls can hurt him). The contact, which induces the pain, is established vis-à-vis the gaze (in the Lacanian sense): an eye that sees the subject from a site from which the subject can never see him- or herself. This gaze functions as a demand (“Sálvanos, sálvanos”) that calls the subject out of his position and towards the Other qua the Self. The axolotls as Others are thus the un(a)voidable: afflicting, hurting the subject, irreducibly present, they cannot be ignored; part of the being of the subject, they cannot be dismissed without dismissing the subject him- or herself; beyond (but touching and afflicting) the subject's territory, they cannot be voided or assimilated.

At stake here is the general line of questioning that today's Latin American thought addresses: How can that which is culturally Other, excluded, situate itself within the Same (since the Same, the West, is the only place in the era of late capitalism where this Other can situate itself) while retaining its status as Other—an Otherness that represents the uniqueness, the individual identity of the given culture, cultural site, component, group or person? Can Latin American people (or at least certain Latin American people) hold onto that which defines them as not simply one Westerner among others as they necessarily adopt Western ways, speak Western languages, intervene in Western politics, and use and create Western products? In “Axolotl” we find hints of an answer, for the axolotl is precisely a presence, an is within the Same that refuses to be the Same. Let us then define the a-x-olotl as the X or X-factor, the Other as unknown that literally touches, marks, scratches or crosses into the homogeneous space. Yet as already pointed out, this X also marks, profoundly hurts the body of the man-observer, who in fact (somehow) is that X. In other words, the man's identity, his essence, hinges on a sign, an inscription (the a-x-olotl which, as we have seen, also seems to secretly function as proper noun, a name, a signature) that is foreign to him, but that stamps him (hence his pain) all the same. The inscription, therefore, takes the form of a scar, one that the protagonist perhaps has always carried with him, but that is opened by the actual confrontation with the axolotls. It is an unreadable mark, a painful “X” that is not proper to the body (for it belongs to Other worlds), but that cannot be removed from the “economy” of that same body (a scar, after all, is an indelible mark upon the body that is not proper to the body; this is precisely what the axolotl is). The scar or “ex-cription,” in turn, is the trace of Otherness that the man carries. If the man-observer is not merely one of the Same but unique, if while in Paris there is still something essentially Latin American about him, if he is indeed Other, this is because his body bears the cross, the pain and stain of that Otherness.

Yet as indicated previously, the protagonist cannot convert this X into manifest cultural forms (cultural capital?), visible knowledge, or actual discourses that would bear witness to an alternative epistemology, perspective or authenticity. It is not that he has no identity; it is that he cannot transfer or translate that identity, that identification mark. His identity, like every identity, is singular: carried from place to place, from Mexican waters to a Parisian zoo, it remains “un-replaceable,” unique. More significantly perhaps, the unreadable scar of difference/identity does not legitimate the man's vision; it does not serve as a sign or wound that certifies that this man (or his family) pre-existed his Westernization (pre-existed the Conquest, where he was wounded, victimized by the Same), and that therefore he possesses, at bottom, a non-Western understanding or vision. This is because, while the protagonist is indeed marked by his different “origin,” that mark/pain is improper, Other, which means that the man-axolotl cannot appropriate it, make it his own, redeem it for an Other subject position. But the man is this painful scar (the axolotl) nonetheless: his signature (his X), his “proper name,” is an improper affliction without a discourse, a family or a “time.” The man-axolotl is there where he is not a subject, not a speaker whose words reflect his selfhood, not even a name that properly identifies him as himself (the name/word “axolotl,” in fact, identifies him as the Other), but an a-x-olotl, an X.


One final point needs to be made about “Axolotl.” Unfortunately, this point will not lead to a conclusion but only to more questions. In my opening paragraph I alluded to the fact that, in the history of Latin American thought, origins, identity, authenticity and Otherness have almost always been linked. Perhaps it is only logical that a culture that was essentially born via a genocide would attempt to recover its true self in the mythical reconstruction of the epochs or spaces that preceded that genocide. Perhaps this logic is even more understandable when we consider the fact that those “Other times” (the Aztec civilization or race, for example) have not disappeared but remain visible, vibrant, a living (often silenced) component of everyday modern Latin American culture and existence. Why should Latin American peoples, so profoundly overtaken and defined by a Sameness coming from the outside (the West, capitalism), not seek their authenticity in an “original” universe whose surviving traces (scars) today mark (although they are not the only mark) those people and their culture as not quite the Same, as distinct, as somehow Other?

Cortázar answers: because both these “origins” and their surviving modern traces are not only Other than the West, they are Other than Latin America. We are thus led to one of “Axolotl's” almost impossible, but nonetheless inescapable theses. For if the traces of an “origin” (the axolotl, the “x”) are what identify the Latin American self as different, as Latin American, and if those traces are in fact Other than the Latin American (the axolotl, as we said, is neither the former property nor the ancestor of the man-observer, but Other than him), then such a self is Latin American not insofar as he/she is the Same as him- or herself—as opposed to being the Same as the European/Westerner—but insofar as he/she is the Same as the Other. (The Same as the Other: here we encounter a true articulation for the previously discussed “analogy” of entities absolutely lacking in similarity.) This is why the man must become an axolotl, an Other, in order to “become” himself. His identity hinges on a return to this Other; it requires that he convert into the trace (the “x,” the axolotl) that—like a name—marks and identifies him beforehand.18

We would do well, therefore, to avoid the temptation of easily fitting Cortázar's “return to origins” discussion in “Axolotl” into the mold established by the Latin American tradition. True, what is on the line in Cortázar's “return”—Latin America's identity as the “impossible” retrieval of a “lost” difference and “lost” authenticity—seems completely conventional. But for Cortázar this authenticity is not about the alienated being's (the Other's) return to the self, but about the alienated self's return to the Other. By “return” I mean as much devolver as volver. At stake here, in the end, is a debt, an obligation to the Other, to the many unreadable, untranslatable “x's” that mark modern Latin America with difference. Indeed, since the Latin American (for example, the mestizo), in order to retain something authentically Latin American even while profoundly immersed in Western structures, depends upon the Other's marks, then the Latin American self is indebted to that Other. Thus, the demand that the axolotl places upon the man-observer (“Sálvanos, sálvanos”) is the insistence that this man return to the axolotl/Other what that Other has given him, namely, his mark of identity (X), his being. Since he owes his Latin American self, his difference as identity, to the Other that stamps him, he owes the Other that self. We might even say that the protagonist is obliged to sacrifice his self for the Other: give his self to the axolotls so as to absolve a debt.

“Axolotl's” protagonist is not only hooked by axolotls, by these Others; he is not only stuck on them since they are stuck on him; and he is not only guilty of non-payment,19 guilty of not meeting his “Other” responsibilities as he stands before these Others qua “terrible witnesses.” He is also obligated by these creatures, and when he happens upon them, he confronts a haunting deber that he can no longer forget or ignore (“larvae,” the narrator notes, are also related to ghosts.) Even while in Paris (because there are axolotls in Paris too), the narrator of “Axolotl” cannot avoid his obligation to both the Other and the origin since the Other (here, the pre-Columbian worlds) has claimed his body through debt a priori—and that a priori claim is itself the man's origin. (This is why the Cortázar American can never escape alienation: he is claimed, staked out, repossessed “in the beginning” by the alien.) The man-observer's “origin” (his “larval” or axolotl stage, we might say), that is, is not his birth or ancestry, not the site of a lost autonomy, but an illegitimate “inheritance” (belongings handed down to an improper off-spring), one that he had forgotten but recalls, via the axolotls. The axolotl is the Other as Self that the protagonist receives at birth, that always already inhabits his personal economy (even when it is repressed), and that he must return (to). Perhaps, then, “Axolotl” is less another chapter in the long Latin American “return to origins” narrative than it is an explanation as to why this narrative so dominates the discussion of Latin American identity: in the Latin American tradition, the uncanny presence of “origins” (not the loss of origins, as so many have thought, but precisely the incapacity to lose origins: Mexico's incapacity to lose its X, for example) makes the return to such “origins” not a choice but an obligation, a calling and a responsibility (responsibility in its etymological sense: “to promise in return.”)


  1. Roberto González Echevarría has beautifully analyzed these ideas in The Pilgrim at Home and Myth and Archive.

  2. In his study of Mexican identity and of axolotls (but not of Cortázar's tale), La jaula de la melancolía, Roger Bartra points out that the “axolotl” is related to the Nahuatl God “Xólotl,” the abnormal, monstrous twin brother of Quetzalcóatl. The theme of the double, so key to my own analysis, thus surfaces in the myth and history of the “actual” axolotls. According to Bartra, in fact, the axolotl played many distinct roles in Aztec myth, all of which Cortázar may have known about, all of which may therefore be key elements of “Axolotl.”

  3. The narrator, however, also ignores the fact that “axolote” is an alternative Spanish spelling—it is the one that Bartra uses, for example. That this narrator suppresses this alternative would no doubt add a wrinkle to my philological examination of the “axolotl,” but it would not greatly transform the point that I am attempting to make.

  4. The signifier “axolotl” that the narrator uses, at least in his own mind, is almost surely the French word and not the Nahuatl term; indeed, the definition that he gives for the salamanders suggests strongly that the dictionary in which he finds that definition is a French one. Quite simply and logically, the narrator sees the word at the zoo in Paris, assumes it is a French word (which it is), and looks it up in a French dictionary (he may also consult, later, a Spanish or a Spanish-French dictionary, where he learns about the signifier ajolote). He makes no reference to Nahuatl or to the Nahuatl origins of the word, and he seems completely unaware of the signifier's connection to the Nahuatl language.

  5. In Tresore de la Langue Française (p. 1155), for instance, two sentences with the plural of “axolotl” are offered as examples of how the word is used. The first employs “les axolotl,” the second, “les axolotls.” Cortázar, therefore, in designating many axolotls, does have to make a choice between “axolotl” and “axolotls”—he decides to leave out the “s”—and this choice is not insignificant.

  6. “Quixote” is a notable exception.

  7. Whether the man is a Latin American is difficult to say. The fact that he alludes to the Spanish word for axolotl indicates that he is keenly interested in Spanish, and may be a native Spanish speaker (after all, he does narrate the story in Spanish). For why else would he mention the Spanish term (in addition to the French word) and not, say, the German one? What is sure is that axolotls do mainly inhabit the waters of Mexico—Bartra, to repeat, has written a whole book about Mexican identity based on an interpretation of axolotls—, and that these salamanders are part of Aztec myth. Thus, I believe that it is safe to say that, while we cannot be sure whether or not the protagonist is a Latin American, we can be sure that “Axolotl” is about the Latin American situation.

  8. I cannot, unfortunately, explore all the possibilities for the phrase “easy analogies.” For instance, it is difficult to say whether the protagonist's refusal of easy analogies is a refusal of easy analogies in favor of difficult ones (the analogy of men and axolotls, for example) or a refusal of a facile thinking process, one grounded on analogy: easy analogies. Obviously, in my analysis I concentrate on the first of these options.

  9. Are the man and the axolotl related? Are they both humans, members of the family of man? The impossibility of answering these questions is made apparent throughout the narrative. At various points, for instance, the narrator focuses on the aborted hands of the axolotls, hands which lead him to believe that the axolotls are not disconnected from human beings. Perhaps he sees the axolotls, these aquatic larvae with “hands,” as “humans” who have not yet evolved or developed—not unlike the French signifier “axolotl,” which has not evolved phonemically.

  10. This man, it should be noted, is an extremely interested observer but only a mildly interested “researcher”: he reads about axolotls in a dictionary, briefly informs himself about their history and “lifestyles,” offers a scientific description of their physical features, but refuses to consult specialized material.

  11. This point is made evident in the story's ironic final lines as the axolotl suggests that the man—now departed—might someday write the axolotls' story. Implied is not that axolotls are unable to speak for themselves but that, in order to do so, they must count upon a human discourse, step outside (into the man-observer's place) in order to describe the inside (their own place).

  12. Of course, semiotic formations also have to do with difference: a “cat” is a “cat” because it is not a “bat.” Space, unfortunately, does not allow me to examine this issue here.

  13. The word axolotl is not literally untrans-latable since it can be carried across from culture to another. Yet axolotl can be dubbed “untranslatable” due to the manner in which this “carrying across” occurs. In Spanish, for example, ajolote carries across the signified of axolotl—a salamander larva—, but the signifier: the “x” and the “tl” that are fundamental to the myth, concept and history of the axolotl. In French, on the other hand, the signifier is perfectly preserved—but the word is therefore not actually “translated” into French, for it is not phonemically altered so as to fit into the French language.

  14. See note 7 above. I should add that the story changes radically if we suppose that the man is, for example, French. If this is the case, “Axolotl”—this tale about a non-Western being trapped inside a Western institution—is about orientalism: about the Western view of and obsession with the Other. Such a reading would be no more or less correct than my own, simply very different. Therefore, my analysis, in which I emphasize the man's possible Latin America identity, must be understood not as the but as an interpretation of “Axolotl” which, like any great narrative, is not one but many stories.

  15. Lacan's most extensive analysis of the subject-supposed-to-know is found in The Four Fundamental Concepts.

  16. In fact, the narrator refers to the axolotl as witness on p. 425.

  17. This section was greatly influenced by a conference, “Latinamericanism as Cultural Practice,” organized by Alberto Moreiras, held at Duke University in March of 1994. My thanks to all participants of that conference, and especially to Professor Moreiras himself.

  18. And when we consider that the ultimate Other is death, “Axolotl” becomes an even clearer tale; the man-axolotl reaches “himself” only when he becomes the same as the dead: “enterrado vivo en un axolotl.”

  19. I believe, in fact, that Cortázar's own political guilt—the guilt of being a metropolitan artist who could never quite “be at one with” the oppressed or with the Other—is in play in “Axolotl” (as it is in other Cortázar narratives, such as “Reunión”).

Works Cited

Bartra, Roger. La jaula de la melancolía: identidad y metamorfosis del mexicano. Mexico: Grijalbo, 1987.

Cortázar, Julio. Relatos. Buenos Aires: Sudamérica, 1970.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” In The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud, vol. 4. Trans. Joan Riviere. London: Hogarth Press, 1957, 368-407.

González Echevarría, Roberto. Alejo Carpentier, The Pilgrim at Home. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

———. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative. NY, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Paul Imbs, coordinator. Tresore de la Langue Française. Tome Troisieme. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1974.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Jacques Alain-Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Further Reading

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Alonso, Carlos J., ed. Julio Cortázar: New Readings, pp. 260. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Collection of critical essays.

García, Graciela P. “Time, Language, Desire: Julio Cortázar's ‘The Pursuer’.” Pacific Coast Philology 38 (2003): 33-9.

Contends that by analyzing the many layers of meaning in “The Pursuer” we are able to perceive “a vision of desire as a profoundly contradictory force at the center of both personal and social human experience.”

Lohafer, Susan. “Preclosing an ‘Open’ Story by Julio Cortázar.” In Reading for Storyness: Preclosure Theory, Empirical Poetics, and Culture in the Short Story, pp. 40-54. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Provides a reading of “Orientation of Cats.”

Manguel, Alberto. “Imagination to Power!: Remembering Julio Cortázar.” In Into the Looking-Glass Wood: Essays on Books, Reading, and the World, pp. 75-81. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1998.

Reflects on Cortázar's impact as a short story writer.

Rodríguez-Luis, Julio. “Cortázar's Approach to the Fantastic.” In The Contemporary Praxis of the Fantastic: Borges and Cortázar, pp. 61-100. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.

Discusses Cortázar's fantastic tales.

Schmidt-Cruz, Cynthia. Mothers, Lovers, and Others: The Short Stories of Julio Cortázar, pp. 209 p. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Full-length critical study.

Sommer, Doris. “Grammar Trouble: Cortázar's Critique of Competence.” Diacritics 25, no. 1 (spring 1995): 21-45.

Offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of “The Pursuer.”

Sorensen, Diana. “From Diaspora to Agora: Cortázar's Reconfiguration of Exile.” MLN 114, no. 2 (March 1999): 357-88.

Elucidates the role of exile in Cortázar's short fiction.

Wasserman, Martin. “Julio Cortázar's ‘The Night Face Up’: Literary Support for Federn's Ideas on Anesthetic Dreams.” Revista/Review Interamericana 25, nos. 1-4 (January-December 1995): 116-27.

Perceives “The Night Face Up”—Cortázar's short story based on a dream he had while under anesthesia—to be evidence for Paul Federn's writing on the nature and function of anesthetic dreams.

Additional coverage of Cortázar's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 32, 81; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 10, 13, 15, 33, 34, 92; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; DISCovering Authors Modules:Multicultural Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latin American Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 3; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Twayne's World Authors; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 1.

José Sanjinés (essay date fall-winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Sanjinés, José. “‘Blow-Up’: A House with Many Stories.” Point of Contact 4, no. 1 (fall-winter 1994): 46-55.

[In the following essay, Sanjinés analyzes the narrative framework of “Blow-Up,” asserting that the story “is constructed on the principle of Chinese boxes.”]


One of Cortázar's best-known short stories, “Blow-Up,” is constructed on the principle of Chinese boxes. The text consists of a series of stories interpolated one within the other; each new story in the syntagmatic disposition signals a new hierarchical level and opens a new internal frame. Although the agile narrative transitions veil many of these borders and generate in the reader a sometimes disorienting illusion of continuity, the main internal frames of the story can be described with relative precision.

The first frame occupies more or less the first two pages. The narrator, who is also a writer, deliberates about the ways to tell a story. He would like to be able to choose, simultaneously, all the options of compositional point of view, to write all the story's stories:

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. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.1

Apart from the compositional options, a theme of the first story is that rhetorical stage prior to the inventio in which the storyteller asks himself why relate an anecdote or give expression to a fable. (“All of a sudden I wonder why I have to tell this” [115]). And as if anticipating the others still to come, this initial frame contains within itself micro-stories (“Oh, doctor, every time I take a breath …” [116], for example).

The second frame opens when the narrator decides, finally, to tell a story in the third person. The story he tells us is that of “Roberto Michel, French-Chilean, translator, and in his spare time an amateur photographer” (116), who leaves one November morning to take photographs in the streets of Paris. Within the horizons of this subtext is stored all that the character sees in the streets of Paris. And what Michel notices most during his walk is the scene of a young man and an older woman (quite a bit older than him) who apparently are conversing in a small plaza.

Michel's imagination does not take long to open a new frame, the third (“Michel is guilty of making literature, of indulging in fabricated unrealities. Nothing pleases him more than to imagine exceptions to the rule, individuals outside the species, not-always-repugnant monsters” [124]). In fact, Michel, second narrator of the story, imagines with careful detail the possible—and in his mind probable—seduction of the boy by the woman:

I imagined the possible endings (now a small fluffy cloud appears, almost alone in the sky), I saw their arrival at the house (a basement apartment probably, which she would have filled with large cushions and cats) and conjectured the boy's terror and his desperate decision to play it cool and to be led off pretending there was nothing new in it for him.


The long story which Michel tells himself between pages 118 and 124 includes a detailed biography of the boy in which apparently far-fetched speculations of the narrator abound. Observing that the boy is wearing yellow gloves, Michel deduces, for example, that he has an older brother who “is a student of law or sociology” (120). This type of speculation has the transitory effect of reminding the reader that Michel's subjective interpretations of the relationship between the woman and the boy are just that, fantasies which contrast with what is really about to happen. And what does happen seems to confirm, at least in part, the narrator's theories. The boy runs away, taking advantage of the distraction caused by the photograph Michel takes of the couple. “The important thing, the really important thing”—Michel thinks later—“was having helped the kid to escape in time (this in case my theorizing was correct, which was not sufficiently proven, but the running away itself seemed to show it so)” (127).

After an exchange of words with the woman, who demands that Michel give her the film containing the picture, Michel returns home. At this point in the narrative discourse the reader is invited to equate the point of view of the first frame's narrator with that of the third person (Roberto Michel) of the story that begins in the second frame: “What happened after that happened here, almost just now, in a room on the fifth floor” (126). This mix of levels foreshadows the fantastic confusion of the registers of the real and the imaginary which takes place in the text, but it is not necessarily a fantastic event: the possibility that the narrator of the first frame had decided to begin to tell in the third person a story that happened (and is still happening) to him may explain the eventual unification of the viewpoints of the narrator and his character.

The fourth frame—which we shall call the intertext—is opened by an account of the development of the photographic negative of the woman and the boy and its two subsequent enlargements. Like the other internal stories, the photograph can be considered a discrete object of aesthetic experience; but in contrast to them, the photo is also described in the story as a material object—produced and enlarged by mechanical means—which ends up “fixed” to the wall of a room.2 In principle it would seem that there is nothing extraordinary within the borders of the intertext: the photo is nothing more than the representation in a system of invariant relations of the phenomenological instant before the boy's flight. But the double blow-up of the photographic image, as we will see, marks a first stage in the gradual fantastic mutation of the intertext's semiotic modality; it will end up resembling a cinematic projection where the events of that November morning in Paris are again diversely played out. And as soon as the subjects of the photograph acquire movement, Michel's imagination is once again activated—or is the movement itself perhaps the product of an extraordinarily vivid imagination? The association of the processes of imagination with those of cinematography is not merely aesthetic. Imagination, as has been demonstrated by recent clinical investigations in the field of psychology, can well be compared to a machine which projects images on the screen of the mind.3

Based on the scene in the photo, Michel imagines a story for a second time. This story, imagined “in a room on the fifth floor,” opens a fifth frame. And this time the story, which little by little becomes from his point of view “the reality,” is worse than the one he had imagined before: its protagonist is one of those people we know Michel likes to imagine, an “individual outside the species” (124), a monster, in this case, yes, absolutely repugnant:

And what I had imagined earlier was much less horrible than the reality, that woman, was not there by herself, she was not caressing or propositioning or encouraging for her own pleasure, to lead the angel away with his tousled hair and play the tease with his terror and his eager grace. The real boss was waiting there, smiling petulantly, already certain of the business; he was not the first to send a woman in the vanguard, to bring him the prisoners manacled with flowers. The rest of it would be so simple, the car, some house or another, drinks, stimulating engravings, tardy tears, the awakening in hell.


This internal story culminates with the transgression of the frame of the intertext. As we will see better in the next section, this event lends itself to an ambiguous and paradoxical double reading: in one of the possible readings, the character/narrator, perhaps absorbed by the illusion of reality of the photograph, perhaps dominated by his fantasy of saving the boy for a second time, crosses the semiotic borders of the intertext where he meets his own death; in another reading, he remains—alive—outside the frame of the photographic blow-up to witness and be able to tell the story (“I'm not trying to fool anybody” [115]). In both cases what remains implicit is the point of view of the lens of a photographic camera abandoned in a plaza; a fantastic eye which records cinematographically the images of a frame of the Parisian sky (with clouds and passing birds) and projects them on a screen which is pinned to a wall in the room where the protagonist writes. This piece of sky, the sixth and last internal frame described in the last paragraph of the story is, as we will see, a sign of the metaphorical resolution of the story of the fifth frame (Michel's dying and living) and, by extension, a sort of final enlargement in which all the remaining metanarratives of the text are revealed and summarized.

It is a sign which extends throughout the text: the images of the sky are also coded in brief parenthetical sequences scattered throughout the entire story. We will call this set of sequences the sky subtext. The syntactic organization of this subtext is significant for two reasons. First, because it reflects the circular, flexible nature of time in the story: as the narrator announces from the beginning that he (Michel) is dead and not dead (115), the sky subtext reminds the reader, in a second reading, of the resolution of the character/narrator's adventure through the semiotic frontiers of the intertext. And second, because the dissemination of parenthetical sequences reflects, microtextually, the compositional technique of the text. By successively inserting one tale within another, the structure of the text is itself organized in the grammatical manner of opening parentheses.

And this is precisely the compositional technique which is turned into a central theme of the story by the development and blow-up of the intertext.4 The theme of “Blow-Up” reflects its structure, and its structure reflects its theme. It is true that the double enlargement of the photograph produces only two frames, but this simple duplication suggests the generation of many more. Similarly, the structure of “Blow-Up” is like that of a house in our dreams which, seen from the outside, appears to have two floors but when we enter has five or more. Just as the successive enlargements of the photograph permit Michel to see, imagine, or participate in the details of the outcome of the events which take place in the small plaza in Paris that November morning, the story is itself structured around a series of internal stories which fit inside each other, which enlarge, each time with greater precision, the hidden detail, the “true” story unknown at first glance.


We have mentioned that in one of the possible readings of the final sequences of “Blow-Up” the protagonist goes inside the frontiers of a photographic enlargement pinned to the wall of his room. This event is the result of the gradual mutation of one semiotic modality to another, from photography to cinema. Before describing this transformation, we should observe that the text foregrounds the fundamental importance of the problem of the frame in the construction of the intertext. This is the function of the repeated references to the semiotic limits of the intertext in the rhetorical stage prior to the taking of the photograph of the woman and the boy (the inventio of the intertext by the protagonist). Michel's metalinguistic deliberations about the possibilities of inclusion or exclusion of elements within the view-finder of the camera, for example, evidence the inherence of the principle of demarcation in the composition of an artistic universe—in this case that of a photograph—: “Why wait any longer? Aperture at sixteen, a sighting which would not include the horrible black car, but yes, that tree, necessary to break up too much grey space …” [123]. This stage in the process of selection of a finite fragment of the infinite reality, of the creation of an aesthetic space, concludes with the taking of the photograph: “I got it all into the view-finder (with the tree, the railing, the eleven-o'clock sun) and took the shot” (124).

But this sort of translation of reality into photographic language does not end with the first polychromatic impression of the light on the negative. Before the final materialization of the intertext, the stages of development and enlargement are necessary: “The negative was so good that he made an enlargement; the enlargement was so good that he made one very much larger, almost the size of a poster” (126). The reference to the double enlargement of the photograph is significant, as we saw, because it thematizes the organizational mode of the multiple internal stories of the story; but it is also significant because with it starts the process of transformation of the semiotic modality of the intertext. The enlarged dimension of the second blow-up signals the passage from one modality with attributes of documentary veracity (the photograph) to another which attempts to resemble reality even more, to get even closer to the authentic size of things in the objective world (the poster).

The new size of the photograph, nevertheless, is not in itself sufficient to make the semiotic horizons of the intertext completely disappear from the receptor's consciousness. The atemporal fixation of the forms represented in the intertext essentially differentiates them from the elements which compose the changeable reality in which we live. “There was the woman, there was the boy, the tree rigid above their heads, the sky as motionless as the stone of the parapet, clouds and stones melded into a single substance and inseparable […]” (126; emphasis added). Like those our memory keeps and daydream recalls, the photographic images are immobile. But daydream remains in the margin of the categories of daily life. Photographic language lacks the temporal cadences of life to reach an illusion of reality capable of destroying the frame of the intertext. Even in the stage of the inventio, the photographer in Cortázar's story tries to capture the dynamics of life in the photograph's system of invariant relationships: “I raised the camera, pretended to study a focus which did not include them, and waited and watched closely, sure that I would finally catch the revealing expression, one that would sum it all up, life that is rhythmed by movement but which a stiff image destroys, taking time in cross section, if we do not choose the essential imperceptible fraction” (123).

These reflections, together with the size of the second enlargement, serve the function of preparing, and perhaps anticipating, the eventual intervention of movement in the photograph—the last semiotic quality necessary to establish the analogy with the language of film. This is why the fantastic mutation of one modality to another begins in a completely natural way:

I don't think the almost-furtive trembling of the leaves on the tree alarmed me. I was working on a sentence and rounded it out successfully. Habits are like immense herbariums, in the end an enlargement of 32 × 28 looks like a movie screen, where, on the tip of the island, a woman is speaking with a boy and a tree is shaking its dry leaves over their heads. But her hands were just too much. I had just translated: Donc, la seconde clé réside dans la nature intrinsèque des difficultés que les sociétés …—when I saw the woman's hand beginning to stir slowly, finger by finger.


This metamorphosis of the intertext's modality reproduces that key stage in the gestation of cinematography as an art form: the incorporation of movement into photography. In the case of Cortázar's fantastic story, the objective, as we said, is to increase the photograph's capacity to reproduce reality authentically to the point of confusing depiction with depicted.5

The passage between semiotic systems is accompanied by the interpolation of a syntagma in French and in italics which alludes to the act of translation and which reminds us that Michel, the narrator, is a translator, as Cortázar, the author, also was. As the photograph is a translation of reality—as are too the stories which Michel imagines about the relationship between the woman and the boy—so also is the intervention of movement in the enlargement a sort of translation from one semiotic modality to another. Perhaps the most significant critical function of the allusion to translation is that of emphasizing the fact that the intertext, like any text, is a sort of reflection of one language onto another (of reality to photography, of photography to cinema) and not a mere duplication of the reality of that sunny day when a woman and a boy conversed in a Parisian plaza.

The size and the intervention of movement in the second enlargement fulfill a diametrically opposed function in the organization of the fantastic operation. The goal of the successive mutations of the intertext is to increase the illusion of reality to such a point that the protagonist's transgression of the internal frame is presented with complete verisimilitude. In a fragment of the phenomenology of the past (set inside the frame of a photograph as large as a cinematic screen) something begins to be played out again little by little, like the slow movement of the woman's hand. The added semiotic qualities of the intertext make it possible for the mobile character (Michel) to transgress, almost without transition, the topological border which separates him from the world of things and people represented in the photograph: “There was nothing left of me, a phrase in French which I would never have to finish, a typewriter on the floor, a chair that squeaked and shook, fog” (128).

This double allusion to the frame's transgression (nothing remains of Michel because he is on the other side) and to the death of the protagonist (Michel will never finish the translation he is working on) foreshadows what is about to happen in one of the possible readings of the text. But the story also encodes an alternative, paradoxical, reading. In it the mobile character becomes immobile and the immobile characters of the photograph acquire movement, order is inverted fantastically, yes, but now Michel remains outside the frame of the photograph unable to do anything to impede the fulfillment of the horrible destiny he has imagined for the boy:

All at once the order was inverted, they were alive, moving, they were deciding and had decided, they were going to their future; and I on this side, prisoner of another time, in a room on the fifth floor, to not know who they were, that woman, that man, and that boy, to be only the lens of my camera, something fixed, rigid, incapable of intervention.


To say that Michel is the camera's lens is to say, literally, that the protagonist is again in the time and space in which he took the photograph, that the frame is behind him; but it is also to say, figuratively, “that when we look at a photo from the front, the eyes reproduce exactly the position and the vision of the lens” (127), and therefore that Michel is still in his room viewing the photograph frontally. This semantic oscillation, which suggests that the protagonist finds himself simultaneously inside and outside the frame of the intertext, is codified throughout the entire description of the frame transgression event.

A double fantastic operation: in one reading, what is fantastic is that Michel is inside the enlargement and sees all that happens as if through the lens of his camera; in the other, what is fantastic is that the protagonist remains resting against the wall of his room and directly in front of him, almost as though projected through his eyes, the images of a large photograph pinned to the wall replay variedly the events of that November morning. This ambiguous figure emblematizes the duality of the aesthetic experience generated by the reading of the story. Like the protagonist of the story, the reader of “Blow-Up” is also, in a way, on both sides of the frame of a representation. The pendular oscillations in the use of the internal and external narrative points of view reproduce in the reader Michel's sensation of finding himself simultaneously inside and outside the semiotic frontiers of the intertext.6 The story induces the reader to identify with the protagonist's internal point of view, to enter gradually the multiple imaginary worlds of the story, to participate in Michel's gradual conviction that each new story brings him closer to “the reality” (129) of the events of that sunny Parisian morning; and this growing illusion of reality (thematized by the modal transformation of the intertext) enters into tension with the concurrent incitation to reassume an external point of view with respect to the text, to regain, from this side of the frame, the critical distance necessary to recognize the modes of construction of the imaginary and the theoretical problems that inform it. Conversely, while we seem to be furthest from the truth, we are closest to it.


The protagonist's simultaneous crossing and not crossing the semiotic frontiers of the intertext culminates, as we saw, in an event no less ambiguous and paradoxical: the protagonist's dying and not dying. To suggest this double resolution and encode it throughout the story, Cortázar makes use of rhetorical operations which build bridges between the modalities of film and literature, points of contact between visual and verbal signs. Let us begin by remembering that Michel enters the photograph in order to save the boy for a second time—this time from a presumed dark corruption conjured up by the blond woman and the mysterious man in the gray hat. If the boy takes advantage of the shot of the photograph to escape the first time, the second time he takes advantage of the advance of the camera, which is a metonym of the photographer (Michel), toward the man in the gray hat. Immediately after the boy's escape, Michel (which is also to say the camera's point of view) stops, panting, in front of the man. What happens next culminates with the total obscuring of the artistic space of the intertext. As if he had hurled himself toward Michel with his hands raised, the body of the man in the gray hat ends up occupying the entire field of view of the camera's lens:

[…] but the man was directly center, his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree, and I shut my eyes, I didn't want to see any more, and I covered my face and broke into tears like an idiot.


In this ambiguous passage—in which Michel is simultaneously inside and outside the frame of the intertext—we can recognize some of the lexical elements of the language of cinema. To understand the function of these elements in the event of the protagonist's dying and not dying, it is useful to reread the passage from the perspective of one of Lotman's observations about the creation of abstract signs in film:

Separation of the cinematic sign from its immediate, material meaning and transformation into a sign of more general content is primarily achieved through strongly expressed modality of the shot. For example, objects in close-ups are seen in cinema as metaphors (in a natural language they would be metonymic). Distorting shots such as the abrupt magnification of a hand extended toward the screen have the same effect.

(Semiotics 44)

In the linguistic narrative code, the raised hands can be interpreted as a metonym, more precisely, a synecdoche of the man in the gray hat (the part for the whole). But the isomorphism of the intertext with cinematic language invites the reader to interpret metaphorically the sign of the raised hands which obscure the visual space of the camera: the man has assailed Michel and killed him.

There is still one key passage that facilitates access to this reading. We refer to the sequences immediately following the darkening of the frame of the intertext, the last paragraph of the story:

Now there's a big white cloud, as on all these days, all this untellable time. What remains to be said is always a cloud, two clouds, or long hours of a sky perfectly clear, a very clean, clear rectangle tacked up with pins on the wall of my room. That was what I saw when I opened my eyes and dried them with my fingers: the clear sky, and then a cloud that drifted in from the left, passed gracefully and slowly across and disappeared on the right. And then another, and for a change sometimes, everything gets grey, all one enormous cloud, and suddenly the splotches of rain cracking down, for a long spell you can see it raining over the picture, like a spell of weeping reversed, and little by little, the frame becomes clear, perhaps the sun comes out, and again the clouds begin to come, two at a time, three at a time. And the pigeons once in a while, and a sparrow or two.


The paragraph suggests that the man's attack has passed inoffensively in front of the protagonist, as in a movie projected on the wall of his room in which he afterwards sees pass endless images of a piece of sky. But the passage also invites the reader to mentally construct the image of an immobile camera with its lens pointing toward the sky (in a plaza in Paris) and silently registering the passage of clouds and an occasional sparrow. We have seen that the camera is a metonym for Michel, the photographer; the image of a camera turned upward after the assault of the man in the gray hat becomes a metaphor for Michel's death. The destiny of all metonymy—Cortázar reminds us—is to become metaphor; the fate of every sequence to be substituted by a condensatory sign.7

To say that the protagonist ends up on both sides of the frame, on the side of the dead and that of the living, on the side of the real and that of the imaginary, is the same as saying that he is on neither of them. This paradoxical resolution, as we have mentioned, is already announced by the narrator during his metalinguistic deliberations about the act of writing in the initial passages of the story:

One of us all has to write, if this is going to get told. Better that it be me who am dead, for I'm less compromised than the rest; I who see only the clouds and can think without being distracted, write without being distracted (there goes another, with a grey edge) and remember without being distracted, I who am dead (and I'm alive, I'm not trying to fool anybody, you'll see when we get to the moment, because I have to begin some way and I've begun with this period, the last one back, the one at the beginning, which in the end is the best of the periods when you want to tell something).


The prolepsis in this passage anticipates (and confirms) the event which occurs in the final sequences of the story. A double critical reflection accompanies the allusion to what is to come: consciousness of the prolepsis (“you'll see when we get to the moment”), and consciousness of the circular structure of the text (“I've begun with this period, the last one back, the one at the beginning”). The serpent bites its tail between light and shadow. Cortázar's story gives expression to that point of the spirit sought by the Surrealists where opposites merge.8 The original Spanish title of the story, “Las babas del diablo”—literally, “The Drools of the Devil”—denotes a real object seen in the sky of Argentina, but it is also an extreme juxtaposition, a sign of the texts of the text, of the continuity in the discreet, of the communicable in silence, of the invariable way in the changeable river, in short, of “all this untellable time” (131).

In the passage we also find one of the parenthetical phrases which compose the sky subtext: “(there goes another, with a grey edge).” In a first reading the most likely conjecture is that the images of the sky coded in these parenthesis correspond to what is seen by the narrator, from time to time, from the perspective of a window, implicit, in the room where he is writing the story. But the proximity of the parenthesis we have cited to the anticipation of the narrator's dying and not dying is not gratuitous. The sequences of the sky subtext, as we said, are also signs of the metaphorical resolution of the event of the transgression of the frame. That is to say, the sporadic references to the piece of sky fulfill the function of reminding the reader, in a second reading, of that other image which is also implicit at the end of the story: the image of an inert overturned camera facing the infinite in a Paris plaza (metaphor of Michel's death), which projects images of the sky on a photographic enlargement pinned to the wall of a fifth floor room (in which Michel, alive, witnesses them). Thus, for the reader who, upon completing a reading of the text, accepts the incitation to return to the beginning, the sky subtext extends and maintains, throughout the story, the structural tension which is summed up by the oxymoron “living death.”

“Blow-Up” is constructed so that its rereading changes the meaning of its parts. Rereading the story is like entering a house we have only seen from the outside. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard demonstrated that a house, like a room or a sea shell, can be read like a text because it resembles the soul of the one who inhabits it. We are not all “cast into the world” as Heidegger said, we have shelters; literature is one of them. Complex and paradoxical as the houses in our dreams, the structure of “Blow-Up” achieves the opposite effect of the one sought by dogmatic texts. The game of its multiple levels generates surplus-information untranslatable by the languages of description. “Blow-Up” is an exemplary model of those laborious stories of Cortázar which produce a high degree of information with the greatest possible economy of means. Critics have not yet given enough attention to the incontrovertible fact that Cortázar occupies a privileged place in the history of the quest to reduce the entropic level of the work of art. This is a search for freedom, in the sense that we cannot be truly free when we do not have multiple possibilities of choice, when the hall or the textual passage in which we move leaves us facing only one door or only one predictable, inevitable reading. “Blow-Up” seeks to say it all, opening doors to reverie and critique. Everything can be renewed when we enter or leave a condensatory form, open like a plaza, hidden like the image of the first stairway. Above or below await us colors or shadow, the banister or the street.


  1. Cortázar, Julio, “Blow-Up,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, 1967. We indicate subsequent quotations from this story by the page numbers from this edition. The original Spanish title of the story is “Las babas del diablo” (1959).

  2. We refer to the distinction established by Roman Ingarden in, “Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object,” 304.

  3. Dr. Stephen Kosslyn of Harvard University explains: “A picture can be displayed on the screen from the camera, which is your eyes, or from a videotape recorder, which is your memory.” (quoted in Blakeslee, B6).

  4. The hierarchical importance of this theme is evident in the choice of title for the English translation of the story as well as for the English version of Michelangelo Antonioni's acclaimed film based on Cortázar's story (Blow-Up, in both cases). The original title of the film is Storia d'un fotografo e una donna in una bella mattina d'aprile. It was presented in Buenos Aires with the title, Deseo en una manana de verano (Desire on a Summer Morning) (Mundo Lo 192).

  5. As Lotman explains in Semiotics of Cinema, this was precisely the result of the technical invention which made possible the evolution of cinematography: “Cinematography as a technical invention which had not yet become a form of art was, first and foremost, a moving photography. The ability to register motion added to the trust in the documentary reliability of films. Psychological data indicate that the transfer from a motionless photography to moving film is seen as an introduction of greater capacity of depiction. Precision in the reproduction of life, it was thought, could go no farther” (11).

  6. The alternations in the pronominal forms of the narration to which the narrator alludes at the beginning of the story is an aspect of the complex compositional problem of point of view which has been lucidly studied by Boris Uspensky in, A Poetics of Composition.

  7. Two examples: as the sequential exposition of a novel is condensed in its title, so also the name of a person ends up summarizing the temporal succession of his or her life.

  8. See Breton, Second manifeste du surrealism 76-7.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Tran. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.

Blakeslee, Sandra. “Seeing and Imagining: Clues to the Workings of the Mind's Eye.” NewYork Times, 31 August 1993, national ed.: B5-6.

Breton, André. “Second manifeste du surréalisme.” Manifestes du surréalisme. Saint-Amand: Gallimard, 1981.

Cortázar, Julio. “Blow-Up.” Blow-Up and Other Stories. Tran. Paul Blackburn. New York: Random House, 1967. 114-31.

———. “Las babas del diablo.” Pasajes. Madrid: Alianza, 1976. 124-38.

Ingarden, Roman. “Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object.” Readings in Existential Phenomenology. Eds. Nathaniel Lawrence and Daniel O'Conner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967.

Jakobson, Roman. Ensayos de lingüística general. Tran. Josep M. Pujol and Jem Cabanes. Madrid: Editorial Ariel, 1984.

Lotman, Yuri M. Semiotics of Cinema. Tran. Mark E. Suino. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1976.

Mundo Lo, Sara de. Julio Cortázar: His Works and His Critics—A Bibliography. Urbana, Ill.: Albatross, 1985.

Uspensky, Boris. A Poetics of Composition: The Structure of the Artistic Text and Typology of a Compositional Form. Trans. Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Patrizia Bittini (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Bittini, Patrizia. “Film is Stranger than Fiction: From Cortázar's ‘Las Babas Del Diablo’ to Antonioni's Blow-Up.RLA: Romance Languages Annual (1995): 199-203.

[In the following essay, Bittini compares “Las babas del Diablo,” which was published in English as “Blow-Up,” to the film adaptation of the story.]

In the opening credits of Blow-Up, the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni acknowledges that his film is based on “Las babas del diablo,” a short story by the Argentinian Julio Cortázar. In my paper, I will compare aspects of both the story and the film, focusing on Blow-Up's postmodern agenda. The several changes that Antonioni makes in the transition from Cortázar's short story to his film play a fundamental role. The changes that I will discuss are the transformation of the protagonist's profession, the shift of the story's setting from Paris to London, and finally the shift in the nature of the action spied by the protagonist in each work. These changes, I will argue, offer significant insights into Antonioni's recreating of Cortázar's story.

In Cortázar's “Las babas del diablo” (published in 1959), Michel Roberto is a translator and an amateur photographer living in Paris. One day he photographs a young boy and an older blond woman in the square on an island in the Seine. After the picture is taken, the boy flees. Michel believes that the woman was trying to seduce the boy. But when the woman asks for the film, an old man, who had been sitting in a car, joins them. Later, studying the picture, Michel sees (or imagines he sees) that the woman was really procuring the youth for the man in the car.

In Antonioni's Blow-Up (shot in 1966) Thomas, played by David Hemmings, is a professional photographer who is trying to conclude a book of photographs about London. One day, while wandering in a park, he sees a young woman embracing a middle-aged man. Thomas starts taking photographs. But the young woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, sees him and asks for the film. Thomas refuses to give it to her and returns to his studio. The young woman finds Thomas's studio, but the photographer fools her by giving her another film. After a while the young woman leaves and Thomas develops the shots. When he makes enlargements of some of the prints, he discovers what looks like a body. Thomas returns to the park and sees (or imagines he sees) a body. Returning to his studio, Thomas finds out that the blow-ups have been stolen and that the only one left is a very confused print. Finally Thomas goes back to the park, but he is not able to find the body.

The first change that is worth analyzing is Antonioni's shift of locale from Paris to London. In 1966, the year in which Blow-Up was shot, Antonioni went to London to visit Monica Vitti who had been the star in his last four movies: L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L'eclisse (1962), and Deserto rosso (1964). There Antonioni decided to shoot his next movie in English and in London. Antonioni's London in Blow-Up is not an undetermined city, it is the swinging London of the sixties. This exact locale inspired in many critics the idea that Antonioni's movie is a sort of documentary. Richard Goldstein in an article in Village Voice titled “The Screw-Up,” condemns a lack of understanding that “can only be parental” (21). Goldstein insists that Antonioni misrepresents the “swinging Samarkand” (21) and derides Blow-Up “for the expressiveness that—autres temps, autres moeures—would have guaranteed its status as a work of art” (21). A similar tone may be found in Pauline Kael's review, where she criticizes Antonioni for not catching “the humor and astonishing speed in youth's rejection of older values” (35). In both these critics the documentary emphasis degenerates into an obsession with the up-to-date. Finally Chris Wagstaff, who does not blame Antonioni for not being up-to-date, nevertheless confirms the thesis of the film as description of London's society in the sixties with a focus on criticism of the idea of free love (32).

I believe, however, that the issue is not so simple. Antonioni's movie is not a documentary; on the contrary, London is a metaphor for postmodern civilization. In the sixties London was seen all over Europe, and particularly in Italy, as a the center of change. The new trends largely came from London in music, fashion, etc. Antonioni's focus here is not London as a city, but what London represents. An example can be the episode of the drug party. Analyzing the blow-ups, Thomas has come to the conclusion that he has discovered a murder. He goes to the house of Ron, a friend, to talk to him about the issue. When Thomas arrives, a drug party is going on. Everybody seems out of control and it is impossible for Thomas to discuss his problem. Here the function of the episode is not documentary. On the contrary, Antonioni uses the situation of chaos to question the protagonist's vision of reality. After a great difficulty, Thomas succeeds in getting Ron to listen to his problem:

T: Someone's been killed.

R: O.K.

T: Listen, those pictures I took in the park—[No response] I want you to see them.

R: I'm not a photographer.

T: I am.

R: What did you see in the park?

T: Nothing.

Thomas seems to lose any hope of explaining what happened and even begins to doubt that anything really happened. In Blow-Up the sixties London comes to represent the chaos of postmodern civilization. Considering that, as Gary Kester noticed, in many of Cortázar's short stories, Paris is used as a metaphor for the rationalistic western civilization (9), the shift in locale from Paris to London illustrates the shift from the locus of Enlightenment to the chaos of the sixties. Unlike Cortázar, Antonioni portrays Thomas's experience as participating in a larger cultural context. Antonioni does not fail to introduce into the movie the elements that signal a fundamental point of departure from the established order, and which found fertile ground in sixties London. The cameo appearances of the musical group Yardbirds and the model Veruska become representative of the climate that Antonioni illustrates.

Another important distinction between movie and story is that Michel is a translator and a photographer, while Thomas is only a photographer. Michel uses both language and photography as media, while Thomas is concentrated on photography. There is also another difference: Michel's relationship with the medium is problematic from the beginning, while Thomas at the beginning seems very comfortable with it. In the opening page of “Las babas del diablo,” Michel expresses his frustration:

Nunca se sabrá cómo hay que contar esto, si en primera persona o en segunda, usando la tercera del plural o inventando continuamente formas que no servirán de nada.

(Cortázar 61)

Michel's anxiety of experimentation may be interpreted as a sense of failure of modernist experimentation. Michel's frustration caused by language is immediately present in the ambiguity of the title. Las babas del diablo (the devil's spit) is an expression that refers to a phenomenon visible in the air in the morning. When Cortázar uses this expression to describe how the boy runs away, he explains that the same phenomenon is also called hilos de la Virgen (the Virgin's threads). As David Grossvogel says: “The frustration of the author begins with the ambiguity of the word” (50). This emphasis of the title on ambiguity is very important in Cortázar's short story and is unfortunately lost in the English translation of the short story's title: “Blow-Up.”

In Antonioni's Blow-Up, Thomas is concentrated on the medium of photography and seems very confident at the beginning. It can be said that Thomas lives in symbiosis with his camera. As Erwin Koppen writes: “For Thomas, photography is not only a profession; it is his way of life, his mode of existence” (47). Even in his relationship with women, Thomas seems to need this medium. It is interesting that what may well be the most sensual scene in the movie takes place while he is photographing the top model Veruska (playing herself). Both the photographer and the model mime a sexual intercourse. Thomas even talks in a way that suggests love-making (“Yes, yes, more! More! Give it to me!” etc.). At the end the model lies on the floor and the photographer rests on a couch. They look extremely tired as though the had experienced orgasm. Later, when the mysterious woman that Thomas had met in the park visits him in his studio, Thomas starts observing her as if he were photographing her. He needs to consider her as a model to be photographed in order to know her.

On the other hand, the sex-romp with the teenagers, in which Thomas approaches sex without a camera, is not sensual. At a certain point two teenage girls (one of them is played by a very young Jane Birkin) go to Thomas's studio to convince him to let them pose as models, instead they get involved in a sex-romp. This part has been considered by many as scandalous, but it simply lacks erotic appeal. Thomas rolling on the floor with the girls looks like a child distractedly playing a game. The answer to this lack of involvement is given when, supposedly after having had sex, Thomas looks at the blow-ups and completely forgets the girls. Then he gets rid of them very quickly. This part cannot be sensual because Thomas does not use his medium: photography. Thomas lives his relationship with reality through the camera and the girls are sent away as a distraction from his medium.

The camera seems to be Thomas's medium even when he is not materially using it. At the same time, the camera seems to give Thomas such a power that he can degrade himself without losing control of the situation. In one of the initial scenes, Thomas emerges from a mission-type shelter with a group of ragged men. He is holding a paper bag. Later, when he gets into a Rolls Royce, we see that a camera was concealed in the bag. The hidden camera is the only thing that distinguishes Thomas from the bums: it is the camera that guarantees Thomas's identity and self confidence. The peak of this security is his reportage about London. He seems so convinced that he can know reality through the medium of photography that he fancies a book that can contain all the reality of London. This optimistic and ambitious project may be compared to the one engaged in by the French Encyclopedists of the eighteenth century.

By focusing on a photographer who is very confident, Antonioni starts his work from a optimistic point of view. Photography has been considered the most successful means to capture reality and Thomas expresses the optimistic conviction that we can be able to know and control reality. Shifting from the confused and problematic Michel to the confident Thomas, Antonioni creates a background for a more evident postmodern sense of failure of rational optimism, when, later, Thomas's conviction deteriorates.

Another significant shift is from the idea of seduction to the idea of murder. Michel is always convinced that he witnessed a seduction. At first he thinks that the woman is seducing the young man for herself, later he becomes convinced that she is seducing him for the old man in the car. This shift of perspective affects both the genre and the moral point of view of the work.

Because of the introduction of the theme of murder, Blow-Up can be seen as a detective story. This can cause a certain level of frustration in a viewer who is expecting a traditional detective story with a solution. In the classic British detective story, the scheme is generally; order, chaos, order. The initial order is disturbed by a crime, chaos follows, and finally order is restored by the detective. As Stefano Tani noted, this mechanism evokes in the reader

a sense of reassurance, since the detective's rationality restores the order violated by the murder. … The outside threat is resolved in an exorcising and entertaining ritual.


The reassurance about which Tani writes is essentially derived from a rational exorcism of irrationality. In fact the British detective story may be seen as the triumph of Enlightenment rationality. One of the basic assumptions of the Enlightenment was that everything should be explained by the power of reason. Through observation and deduction the detective finds out the truth and provides the solution. Poe's Dupin, Doyle's Holmes, Christie's Poirot show us that we can know and control reality.

The relation between the detective and reality starts changing in the late twenties and thirties with the American “hard-boiled school.” This new school represents a real break with the traditional British detective story. In an essay about Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler writes: “Hammet took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley” (58). Chandler's “venetian vase” may be considered as the perfectly rationalized world of the British detective story. Chandler's Marlowe and the other American detectives are not geniuses who operate in the peaceful British countryside, they are real men who inhabit corrupt towns. They struggle with a reality that is not perfectly constrained by the laws of rationality. However, as Stefano Tani noted, the hard-boiled school provides a less artificial setting and protagonist, but it still works within the rules of the traditional detective story (24).

On the other hand, the so-called Postmodern detective story plays with the rules of the traditional detective story. The traditional detective story involves the concept of fair play: the reader or viewer must have access to all the clues that the detective is using. This is not the case of the postmodern detective story. In the postmodern detective story, the author manipulates the reader providing clues and giving him the illusion that they will get him to the solution, but in the end the reader is frustrated by the absence of a clear solution. This is what happens in Blow-Up. We investigate with Thomas the murder in the park, but in the end our expectations are frustrated: we will never know the solution. Antonioni clearly plays with the rules of the British detective story. He creates the illusion of an initial order. In the beginning, during a conversation with the friend who is helping him with the book, Thomas says that he is looking for something “peaceful” for the final section of the book. Then he goes to a park. The park evokes the peace and order of the typical setting of the British detective story: the British countryside. Then, with the picture of the body we are provided with a crime, while at the same time Thomas presents himself as the detective. The method used by Thomas refers to the tradition: he works through observation and deduction. Through Ron, we are even provided with the figure of the friend/assistant of the detective (see Watson for Holmes, Hastings for Poirot, etc.). The mysterious woman may be seen as a suspect, but also as the figure of the lady in distress, which recurs in this genre. But all these elements are used to fool us and do not play the function that we try to apply to them, if we refer to the traditional detective story. Thomas fails in his use of the rationalist method and is more and more dragged to a vision of the world that is the opposite of the one perfectly mastered by the traditional detective. The friend/assistant, instead of providing him with useful observations, rolls his eyes and is lost in another reality, the world of drugs. The position of the woman is not clarified. The murderer is not found, the body is not found. If we follow the rules of the police—no body, no crime, we finally realize that we have been fooled by Antonioni. He gives us the illusion of having the elements of the traditional detective story and then he disappoints us. Going back to the beginning, it can be said that the park represents this illusion. In fact it refers to the order and peace of the British countryside, but at the same time it is contained in London as symbol of postmodern chaos. The ordered rational reality of the traditional detective story is for Antonioni an illusion, as the illusion of peace at the park. Antonioni creates a work that may be considered a postmodern detective story. The difficulty of classifying the genre of a work is typical of postmodern narrative. Antonioni provides a subversion of literary genre that is not present in Cortazár's short story.

The second effect of the shift from the theme of seduction to the theme of murder affects the sphere of morality. While the theme of homosexuality provokes different responses from different social, cultural, and religious groups, murder is connected with an idea of universal contempt. Michel seems morally concerned about the seduction and the homosexual is described by him as repellent:

De lo que mejor me acuerdo es la mueca que le ladeaba la boca, le cubría la cara de arrugas, algo cambiaba de lugar y forma porque la boca le temblaba y la mueca iba de un lado a otro de los labios como una cosa independiente y viva, ajena a la voluntad.

(Cortázar 71)

In this description the moral condemnation of homosexuality is expressed by the physical appearance that becomes a mixture of monstrous and grotesque. The ugliness of the face represents the perceived ugliness of the old man's vice. At the same time, the boy is seen by Michel as an innocent prey: “Largo rato no le vi la cara, apenas un perfil nada tonto—pájaro azorado, ángel de Fra Filippo, arroz con leche” (66). Michel clearly formulates a moral judgment of the old homosexual and the young boy and decides that his mission is to save the latter from corruption. Michel is “puritano a ratos” (74).

On the other hand, Thomas does not reveal any moral concern about the murder. When he calls a friend to tell him about what he found out, he says: “Fantastic!” But the most significant scene in relation to Thomas's moral position about murder is the one in which the painter's wife (or girlfriend), played by Sarah Miles, visits him. This is the dialogue:

T: I saw a man killed this morning.

W: Where? Was he shot?

T: Sort of a park.

W: Are you sure?

T: He's still there.

W: Who was he?

T: Someone.

W: How did it happen?

T: I don't know. I didn't see.

W: You didn't see?

T: No.

W: Shouldn't you call the police?

T: That's the body.

This dialogue has been often interpreted as a sign of Antonioni's theme of lack of communication. As a matter of fact it can be said that Thomas and the painter's wife do not communicate. The woman asks very specific questions: where, who, how? Thomas refuses to give specific answers: sort of a park, I don't know, someone. He is so vague because he is not interested in the moral concern behind the questions. This moral concern leads logically to the final question: “Shouldn't you call the police?” At this point Thomas is worse than vague, he clearly does not answer the question. The obvious question: why does not Thomas call the police?, is not to be dismissed. Antonioni encourages us to ask it by having it raised in this dialogue and left unanswered. The police are of no relevance to Thomas (or to the film) because Thomas is not concerned with justice. Nowhere does he show any moral concern about the murder. In Thomas's detachment from morality Antonioni takes Postmodernism to an extreme, expressing a sense of the failure of the optimistic faith in a universal morality that is very similar to the one expressed by Jürgen Habermas in Postmodern Culture. According to Habermas,

the project of modernity formulated in the 18th century by the philosophers of the Enlightenment consisted in their effort to develop objective science, universal morality. … The 20th century has shattered their optimism.


Finally we must analyze the different ways in which Michel and Thomas deal with the blow-ups. This phase is fundamental because it expresses in both works the sense of failure of the possibility of knowing and controlling reality, which may be considered as the basic theme of both works and at the same time expresses the basic difference between the two works: Antonioni takes to an extreme, and ultimately “blows-up” Cortázar's premises.

Michel enlarges one picture until he obtains an enormous blow-up, 32 × 28 cm. Michel uses observation and deduction and reaches the conclusion that the woman was picking up the boy for the homosexual and that his arrival ruined her plan. But in the end Michel sees the woman, the boy, and the old man moving in the picture:

De pronto el orden se invertía, ellos estaban vivos, moviéndose, decidían y eran decididos, iban a su futuro. … Me tiraban a la cara la burla más horrible, la de decidir frente a mi impotencia.


Thomas makes many blow-ups from the pictures he took in the park. In one of them the young woman is looking at something. Thomas makes a blow-up of the detail she is looking at and sees (or he thinks he sees) a gun, then another picture attracts his attention. He makes a blow-up and sees (or he thinks he sees) a body. He goes to the park and sees (or he thinks he sees a body), but when he goes back to the park he cannot find anything. Many critics have dealt with the question of the body. Charles Thomas Samuels searched for it in the initial scenes of the movie (124), somebody else came to the conclusion that it was a dummy. However, what seems fundamental here is simply the fact that Thomas cannot find it. The image medium seems for Antonioni to assume the role defined by Jean Baudrillard: “it has imposed itself between the real and the imaginary, upsetting the balance between the two” (Evil Demon 96). Through the image medium, Thomas thinks that he can reach the real, but in the end he has just the image. By ending the film with the non presence of the body, Antonioni freezes the disruption between image and real, converting the image into a pure simulacrum (Baudrillard, Simulations 12). It is not a coincidence that before leaving the park Thomas looks at a neon sign that does not mean anything, it is pure simulacrum.

The following scene is strictly related to this mechanism, even if some critics such as Stanley Kauffmann consider it to be detached from the rest of the film and even superfluous (279). Other critics see this scene as essential for the understanding of Antonioni's conception of reality in the film. Arthur Knight writes:

The clown-like characters with their ball-less tennis match intriguingly pose Antonioni's central question: what is reality? What is truth? What is illusion?


However, Knight does not really answer the question affirming that when Thomas joins the mimes,

one has the feeling that he is aligning himself with people who are joyfully alive and not part of the his shadowy black and white world of photography.


Does Knight believe that the joyful and alive world of the mimes is reality, while the world of photography is illusion? Some other critics state that the final scene, in which the photographer scoops up the invisible ball and tosses it back over a fence to the players, is evidence of Thomas's fundamental inability to differentiate between illusion and reality. On the other hand, Marsha Kinder sustains that through the same act “the ambiguity between illusion and reality is carefully controlled” (134).

In my opinion, the scene of the mimes is a direct continuation of the previous scene in which Thomas cannot find the body and then looks at the mysterious sign. As I already stated, the fact that Thomas cannot find the body may be interpreted as the affirmation that the photo does not refer to any reality. The image for Antonioni seems to have completed the itinerary described by Baudrillard:

It is the reflection of a basic reality

it masks and perverts a basic reality

it masks the absence of a basic reality

it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is a pure


(Simulations 12)

The sign that is referring to nothing is a confirmation of this thesis. The encounter with the mimes and the participation in their game may be then seen as the definite realization for Thomas that he is living in what Baudrillard defines as the “age of simulacra” (Simulations 12).

All the critics previously quoted refer to “illusion.” This concept refers to a false image or idea or a misleading image or idea. False implies the existence of a definite false and true, while misleading implies the concept of reality, truth from which one can be mislead. This is not the case in Blow-Up. Thomas is neither unable to differentiate between reality and illusion, nor able to control the ambiguity between reality and illusion. The body and the sign have already shown us that he is in the world of simulation and simulacra where there is no truth to separate from falsehood and no reality to separate from illusion. In this context the mimes come to represent this simulation and Thomas's participation in the game confirms his belonging to this world. The fact that Thomas and we start hearing the sound of the ball means that we are all living in this world.

While in Blow-Up, the medium of photography creates a simulacrum, an image which bears no relation to any reality, in “Las babas del diablo,” the medium is used in a different way as exemplified in the final scenes. In the photo, the woman and the boy start moving, the old man enters the photo. They are mocking Michel; it is impossible for him to control them. Then, in the very end of the short story, Michel can only see aimlessly moving clouds and birds. In “Las babas del diablo,” the medium of photography cannot capture reality because reality is elusive and ambiguous. Reality cannot be captured, but it is still there. As it shows that the only thing left to Thomas is a simulacrum, Blow-Up reveals its postmodernity by taking to an extreme the short story's sense of ambiguity, and by questioning the existence of reality itself.

In conclusion, these changes that I discussed: the shift of locale, the shift from seduction to murder, and the concentration on the medium of photography do not simply mark the passage from the book to the movie, but carry more serious implications. As I have illustrated, they are significant as they participate in a program of subversion of order and dismantling of reality.

Works Cited

Antonioni, Michelangelo, dir. Blow-Up. Perf. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. MGM, 1966.

Baudrillard, Jean. The Evil Demon of Images. Sidney: The Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987.

———. Simulations. Trans. P. Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” The Atlantic (Dec. 1944): 58.

Cortázar, Julio. “Las babas del diablo.” Las armas secretas. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1991. 61-77.

Goldstein, Richard. “The Screw-Up.” Village Voice 29 Dec. 1966: 21.

Grossvogel, David. “Blow-Up: the Forms of an Esthetic Itinerary.” Diacritics 3 (1972): 49-51.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity—An Incomplete Project.” Postmodern Culture. Trans. S. Ben-Habib. Ed. Hal Foster. London: Pluto P, 1985. 3-15.

Kael, Pauline. “A Tourist in the City of Youth.” Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang. Boston: Little, 1967. 31-37.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “A Year with Blow-Up: Some Notes.” Film 67 (1967): 274-81.

Kester, Gary. “Blow-Up: Antonioni's and Cortázar's.” Latin American Literary Review 9 (1979): 7-13.

Kinder, Marsha. “Antonioni in Transit.” Sight and Sound 36 (1967): 132-37.

Knight, Arthur. “Three Encounters with Blow-Up.” Film Heritage 2 (1967): 3-6.

Koppen, Erwin. “The Image in Film: On Cortázar's “Las babas del diablo” and Antonioni's Blow-Up.The Yearbook of Comparative Literature and General Literature 33 (1984): 47-49.

Samuels, Charles. “The Blow-Up: Sorting Things Out.” The American Scholar (Winter 1967-68): 120-31.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Wagstaff, Chris. “Sexual Noise.” Sight and Sound 96 (1982): 32-35.

Danielle M. Roemer (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Roemer, Danielle M. “Graffiti as Story and Act.” In Folklore, Literature, and Cultural Theory: Collected Essays, edited by Cathy Lynn Preston, pp. 22-8. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.

[In the following essay, Roemer perceives the idea of graffiti as folk practice to be a key theme of “Graffiti.”]

My focus here is both literary and folkloristic. I draw on the premises of graffiti as folk practice in considering a short story, “Graffiti,” by Julio Cortázar (1983).1 At the same time, I look to the shape and voicing of that story in an attempt to contribute to our understanding of the folk practice.

At the level of the story's plot, this intertextual tension is centered in issues of access. Living in a repressive police state, one in which personal expression is deemed a threat to those in power, a young man and woman begin a conversation whose utterances are the marks of graffiti. Drawing sketches at night and in alternative and clandestine spurts, they try to avoid the police patrols. They never meet, although the man does catch a glimpse of the woman on the night she is arrested, beaten, and shoved into a police wagon. At some later time, she returns to the site and draws a sketch of her battered face next to a recent drawing of the man's:

you saw the orange oval and the violet splotches where a swollen face seemed to leap out, a hanging eye, a mouth smashed with fists. I know. I know, but what could I have sketched for you? What message would have made any sense now? In some way I had to say farewell to you and at the same time ask you to continue.


The couple's inscriptions to each other are not political in content and never verbal. But the government has banned all wall writing: “the prohibition covered everything, and if some child had dared draw a house or a dog it would have been erased in just the same way” (1983:33). Nevertheless, the young man and woman have access to each other only through their graffiti—a practice which, not coincidentally, is one of deferred response. Typically, there are no co-present exchanges in graffiti writing. Each writer is separated from the other by temporal and other coordinates of social event. The couple's own communicative separation serves as an analogue to the situation of the non-graffiti-writing citizens of the town. Denied the right to signal publically their feelings about the government, passers-by are afraid even to pay obvious attention to the drawn signs of those who would risk governmental retribution: “Looking at your sketch from a distance you could see people casting a glance at it as they passed, no one stopped of course” (1983:33).

In this context of separation, wall writing comes to stand for the exercise of rights of expression and assembly, rights denied the citizens of this police state. There is no encompassing paradigm here bringing the government and its citizens into ameliorative focus. In literary terms, there is no metanarrative; Cortázar brings this point into relief with his selection of a narrator, or, better said, perhaps, a speaker. The words of the story are the woman's and her's alone. She is talking to the man, but only she serves as audience to what is said. In effect, she is talking to herself, imagining her partner's motivations, actions, and reactions. Her stance is appropriate in a story about the political repression of community. In such a context, the self turns inward, seeking company with itself. Her stance is also appropriate in a story that takes graffiti as one of its referents. Here, a solitary speaker carves out an expressive space of her own. Mute though it is, graffiti offers an empirically perceivable sign of individualistic intent, one that will remain noticeable for some period of time, staining the barrier of silence.

Nevertheless, as with the practice of graffiti, we should also notice that meaning in the story is structural, positional. It is defined through interfacings with an other. We can notice these interfacings readily: the citizens and the government, the couple and the government, the man and the woman separately against the government, and the man and the woman as a couple. These interfacings form sites of meaning that life in the city fosters and intimidates. The first three of these are increasingly more specific localizations of unilateral access to the power to make meaning. In each case, it is the government that exercises that power most effectively. The force of its power characterizes the story as a whole. The fourth interfacing offers a rebuttal to the authoritative assertion of meaning. Here, meaning is attempted in a pairing of communion, one that tries out the give and take of significance between equal partners. It is this sense of emergent and dialogic meaning that is ultimately frustrated by the powers of authority.

“So many things begin and perhaps end as a game” (1983:32). So the story itself begins. In “real” life, as well as in a game, what occurs between perceptual parentheses is involvement. “Graffiti” is in part a story about responses, of middles and what occurs in them and by means of them.

The story begins with the young women hypothesizing that her partner found amusing her first response to his graffiti. She supposes that his own drawings began as a game, growing out of simple boredom, rather than as “a protest against the state of things in the city” (1983:32). She imagines him as a spectator, surreptitiously reviewing not only his own graffiti the next morning but the clean-up crews' erasing of the sketches. The insults of the crews were “useless” at these times because, though present, the young man was sheathed in the conventional anonymity of the graffiti artist. Indeed, she imagines that the man never ran any risk at all because he “knew how to choose well” (1983:34). Supposedly the game was between the man and the government, a sort of artistic version of tag in which the representatives of authority always arrived too late to nab their counterpart.

Typically, wall writing is an activity of resurfacing. We give the name “graffiti” to the uppermost layer(s). The quickest way to “erase” graffiti (the term Cortázar chooses) is to paint over it, to resurface it with a seemingly neutral layer. Although it is not made clear in the story, we might guess that that is the method chosen by the state's clean-up crews. If so, we can say that the man and the government compete in terms of surface, the one of marks, the other, of blanked out areas. Competition is emphasized because both kinds of sign matter concurrently: the statement and the achieved silence, the trace and its covering over. The involvement of the man and the government is polarized. The two “write” from the perspective of differing ideologies.

This simple polarity alters, though, when the woman responds a second time to the man's sketches. Only then, she guesses, does he realize that her own sketch was an intentional response to his. The women's involvement mediates and complicates the interaction, extending the situation into the level of deep play (Geertz 1973). The buffering parentheses of play become jeopardized while the quality of play is intensified: “suddenly the danger had become double, someone like you had been moved to have some fun on the brink of imprisonment or something worse” (1983:33). As the couple continues to respond to each other, the implication is of a romantic trist, one layered (as the woman sees it) upon a political base. For her, surfaces have become especially double voiced—both romantic and political. Interaction in a public sphere now attempts privacy. Context becomes ambivalent. The couple sheds the implications of context in trying to communicate with each other through play; yet, the “realistic fact” is that they are operating within an ideological environment that cannot be safely ignored.

Conventionally, play makes the mark subject to reversal and erasure. In play, actions and reactions don't necessarily “count” (Stewart 1978). In Cortázar's story, however, the ambivalence of context allows these conditions themselves to be reversed. To the government, a clean wall is a safe wall. To the woman, graffiti creates the “very clean space where there [is] almost room for hope” (1983:33). She experiences quite literally the consequences of her belief when she is arrested. The reversibility of play is itself reversed. Acts of graffiti are turned back on the woman as she is beaten. The government's “marks,” no longer those solely of erasure, become the bruises and lacerations on her face. This reversal localizes and thus emphasizes the power of the police state. As symbolic of citizens' rights, play is forcefully negated—denied the capacity to achieve its own kind of erasure. The women herself becomes someone who doesn't “count,” someone who can't be allowed to matter because of her threat to authority. The one possibility for hope (from her point of view) comes with her final appeal to her partner. Though spoken only within her own imagination, she appeals to him not only to continue with his sketches but, by implication, to continue them with political motives: “imagining that you were going out at night to make other sketches” (1983:38).

Graffiti is always a compromised activity because it is a writing against authority. Simultaneously, though, it is an externalization of the writer's sense of individuality: “graffiti promises and indeed depends upon a dream of the individualized masses” (Stewart 1987:174). As the inappropriate display of self, a crime of signature, graffiti can be considered a form of pollution. Like “garbage, noise, dirt, and broken doors” (Castleman 1982), it is a mark that interrupts the seamless sense of experience promoted by authority. The walls written on are not mere concrete or brick supports for expressive display. They are sites of contention (Grider 1979:145-146). In the competition for expressive space, the “winner” will be the one that can exercise the most potent control over materiality. The couple inscribes themselves on the body of the city. So does the government. As well, though, the government can and does inscribe its signs of power on the bodies of its citizens—those they catch writing graffiti.

Even more basic to the theme of materiality than the “what's” of inscription are the “how's” of those acts—the dimension of representation. We know the world and express our interpretations of it through socially re-invented and ratified meaning systems. There is no direct and nonarbitrary link between signifier and signified, between sign and referent in this process. Instead, all communication is biased: all ordering systems are suspect and all discourse systems are problematic (Hutcheon 1989:24): Cortázar emphasizes these issues by setting the story's events in a context in which authority and subversion, the social and the individual, play off one another.

It is appropriate that the artists of the story should work singly and in darkness. They manage briefly a sense of community but that sense becomes possible only in the light of day when the drawings become visible yet, at the same time, vulnerable to the government's own response. The public and the private become supplements to each other here, each defining yet provisional to the other. The privatized autonomy of the graffiti is bracketed by occasions of disclosure, and its social display is parenthesized by occasions of solitary execution.

With these contingencies, Cortázar seems to be pointing to the constitutive capacity of environment. The authoritative actions of the government illustrate this capacity in blatant ways. A more subtle and localized example comes with the woman's situating of her drawings. Like graffiti artists in our own world, the woman intentionally incorporates features of the environment into her sketches: “One night you saw her first sketch all by itself; she'd done it in red and blue chalk on a garage door, taking advantage of the worm-eaten wood and the nail heads” (1983:35). Yet, her simple act of opening the artistic work to the outside world has political implications. It presages the government's encroachment upon any graffiti display. She opens herself and her art to an other. The government moves into that space of the other, displacing the man as her partner. He is saved in a later situation by mere chance, by the buffer of unexpected context:

There was a confused crowding by the wall, you ran, in the face of all good sense, and all that helped you was the good luck to have a car turn the corner and put on its brakes when the driver saw the patrol wagon, its bulk protected you and you saw the struggle, black hair pulled by gloved hands, the kicks and the screams, the cut-off glimpse of blue slacks before they threw her into the wagon and took her away.


He is saved, in other words, by the luck of the “amateur” graffitist, the one who has yet to acknowledge the political implications of his art. Environment is a highly charged dimension in this story. As the woman hopes the man learns, there is no safe corner, no value-free mark, no stance that will allow commitment without the threat of a heavy price.

Authority and individuality, context and text, come into uneasy dialogue in Cortázar's story. So too can they in the folk practice of graffiti. Rarely though (in American society at least) does graffiti prompt such stern consequences as Cortázar depicts. Yet, the capacity of graffiti to expose relationships of power serves as a critique of all situated discourse—its vulnerability to both the surges and the seeming securities of context. Contextualization is interpretation, and therein lies the threat of acts of erasure as much as of the graffiti they cover. The one is the negation of individuality; the other, its herald.


  1. Belgium born of Argentenian heritage, Julio Cortázar situates many of his stories in fictional versions of the Buenos Aires suburb where he spent his adolescence and early childhood. From the 1950s on, Cortázar published over eighty short stories, five novels, four miscellanies, two books of poetry, two plays, and many essays, prose poems, and travelogues. He has been called one of the most important authors of the “new narrative” in Spanish America (Peavler 1990).

Works Cited

Castleman, Craig. 1982. Getting Up. Subway Graffiti in New York. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Cortázar, Julio. 1983. Graffiti. In We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales. Trans. by Gregory Rabassa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. In The Interpretation of Cultures, by Clifford Geertz, pp. 412-453. New York: Basic Books.

Grider, Sylvia. 1979. Con Safos: Mexican-Americans, Names and Graffiti. In Readings in American Folklore, ed. Jan Harold Brunvand, pp. 138-151. New York: W.W. Norton Co.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1989. Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge.

Peavler, Terry J. 1990. Julio Cortázar. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Stewart, Susan. 1978. Nonsense. Aspects of Intertextuality in Folklore and Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

———. 1987. Ceci Tuera Cela: Graffiti as Crime and Art. In Life after Postmodernism: Essays on Value and Culture, ed. John Fekete, pp. 161-180. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Marcy E. Schwartz (essay date winter 1996)

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SOURCE: Schwartz, Marcy E. “Cortázar's Plural Parole: Multilingual Shifts in the Short Fiction.” Romance Notes 36, no. 2 (winter 1996): 131-37.

[In the following essay, Schwartz argues that “Lejana,” “El otro cielo” and “La autopista del sur” “exemplify Cortázar's manipulation of multiple language registers to underscore ontological displacement.”]

Geography and national languages in Cortázar's fiction operate as semiotic cultural codes from which the characters struggle to break free. Although much of his writing takes place in French-speaking surroundings, Cortázar's multilingual and interterritorial movements are not limited to his Argentine-French biographical axes. His writing reveals that beyond a Latin American-European cosmopolitanism lies a continuing exploration of alternative realms and the avenues of accessing them. “Lejana,” “El otro cielo” and “La autopista del sur” exemplify Cortázar's manipulation of multiple language registers to underscore ontological displacement.

The stories incorporate other languages as narrative vehicles for traversing seemingly separated domains. Cortázar's plots tell of characters' leaps across subtle borders that land them on foreign territory. The characters are often lone travelers who inhabit transitional or split spaces to which they alone have double access. Their isolation heightens the impact of their passage from one realm to the other. The presence of “foreign” words and phrases rather than promoting communication, signals individual passage between different worlds that the characters must decipher. The abundant use of languages other than Spanish within the discourse serves to accentuate otherness and the psycho-aesthetic expansion of the self.

“Lejana” and “El otro cielo” are examples of Cortázar's fiction of parallel simultaneous worlds. “Lejana” is the story of an Argentine pianist grappling with the consciousness of a duplicate self in Budapest. “El otro cielo”'s narrator/protagonist moves between Buenos Aires in the 1940s and Paris around 1870, and relies on the Parisian arcades as the zone of connection. These two stories' blurred narrative boundaries accentuate the connections between two times and places as portals to alternative worlds. The discourse includes phrases and proper names in French, English, Italian and Hungarian that either blur or switch between the stories' parallel regions.

“Lejana” consists of fragments of Alina Reyes's diary that recount her increasing awareness of two parallel lives. Her expanded consciousness stems from her ability to manipulate a variety of sign systems. Her diary cites a line from the Lord's Prayer in English, a verse of Verlaine in French, and scattered words in Hungarian related to her “double” in Budapest. She suffers from insomnia, and to conquer it she plays word games with herself and invents anagrams. Her favorite rearranges the letters of her name into “Es la reina y”: “[t]an hermoso, éste, porque abre un camino, porque no concluye” (Cuentos 119). Her diary attests to an open self, composed of multiple semiotic territories. According to Alazraki she searches for “una ruta de acceso a ese orden segundo a través de una metáfora … un medio de conocer poéticamente estratos de la realidad que se resisten a un conocimiento lógico” (Alazraki 200). Rather than a divided or conflicted self, Alina extends herself to encompass and fuse with her “other.”

Music works together with language in this story. Alina's proficiency in both verbal (linguistic) and musical language guide her into her other realm and advance her reunion with her double on the bridge in Budapest. While accompanying her friend Nora in a recital, her consciousness is overtaken by her other self during the Fauré version of Verlaine's poem “Claire de lune,” precisely at the line, “[v]otre âme est un paysage choisi” (Cuentos 120). The ambiguity of the word choisi, meaning both “chosen” and “choice” or “select,” indicates both volition and idealization. Alina's pursuit of her other self contradicts both meanings; her search becomes a psychic imperative, and the woman's poverty and abuse reveal anything but a choice existence. During another concert, as an audience member, Alina visualizes making her way through the unknown city desperate to find the square that leads to the bridge where her battered other self awaits. Language, she senses, is an essential tool in her search:

Pero no sé el nombre de la plaza, es un poco como si de veras hubiese llegado a una plaza de Budapest y estuviera perdida por no saber su nombre; ahí donde un nombre es una plaza.

(Cuentos 122)

Alina's landscapes are linguistic, and without the appropriate words she cannot enter them.

Alina's diary ends when she marries and the story continues in third person. This shift in narrative voice is analogous to the shifts between Spanish and other national languages. The end of the story retreats from the intimate language of a personal diary to adopt the narration of a distanced observer. The stylistic change signals the disengagement of Alina's two selves, foreshadowing the separation after their brief fusion. The terms leading up to the eventful meeting—“adherencia,” “usurpación,” “doblegar,” “sumar” (Cuentos 120)—indicate the psychic and spatial connection between the two. The language shifts, in narrative style and in multilanguage use, announce the exchange between these two lives. Alina huddles on the bridge, snow seeping into her shoes, and watches the one she used to be retreat to the other side.

“El otro cielo” presents another version of a split self who must choose between parallel lives. Erotic desire motivates the protagonist to move from one world to the other and allows for relatively easy access: “Me ocurría a veces que todo se dejaba andar, se ablandaba y cedía terreno, aceptando sin resistencia que se pudiera ir así de una cosa a otra” (Cuentos 590). He fluidly exits his conventional bourgeois life of a stockbrocker in Buenos Aires in order to enter an underworld of prostitutes and assassins in Paris. The inclusion of French in the discourse, in linguistic as well as cultural details, indicates the overlapping of realms. As in “Lejana,” the text privileges the transition between the two times and spaces in the protagonist's indecision.

Discursively, language shifts mark the passage between the two worlds the protagonist inhabits. The movement is so fluid that the multilanguaged signs often obscure rather than delineate his passage. There are moments of supposed indecision in the reading that hang on a bifurcating sign that pertains to both worlds. These moments underscore the protagonist's indecision regarding which world he will ultimately choose. The stock market, for example, is one of the signs that hinges the two realms. The protagonist gains entrance to the Parisian arcade community through a similar porteño structure called the Pasaje Güemes. Both the Pasaje Güemes and the Parisian arcades are located in the commercial stock market district of their cities. The protagonist's work routine places him in the very vicinity of accessing the other world that he seeks. The supposed concrete specificity of la bolsa seems to distinguish between the two places, but results in ambiguity each time it is mentioned.

A wide range of linguistic markers in “El otro cielo” highlights the overlapping realms and guides the movement between them. Beyond the obvious place names and spelling differences (French street and arcade names, or “Pasaje” versus “Passage” for example), the signs involve a complex deciphering process. The character names become sonorously associated with their linguistic context. The protagonist's fiancée in Buenos Aires is named Irma, an earthy, two-syllable name in Spanish. Irma's name sonorously contrasts with Josiane's, the French prostitute, with its soft “j,” dipthong and silent but poetically recognized last syllable. Cortázar uses these phonetic distinctions to distinguish the otherwise blurring zones.

The extended Lautréamont intertext contributes to the linguistic play that accents the story's multicultural themes. An epigraph from the Chants de Maldoror introduces each of the story's two sections. The story incorporates the intertext further in the suspicious caped South American figure who roams the arcade neighborhood in Paris. This silent and mysterious character is entangled in the story's concern with bicultural identification. Rodríguez Monegal indicates the play on the name Lautréamont as a text, pulling out of its spelling Laurent, a feared strangler in the arcade neighborhood, and Josiane's amo. This cluster includes the protagonist while implicating Cortázar himself, all of them cultural transplants stradling Paris and Río de la Plata.

Cortázar's multilingual shifts emphasize fantastic elements of his short fiction not only in his duplicitous stories of spatio-temporal splits. In “La autopista del sur” a traffic jam along the principal highway between Paris and the south of France transforms passengers into a multicultural society whose identifying markers are international automobile models and their potential for shelter. Despite the story's spatio-temporal unity, the text's fantastic plot still relies on multilingual otherness.

The characters in “La autopista del sur” are trapped on the highway for an exaggerated period. While “Lejana” and “El otro cielo” expand both spatially and temporally, here travel stops in one place and time expands to occupy over a year. This reversal in narrative movement provides the same sort of opening of which Cortázar is so fond: a new society emerges on the margins of the center. The only common factor among the characters is that they are all highway travelers who are impeded from continuing their trips. Out of their common predicament they create a social order based on mutual dependency for water, food, medical care and human contact.

The cause of the traffic jam is in question throughout the story. Conflicting versions of highway disasters present a variety of possible explanations:

A lo largo de la tarde se había sabido así del choque de un Floride contra un 2HP cerca de Corbeil, tres muertos y un niño herido, el doble choque de un Fiat 1500 contra un furgón Renault que había aplastado un Austin lleno de turistas ingleses, el vuelco de un autocar de Orly colmado de pasajeros procedentes del avión de Copenhague.

(Cuentos 507)

This brief passage with its brand names, model numbers, and international place names shifts the reader's attention away from the concerns of the plot and towards the language itself. The enumeration of automobile models becomes an alternative semiotic texture imposed on the story. The suggested movement and communication of the poliglossic vehicles contrasts with the narrative paralysis of the traffic. The epigraph from an Italian newspaper introduces intertextually another language while announcing the non-story-like quality of this story: “Gli automobilisti accaldati sembrano non avere storia. … Come realtá, un ingorgo automobilistico impressiona ma non ci dice gran che” (Cuentos 505). Cortázar explores the voyage of standing still, inverting the narrative structure of movement that orients most of his work.

At the end of the story, the traffic finally begins to move. The “neighborhoods” of car configurations break up, easing along the highway each car at its own pace. The protagonist (the unnamed engineer in the Peugeot 404) tries to keep track of the various “characters,” in particular the Dauphine whose driver has become pregnant with his child. As in “El otro cielo,” the protagonist of “La autopista del sur” returns to “normalcy” but regrets the closing of this parenthesis:

El grupo de dislocaba, ya no existía. … El 404 había esperado todavía que el avance y el retroceso de las filas le permitiera alcanzar otra vez a Dauphine, pero cada minuto lo iba convenciendo de que era inútil, que el grupo se había disuelto irrevocablemente, que ya no volverían a repetirse los encuentros rutinarios, los mínimos rituales, los consejos de guerra en el auto …

(Cuentos 521-2)

The protagonist is not prepared to go back, and resists the end of his precarious highway existence. The visual and linguistic work together in the semiotics of this final scene. 404 sees the familiar configuration of cars disperse, and finds he is easily deceived by an approaching car that resembles one of the cars from his “group.” The hardship of the traffic jam suddenly takes on the nostalgia of a wartime episode or a summer romance. The protagonist struggles to assimilate the return to movement and eventually to Paris, aware that his automobile language of identification and survival will no longer serve him.

The variety of languages in “El otro cielo,” “Lejana” and “La autopista del sur” help construct Cortázar's metaphysical interstices. Multilanguage shifts provide the verbal bridges and conceptual highways for the reader as well as for the characters, signalling passage into a variety of possible imaginative realms. Cortázar himself declares, in an essay on the genre, that the short story functions like a snapshot or fragment of reality, “[una] explosión que se abre a una realidad más amplia” (quoted in Mora 44). An initial reading may imply a fantasy/reality polarity that overlooks the metaphysical exploration so explicit in his texts' displacements. Castro-Klarén suggests two central tenets in Cortázar's theory of literature: a porous, open, dislocated structure of knowledge and the self, and the continuous presence of the Other (141). This open structure allows for active individual exploration. His characters are often split between two geo-historical spaces that are equally available to them. They struggle with their curiosity and often conflicting motivation, while they contest society's unified spatial confines. They seek out transitional spaces that challenge the seeming normalcy of daily existence, and accept the linguistic multiplicity that comes in the wake of their search.

Writing is a transnational endeavor for Cortázar, a transgressional project that poetically joins contiguous worlds. Along with architecture and geography, multilingualism is a vehicle for Cortázar's theories about writing and textuality. Art emerges from the borderlines or the overlapping edges of the worlds his texts evoke. The fluke of a traffic jam or the line of a song give rise to new structures like a temporary society and a transnational exchange of lifestyles. Just as jazz, according to chapter 17 in Rayuela, arises in the space of transgressed boundaries, “una nube sin fronteras … [que] reconcilia … reincorpora … un origen traicionado” (Rayuela 88), so Cortázar's texts subscribe to a free-play of signifiers that are allowed to perform beyond the confines of a given language. Sounds foreign to Spanish from songs, automobile models and makes, expressions and proper names transpose the discourse of these stories into an interstitial linguistic space. This arbitrary amalgam of multi-cultural expression produces foreigness for the reader, while the characters navigate through ontological complexities that extend much beyond language.

Should one of the travelers in “La autopista del sur” run into (pardon the pun) Josiane from “El otro cielo,” Alina Reyes or her Hungarian double from “Lejana,” they might recognize each other by their accents, their cars or the bridge they all cross. If the rivers's fog masks their glances of recognition, they may find collective solace in the sounds of their voices, the pronunciation of their names, the murmured melody of Verlaine's line, “[v]otre âme est un paysage choisi.” Cortázar's characters enter their chosen landscapes via psychic awareness, erotic desire or the chance of fate. Other languages seep into the discourse to tear at conventional unity and open the stories to a choice frontier.

Works Cited

Alazraki, Jaime. En busca del unicornio: los cuentos de JC. Madrid: Gredos, 1983.

Castro-Klarén, Sara. “Ontological Fabulation: Toward Cortázar's Theory of Literature.” The Final Island: the Fiction of Julio Cortázar. Eds. Jaime Alazraki and Ivar Ivask. Norman: U Oklahoma P, 1978. 140-150.

Cortázar, Julio. Cuentos completos. Vol. I. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994.

———. Rayuela. Barcelona: Edhasa, 1977.

Mora, Gabriela. En torno al cuento: de la teoría general y de su práctica en Hispanoamérica. Madrid: José Porrúa Turanzas, 1985.

Rodríguez Monegal, Emir. “La ‘Fantome’ de Lautréamont.” Revista Iberoamericana 84-85 (1973): 625-39.

Isabel Alvarez Borland (essay date spring-fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Borland, Isabel Alvarez. “Cortázar: On Critics and Interpretation.” INTI, nos. 43-44 (spring-fall 1996): 157-66.

[In the following essay, Borland explores the role of protagonist/critic in several of Cortázar's short stories and essays.]

En algún lugar debe haber un basural donde están amontonadas las explicaciones. Una sola cosa inquieta en este justo panorama: lo que pueda ocurrir el día en que alguien consiga explicar también el basural.

—Julio Cortázar, Un tal Lucas 66

Cortázar's writing overtly challenges and invites the reader to participate in the act of creation, engaging him/her to consider the creative act from multiple perspectives. He has explicitly dealt with his poetics in “Apuntes para una poética” (1945), and with a theory of the short story in Ultimo Round (1969). Starting with Rayuela (1963), a great portion of his fiction has been self-consciously dedicated to exploring the aesthetics of the creative act. Given his interest in the subject, a question is raised by the fact that while his essays and fiction on the creative process defend and praise the craft and role of the artist, his portrait of literary critics as characters or as subjects of his essays has displayed an intense suspicion regarding the critic's role vis-a-vis the work of art.

The present study concerns specific stories and essays by Cortázar in which the literary critic functions as the main character. Central to our goal would be to explore how, in these fictions, Cortázar establishes a dialogue with the reader through which he addresses the subject of interpretation. In order to identify a subtext common to the stories as well as the essays, two questions must be directed to these narratives: 1) What is the role of the protagonist/critic in providing the reader with a particular perspective of the critical act? 2) How does the critical language employed by these protagonists/critics differ from the familiar language of fiction, and what are the implications of these differences? By answering these questions through a careful study of the narratives' fictional processes, we will be concerned with identifying not only the critic as a literary character, but also with exploring Cortázar's awareness of the dynamics of literary interpretation1.

“El perseguidor” has received considerable attention from scholars as Cortázar's testament on the subject of jazz2. Narrated in the first person of a critic named Bruno, the story takes place in the world of music, offering us an account of a talented jazzman's last years, his drug and alcohol dependency, his self-destructive impulses and, finally, the beauty and power of his music.

The story is an autobiographical account of Bruno, a critic who is writing a biography on jazzman Johnny Carter. Bruno's view of himself and his profession dominate the story since it is through this critic's perspective that all other events are presented to the reader. As the story opens, the reader is presented with a sordid scene at Johnny's apartment: Johnny lies in bed, sick from his drug habit and desolate because he has lost his saxophone. Bruno, the artist's “friend,” is there to promise another saxophone and perhaps additional money. The roles are clearly delineated in this first scene: Johnny will be the exploited genius of jazz while Bruno will be the provider as well as the parasite, the “selfless” critic who follows Johnny around in order to exploit his talents.

The story is chronologically told, its language straightforward, its motives and themes rather transparent. However, soon the reader realizes the deceptive character of this narrative, for in this story the narrator and the reader reach different conclusions about the portrait of Johnny Carter as drawn by his critic/pursuer, Bruno. The gap caused by the narratorial unreliability of Bruno's first person, allows the reader to detect inconsistencies in Bruno's portrait of the artist.

There are several aspects in the telling of “El perseguidor” that allow the critical reader to look at this account as the story of the dynamics of exchange between critic and artist, between pursuer and creator. Moreover, “El perseguidor” dramatizes the critical act from multiple perspectives: the critic's view and exercise of his profession; the critic's portrait of the artist; and finally, the artist's view of the critic.

Bruno, our narrator, lacks imagination both in his critical study of Johnny (the pretext for telling his story) and in his account to us as readers. Early in the story Bruno states: “Soy un crítico de jazz lo bastante sensible como para comprender mis limitaciones” (92). For Bruno, a critic is no better than a mercenary: “ese hombre que solo puede vivir de prestado de las novedades y las decisiones ajenas” (130). In fact, Bruno feels that his profession denies him any possible transcendence and this realization fills him with bitterness.

It is precisely this negative self-image (“me siento como un hueco a su lado” [120]) that translates into an account of Johnny which is tainted and colored by Bruno's intense feelings of inferiority. The critic wants to convince the reader of Johnny's unworthiness, of his decadent lifestyle, and of the lack of correspondence between his genius and his personal merits. Moreover, Bruno goes to great lengths to let the reader know that the genius of this artist was totally undeserved:

un pobre diablo de inteligencia apenas mediocre, dotado como tanto músico, tanto ajedrecista y tanto poeta del don de crear cosas estupendas sin tener la menor conciencia (a lo sumo orgullo de boxeador que se sabe fuerte) de las dimensiones de su obra.


Bruno feels envy of Johnny Carter's creative genius. He situates himself and his profession as unworthy when compared to the artist's endeavors: “el Johnny está al principio de su saxo mientras yo vivo obligado a conformarme con el final” (92).

Based on the plot's events, we could assert that “El perseguidor” is simply Cortázar's bitter indictment against the figure of the critic, and against criticism as an empty, meaningless, pursuit. However, if we look further, the negative example of Bruno foregrounds key issues related to the exercise of a satisfactory critical practice: the critic's right to become the artist's author; the critic's responsibility to his readers' and the problematics between the critic and his subject of study.

What in fact is Bruno's critical approach to Johnny's art? It is significant that we are never quite sure of what is actually written in Bruno's book. If on one instance, Bruno writes: “me he impuesto mostrar las lineas esenciales poniendo el acento en lo que verdaderamente cuenta, el arte incomparable de Johnny” (124), later on he contradicts himself: “Se muy bien que el libro no dice la verdad sobre Johnny (tampoco miente) sino que se limita a la música de Johnny” (140). The critical reader is forced to examine gaps rather than presences, omissions rather than assertions. The story's subject, Johnny's portrait, is as elusive to the reader as is Bruno's analysis of its merits.

At times Bruno dialogues with the reader and clearly admits that he has no intention of letting him “read” his critical text: “Este no es el momento de hacer crítica de jazz, y los interesados pueden leer mi libro sobre Johnny y el nuevo estilo” (102). Moreover, when Bruno feels that he is letting on too much information regarding his critical text, he restrains himself from such activity: “Pero de todo esto he hablado en mi libro” (111). Bruno's reluctance to let the reader appreciate his critical acumen is significant and could be indicative of Cortázar's own suspicious view of the language of literary interpretation.

The absence or unavailability of the critic's text leads us to explore the presence of a surrogate reader3 who comments on the critical text unavailable to us. The final judgment on Bruno's book comes from the artist Johnny, and this has a terrifying effect on Bruno for the latter fears public embarrassment. Johnny, as a reader of Bruno's text, clearly sees the critic's desire for facile and opportunistic criticism. As expected, Johnny accuses Bruno of creating a false portrait of him: “Bruno el jazz no es solamente música, yo no soy solamente Johnny Carter” (142). Johnny becomes the first reader of Bruno's critical interpretation and underscores the critic's dishonest approach and lack of scruples (143). In addition, the jazzman's judgment on Bruno's work has additional significance for it introduces in the story the possibility of an alternative approach to the creative work:

Faltan cosas, Bruno—dice Johnny—. Tu estás mucho más enterado que yo, pero me parece que faltan cosas … El compañero Bruno anota en su libreta todo lo que uno dice, salvo las cosas importantes. Nunca creí que pudieras equivocarte tanto.


Johnny's reproaches to Bruno suggest a holistic approximation to the work of art, one that considers the artist's human concerns as well as his craft: “Pero Bruno … de lo que te has olvidado es de mí. … De mí, Bruno, de mí” (141). The events in this story question the critic's right to become the artist's author; but more importantly, these events underline the basic differences between the language of criticism and the language of art.

The questions posed by “El perseguidor” could perhaps be clarified in the context of a second story on the subject of critics and their practice: “Los pasos en las huellas” published in 1974 as part of the collection Octaedro4. This story presents manipulation and selection of critical evidence as dangerous temptations for the critic in the practice of his profession. Fraga, an unknown critic, decides to write a study on Romero, a well-known poet who had enjoyed an unexplained reputation in his country both before and after his death. It is Fraga's intention to uncover the obscure reasons for the poet's impact and popularity: “padecía de la falta de una crítica sistemática y hasta de una iconografía satisfactoria” (25).

In “Los pasos en las huellas,” Fraga's research is traced chronologically: the initial stage of gathering data, and the “inventive” stage in which Fraga manipulates his facts in order to produce a version that would guarantee success: “ganar simultaneamente el respeto del mundo académico y el entusiasmo del hombre de la calle” (29). Fraga's critical approach to Romero is biographical, a task which makes him a chronicler/detective of Romero's life. After some months of research, Fraga succeeds in his venture: his new interpretation radically changes the canon on the popular author and becomes “el tema del momento.”

However, things do not go as Fraga had expected. Once accepted by his peers and by the public at large, Fraga finds himself unable to continue his farce. Overcome by “un desasosiego inexplicable” he is unable to enjoy his newly found success. He recognizes and admits to the reader that his version had not explored the subject sufficiently; that he had stopped researching when he found suitable evidence; and finally, that he had neglected evidence which would have considerably altered his now “commercial” interpretation on Romero: “Oh sí, lo sabía, vaya a saber como pero lo sabía y escribí el libro sabiéndolo y quizá también los lectores lo saben, y todo es una inmensa mentira en la que estamos metidos hasta el último” (40).

A second visit to his original source, Raquel Marquez, confirms what Fraga already knew: he had neglected to include significant evidence that would have changed the reception of his best seller. Plagued by remorse and conscious of the disastrous results such relations would have for his reputation as a critic, Fraga decides to reveal his hoax to the public. There is an ironic twist at the end of the story when Fraga realizes the commercial value of his ‘second’ interpretation of Romero. Driven by his ambition and desire to preserve his image, our critic is again ready to misuse his latest and more honest interpretation: “… la cancelación del premio, la negativa de la cancillería a confirmar su propuesta, podían convertirse en noticias que lo lanzarían al mundo internacional de las grandes tiradas y las traducciones” (46). The critic's repentance only serves to sink him deeper into the lie he was trying to correct.

The reader's reception of the events in this story is the result of the distorted accounts of three individuals. First, we witness Romero's own manipulation of his poems in order to create an image for himself. Next, we have the selection of the letters given to Fraga by Raquel Marquez revealing her own desire to withhold events which would produce a new version of Romero. Finally, we have Fraga's knowing acceptance of Raquel Marquez' practical evidence because it suits his own commercial version. Thus Fraga's interpretation of the artist changes with each new telling, and with each reason for telling it.

Against a biography's mirroring capability, its implicit promise of faithful representation, Cortázar clearly senses its potential for distortion and inescapable otherness, its autonomy as object. Thus the subtle interactions of the object's biography and the subject portrayed (in both Johnny Carter's and Romero's lives) contribute and speak for the problematics of identity of the specific critic and of critics in general. In both these stories, the critics seem to be hampered by their own subjectivity, and also by their own desire to make their object of study be like them. In the case of the critic Fraga, this manipulation of evidence is closely associated with an imposition of his own life into the life of the subject he is creating. This is done very effectively as the omniscient narrator draws intentional parallels between the critic and the artist's life: “Las afinidades entre Romero y yo, nuestra común preferencia por ciertos valores estéticos y poéticos, eso que vuelve fatal la elección del tema por parte de biógrafo, no me hará incurrir más de una vez en una autobiografía disimulada?” (28).

Both Fraga and Bruno manipulate evidence in order to produce a sellable, commercial interpretation of their artists. In “El perseguidor,” the artist is alive and becomes a critical reader of Bruno's text, while in “Los pasos en las huellas” Fraga has total and unchecked freedom to forge whatever image of Romero is most suitable to him. The presence of Johnny Carter as a surrogate reader in “El perseguidor”, ensures our negative reaction to the critic's unfair behavior. On the other hand, in “Los pasos en las huellas,” Fraga's self-censorship reveals remorse for his dishonest critical practice. In both stories the question of authorship of a critical treatise is a serious one for it involves the risk of dishonesty and deviousness.

While “El perseguidor” and “Los pasos en las huellas” have given us a fictional depiction of failed critics, Cortázar's short essays have sometimes approached the subject ironically once again depicting critics in a negative light. Two fitting examples are his essays: “Noticias de los Funes” (1969) and “Texturologías” (1979).

In “Noticias de los Funes” Cortázar communicates the same derogatory attitude towards the labor of the critic that we had witnessed in his fictions:

… un tal Julian Garavito de la revista Europe viene y escribe pero entonces usted y el hilo secreto que va uniendo sus cuentos. … La crítica es como Periquita y hace lo que puede, pero eso de que ahora se dedique a la costura conmigo prueba lo que va de cualquier realidad a cualquier interpretación.


This essay is of interest because our author attempts to answer a critic's interpretation of his own work. In Garavito's5 particular case, Cortázar is surprised because this critic manages to find unity in what Cortázar viewed as a totally haphazard collection of short stories (120). Curiously, Cortázar is not totally censorious of this critics. The essay concludes by thanking Garavito for having “illuminated” Cortázar's creative work: “sin ironía alguna le doy las gracias a Julian Garavito, tejedor al lado de la luz” (121).

“Texturologías,” on the other hand, effectively demeans the labor of the critic by dramatizing the futility of a critical language. The essay reproduces fictitious quotes from six critical interpretations of a poet named Lobizón. Each critic appears as a critic of the previous critic, each successive essay outdoing the next in its pedantry and obscurity, forgetting its main concern which should have been the artist's work. The critic's quotes, which make up the main body of the essay, are followed by Cortázar's own ironic closing sentence: ¿Qué agregar a esta deslumbrante absolutización de lo contingente?”. In “Texturologías,” we find a telling instance of the misuse of the language of interpretation.

Cortázar's own biography tells us that he himself started as a critic and as a teacher of literature6. As a student he labored over the work of Keats and Poe, translated their work, and wrote critical treatises on them. In fact some of Cortázar's writings on these two authors have been identified by critics as essential in the understanding of Cortázar's poetics and his view on what constitutes artistic creativity. “Para llegar a Lezama Lima,” Cortázar's essay on Lezama's Paradiso, provides an excellent opportunity to examine Cortázar's own approach to the creative work of others.

The essay begins by discussing biographical facts about Lezama such as his lack of familiarity with foreign languages, and his relatively unknown status in Europe. As the essay progresses, it becomes obvious to the reader that Cortázar's method of analysis consists of quoting extensively from the original. Few opinions are formulated by Cortázar on Paradiso and when they do appear, they tend to be subjective and emulatory of Lezama's own style (72). Cortázar seems contaminated with Lezama's style and uses nouns and terms which would be recognized as lezamianos. Here Cortázar reaches the same union with his text that he had prescribed as essential for creators in “Apuntes para una poética”. Cortázar urges the reader to come into direct contact with Paradiso, for only by establishing a communion with the artistic text it will be possible for any reader to grasp Lezama's poetic imagery and the power of his prose. Fittingly, Cortázar concludes this essay with a humble assessment of his critical practice as he labels his own criticism as “un pobre resumen de un libro que no los tolera.” As a critic, Cortázar feels awed by the power of Lezama's artistry. The critic, displaced by the artist, is forced to summarize rather than to interpret.

Cortázar's non-fictional writings on the subject of the artist seem to suggest that critics and creators should adhere to the same professional criteria. In his classic essay on creativity, “Apuntes para una poética,” Cortázar discusses the qualities needed to create literature: faith, intuition, and a belief by the artist that he will be possessed by the art he is creating. The critic, like the artist, must be able to join in and communicate intuitively with the text: “Yo creo que un gran crítico y un gran creador están absolutamente en el mismo nivel” (Apuntes, 130). Cortázar's insistence on the communion between the artist and his object, is of great relevance to our consideration of the author's stance on critics since it allows us to understand Cortázar's suspicion and lack of trust in the language of criticism.

In a key essay on Cortázar's poetics, Sara Castro Klaren describes the significant influence of phenomenology—specifically Merleau Ponty's writings—on Julio Cortázar's stance of the subject of artistic creation. Castro Klaren specifies two main postulates as defining Cortázar's poetics. The first is the poet's “porous” or open condition to the world's experiences. The second, addresses the relationship between the artist and the object of his creation, “the poet thirsting for being, manages to fuse his anxious being to the ontological qualities of the contemplated object” (141).

By juxtaposing the critic's and the artist's use of language in the fictional pieces we have studied, Cortázar explores the limits of critical language to portray the truth. If a good critic should be at the same level as the artist, then it follows that a critic should be able to achieve the same fusion with his subject (the artist) as the artist achieves with his (the work of art). Yet, is this a realistic goal for any critic? For Cortázar, a basic difference between the language of the artist and the language of the critic lies in their respective premises. The artist's truth does not depend on the facts, it has a freedom which is not available to the literary critic. Cortázar's fictional pieces on critics and his own essays on the creative act seem to support this view.

In an interview with Evelyn Picon Garfield, published five years before his death, Cortázar spoke briefly about the language of fiction versus the language of criticism:

La crítica a veces se llama una especie de creación de segundo grado, de segunda etapa, es decir que el cuentista escribe partiendo de una especie de nada y el crítico crea partiendo de una cosa que ya está hecha. … A mí me gustaría ser una especie de síntesis de las dos cosas aunque fuera un día: solo un día de mi vida me gustaría ser a la vez un creador y un crítico.


The passage is significant because it underlines once again Cortázar's dualistic feelings towards the critical act. It also explains what to Cortázar is the critic's dilemma “a veces hay una especie de corte con la vida, con los impulsos vitales” (16). In the words of Bruno, a critic's labor consists of “sancionar comparativamente, “that is, to sanction comparatively always hoping to arrive at a definitive reading of the work of art. Bruno, Fraga, Garavito, and Lobizon dramatize the problematics of interpretation by creating critical fictions which have as their futile objective rational and definitive interpretations.


  1. Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice as well as Stein Haugom Olsen's The Structure of Literary Understanding are pertinent and influential to my own reading of Cortázar's views on literary interpretation.

  2. Critics have shown considerable interest in “El perseguidor” and I have included in my bibliography articles on this story which have appeared in the last ten years. Pertinent to my own reading are the following pieces which look at the aesthetics of this story: Roberto González-Echevarria, “Los reyes: Cortázar's Mythology of Writing”; Lanin Gyurko, “Quest and Betrayal in Cortázar's El perseguidor”; Noe Jitrik, “Crítica satélite y trabajo crítico en El perseguidor”; Amalia Lazarte-Dishman, “Otro enfoque a “El perseguidor”; Maria Lima, “El perseguidor” una segunda lectura”; Antonio Skármeta, “Trampas al perseguidor”; and Saul Sosnowski, “Pursuers.” None of the above articles have traced the figure of the fictional critic to Cortázar's other texts on critics.

  3. Although Iser's work on reader response is seminal for the kind of reading I'm doing here, more specific studies on embedded readers and writers within fictional texts have influenced my investigation. See specific studies by: S. Daniels, Prince, and, Shor.

  4. In contrast to the great number of articles written on “El perseguidor”, Cortázar's “Los pasos en las huellas” has received little attention. One exception is Lanin Gyurko's “Artist and Critic as Self and Double” (1982). Gyurko's perspective differs from mine considerably.

  5. As it turns out, this critic was not ‘invented’ by Cortázar. See: Julián Garavito's “Julio Cortázar: Gites.

  6. See Jaime Alazraki's excellent overview of Cortázar's biography in his introduction to Final Island.

Works Cited

Alazraki, Jaime and Ivar Ivask eds. Final Island. Oklahoma: WLT, 1971. (See essays by Linda Aronne Amestoy; Jaime Alzraki; Sara Castro Klaren).

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London & New York: Methuen, 1980.

Carter, E-D. “La sombra del Perseguidor: El doble en Rayuela.Explicación de Textos Literarios 17 (1988-89): 64-110.

Cortázar, Julio. “El perseguidor.” Las armas secretas. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1982.

———. “Los pasos en las huellas.” Octaedro. Madrid: Alianza, 1971.

———. “Del cuento breve y sus alrededores;” “Noticias de los Funes.” Ultimo Round. México: Siglo Veintiuno, 1969.

———. “Situación de la novela.” Cuadernos Americanos 4 (1950): 223.

———. “Apuntes para una poética.” Torre 7 (1945): 121-138.

———. “Para llegar a Lezama Lima.” La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos. México: Siglo Veintinuno, 1967.

———. “Texturologías.” Un tal Lucas. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1979.

———. Ultimo Round. México, Siglo Veintiuno, 1969.

Daniels, S. “Readers in Texts.” PMLA 96 (1981): 848-63.

Fiddian, Robin. “Religious Symbolism and the Ideological Critique in El perseguidor.Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos 2 (1985): 149-163.

Garavito, Julian. “Julio Cortázar: Gites.Europe 473 (1968) 17-8.

González-Echevarría, Roberto. “Los Reyes: Cortázar's Mythology of Writing.” Voice of the Masters. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Gyurko, Lanin. “Quest and Betrayal in Cortázar's El perseguidor.Hispanófila 31 (1988): 59-78.

———. “Artist and Critic as Self and Double in Cortázar's Los pasos en las huellas.Hispania 65 (1982): 352-64.

Hernandez, Ana. “Camaleonismo y vampirismo: La poética de Julio Cortázar.” Revista Iberoamericana 45 (1979): 475-92.

Hudde, Hinrich. “El negro fausto del jazz.” In Lo lúdico y lo fantástico en la obra de Cortázar. Madrid: Fundamentos, 1986, 37-47.

Jimenez, Antonio. “El sensualismo y la otra realidad.” Mester 19 (1990): 49-54.

Jitrik, Noe. “Critica satélite y trabajo crítico en “El perseguidor de Julio Cortázar.” Nueva Revista de Filología Hispánica 2 (1975): 337-368.

Iser, Wolfgang. “Interaction between Text and Reader.” In The Reader in the Text. Ed. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crossman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. 106-19.

Kadir, Djelal. “A Mythical Re-enactment: Cortázar's El perseguidor.Latin American Literary Review 2 (1973): 63-73.

Lazarte-Dishman. Amalia. “Otro enfoque a El perseguidor.Alba de América 8 (1990): 187-202.

Lima, Maria H. “El perseguidor: una segunda lectura.” Discurso Literario 6: 1 (1988): 23-34.

Olsen, Stein Haugom. The Structure of Literary Understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Prince, Gerald. “Introduction a l'étude du narrataire.” Poetique 14 (1973): 178-196.

Shor, Naomi. “Fiction as Interpretation/Interpretation as Fiction.” In The Reader in the Text. Ed. Susan Suleiman and Inge Crossman. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. 165-83.

Picón-Garfield, Evelyn. Cortázar por Cortázar. México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1981.

Skarmeta, Antonio. “Trampas al Perseguidor.Mapocho 20 (1970): 33-44.

Soren-Triff, Eduardo. “Improvisación musical y discurso literario en Julio Cortázar.” Revista Iberoamericana 57 (1991): 657-63.

Sosnowski, Saul. “Pursuers.” Books Abroad 3 (1976): 600-608.

Suleiman, Susan. The Reader in the Text. Princeton University Press, 1980.

Pamela McNab (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5191

SOURCE: McNab, Pamela. “Julio Cortázar's Axolotl: Literary Archaeology of the Unreal.” The International Fiction Review 24, nos. 1-2 (1997): 12-22.

[In the following essay, McNab asserts that Cortázar's depiction of the unreal in “Axolotl” was “inspired by a variety of literary sources, both classical and modern.”]

“Axolotl” (Final del juego, “end of the game”), one of Julio Cortázar's masterpieces, chronicles one man's discovery of the axolotls, rather unusual-looking amphibians, his growing obsession with them and, ultimately, his supposed transformation into an axolotl. One of the better known and most frequently analyzed of all Cortázar's stories, “Axolotl” quickly establishes and perpetuates an aura of ambiguity surrounding the narrator and the axolotls which causes the reader to question the nature of reality.1 Consequently, the text's openness has fueled interpretive speculation with regard to a wide variety of topics, ranging from religion and Aztec mythology to philosophy and psychology. Some readers view “Axolotl” as a commentary on the creative process itself, among them Alfred MacAdam, who writes that: “The philosophical problem of interpretation … seems reduced in importance, displaced by the purely aesthetic problem of the representation of the unreal.”2 MacAdam's comment prompts the important question: How does Cortázar evoke a “representation of the unreal” that allows for such interpretive breadth? This study will consider how narrative strategies suggest that Cortázar's depiction of the “unreal” is inspired by a variety of literary sources, both classical and modern. Cortázar draws from these other texts to infuse his own story with subtle, yet highly significant nuances. A close reading will explore these fictional interrelationships and explain why Cortázar's vision of reality seems so multifaceted. The examination of how Cortázar manipulates these allusions will lead to an even deeper appreciation for this magnificent tale.

Cortázar apparently delights in teasing the reader by interspersing indefinite, seemingly insignificant references to certain topics throughout his text. Confounding matters even further, Cortázar constructs, then deconstructs, dualities or multiplicities around these same issues. For instance, close scrutiny reveals a constant play between light and dark imagery, and the narrator repeatedly revisits what he perceives as a wavering line distinguishing human qualities from animal characteristics and vice versa. By noticing the fleeting but repeated references to a particular topic, we recognize that this technique of scattered narrative counterbalancing is essential in creating and maintaining the story's aura of mystery. These constant oppositions, which are never fully resolved, leave the “reality” of each particular issue undefined which, in turn, contributes to the overall narrative flux. The identification of this pattern demonstrates how narrative strategy deliberately contributes to Cortázar's depiction of reality as elusive and mercurial.

“Axolotl” also resonates with echoes of well-known literary texts. As an author with a wide range of artistic interests, Cortázar carefully examined how his literary predecessors attempted to give voice to the “unreality” of their stories. The reader's sensitivity to this literary archaeology proves useful at each major moment in the development of “Axolotl.” At the outset, the narrator's attraction to the axolotls is reminiscent of the descent through the circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno. Later, when the human narrator and one of the axolotls apparently trade minds or spirits, we notice an affiliation with the Greek myth of Circe. Cortázar's fondness for revisiting and refashioning classical tales is demonstrated elsewhere in his stories, as well as in his early drama Los reyes (The kings),3 based on the myth of the Minotaur. Finally, in the story's dénouement, the human narrator (supposedly) contemplates his new perspective from within the axolotl body, which he compares to being buried alive. This motif was somewhat of an obsession for one of Cortázar's acknowledged literary ancestors, Edgar Allan Poe. Many Cortázar enthusiasts are aware of his intimacy with and admiration for Poe's work and yet, to my knowledge, none has noticed this particular connection. The subtle associations between “Axolotl” and these texts helps to fashion the latter into the highly suggestive story that it is. Although certainly not overt, these literary connections provide another set of interpretive clues to Cortázar's enigmatic text.

“Axolotl” begins with a brief yet bewildering paragraph: “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I went to see them in the aquarium at the Jardin des Plantes and stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.”4 Any illusions of identifying with the story and/or its characters have instantly vanished; instead, the reader is left wondering about the narrator's “true” identity and about the nature of his predicament. With regard to the latter, a possible clue is planted in the first sentence of the second paragraph: “I got to them by chance one spring morning when Paris was spreading its peacock tail after a wintry Lent” (3). The reader's attention is called to this striking image, which vividly communicates the narrator's impression of Paris's springtime charm. The narrator's unusual metaphor utilizes an animal image, the peacock's tail, to describe Paris, an urban center representative of human civilization. This comparison introduces the narrator's penchant for exploring the human/animal boundary. Consequently, this simple description indirectly foreshadows the story's climax where the animal, the axolotl, will impose itself on the human being.

Given Cortázar's fondness for mythology, it seems appropriate to consider whether this peacock image is related to the myth of Argus. Edith Hamilton's version of this myth recounts how Zeus reluctantly gave a white heifer to his wife Hera, who suspected that the gift was really her rival, the beautiful Io, converted to animal form as a disguise. Hera, in turn, entrusted the cow to Argus, the famed hundred-eyed watchman. Distraught by Io's cruel fate, Zeus bade his son Hermes to kill Argus after lulling him to sleep, when all of his eyes were finally closed. Not content to be outdone, Hera then took Argus's eyes and set them into the peacock's tail, thus ensuring that they would always be open.5

Although the relationship between the myth of Argus and the peacock imagery in “Axolotl” may seem tenuous initially, several points of contact between the two merit consideration. First, the axolotls' eyes resemble those of the peacock's tail in that they, too, are always open. The narrator alludes to the axolotls' infinite sight when he muses: “Perhaps their eyes could see in the dead of night, and for them the day continued indefinitely. The eyes of the axolotls have no lids” (7). By placing this information at the conclusion to the eighth paragraph, the narrator emphasizes its significance. This unusual trait lends the axolotls a sense of otherworldliness. Thus, the peacock's fanning tail feathers introduce and underscore the roles played by both vision and visual imagery in “Axolotl.” As we will soon discover, vision is the modus operandi of this story, which principally consists of the narrator's ongoing description of the axolotls. Not only does he provide minute details of the axolotls' physical appearance, which he perceives by watching them, but he also becomes particularly obsessed with their eyes and what he senses behind their gaze. His observations thus pass from the physical to a more metaphysical plane. In fact, the climax hinges on the use of eyes as a passageway to the soul. Cortázar's narrator will undergo a metamorphosis via visual contact with the amphibians just as in the classical myth where parts of one being, Argus's eyes, actually become part of another, the peacock's tail. In Cortázar's first-person narrative, which is virtually devoid of any other sensorial imagery, the reader, too, is limited to the narrator's perspective. We can see only what his field of vision reveals to us. In conclusion, then, by exploring the possible link between “Axolotl” and the myth of Argus, we recognize the peacock image as a guidepost for future symbolic interpretations as well as a subtle foreshadowing device.

In general, the role of setting often figures prominently in Cortázar's stories and therefore requires careful consideration. Several stories, such as “Bestiario” (“Bestiary”) and “Carta a una señorita en París” (“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”),6 depend on the function of movement within a particular setting. In “Bestiary,” the characters' ability to move through their house and around their property is dictated by the whereabouts of a mysterious tiger. The climax, wherein one character is killed, relies directly on restricted movements within the walls of the home. On the other hand, the frazzled narrator of “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” is confined to a friend's apartment by the increasing number of rabbits he must care for, rabbits which he prefers to keep enclosed to limit their incessant motion. Again, it is movement within a definite area that precipitates the climax: the narrator's suicide. The story which perhaps most dramatically demonstrates the crucial link between space and motion is “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), which is spatially the opposite of “Axolotl.”7 Whereas in “Axolotl” the narrator draws ever closer to the mysterious axolotls until he is trapped inside one's body, in “House Taken Over” the protagonists, a brother and sister, are forced to close off rooms in their home and move away from the strange sounds they hear within, until they are finally expelled from it. In each case, the stories' tragic endings are all closely tied to the characters' movements within specifically defined settings. With these examples in mind, we realize the need to examine spatial-movement clues in “Axolotl” as well.

As the narrator unknowingly approaches the axolotls, he bears some resemblance to mythical heroes such as Orpheus and Odysseus. The exploits of both characters in their respective myths include travelling to hell in search of rebirth. When the narrator sets out toward the Jardin des Plantes, his use of direction is significant: “I was heading down the boulevard Port-Royal” (3).8 Although used figuratively here, movement downward is often associated with the descent into the underworld or, in Freudian terms, into the unconscious. Although such interpretation of the expression “to head down” may seem questionable, we will nonetheless find that the narrator's ultimate destination is directly related to these two sites: hell and the unconscious. The narrator progresses from being outside on a spring day into the blackness that will eventually engulf him, represented by his initial entrance into the obscure aquarium building.

The story's second paragraph delineates the protagonist's gradual movement toward the axolotls, which leads him through a series of increasingly smaller spaces. As the story develops, he encounters barriers at the edge of each space which are let down to become bridges into new environments. After a bike ride through the city, the narrator soon enters the first enclosed realm—the zoo, which has two separate demarcations from the outside world. Visually, it is distinguished by a color barrier evident in the narrator's remark: “[I] saw green among all that grey” (3), which contrasts the greenness of the zoo with the grey cityscape surrounding it. This identifies the zoo as a unique space. Furthermore, as the protagonist enters the zoo, he leaves his bike against “the gratings,” evidently referring to another enclosure: a fence around the park. Once inside, he soon enters yet another smaller confinement, the aquarium building: “[I] had never gone into the dark, humid building that was the aquarium” (3). These cavernous surroundings underscore the seeming timelessness of the axolotls and represent another world: dark, mysterious, and unexplored. The aquarium contains even smaller enclosed spaces: the various tanks housing the aquatic animals. Finally, the individual tanks separate the atmosphere and the people on the outside from the animals inside their watery environment.9

At this early point in the story, the protagonist's movement into ever smaller spaces—from the city outside to the zoo to the aquarium building—foreshadows the story's climax, when the barrier of the aquarium glass overlaps with the final barrier, the axolotls' eyes, which will become the man's passageway to his final, and most restrictive, destination: the body of an axolotl. Consequently, the narrator's movement can be envisioned as a series of concentric circles connoting his progress into increasingly smaller enclosures. By remembering that the narrator initially begins his journey with the phrase “I was heading down,” we add this idea of downward motion to the pattern of concentric circles and thus discover a resemblance to the circles of hell delineated in Dante's Inferno. For Cortázar's narrator, the smallest space, which he has reached by moving downward, becomes his own personal hell. As he describes the axolotls' suffering, he finds in their faces “proof of that eternal sentence, of that liquid hell they were undergoing” (8); he has also “imagined them aware, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to the silence of the abyss, to a hopeless meditation” (6-7).

Having followed the narrator's movement through this setting, we are now able to perceive a clearer association with Dante's Inferno. It forces us to realize the hellish nature of the narrator's descent into the axolotl body. In addition to this structural similarity, the Inferno and “Axolotl” are further related in terms of content. Cantos XXIV and XXV, which relate parts of the eighth circle of hell, graphically reveal the fate of thieves, who are thought to employ a reptilian secrecy while committing their crimes. In the hereafter, Dante invokes a note of poetic justice when he chooses reptiles to punish them. Interestingly, both Dante's reptiles and Cortázar's amphibians effectively “steal” human bodies through a strange metamorphosis. In fact, the main thrust of “Axolotl” chronicles the narrator's growing empathy for the axolotls, which eventually enables one of these animals to victimize him by “stealing” his body, thus leaving his human consciousness trapped inside the axolotl body. Furthermore, this is not an isolated incident, as the man-turned-axolotl soon realizes that all the other axolotls have met the same fate: “[I] saw an axolotl next to me who was looking at me, and understood that he knew also, no communication possible, but very clearly. Or I was also in him, or all of us were thinking humanlike, incapable of expression, limited to the golden splendor of our eyes” (9).

Whereas Cortázar focuses on the steps that lead to this theft and, to a lesser extent, the desperate situation afterward, Dante vividly depicts the process of transformation between human and animal forms, a metamorphosis the thieves must endure repeatedly. Since they took the property of others and made it theirs in life, in hell they must suffer having their bodies stolen from them by reptiles; consequently, they never know what is truly theirs. Dante imagines this process graphically. As the lizard and the thief trade bodies, “they fused like hot wax, and their colors ran / together until neither wretch nor monster / appeared what he had been when he began.”10 Dante insists on this blending of identities throughout the process, later commenting that “now two new semblances appeared and faded, / one face where neither face began nor ended” (216; 68-69). In the end, neither being seems satisfied with its new form: “The soul that had become a beast went flitting / and hissing over the stones, and after it / the other walked along talking and spitting” (218; 133-35).

Several of Dante's notions resurface in “Axolotl.” First, Dante's account of the blurring faces, “one face where neither face began nor ended” (216; 69), is echoed in “Axolotl”; Cortázar's narrator is fascinated with the axolotls' faces, which suggest to him both human and animal qualities. He is mesmerized by their inexpressiveness, “the forced blankness on their stone faces” (8). Later, he characterizes them as masklike, which recalls Dante's observation that “Their former likenesses mottled and sank / to something that was both of them and neither” (216; 73-74). This phrase also clearly corresponds to the narrator's existential dilemma during the story's climax, when he is trying to comprehend what has happened. Grappling with his identity from within the axolotl perspective, the narrator explains: “Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, the lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl and now I knew instantly that no understanding was possible” (8).

Both authors emphasize the animals' powerful stare. Dante notes that during the transformation, the two beings are transfixed “without once shifting the locked evil eyes” (217; 119). Is it by chance that the transmigration of souls in “Axolotl” occurs by way of exchanged, mutual sight? The narrator's account of the metamorphosis follows: “my eyes were attempting once more to penetrate the mystery of those eyes of gold without iris, without pupil. I saw from very close up the face of an axolotl immobile next to the glass. No transition and no surprise, I saw my face against the glass, I saw it on the outside of the tank, I saw it on the other side of the glass. Then my face drew back and I understood” (8). Although each author focuses on different aspects of he human-to-animal metamorphosis, common subject matter and similar details suggest that Cortázar was strongly influenced by Dante's Inferno as he created this particular “unreal” scenario in “Axolotl.”

This human-to-animal metamorphosis also serves as the focal point for Daniel Reedy's consideration of how Aztec mythology influences the structure of “Axolotl.” For Reedy, the story parallels the transformation myth of the Aztec god Xólotl, one of the twin brothers of the god Quetzalcoatl. In this myth, Xólotl is the larval form assumed by Quetzalcoatl in the Land of the Dead, from which he is later spiritually born. With regard to Cortázar's story, Reedy acknowledges the narrator's horror upon discovering his imprisonment in the axolotl, yet he nevertheless concludes that “the myth of Xólotl and the spiritual rebirth of his twin Quetzalcoatl suggest the promise of rebirth in a spiritual sense for the protagonist, as well, even though he is unaware of the fact.”11

Unquestionably, Cortázar incorporates numerous Aztec elements into “Axolotl.” This is evident from the outset by the narrator's insistence on using the Nahuatl word axolotl, although he admits that, during his investigations in the library, “I found their Spanish name, ajolote” (4). In fact, the axolotls' Aztec qualities are immediately apparent to the narrator, who states as a matter of fact: “That they were Mexican I knew already by looking at them and their little pink Aztec faces” (4). Later, the narrator emphasizes their heritage in his description of their “Aztec faces, without expression but of an implacable cruelty” (7). These observations seem to support Reedy's mythological reading.

Although Reedy's interpretation of the ending speculates about the protagonist's possible spiritual rebirth, other details conversely indicate a less optimistic vision. Of particular significance is the narrator's awareness of his ordeal. This consciousness points up a possible link between “Axolotl” and the classical myth of Circe, the beautiful witch who routinely turned men into animals. While Cortázar's enthusiasm for classical mythology is well known, his interest in this particular myth inspired his own story, entitled “Circe” (in the collection Bestiario), whose protagonist, Delia Mañara, has a keen understanding of animals and preys on her suitors, much like her Greek counterpart. One tragic characteristic is common to both tales: the men-turned-animals retain their human reasoning, which accentuates the horror of their predicament. Book X of The Odyssey tells how Odysseus and his men landed at Circe's island. When Odysseus's men encounter Circe, she works her magic on them: “Now when she had given them the cup and they had drunk it off, presently she smote them with a wand, and in the styes of the swine she penned them. So they had the head and voice, the bristles and the shape of swine, but their mind abode even as of old.”12 Edith Hamilton's version of this tale is even more dramatic: “They had come to Aeaea, the realm of Circe, a most beautiful and dangerous witch. Every man who approached her she turned into a beast. Only his reason remained as before: he knew what had happened to him. She enticed into her house the party Odysseus dispatched to spy out the land, and there she changed them into swine. She penned them in a sty and gave them acorns to eat. They ate them; they were swine. Yet inside they were men, aware of their vile state, but completely in her power.”13

In recognizing their “vile state,” Odysseus's men undergo an experience similar to the narrators' of “Axolotl.” As soon as the narrator realizes that he has entered the axolotl's body and is now viewing the world from an axolotl perspective, he comments: “Only one thing was strange: to go on thinking as usual, to know” (8). The narrator is disturbed by his transformation, but even more upset by his awareness of his newly acquired amphibian existence; he comments: “The horror began—I learned in the same moment—of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact” (8). Clearly, the narrator's consciousness intensifies his suffering. This rather unusual point of contact between the two texts seems to suggest that Cortázar found inspiration for his “unreal” dilemma in the fantasy of the classics.

As the narrator realizes his plight, he is overcome by a sense of horror. After his mental transferal to an axolotl's body, he laments: “To realize that was, for the first moment, like the horror of a man buried alive awaking to his fate” (8). His sensation of entrapment is so overwhelming, he soon reiterates: “The horror began—I learned in the same moment—of believing myself prisoner in the body of an axolotl, metamorphosed into him with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures” (8-9). The repeated comparison of the narrator's state to having been buried alive creates a sense of horror similar to what we find in Edgar Allan Poe's work. As with some of the other literary influences we have discussed, Cortázar was well acquainted with Poe's theories of the short story as well as with his fiction. To cite just one example, Cortázar apparently pays homage to Poe's story MS. Found in a Bottle in his own story entitled “Manuscrito hallado en un bolsillo” (“Manuscript found in a pocket”).14 Cortázar was also the first to translate Poe into Spanish, although two earlier Spanish-American authors, largely responsible for shaping and popularizing the short story genre in Spanish, had also studied Poe: the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga and Cortázar's own countryman, the celebrated Jorge Luis Borges. Certainly, Cortázar knew of Poe's penchant for the motif of live burial, which lurks in several of Poe's stories, most notably in The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, and The Premature Burial.

Of these three, the story most closely linked to “Axolotl” is The Premature Burial, due to its philosophical implications. After recounting several cases of people buried alive, Poe's narrator concludes that he, too, has been buried alive; he describes his fate as “the most terrific of … [the ghastly] extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”15 Poe's narrator further remarks that: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” (420). These excerpts touch on some of the characteristics which make “Axolotl” such a mysterious story: the axolotls are frequently described in terms that introduce and then confound two opposite characteristics—they embody both light and dark, they are both humanlike and yet, at other times, animals that resemble us very little. Not surprisingly, they also seem both dead and alive.

Although the narrator does not directly address the life/death polarity, he examines it indirectly by observing the axolotls' movement, or rather their stillness. The narrator's preoccupation with their immobility surfaces in the story's second sentence: “[I] stayed for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements” (3). Clearly, their slight motion demonstrates that they are alive, yet their stillness almost obliterates this. Their lack of movement situates them very near the dividing line. Only one additional use of the verb mover, “to move,” appears until the narrator's transformation. This example is modified by a negative adverb which minimizes its effect: “once in a while a foot would barely move” (5). Significantly, it is only a part of the axolotl's body that moves, and not the whole axolotl, thereby further diminishing the impression of motion. In effect, only the expansion and contraction of the gills truly indicates that they are alive.

Eventually, immobility emerges as one of the axolotls' salient characteristics, emphasized by six instances of the word inmovil, “immobile,” throughout the story. This silent stillness captivates the narrator, who claims: “It was their quietness that made me lean toward them the first time I saw the axolotls” (5). As he attempts to comprehend them better, he comments: “Obscurely, I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time within an indifferent immobility” (5-6). This curious phrase could very well refer to the “immobility” of death, which is one means of abolishing space and time. Ironically, the greater the narrator's preoccupation with the axolotls, the more he begins to resemble them, spending hours motionless by their tank. Additionally, the axolotls' descriptions in terms of inanimate objects further contribute to their lifeless appearance. The body is compared to a Chinese figurine, its eyes are described as “two orifices, like brooches, wholly of transparent gold, lacking any life but looking,” and its head is a “rosy stone” and a “lifeless stone” (5). In short, although the axolotls are indeed alive, they move so little that the narrator is repeatedly inclined to compare them to inanimate objects.

Despite observing the axolotls' motionless existence, the narrator nonetheless has difficulty accepting this stillness when he becomes an axolotl. Curiously, Poe's query about life and death, “Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” (420), greatly resembles Dante's rendition of the thieves' metamorphosis into amphibians: “now two new semblances appeared and faded, / one face where neither face began nor ended” (216; 68-69). Poe's question, “But where, meantime, was the soul?” (420), seems relevant to “Axolotl” since evidently only the spirits of the man and the axolotl trade places.

In exploring the buried-alive motif, Cortázar may also have patterned his narrator on Poe's. Both are first-person male narrators who become so obsessed with one subject that their prophecies become, or almost become, self-fulfilling. Poe's narrator, haunted by people who were buried alive, imagines himself to be suffering from the same; Cortázar's narrator, who spends so many hours pondering the axolotl's watery existence, finally experiences it firsthand. Thus, Cortázar takes Poe's tale of terror one step further. Whereas Poe remains inside the boundaries of what is possible or “real” and thus maintains the identification between the reader and the narrator of his tale, Cortázar surpasses these limitations to press into the realm of true fantasy, to create a situation so peculiar that the reader cannot help but feel estranged from the text. Considering Cortázar's keen interest in Poe, it seems probable that Poe's tales of live burial, especially The Premature Burial, influenced Cortázar's unique, and even more extreme, depiction of the “unreal” found in the final paragraphs of “Axolotl.”

The fact that many forces work in concert to create a sense of the “unreal” in “Axolotl” explains why this story can be read in a variety of ways: the author is adept at interweaving, almost imperceptibly, allusions to several literary texts, each adding its own enduring, archetypal qualities; and yet no allusion is developed so as to become pronounced and dominate over the others. The end result is a text that melds many familiar flavors, yet retains its own tantalizing integrity. By identifying so many likely influences within just one story, we may further regard the unending issue of how to categorize Julio Cortázar as a writer. The usual array of questions—how greatly indebted is he to Borges? Is his writing fantastic? Or is he a Surrealist, as Evelyn Picón Garfield suggests?—are often fruitless attempts to pigeonhole a genius who drew inspiration from a broad artistic spectrum to create works that are unique and undeniably his own.16 Cortázar's stories defy any type of classification that would ultimately diminish our appreciation of his literary gift.


  1. In recent years, numerous studies have appeared in English. Cf. Nancy Díaz Gray, The Radical Self: Metamorphosis from Human to Animal Form in Modern Latin American Narrative (Columbus, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1988) 72-82; Ana Hernández del Castillo, Keats, Poe and the Shaping of Cortázar's Mythopoetics,Purdue University Monographs in Romance Languages, No. 8 (Amsterdam: John Benjamin, 1982); John Neyenesch, “On This Side of the Glass: An Analysis of Julio Cortázar's Axolotl,The Contemporary Latin American Short Story, ed. Rose S. Minc (New York: Senda Nueva, 1979) 54-60; M. Sánchez, “A View from Inside the Fishbowl,” Bridges to Fantasy, ed. George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982) 38-50.

  2. Alfred MacAdam, “La Torre de Danae,” Revista Iberoamericana 39 (1973): 463. My translation.

  3. To my knowledge, this play has not yet been translated into English.

  4. Julio Cortázar, “Axolotl,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985) 3. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text. All emphases are mine.

  5. Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1942) 75-77. Hamilton cites from Aeschylus and Ovid.

  6. Both stories are from the Spanish-language collection entitled Bestiario. English translations can be found in the collection Blow-Up and Other Stories.

  7. “Casa tomada” is from the collection Bestiario. The English translation can be found in Blow-Up and Other Stories.

  8. In Spanish, the past tense form bajé is used, derived from the infinitive bajar, “to go down.” Though phrasal verbs such as “to head down” or “to go up” are extremely common in English, the Spanish verb has a more direct spatial connotation and is, therefore, rather significant.

  9. Daniel Reedy thoroughly discusses the importance of the glass barrier with regard to Axolotl and other works in “Through the Looking-Glass: Aspects of Cortázar's Epiphanies of Reality,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 54 (1976): 125-34.

  10. Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. John Ciardi (New York: New American Library, 1954) 215; lines 58-60. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text. The page number will be followed by the line number(s).

  11. Reedy 130.

  12. The Odyssey of Homer, trans. S. H. Butcher and A. Lang (New York: Modern Library, 1956) 151.

  13. Hamilton 211-12.

  14. The Spanish-language story can be found in Octaedro (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1987) 49-63. The English translation is available in We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Vintage Books, 1984) 249-63.

  15. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Roslyn, New York: Black's Reader's Service Company, 1927) 420. All subsequent references are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text.

  16. Evelyn Picón Garfield, ¿Es Julio Cortázar un surrealista? (Madrid: Gredos, 1975). This whole study focuses on theories and examples of Surrealism in an attempt to decide whether or not Cortázar's work fits into this artistic style.

Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz (essay date January-June 1997)

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SOURCE: Schmidt-Cruz, Cynthia. “Writing/Fantasizing/Desiring the Maternal Body in ‘Deshoras’ and ‘Historias que me Cuento’ by Julio Cortázar.” Latin American Literary Review 25, no. 49 (January-June 1997): 7-23.

[In the following essay, Schmidt-Cruz elucidates the role of Oedipal desires in “Deshoras” and “Historias que me cuento.”]

I suspect that one of the reasons why Cortázar's stories hold such a strong grip over many readers is because they often portray seemingly unnatural or “perverse” instinctual urges which threaten to unravel the very fabric of our civilized society, but which are ultimately kept in check by their status as literary fantasies which call attention to their fictional nature. Many of Cortázar's stories unfold through a dynamic tension between the characters' routine quotidian lives and an underlying world of intense and frustrated desires. The characters view this submerged realm with a mixture of fear and longing. On one hand, they may feel compelled to explore, understand, and even participate in it; on the other hand, there is sense of horror when it erupts into “este lado,” the mundane, bureaucratic routine which is governed by reason and logic and cannot tolerate the disruptive nature of intense passions.

The incestuous desire to seduce or be seduced by the mother, which may be considered the anti-civilized urge par excellence, and the self-conscious fantasizing of the narrator are two themes which intersect in the stories “Deshoras” (Deshoras 1983) and “Historias que me cuento” (Queremos tanto a GlendaQueremos tanto a Glenda y otros realtos 1981). In each of these stories, the narrator's desire to recover the lost object of infantile bliss is played out through his fantasies.

The Freudian theory of human civilization rests on the incest taboo or successful resolution of the Oedipus complex, the function of which is to deny the child his (or her) primordial love object—the mother. Thus Freud maintains that civilization itself depends on the male subject's detachment from and transcendence of the mother. Yet, as Madelon Sprengnether argues in her work, The Spectral Mother. Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Freud was never able to integrate the preoedipal mother, meaning the figure of the mother in the earliest phase of the child's development, with the Oedipal construct (2 and 181). “If anything,” she insists, “the dyadic mother-child relation threatens to subvert the triangular Oedipal structure. The concepts of repetition compulsion and the death instinct appear to give lie to the progressive model of development based on the paternal threat of castration and the male child's renunciation of desire for his mother” (181). Sprengnether argues that in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, which focus on questions of origins (infant separation from the mother) and conclusions (death), Freud undermines his own progressive model of human civilization, and, at the same time, of Oedipal masculinity, by exposing the undertow of regressive urges focused on the desire to return to the maternal body (140).

Emblematic of this contradictive stance is Freud's characterization in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of a game invented by his one and one-half year-old grandson. The child tied a wooden reel to a piece of string and draped it over the side of his bed. He would repeat Fort! (go away) at its disappearance and greeted its reappearance with a joyful Da! (there) (Freud 8-11). Sprengnether points out that while Freud initially presents the game as the efforts of a small child to gain mastery over the condition of separation from his mother, the game enacts not only the child's desire for control over her departure, but also his wish for her return (128-131). “The fort/da game, based on a little boy's memorialization of his loss of his mother, institutionalizes both the act of renunciation and the impulse toward regression that inheres in it” (135). Throughout his work, Sprengnether maintains, Freud is never able to come to terms with this seductive preoedipal mother because she is too threatening to his theory of patriarchal authority.

My reading of “Deshoras” and “Historias que me cuento” seems to affirm the powerful undertow of the urge to recuperate the lost paradise of oneness with the mother. The fact that in these stories the narrators' desire is deflected from the actual mother onto a mother-figure or surrogate mother reflects the power of the taboo while at the same time attesting to the strength of the attachment to the maternal object. Through their fantasies, the narrators attempt to transcend their mundane existence as they articulate their longing for an unattainable reunion with the beloved source of goodness and nurture. The narrators' fantasy has the power of evoking the absent mother and bringing her temporarily under their control, much as the child's game described by Freud. Both pursuits strive to master the separation anxiety at the same time that they memorialize the loss of the mother.1

In “Deshoras” a man's evocation of his childhood is motivated by his desire to reunite with a cherished mother figure from the past. The childhood events are framed by the present time of the adult as he puts his memories down in writing and reflects upon his purpose for transcribing these recollections. When the time frame switches from the present of the adult to the evocation of past events, the narrative person changes from first to third, and the narrator refers to himself as “Aníbal.”2 Although the narrator begins by denying any motivation behind his memories: “Yo no tenía ninguna razón especial para acordarme de todo eso” (470), he soon admits that it is the image of Sara, his playmate Doro's older sister, that draws him to the task. Because Doro's mother was an invalid, Sara was obligated to take care of Doro, to become “una joven madre de su hermano” (471). The narrator describes the games Aníbal played with Doro, and vividly recalls his obsessive but unrequited love for Sara. As the story continues, he recounts his family's move to Buenos Aires which occurred shortly before Sara's marriage, two events that marked his separation from her. Many years later, as an adult, Aníbal sees Sara on the street. The two have a drink, recall old times, and end up in a bedroom where they consume their mutual passion. At this moment, the story returns to the scene of writing, and we realize that the encounter with Sara did not really occur, but was fantasized by the narrator through his writing.

As the narrator's tale transports him to his world of memories, he establishes Sara as his surrogate mother by stressing the bond between himself and Doro, thus depicting the playmates as doubles: “Tan inseparables habíamos sido … que … [v]erlo [a Doro] era verme simultáneamente como Aníbal con Doro, y no hubiera podido recordar nada de Doro si al mismo tiempo no hubiera sentido que Aníbal estaba también ahí en ese momento” (470). However, a major and painful difference between the boys, as far as Aníbal is concerned, is his access to Sara's attentions and affection. Aníbal learns that Sara takes care of Doro as a devoted mother would, caressing, bathing, and healing him when he is sick. Aníbal feels excluded from the bubble of nurturance between Sara and Doro, which he seems to idealize as a lost paradise (Benjamin 163). When Aníbal returns to play at Doro's house after an extended absence due to a bout of bronchitis, Sara expresses concern for Aníbal's health and gives him special attention. This incident sets up his nighttime fantasies in which Sara comes into his bedroom to care for him. In one version of the fantasy, Sara tends to a cut on his leg:

A la hora en que cerrando los ojos imaginaba a Sara entrando de noche en su cuarto, acercándose a su cama, era como un deseo de que ella le preguntara cómo estaba, le pusiera la mano en la frente y después bajara las sábanas para verle la lastimadura en la pantorrilla, le cambiara la venda tratándolo de tonto por haberse cortado con un vidrio. La sentía levantándole el camisón y mirándole desnudo, tocándole el vientre para ver si estaba inflamado, tapándolo de nuevo para que se durmiera.


In this fantasy, Aníbal's reception of Sara's attention is predicated on illness, a state of dependency. In his description of Sara's ministrations, the distinction between care of his injury and seduction becomes blurred—his imagined need for medical attention veils his desire to be seduced by Sara.3 As the passive recipient of Sara's care and gentle reproach, Aníbal is feminized and infantilized. Sara, as his fantasized mother/ nurse, becomes a powerful figure—she possesses the power to comfort, the power to shame, the power to seduce. In this way, questions concerning seduction—perhaps too dangerous and disturbing to be accrued to his real mother—can be projected onto the figure of Sara as substitute maternal object.4

It is Sara herself who enforces the incest taboo, putting an end to Aníbal's fantasies of her. When the boys fall into a muddy ditch, they must clean up in Doro's house, and Sara walks in while they are bathing. Aníbal is deeply humiliated because she has seen him naked, and subsequently can no longer evoke her in his nocturnal fantasies. Implicit in Aníbal's feeling of humiliation is the fact that Sara has the authority to walk in and look at him because he still has the penis of a child. Her gaze forces him to acknowledge that she has beheld his physical immaturity, and consequently, he cannot be her lover because his penis is too small. This enactment of the castration complex functions at two levels. On one level, Aníbal experiences the anxiety men feel in sexual intercourse associated with the fear of insufficiency and inability to satisfy woman's desire (Frosh 100). At another level, in the absence of a father figure,5 Sara performs the normative and prohibitive function of the castration complex—namely, the denial of the child's access to the mother as a sexual object—which is traditionally carried out by the paternal authority (Laplanche and Pontalis 56-59). Sara acted decisively to set a limit to the erotic bond between them, thus fostering Aníbal's masculine identity and separation from her. Perceiving that she had become a dangerous siren for the young boy, Sara generously played the liberating role normally attributed to the father, giving Aníbal his independence, and protecting him from his own desire (Benjamin 151). Aníbal is thus forced to confront the fact that a union between them is impossible, and must orient his desires toward other women.

With Sara's courtship and marriage, a paternal figure of sorts appears on the scene to further reinforce Aníbal's separation from her, although Aníbal is at no loss for motives to denigrate his rival: “lo vio [al novio] de azul y gordo, con lentes, bajándose del auto con un paquetito de masas y un ramo de azucenas” (475). By describing Sara's beau as grotesque and eager to please, Aníbal discredits his authority as well as his worthiness to possess Sara. Notwithstanding Aníbal's evaluation of the suitor, the marriage takes place, and Doro's words help him visualize its consummation: “no necesitaba cerrar los ojos para ver contra el fondo del follaje el cuerpo de Sara que nunca había imaginado como un cuerpo, ver la noche de bodas … desde las palabras de Doro” (476). Aníbal's curiosity regarding the wedding night is based on his fantasies of Sara and desire for her. Imagining the “parental” coitus, or primal scene, gives rises to sexual excitation as well as castration anxiety (Laplanche and Pontalis 335). With the realization that Sara belongs to her husband, Aníbal must give up hope of possessing her and come to terms with the limits of his relationship with her (Benjamin 164). By accepting that Sara and her new husband have gone off together without him, now Aníbal is free to go off without Sara (Benjamin 151).

Aníbal moves to Buenos Aries, loses touch with Doro and Sara, and has his sexual initiation with other women, but Sara remains in his thoughts:

“Un día … la vio nítidamente [a Sara] al salir de un sueño y le dolió con un dolor amargo y quemante, al fin y al cabo no había estado tan enamorado de ella, total antes era un chico y Sara nunca le había prestado atención como ahora Felisa o la rubia de la farmacia, nunca había ido a un baile con él como su prima Beba o Felisa … nunca lo había dejado acariciarle el pelo como María.”


Aníbal's repudiation of Sara demonstrates his continued vulnerability to her power over him. In his ongoing struggle to let go of this threat to his autonomy and establish new bonds, he needs to deny his love for her. Instead of clinging to the image of lost perfection, he denigrates and spites her, assuming the attitude: “Mother doesn't need me, so I don't need her” (Benjamin 175). As the years pass, Aníbal takes on adult responsibilities and settles down to a routine existence: “Aníbal aceptaba sin aceptar, algo que debía ser la vida aceptaba por él, un diploma, una hepatitis grave, un viaje al Brasil, un proyecto importante en un estudio con dos o tres socios” (477).

One day he suddenly spots Sara walking down the sidewalk and goes forward to meet her. They have a drink in a cafe and talk about their lives. Aníbal finally asks her the questions that is burning on his lips: “¿Y tu marido?,” to which Sara's reply is laconic: “Bebe” (478). In this one word, by indicating that all there is to say about him is that he drinks excessively, Sara eliminates her husband both as a deserving partner for her and a worthy figure of authority as far as Aníbal is concerned. His rival cast aside, the field opens for Aníbal. He confesses to Sara that he loved her and fantasized about her as his “mamá joven” (478), and tells her how mortified he felt when she saw him naked in the shower. Sara reveals that she did it on purpose, implying that she, too, was attracted to him, but had to cure him of his sexual fantasies of her. She ends her confession saying, “Y ahora sí otro whiskey, ahora que los dos somos grandes” (479). Her admission that she repressed her reciprocated love for Aníbal in the past because of their age difference, and her allusion to their mutual maturity in the present, following the disavowal of her husband's authority, signals the final lifting of the prohibition. The sexual union occurs as soon as is logistically possible for the two:

la casi inmediata, furiosa convulsión de los cuerpos en un interminable encuentro, en las pausas rotas y rehechas y violadas y cada vez menos creíbles, en cada nueva implosión que los segaba y los sumía y los quemaba hasta el sopor


The consummation of the erotic union with the maternal object, the return to the lost paradise of infancy, is thus described by the narrator as an overwhelming sensation of bliss.

Once the written words arrive at their desired outcome, the narrator lays down his pen, and the scene shifts abruptly to his present reality. The narrator admits that, up to a point, the words had represented “una memoria fiel” (480), but that when they spoke of the reunion with Sara, “mentían … nada era cierto” (480). He fabricated this encounter in an attempt to satisfy his deepest longing.

But the fantasy cannot continue because it is not compatible with the predictable, routine life he leads: “pero cómo seguir ya, cómo empezar desde esa noche una vida con Sara cuando ahí al lado se oía la voz de Felisa que entraba con los chicos y venía a decirme que la cena estaba pronta … y los chicos querían ver al pato Donald en la televisión de las diez y veinte” (480). The voice of Felisa—presumably his wife—and the evocation of his children return him to quotidian reality where he is the husband of a woman other than his mother—in other words, a union sanctioned by society—and the father of her children. Just as Sara enforced the prohibition when he was a child, now it is the role that he has taken on as paternal authority—his own internalized sense of guilt or responsibility—which intervenes, rescuing him from the siren call of the engulfing maternal womb and bringing him back to civilized society. Yet his written words remain to memorialize his longing for the unattainable reunion.

While the narrator of “Deshoras” appears to master, at least momentarily, his regressive desire, in “Historias que me cuento,” the facade of a man's fantasy life of heroic adventures and manly conquests is rent asunder to expose the radical instability of his masculine identity. The narrator is a self-described “Walter Mitty porteño” who indulges in an extremely active fantasy life.6 The few details he offers about his waking life characterize it as solitary and unfulfilling. He often sleeps alone when his partner, Niágara, works the night shift at the hospital, and the bed suddenly seems enormous and cold. On the nights she does spend with him, she comes home from work so tired that she immediately falls into a deep sleep, so he feels alone even when she is in bed with him. Thus, it seems that her job caring for others at the hospital leaves her with little energy to nurture her needy husband. Perhaps feeling inferior to his hardworking wife, the narrator remarks that his daily activities are not very memorable, and that he considers himself incompetent in his job. He makes only one reference to his name: Marcelo Macías.

Marcelo's nighttime fantasies seem to be a type of antidote to his lackluster existence—they are characterized by “un intenso dramatismo muy trabajado” (401), and he is almost always in the central role. Unlike the narrator of “Deshoras” who spun out his fantasy on paper, writing down his stories seems inconceivable to the narrator of “Historias.” “Un hombre tiene que tener sus lujos secretos,” he declares, and he connects the prohibition of writing his stories to “nociones de transgresión y castigo” (401). Thus the fantasies take on an aura of forbidden pleasure which must be kept hidden from those who would judge and censor their content.

One of his favorite fantasies is that he is a trucker: “Ser camionero siempre me ha parecido un trabajo envidiable porque lo imagino como una de las más simples formas de la libertad, ir de un lado a otro en un camión que a la vez es una casa con su colchón” (402). The description of the truck's hollow but cushioned interior which permits the narrator to move about within its protective cocoon lends the vehicle a uterine quality. In these trucker fantasies, Marcelo often picks up and makes love to women who ask for rides. They are always unknown women who he has seen in a movie or a picture, and the only physical description that he offers categorizes them as exotic and “other”—the redhead, the mulatta, the little Indian girl, the gypsy, the Japanese girl, the Norwegian tourist. The fact that they represent a different nationality, race, or color may reassure the narrator that they have no place in his quotidian life and helps to maintain the separation of the two realms, preventing his illicit dreamlife from encroaching upon his respectable, if mediocre, waking existence.

The narrator relates in detail a fantasy in which he, as Oscar the truck driver, picks up Dilia who is hitchhiking by the side of the road in a deserted mountainous area. Dilia and her husband Alfonso are friends of Marcelo and Niágara, so it is shocking that someone from his own world has appeared in his fantasy, and he puzzles over the question many times: “Ver a Dilia fue entonces más que una sorpresa, casi un escándalo porque Dilia no tenía nada que hacer en esa ruta … Dilia y Alfonso son amigos que Niágara y yo vemos de tiempo en tiempo … seguirlos de lejos en su vida de matrimonio con un bebé y bastante plata. Qué demonios tenía que hacer Dilia allí …” (403). In his description of the fantasy, he stresses Dilia's helplessness, and the difficulty of the route: “vi la frágil silueta de Dilia al pie de las rocas violentamente arrancadas de la nada por el haz de los faros, las paredes violáceas que volvían aún más pequeña y abandonada la imagen de Dilia” (402-403). Unlike the other fantasized women who are often cold or timid, Dilia is a willing and even seductive sexual partner, and the sensuous story of their fortuitous encounter lasts all night.

Some time later, Marcelo and Niágara are invited to dinner at the home of Dilia and Alfonso, and, to his astonishment, the narrator learns that his fantasy had paralleled an episode that actually occurred. Dilia had traveled to another town to accompany her ailing mother who died a few days later. Upon Dilia's return, her car broke down in the mountains, she was alone and terrified at night, and a trucker finally came by and picked her up. Alfonso remarks “Se ha quedado traumatizada. Ya me lo contaste, querida, cada vez conozco más detalles de ese rescate, de tu San Jorge de overol salvándote del malvado dragón de la noche.” To which Dilia replies “No es fácil olvidarlo … es algo que vuelve y vuelve, no sé por qué” (407). Dilia does not know why she cannot forget this episode, but the narrator realizes that “en el otro lado” Marcelo the daydreamer materialized as Oscar the trucker to rescue Dilia, and they shared a night of tender love.

In the nocturnal rescue episode, Dilia is helpless and in need of comfort and protection. The mother of an infant who has recently lost her own mother, Dilia feels overwhelmed by her doubly new status of orphan and mother. She must become a source of sustenance and strength to her helpless infant precisely at the moment when she herself feels most vulnerable, no longer having her own mother to turn to for guidance and support. The fragility of her mental state intensifies the trauma of being stranded in the wilderness: “la noche vacía y una interminable espera al borde de la ruta en la que cada pájaro nocturno era una amenaza, retorno inevitable de tanto fantasma de infancia” (406-7). So traumatic is this situation that she experiences a type of infantile regression and relives childhood terrors, the most vivid of which for many children is the death of the mother. Dilia's condition of dependency creates the opportunity for Marcelo, in his “incarnation” as Oscar the teamster, to demonstrate his valor by rescuing her. Dilia's eagerness to sleep with the truck driver can be seen as her expression of gratitude and reward for the brave deed as well as an urge to seek comfort in his arms. The interior of the truck's cab, described as “la cabina tibia” when the shaken but grateful Dilia enters, continues to evoke a womb which nurtures and protects both the exhausted driver and the fragile woman. In this way, the union of the two is linked to the desire for comfort in the mother-child dyad.

The rescue fantasy, according to Otto Rank, which usually involves the son liberating his mother from his father's violence, is highly significant in human sexual life and is a product of the individual's longing for his mother's love and his wish for the absence of the disturbing competitor (65, 100 and 137-8). Significantly, when Alfonso snidely refers to the trucker as “tu san Jorge de overal,” he betrays a note of jealousy and resentment at the same time that he elevates the event to mythic proportions. The legendary Saint George, patron of warriors and travellers, is famed for having slain a ferocious dragon, which was terrorizing a city, and rescuing the king's daughter who was to be sacrificed to the dragon. In later versions of the legend, St. George is transformed into a knight of chivalry who marries the princess (Holweck 423 and Coulson 196-7). Thus in the incident, its retelling, and its psychic and mythic dimensions, there is a slippage of identity at the points of the triangle occupied by Dilia, the daydreamer/trucker, and Alfonso. The truck driver is at once rescuer, seducer, son, and lover. Dilia mutates from motherless child to seductress, unfaithful wife, and mother; while Alfonso degenerates from jealous husband and symbol of the law who denies son access to the mother, to night terror/dragon. Once the dragon (or night terror/ husband/ father) is eliminated, the lovers (or mother and son) can realize their longed for but adulterous (or incestuous) union, and the triangle collapses to a dyad. The shifting of identity which characterizes the wilderness rescue scene foreshadows the final scene of the story which occurs at the dinner party.

After Dilia and Alfonso have recounted their version of Dilia's nocturnal adventure, to his amazement and also to his horror, the narrator begins to desire Dilia “de este lado.” The baby cries, Dilia runs upstairs to get him, and takes him into the bathroom for changing. Marcelo follows her, taking advantage of this opportunity to have some privacy with her. “Y era como si de algún modo ella supiera cuando le dije Dilia, yo conozco esa segunda parte” (407), meaning that he knows what she hasn't told Alfonso—that she slept with the trucker who rescued her. Now, Marcelo's desire for Dilia intensifies, and he focuses on her breasts as if he had a right to them: “Sentí mis ojos como dedos … buscando los senos … El deseo era un salto agazapado, un absoluto derecho a acercerme a buscarle los senos bajo la blusa y envolverla en el primer abrazo” (408). Here, the narrator's sudden urge to lunge at Dilia's breasts equates him to her suckling baby. But Dilia is changing the baby's diaper. Marcelo gets a whiff of “el olor de un bebé que se ha hecho pis y caca” and hears Dilia calming the baby to stop him from crying. In the story's surprising final image, the baby has replaced the narrator as the object of Dilia's attention:

Vi sus manos que buscaban el algodón y lo metían entre las piernas levantadas del bebé, vi sus manos limpiando al bebé en vez de venir a mí como habían venido en la oscuridad de ese camión que tantas veces me ha servido en las historias que me cuento.


This scene is startling because Marcelo realizes that the baby, not Dilia's husband, is his rival. But in another sense it is even more unsettling: the image of Dilia's hands cleaning the baby's genitals instead of touching the narrator as they did in “el otro lado” superimpose the baby in what was the narrator's place. The tables have turned: the fearless truck driver/rescuer has vanished, now Dilia is in control, and an infantilized vision of himself as a helpless baby flashes before Marcelo's eyes. This mental image undoubtedly constitutes for him a shocking realization about the meaning of his desire for Dilia and of the truth behind his daydreams. Does he desire Dilia because she is the mother of an infant son? Was his desire for Dilia actually a desire to return to a state of oneness with the mother? In his fantasies he may be a virile male rescuing a damsel in distress, but “en este lado” he sees himself in the passive role of an infant whose condition of radical dependency requires that his mother calm his wailing and clean his excrements. This is so startling and threatening to the narrator that he immediately invokes his “camión” and his “historias” in an attempt to recast his desire for the preoedipal mother into his trusty masculine narrative of conquest and performance, thus regaining a sense of mastery and protecting his ego from the condition of helplessness.

The last words of the story, “en las historias que me cuento”(408), echo the opening line: “Me cuento historias cuando duermo solo” (401). In this circular construction, life appears to be going backwards. The narrator remains trapped in his daydreams because if he lets go of his fantasies of virile feats, he fears re-engulfment by the maternal womb. The narrator's desire for Dilia has led him to a strange but familiar place—the site of the uncanny—the mother's body (Sprengnether 230). Mother, the child's point of origin, is also its goal and destiny, but will only be realized in death, thus, the mother is a focus of dread as well as longing (Sprengnether 231).7

The narrator's daydreams of conquering the outer world collapse to expose the desire to retreat, and the urge to tell these stories turns out to be an attempt to defend himself from the strong regressive drive to return to the preoedipal mother. Thus the Walter Mitty fantasies may provide an illusion of self-sufficiency and mastery, but in so doing, they encode the trauma of infantile helplessness they seek to control. Finally, the Walter Mitty syndrome speaks of the precariousness of a carefully constructed masculine identity which threatens to unravel when confronted by the sensation of helplessness brought on by the lure of the preoedipal mother.

“While civilization still rests on the incest taboo, it is a precarious construct, subject to the undertow of regressive urges focused on the desire to repair the first rupture from the mother's body” (Sprengnether 140).8 Masculinity has no secure basis of its own because it is premised on “separation from that which the infant knows—the mother and all her feminine power … [masculinity is] always in danger of collapsing under the force of the fantasized plenitude of femininity” (Frosh 109). The message of Cortázar's stories attests to the truth of these observations, as his narrators bear witness to the seductive and threatening nature of the preoedipal mother. Through their depiction of the persistence of the primal urge to regress to a state of oneness with the maternal body, the stories point to the instability of masculine identity. In “Deshoras,” the fact that this regressive drive is contained and controlled through the fantasy is a way of acknowledging its impossibility and allowing for a “safe return” to “civilized,” quotidian reality. However, in the unsettling conclusion of “Historias que me cuento,” the image of the virile male is virtually effaced by the siren call of the preoedipal mother. Lurking as they do beneath the facade of self-mastery, the incestuous desires of the Cortázarean protagonists expose the power of the maternal bond as well as the primal fantasies which structure the imaginary life of the adult.

What bearing could this unresolved oedipal desire have on the depiction of women throughout Cortázar's work? Numerous critics have commented on or analyzed the idealization of women, and the problematic nature of love relationships in Cortázar's stories and novels.9 Estela Cedola offers a succinct overview of female roles according to their behavior with their male counterparts, describing two types of female behavior in love relationships. The first group, that of women who love men from a passive position, ranges from the notorious example of la Maga in Rayuela to Lina in the story “Lugar llamado Kindberg” (Octaedro), a liberated, independent young woman who allows herself to be seduced by a paternal figure. In the second group, made up of female characters appearing in texts from the 1970s and early 1980s, the woman tends to acquire a more equal status, and men and women love in the same way. However, both parties are trapped in boredom, for example in “Vientos aliseos” (Alguien que anda por ahí); or the woman, as well as the man, may be a perpetrator of violence, such as in “Cuello de gatito negro” (Octaedro) and “Recortes de prensa” (Queremos tanto a Glenda).(119). To summarize this aspect of Cortázar's work, although the male characters constantly desire and actively seek out romantic relationships with women, these relationships are never positive or fulfilling, and invariably result in separation, frustration, or ennui, or worse, violence or death.

It hardly requires a great leap of imagination to conclude that these women characters, as substitutes for the forbidden maternal figure, embody the male subject's fantasies directed at her. This can explain the male characters' tendency to idealize women, as well as their highly ambivalent attitude toward their female counterparts, simultaneously desiring and dreading them. While union with the mother remains their deepest longing, they fear her power to castrate, overwhelm, or re-engulf them, at the same time that they fear punishment for their guilty desire. Finally, the reactions of mastery, control, and distance of Cortázar's male characters toward women are a type of defense mechanism against their experience of helplessness in face of their overpowering desire for the mother.

In real life, Cortázar revealed a paternalistic attitude toward women when he coined the phrase “lector hembra” to signify the passive, noncritical reader, an unfortunate concept which he later recanted around the time that he began to depict female characters in less chauvinistic and more equal terms, although, as we have noted, the love relationships portrayed in his stories continued to be uneasy and wrought with contradictions. Whatever Cortázar's actual feelings toward women may have been, much as the protagonist of “Deshoras,” he used the textuality of his historias as a space where he could confront and exorcize his private demons.10


  1. Doris Sommer tells us that in Cortázar's fourth and last period, which consists of the 1981 and 1983 short story collections, he arrived at an “acknowledgement of the ways in which language can and cannot coincide with the desire for utopia. … In Cortázar's last period … [h]armony belongs to the Imaginary realm, where the child perceives its mother as an extension of itself, so there is no contradiction between self-love and love for the other. Language, or the Symbolic order, breaks that dyadic relationship and dooms the child to frustrating attempts to recover the paradise of being at one with the other. Cortázar may always have had his doubts about the human capacity to attain harmony, but he understood that desiring and striving after it was constitutive of the human condition. … We can think of his utopia therefore, as the site of construction, the very space in language that divides desire from realization and provides the possibilities for happy slippage” (“A Nowhere for Us,” 232). Using Sommer's terminology, we can say that these two stories, which articulate the longing to return to a state of oneness with the mother, deal with the utopian theme in its purest, literal, sense. The narrators experiment with creating, through the “slippery” discourse of their fantasies, “that utopia [which] will never materialize in a fixed space, nor should it” (Sommer, 234).

  2. For a detailed analysis of the temporal structure of “Deshoras,” see “Secuencia y temporalidad en ‘Deshoras’ de Julio Cortázar,” by Marisa Abdala.

  3. This ambiguous relationship between the preadolescent boy and nurse-figure recalls, of course, Cortázar's story “La señorita Cora” (Todos los fuegos el fuego 1966).

  4. My discussion of Sara in the role of nurse is indebted to Sprengnether's analysis of the relationship between Freud and his nursemaid, Dora, pp. 21 and 41-54.

  5. Several critics have observed the absence of paternal figures in Cortázar's work. Estela Cedola summarizes this phenomenon: “[L]a figura paterna [es] un rol ausente—en tanto personaje—en toda la obra de Cortázar. Sólo aparecen algunos padres borrados y vagos, bajo el signo de la negatividad o de la ausencia …” (127). More than one critic have pointed to biographical factors which could have contributed to this omission, and Cortázar mentions his father's disappearance in an interview with Walter Bruno Berg.

  6. Of course, the character of Walter Mitty comes from James Thurber's short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939), about a timid man who dreams of being a hero. There is also a 1947 movie based on the story and with the same title, directed by Norman Z. McLeod and starring Danny Kaye in the role of Walter Mitty.

  7. Sommer speaks to the ominous consequences linked to the resolution of desire in reference to Cortázar's stories: “With Glenda, and also Deshoras (1983), [Cortázar] apparently learns that no true homecoming is possible, unless it is death” (“A Nowhere for Us,” 238), and “While some of the stories [in the 1981 book] in fact reach a resolution of desire, the harmony that they produce is grotesquely homicidal or simply untenable over time” (“A Nowhere for Us,” 251).

  8. Sprengnether makes this statement in the context of her discussion of Otto Rank's reinterpretation of the father's role in the castration complex.

  9. To cite some of the studies of female characters or male-female relationships in Cortázar's work, Paley Francescato's article first drew attention to the issue by citing the lack of strong female characters, and Planells, in the book and article cited, analyzes in detail the frustrated love relationships. Cedola, Ibsen and de Mora focus on the women in Cortázar's work as intermediary or helper, while Hernandez del Castillo's monograph as well as Branco and Brandão's article bring out the image of the dangerous, castrating woman in Cortázar. Both Puleo and Turner analyze sexual violence in Cortázar's work, although Puleo's purpose is to denounce while Turner's is to examine its therapeutic effect on both reader and writer. Borinsky's article discusses maternal violence in 62: Modelo para armar, and both Debra Castillo and Cedola view la Maga (Rayuela) as an object of impossible desire. Several critics have elucidated the role of the game as a mediator of thwarted love relationships, for example, Sommer's article, “Playing to Lose.” Gyurko, Mary Berg and Paulino discuss the idealization of women in the story “Queremos tanto a Glenda” (Queremos tanto a Glenda), while Cedola points to this phenomenon as a constant throughout Cortázar's work

  10. See, for instance, Cortázar's statements to this effect in his essay, “Del cuento breve y sus alrededores,” and his interview with Aguilera, “La escritura, ese exorcismo.”

The first version of this paper was read at the 1995 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association. I wish to thank the session's discussant, Marie Murphy, for her insightful commentary, which helped me to further develop various aspects of the textual analysis.

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Cynthia Schmidt-Cruz (essay date autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: Schmidt-Cruz, Cynthia. “What Does Luciana Want? Reclaiming the Female Consciousness in Cortázar's ‘Cambio de Luces’.” Hispanic Review 65, no. 4 (autumn 1997): 415-30.

[In the following essay, Schmidt-Cruz examines the treatment of sexual difference in “Cambio de luces.”]

Any reference to the female characters in the short stories of Julio Cortázar is bound to set up a characteristic expectation in the mind of the reader. After all, what type of depiction of women can we expect from the writer who gained notoriety by coining the phrase “lector hembra” to denote a passive, non-critical reader? When we focus on the female characters in his best known stories, we might recall Rema in “Bestiario,” who is the victim of her brother's incestuous advances, or the character of Eva in “Instrucciones para John Howell,” who begs Rice to help her escape a husband bent on avenging her infidelity. In “La salud de los enfermos,” Mamá is lovingly sheltered from news of the death of her youngest son by solicitous family members, and the title character in “Liliana llorando,” even while weeping at the thought of her husband's imminent death, becomes romantically involved with his closest friend. Numerous critical studies have sought to define the varied treatments of female characters in Cortázar's stories, with descriptions ranging from “woman as intermediary or helper,” (Cedola, Ibsen, de Mora), “woman as idealized goddess” (Gyurko), “woman as object of man's fear and aggression” (Borinsky, Hernández del Castillo), and “woman as perverse beast” (Branco and Brandão). Within these diverse portrayals, the common denominator is the objectification of women within a male-centered perspective. Whether the female character is victimizer or victimized (Puleo, Turner, Planells), female subjectivity is suppressed, and the woman plays a role defined by a chauvinistic and patriarchal system (Francescato, Pita). And yet, in some of Cortázar's later stories, we can perceive a subtle change. Doris Sommer has noted that “Cortázar moves beyond a cavalier sexism. … Instead of considering women to be predictable, Cortázar increasingly allowed himself to be surprised by them and to narrate through their personae” (236).

A rereading of certain Cortázar stories with an eye attuned to the female consciousness reveals an insidious and ultimately successful female resistance to the attempt of the male protagonist to control and repress them. In her insightful work, What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference, Shoshana Felman illustrates how the careful reader can reclaim the female voice in texts with a male-centered perspective. To this end, she proposes a reopening and radical displacement of the now-notorious Freudian query, “What does a woman want?” This question posits femininity as the problem which perpetually baffles men; it is a dark and unknowable continent. Felman theorizes that great texts “are self-transgressive, with respect to the conscious ideology that informs them” (6), and her readings of three male texts show how they “enact female resistance, even as they struggle with it and attempt to overcome and erase it” (4). Felman's readings “seek to trace within each text, its own specific literary, inadvertent textual transgressions of its male assumptions and prescriptions. Although this literary excess, this self-transgression of the text …,” continues Felman, “might be at first invisible, inaudible, because it exceeds both the control and the deliberate intention of the writer's consciousness, I am suggesting that it can be amplified, made patent, by the desire—and by the rhetorical interposition—of a woman reader” (6). Alice Jardine's book, Gynesis, in a similar vein, calls for a rethinking of the master narrative in an effort to identify a space of some kind over which the narrator has lost control, a space which can be coded as feminine. She posits a problematization of the representation of women in contemporary thought and texts written by men, saying one must come up with imaginative strategies for exploring the feminine (25).

This study proposes to consider the treatment of sexual difference in Cortázar's short story, “Cambio de luces” (Cuentos completos/2). By reclaiming the suppressed female voice, I will show how the female character transgresses and foils patriarchal norms, despite the controlling male narrator. I will make use, in particular, of some of the “new (feminist) strategies of reading” (7) which Felman practices in her work. Felman bases her discussion of sexual difference on Luce Irigaray's critique of the status of womanhood in Western culture (22-23). According to Irigaray, in the polarity of Masculine/Feminine functions in Western thought, the Male term is privileged: “Theoretically subordinated to the concept of masculinity, the woman is viewed by the man as his opposite, that is to say as his other, the negative of the positive, and not, in her own right, different, other, otherness itself” (23). Within this perspective, woman is excluded from the production of speech, and identity is conceived as male sameness. This conception of identity represents a theoretical blindness to woman's actual difference, and it is this blindness, this failure to take into account woman's otherness, her subjectivity, her desire that ends up subverting the male-centered narrator in the texts under study.

Felman's rereading of Balzac's “Adieu” provides a model for my approach to Cortázar's “Cambio de luces.” In both stories the male protagonists, Philippe and Tito respectively, cannot conceive of female identity outside of the masculine measure of identity and value; “men are identified with the prerogatives of discourse and reason,” whereas “women are reduced to an object that can be known and possessed” (Felman 32-33). Philippe's mistress, Stéphanie, has gone mad; she cannot speak except to say “adieu,” and she cannot recognize Philippe. In former times, Philippe perceived Stéphanie as “‘the queen of the Parisian ballrooms’” (34). Felman points out that queen here implies a king—Philippe—and Stéphanie represented “above all, ‘the glory of her lover.’ ‘Woman,’ in other words, is the exact metaphorical measure of the narcissism of man” (34). Philippe hatches and executes an elaborate scheme to cure Stéphanie, but at the moment she regains her sanity and recognizes Philippe, she dies. Felman's analysis shows how the “text subverts and dislocates the logic of representation that it has dramatized through Philippe's endeavor and his failure” (38). In “Cambio de luces,” Tito's plan to mold his lover, Luciana, to fit his ideal image boomerangs on him when she leaves him for her ideal man. Thus, in both stories the male protagonists attempt to build monuments to themselves by putting a woman in a place that will glorify them, and these projects come to naught when the women ultimately refuse to play the roles assigned to them. The men fail because they operate from a phallo-logocentric position of reason and power which ignores the women's desire. My analysis of “Cambio de luces” will attempt to expose how the fallacious reasoning on the part of Tito, coupled with Luciana's subtle resistance, leads to the downfall of the male project of mastery.

An aside regarding my choice of models might be in order here, insofar as the use of French and Anglo-American critical theory to approach Latin American texts is a hotly debated issue among Latin American feminist critics. In a paper prepared for a Feministas Unidas session at the 1995 MLA Convention, Melissa Fitch Lockhart convincingly argues in favor of an inclusive approach: “To transcend binary models of here/there, colonizer/colonized, native/foreign, hetero/homo sexual it is my contention here that we must work towards a more inclusive, cohesive practice of feminist literary interpretation.” Several issues identified in Lockhart's and Catherine Den Tandt's papers (also prepared for the same session) come to bear in my choice of Felman's model for this analysis. First of all, the “reality of internal colonization” (Lockhart), understood as the imposition of European categories of thought in the Latin American context, cannot be doubted in the case of Julio Cortázar, who spent most of his adult life in France, and was familiar with European literature, psychology, philosophy, sociology, etc. The second issue that cannot be doubted is that Irigaray's critique of the status of women in Western thought transcends national and cultural borders. Finally, and most significantly, I believe Felman's perception of the self-transgressive nature of Balzac's text in regard to male assumptions is relevant to the Cortázar story, and this approach can shed new light on our understanding of the psychic structures underpinning Cortázar's work. Despite certain differences, both Balzac's and Cortázar's texts speak to the male encounter with femininity even as they enact female resistance to the male narrator. By following Felman's inspiration to encroach on the female desire in Cortázar's text and expose the consequences of the narrator's blindness to female subjectivity, we can decenter the male frame of reference in the text and take a fresh look at the depiction of gender roles in Cortázar's work.

Like so many of Cortázar's fictions, “Cambio de luces” is the tale of a failed relationship. Tito is an actor for the radioteatro of Buenos Aires, and always plays the part of the villain. One day he receives a letter from Luciana, a woman listener who professes to admire him despite the nefarious characters he portrays. When Tito writes back to thank her for the kind words, she responds with an invitation to arrange a meeting. Both Tito and Luciana have pre-conceived notions as to what the other will look like, and neither conforms to the expectations. Nevertheless, they get along well, and soon Luciana moves in with Tito. Tito previously had a four-year relationship with another woman but this had come to an end, and Tito was living alone. Gradually Tito instigates changes in Luciana's appearance and surroundings in an attempt to make her more closely approximate his ideal. When he thinks he has achieved perfection in his recreation of Luciana and truly loves her, he spots Luciana coming out of a hotel in the embrace of another man—strangely, a man who corresponds to Luciana's ideal image of Tito.

“Cambio de luces” is a story about identity and desire, and a woman's role within patriarchal society. Who is the desiring subject, who is the object of desire, and are these roles interchangeable? What will a woman do to please a man? To what extent will she sacrifice her identity to make him desire her? Why will a man delude himself about the character of the woman he professes to love? How can he be so blind to her real needs? And can he ever be certain about his own needs and identity? In “Cambio de luces,” the male narrator never bothers to ask himself, “what does Luciana want?” Thus, my rereading of the story will resurrect that question, and others which spin off it. For instance, why did Tito fail to recognize or acknowledge that Luciana could have needs and desires of her own? How did Luciana go about trying to get what she wanted? The attentive reader can discover in Luciana what the narrator failed to see due to his blind spots.

Highly stylized social settings—nineteenth-century Parisian ballrooms and radio soap operas—define the concept of ideal masculinity and femininity for Philippe and Tito.1 These artificial worlds of posture and pretense revolve around the pairing of heterosexual couples with rigidly defined codes of appearance and behavior for both the male and the female. Those who subscribe to these codes achieve their sense of self-worth according to how closely they fit the image defined by these sociosexual stereotypes, and the male role accrues its value in relation to its complementary female role. After all, how can there be a leading man in a love story without a leading lady, or a king of the ball without his queen? Thus, Philippe and Tito value Stéphanie and Luciana not for themselves, but rather for how well they can play a feminine role which glorifies their male companion. The man seeks in his beloved a reflection of his own self, and she becomes “an object whose role is to ensure, by an interplay of reflections, his own self-sufficiency as a ‘subject,’ to serve as a mediator in his own specular relationship with himself” (Felman 36).

This “soap opera culture” plays a central role in “Cambio de luces.” Tito's romanticized but illusory version of himself is inspired, in a confused sort of way, by the radiodramas, and their plots, all monotonously alike with their predictable ending—“el inevitable triunfo del amor y la justicia según Lemos” (124)—prefigure the outcome of the Tito-Luciana love story. These stories of romance and intrigue become a text-within-the-text, a repeated configuration in Cortázar's stories. Tito seems to be particularly vulnerable to the appeal of this artificial melodramatic world because he is dissatisfied with his own life. He uses his artistic expression as a way of coping with the tedium and void he experiences in his daily life in Buenos Aires, spending his afternoons practicing and polishing his sinister roles in the radio dramas. His professed purpose is to “vengarme de esos papeles ingratos … haciéndolos míos” (120). Thus, his approach is one of transformation and appropriation; his revenge on the unflattering roles will be, ironically, to become the villain. Indeed, this willful confusion between his own identity and his theatrical roles has become a cornerstone of his life.

However, Tito's narcissism and desire for adulation is poorly served by his “papeles más bien secundarios y en general antipáticos” (119), and he secretly covets Jorge Fuentes' crush of female fans. The day he receives Luciana's letter—the only letter in three years—he compares this meager missive to the hero's legion of admirers: “nuestro galán Jorge Fuentes … recibía dos canastas de cartas de amor y un corderito blanco mandado por una estanciera romántica” (119). Tito unwittingly reveals his excessive pride when he describes his first meeting with Luciana: “era lógico que se hablara sobre todo de mí porque yo era el conocido … por eso sin parecer vanidoso la dejé que me recordara en tantas novelas radiales” (122). His disavowal “sin parecer vanidoso” serves to call attention to what it represses—his vanity, which fuels a desperate desire for an adoring fan who will confirm his fame and talent. By allowing Luciana to focus on his artistic representations instead of his “off-stage” self, Tito promotes a type of “mis-identification” on which he will ground their relationship.

Not surprisingly, Tito projects the fictional world of the love stories onto his relationship with Luciana, casting himself as the leading man and Luciana as his leading lady. He says that his meeting with Luciana would have given Lemos, the author of the dramas, an idea for another plot, but in Lemos' story, the boy would discover that Luciana was identical to his imagination of her. The fact that Luciana is different from his image of her proves, according to Tito, that these theories only work in Radio Belgrano, the world of artifice. At one point, he refers to an actress as “la alternera muchacha que lentamente yo envolvería en mi consabida telaraña de maldades” (121). This, of course, is what he will attempt to do with Luciana: he will try to wrap her in his web, subordinating her to serve his aggrandized vision of self. For Tito, Luciana is an object that can be mastered and possessed. When he projects his final move in his plan to conquer Luciana—“volverla definitivamente mía por una aceptación total de mi lenta telaraña enamorada” (125)—he repeats the spiderweb image he had used to describe the radio character's manipulations, again fusing his real-life identity with his theatrical roles, but changing the web of evil into a web of love. This replacement is another indication that he is trying to switch codes and take on the appearance of the galán. However, no matter how he qualifies it, a spiderweb is still something woven for the purpose of trapping and retaining a hapless victim in its tangled threads in order to feed on it, and it aptly describes his narcissistic urge to feed on Luciana's admiration for his talent.

In any event, Tito's amorous project is ultimately doomed to failure, because he has internalized the role of villain and is destined to repeat it despite himself. In the love triangles which invariably structure Lemos' plots, the galán always gets the girl, and Tito forgets he must play the villain, who never gets the girl and is foiled at the end. Thus, justice according to Lemos does eventually prevail, and, contrary to Tito's previous observation, his life does imitate his art because he willingly projects his fictional roles onto his behavior with Luciana. He tries to exploit the artistic experience as a way of overcoming his limitations, but that depends on his playing the leading man and not the villain—a stretch that, in the end, he could not execute. Finally, the artistic role does not constitute self-transcendence as he imagined, but rather fatalistic self-entrapment.2 Tito's precarious construct of self depends on two layers of self-deceit: first, he attempts to live vicariously through the melodramatic roles; and secondly, finding insufficient food for his needy ego in his type-cast “bad guy” roles, he jealously tries to unsurp the role of galán. And of course, since a galán is defined by his ability to woo a beautiful and adoring damsel who will unproblematically reflect back his noble and virile image of self, Tito tries to cast Luciana in that role.

Tito falls for the Pygmalion lure: the dream of a perfect woman as a man's work of art, a monument to his narcissism. From the moment she walks into the tearoom, Luciana's appearance and personality are a problem for Tito. Her hair and eyes are too dark, she is too tall, and she is spirited and lively, not sad and pensive as Tito imagines his perfect romantic heroine. However, since she is his one and only fan, he sets about remaking her.

What leads him to believe he can transform this woman according to his desire? First of all, he revels in the control he exerts over his dramatic roles: he masters, perfects, and appropriates them. Perhaps this sensation of control over the characters he brings to life in the radioteatro convinces him that he can also sculpt Luciana according to his will. Secondly, he considers the prose of Luciana's letters to be “sencilla y tímida,” and thinks she must be the same way. From simple and timid, Tito can readily extrapolate “malleable,” and thus deludes himself into thinking that she will docilely submit to his makeover of her. Finally, when Luciana tells him about her past, which includes a boyfriend who left her for a job in Chicago and a failed marriage, Tito hears it “como si ella no hubiera hablado verdaderamente de sí misma ahora que parecía empezar a vivir por cuenta de otro presente, de mi cuerpo contra el suyo, los platitos de leche a la gata, el cine a cada rato, el amor” (123). Here, Tito reveals that he sees Luciana as the object of his desire, existing only for him and his world. He chooses not to conceive of her as a person with a past, something that would force him to admit that at one time she did have desires independent of his existence and control.

Tito's feminine ideal is like still another text-within-the-text, the script he will use as he resculpts Luciana. As soon as he reads Luciana's first letter, he constructs a mental image of her: “Esa mujer que imaginaba más bien chiquita y triste y de pelo castaño con ojos claros” (120). In his imagination, Luciana's pensive spirit is echoed in the atmosphere of her home, characterized by penumbra and melancholy:

cada vez que pensaba en Luciana la veía en el mismo lugar … una galería cerrada con claraboyas de vidrios de colores y mamparas que dejaban pasar la luz agrisándola, Luciana sentada en un sillón …, el pelo castaño como envuelto por una luz de vieja fotografía, ese aire ceniciento y a la vez nítido de la galería cerrada … donde habitaba la melancolía.


Tito gradually goes about the transformation of Luciana. First he asks her to lighten her hair, and then he ties it back, assuring her it looks better that way. To complete his ideal image, he changes the environment around Luciana, moving the lamp and changing the light bulb so a dimmer, shadowy light is cast upon her, and buys her a wicker chair and writing table. He has effected a “cambio de luz,” a “cambio de Luciana.” He rejects the extremes—bright light and black hair—for moderate mid-tones: dim, grayish light and chestnut hair. Akin to the “altanera muchacha” that the radio villain would wrap in his evil spiderweb, the initial Luciana is too spirited for Tito—her smiling eyes should have been sad, her free-flowing black hair should have been controlled and light brown, she should have drunk tea instead of whiskey. Tito is afraid of this vitality because it threatens his ability to control her; he prefers to repeat what he knows—art and imitation, mid-tones and melancholy—instead of daring to experience Luciana's liveliness and spontaneity. The chromatic symbolism evoked in the story's title speaks of Tito's attempt to dim Luciana's brilliance. Luminous Luciana shone too brightly to be able to reflect back Tito's specular image. He needed to tone down the light to be able to see his shadowy self-image in the penumbra.

Finally, he believes he has achieved perfection in his transformation of Luciana: “la besé largamente y le dije que nunca la había querido tanto como la estaba viéndo, como hubiera querido verla siempre” (125). However, Luciana's response to Tito's outpouring of affection and enthusiasm for her made-over self is silence: “Ella no dijo nada … estuvo quieta, como ausente. ¿Por qué esperar otra cosa de Luciana? Ella era como los sobres lilas, como las simples, casi tímidas frases de su carta” (125). Tito rationalizes Luciana's lack of an appropriate response because otherwise, if he were to recognize that the changes he has made in her do not suit her, do not represent her authentic self, he would have to ask himself what she really wants, admitting she is a creature of desire who may want something other than the image and the life he wants to mold for her. Since the hushed, distant woman fits into his ideal, he chooses to interpret this modification in her behavior as an extension of the traits he found in her letters.

Tito's project pitted art against life. To the vital woman with a will of her own, he preferred a lifeless artifact modeled on a stereotypical image of ideal femininity, something he could control and that would not threaten him with desires and meaning of her own.3 He misread Luciana's letters, her words, and her silences, because in the narcissistic, male-centered perspective in which he constructs himself as the origin of Luciana's meaning and identity, he cannot see her for who she is. He is interested in her only insofar as she compliments and confirms his own (mistaken) identity.

In order to recover or reconstruct Luciana's voice in a text which is narrated by a controlling male, we must look beyond Tito's misreading of her, which constitutes a type of smoke screen only partially covering over Luciana's desire. Using Felman's words, we must “encroach … on the female resistance in the text,” (4) scrutinizing the passages where Luciana's voice or Luciana's consciousness filters through the narrative voice: the text of Luciana's letters, her discourse which is reported by the narrator, and her actions, looks, gestures and silences.

In reality, Luciana's letters are not at all simple and timid, as the narrator characterizes them. Her first letter constitutes a strong appeal to Tito's masculine ego. She professes to know that he is not like the evil characters he portrays, and flatters his talent, saying she understands and admires him:

me hago la ilusión de ser la sola que sabe la verdad: usted sufre cuando interpreta esos papeles, usted pone su talento pero yo siento que no está ahí de veras … me gustaría ser la única que sabe pasar al otro lado de sus papeles y de su voz, que está segura de conocerlo de veras y de admirarlo más que a los que tienen los papeles fáciles.


Unlike Stéphanie in Balzac's “Adieu,” who, “by virtue of her madness, resists her ‘woman's duty’ … refusing … to reflect back simply and unproblematically man's value” (Felman 4), Luciana plays to the hilt the role of adoring female in order to win Tito over. Ironically, the trait which enables her to admire Tito—her belief in her intuition—will eventually lead her to see through his villainous manipulations.

Luciana's second letter includes an invitation to meet in a tea room, something she realizes is unfeminine behavior: “no me corresponde tomar la iniciativa pero también sé … que alguien como Ud. está por encima de muchas cosas” (122). Luciana acknowledges that she is violating the accepted norm, but expresses her conviction that Tito is above such social conventions, thus implying he possesses a type of moral superiority. In this way, Luciana astutely and subtly recasts her aggressive behavior as a virtue in Tito.

Tito describes their first meeting in the following manner:

No se disculpó por la invitación, y yo que a veces sobreactúo … me sentí muy natural. … De veras lo pasamos muy bien y fue como si nos hubieran presentado por casualidad y sin sobreentendidos, … era lógico que se hablara sobre todo de mí porque yo era el conocido … por eso sin parecer vanidoso la dejé que me recordara en tantas novelas radiales.


Tuning in to the woman's role, we can again see Luciana's feminine strength and skills at work. The fact that Tito remarked that she did not excuse herself for taking the initiative shows she is poised and self-confident, not self-deprecating as Tito expected her to be. Luciana's conversational skills are witnessed in her success in putting at ease a man who is normally unnatural in social situations, and she continues to stroke his ego by talking about him and his roles. Although Tito tells us several times that he is not vain, his positive reaction to her flattery proves otherwise. His narcissism proves to be a weakness which Luciana initially uses to her advantage to win him over, but which ultimately impedes his ability to know Luciana and understand her needs.

Luciana's observation regarding her expectations of Tito surprises him: “casi al final me dijo que me había imaginado más alto, con pelo crespo y ojos grises; lo del pelo crespo me sobresaltó” (123). While he felt it was natural for him to create a mental image of her, Tito is taken aback when Luciana assumes the role of desiring subject with Tito as the fantasized object.

Luciana's overall reaction to the changes Tito instigates in her appearance is one of apparent acquiescence and passivity. When he first asks her to lighten her hair, she laughs and says “si querés me compro una peluca … y de paso a vos te quedaría tan bien una con el pelo crespo, ya que estamos” (123). Thus, her first idea is to turn the tables by recalling her ideal image of him, and in so doing, casting herself as a speaking and desiring subject. But when Tito repeats the request, ignoring her joke about the wigs, she realizes this is important for Tito, and that she cannot expect reciprocity on his part, so she cedes on this minor point—her hair color—for a greater strategic compensation: keeping Tito happy with the relationship. When Tito assures her that she looks better with her hair tied back, “[e]lla se miró en el espejo y no dijo nada, aunque sentí que no estaba de acuerdo y que tenía razón, no era mujer para recogerse el pelo, imposible negar que le quedaba mejor cuando lo llevaba suelto antes de aclarárselo” (124). Here Tito offers a frank interpretation of Luciana's silence as the disapproval of a women who knows herself and how she looks best, thus providing an allusion to her self-confidence as well as to her silent resistance.

One afternoon Tito brings home a recording of one of the radio episodes and seats Luciana in the shadows so he can watch her listening to his voice, basking in the glow of his specular reflection in Luciana's eyes. Luciana knows something is unnatural about his manipulation of her environment: “por qué cambiás de lugar esa lámpara, dijo Luciana, queda bien ahí” (124). But instead of belaboring the point, she protests that he treats her too well: “Me mimás demasiado, dijo Luciana, todo para mí y vos ahí en un rincón sin siquiera sentarte” (124). Luciana's remarks when Tito presents her with the wicker chair and writing table again reveal her recognition that something is amiss. Nevertheless, she immediately compensates for her initial objection by expressing her willingness to comply and praising Tito's choice: “No tiene nada que ver con este ambiente, había dicho Luciana, entre divertida y perpleja, pero si a vos te gustan a mí también, es un lindo juego y tan cómodo” (125). Thus, although Luciana sees through Tito's intentions, instead of openly challenging him, she continues to go along with his whims and to flatter him. Finally, Luciana's speech evaporates into silence, and her last action speaks louder than words possibly could: as we know, Tito spots her coming out of a hotel in the loving embrace of a tall, curly-haired man.

Paradoxically, Luciana meticulously carried out her “womanly duty”—affirming her male companion's value—as a way of keeping him under her control. Luciana's seeming docility was actually a careful strategy on her part to keep Tito happy, even while she was inwardly resisting. Her outward compliance gave Tito the illusion that he was in control of her, but, in reality, it was Luciana who controlled the relationship from the very beginning—she chose Tito after listening to his voice on the radio and fantasizing about him for three years, she wrote him carefully crafted letters to pique his interest in her, and she took the initiative to invite him out on their first date. In order to lure him, she reflected back to Tito a trumped-up and highly flattering image of himself, something his vanity found irresistible. She made him think he desired her when what he really desired was the narcissistic mirror she provided for him, and then took the initiative to replace him when she found this relationship unsatisfying. Not at all a shrinking violet as Tito made her out to be, Luciana is a woman who knows how to get what she wants.

Luciana and Tito communicate through their mutual dissatisfaction: both are lonely, living derivative existences, and both envision a perfect companion whom they think will provide fulfillment and transform their lives. In order to fancy himself as a soap opera galán, Tito seeks a woman who will resemble his fictional heroine and adore him unconditionally. He could only conceive of Luciana as the object of his desire and the mirror of his soul, thus suppressing her voice and her subjectivity. But Luciana turns out to have desires of her own. She subverts and castrates the narrator when she deceives him with another man, turning Tito into not only an object, but a rejected object. The final scene is a manifestation of the uncanny when Tito realizes that his rival is actually his double—or Luciana's fantasized version of him.4 Luciana's insistence on her fantasy, her right to being a desiring subject, finally prevailed.

While the character of Tito, the narrator, plays out male blindness, the role of Luciana, the resisting female, ironizes Tito's narcissistic ignorance of her needs. In the final twist of “Cambio de luces,” we see another familiar Cortázarean technique, what I like to call “the Cortázarean boomerang”: the character who is punished for his or her inauthentic behavior. And curiously, this story is about a seemingly submissive and fawning woman who ends up undermining chauvinistic male behavior. Thus, Cortázar's story transgresses its male assumptions of prepotency as it exposes its lack of control over the feminine consciousness which finally dethrones the male narrator. Tito's fate is destitution from his mastery, from his desired role of galán, and reinstatement as the villain in the invariable love triangles which structure the soap opera plots. But are these textual transgressions entirely inadvertent? Or are they a manifestation of the Cortázarean self-irony? Is this the winking eye of a man who knew himself to be an incurable male chauvinist, but, at the same time, was compelled to call into question his own assumptions and certainties, realizing that ultimately, he couldn't get away with suppressing female subjectivity forever? At this point we recall Doris Sommer's words: “Instead of considering woman to be predictable, Cortázar allowed himself to be surprised by them and to narrate through their personae” (236). And in Luciana, he met a version of Lucifer, the angel of light who rebelled against God. Lucid, luminous Luciana, whose silence marked her inner rebellion, had desires of her own which ultimately refused to be subordinated to the male desire.

The critical studies published to date which focus on the female characters in Cortázar's stories invariably describe women whose subjectivity is suppressed and frustrated by a patriarchal system, often mentioning or implying Cortázar's chauvinism or misogyny as the underlying motivation. Felman's feminist strategies of reading, which show us how to reclaim the female desire in a male-centered text, inspire a new reading of sexual difference in “Cambio de luces,” and thus provide a new interpretation of both the male and female roles, as well as Cortázar's attitude toward women. Once we find a way to break away from the controlling male's hold on the text and explore the female consciousness in “Cambio de luces,” we uncover hidden meaning: a strong-willed woman who eludes male domination and a man who is foiled by his ignorance of her desire. Despite the repeated claims to Cortázar's misogyny, our study validates Sommer's observation of Cortázar's new openness toward his female characters in the latter part of his career, as witnessed in this perceptive portrayal of a woman who subverts patriarchal behavioral norms.


  1. Rosario Ferré, in her analysis of “Cambio de luces,” also mentions the social dimension afforded by the radionovelas: “Las radionovelas les dan la oportunidad de escapar al mundo pacato y represivo de la clase media a la que pertenecen y refugiarse en un pasado romántico y aristocrático” (107).

  2. For a detailed and insightful analysis of the representation of art in Cortázar's work see Lanin A. Gyurko's article, “Art and the Demonic in Three Stories by Cortázar.”

  3. The concept of a woman distanced by art is inspired by Debra A. Castillo's article “Reading Over Her Shoulder: Galdós/Cortázar.”

  4. For an analysis of Tito's double, see Amaryll Chanady's article, “The Structure of the Fantastic in Cortázar's ‘Cambio de luces’.”

Works Cited

Borinsky, Alicia. “Fear/Silent Toys.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 3.3 (1983): 89-94.

Branco, Lúcia Castello and Ruth Silviano Brandão. “Circe: o Feitiço e o Enigma.” A Mulher Escrita. Rio de Janeiro: Casa Maria, 1989. 37-41.

Castillo, Debra A. “Reading Over Her Shoulder: Galdós/Cortázar.” Anales Galdosianos 21 (1986): 147-60.

Cedola, Estela. “El oficiante y el acólito: Roles femeninos en la obra de Cortázar.” Nuevo Texto Crítico 4 (1989): 115-28.

Chanady, Amaryll. “The Structure of the Fantastic in Cortázar's ‘Cambio de luces.’” The Scope of the Fantastic: Theory, Technique, Major Authors. Eds. Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. 159-64.

Cortázar, Julio. Cuentos completos/2. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994.

Den Tandt, Catherine. “Negotiating Metropolitan Theory: Latin American Feminist Criticism.” Feministas Unidas Newsletter 15.2 (1995): n.p.

Felman, Shoshana. What Does a Woman Want? Reading and Sexual Difference. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Ferré, Rosario. Cortázar: El romántico en su observatorio. Hato Rey, Puerto Rico: Literal, 1990.

Francescato, Martha Paley. “The New Man (But Not the New Woman).” The Final Island. Eds. Jaime Alazraki and Ivar Ivask. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1978. 134-39.

Gyurko, Lanin A. “Art and the Demonic in Three Stories by Cortázar.” Symposium 37.1 (1983): 17-47.

Hernández del Castillo, Ana. Keats, Poe, and the Shaping of Cortázar's Mythopoesis. Purdue University Monographs in Romance Languages 8. Amsterdam: John Benjamins B. V., 1981.

Ibsen, Kristine. “Hacia la puerta del infinito: El papel de la mujer en Rayuela.Mester 18.1 (1989): 33-40.

Jardine, Alice. Gynesis. Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Lockhart, Melissa Fitch. “(De)colonizing Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism.” Feministas Unidas Newsletter 15.2 (1995): n.p.

Mora, Carmen de. “‘Orientación de los gatos’ (apuntes para una poética).” Lo lúdico y lo fantástico en la obra de Cortázar. Vol. 2. Coloquio Internacional. Centre de recherches Latino-Americaines, Université de Poitiers. Madrid: Fundamentos, 1986. 167-80.

Pita, Beatrice. “Manipulaciones del discurso femenino: ‘Yo y La Otra’ en ‘Usurpación’ de Beatriz Guido y ‘Lejana’ de Julio Cortázar.” Crítica: A Journal of Critical Essays 2.2 (1990): 77-83.

Planells, Antonio. “Represión sexual, frigidez y maternidad frustrada: ‘Verano,’ de Julio Cortázar.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 66 (1979): 233-37.

Puleo, Alicia Helda. “La sexualidad fantástica.” Lo lúdico y lo fantástico en la obra de Cortázar. Vol. 1. Coloquio Internacional. Centre de recherches Latino-Americaines, Université de Poitiers. Madrid: Fundamentos, 1986. 203-12.

Sommer, Doris. “A Nowhere for Us: The Promising Pronouns in Cortázar's ‘Utopian’ Stories.” Discurso Literario 4.1 (1986): 231-63.

Turner, John H. “Sexual Violence in Two Stories of Julio Cortázar: Reading as Psychotherapy?” Latin American Literary Review 15.30 (1987): 43-56.

Pamela J. McNab (essay date December 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6205

SOURCE: McNab, Pamela J. “Shifting Symbols in Cortázar's ‘Bestiary’.” Revista Hispánica Moderna 50, no. 2 (December 1997): 335-46.

[In the following essay, McNab considers the symbolism in “Bestiary,” contending that “the reader must dispense with traditional notions in order to appreciate fully Cortázar's masterful and innovative manipulation of symbols via the uniquely limited narrative perspective of a child on the threshold of adolescence.”]


In his recent study Hacia Cortázar: Aproximaciones a su obra, one of Julio Cortázar's most careful readers, Jaime Alazraki, singles out “Bestiario” as a story worthy of further commentary.1 He writes, “la desequilibrada atención prestada al tigre ha dejado en sombra otras aristas de la narración que de ser iluminadas arrojarían también alguna luz sobre la función del tigre y rescatarían nuevos recursos desde los cuales funciona la delicadísima relojería de este cuento” (109). As Alazraki suggests, preoccupation with the omnipresent tiger has blinded many critics to this superbly crafted tale's significance in the trajectory of Cortázar's career. First published in Los Anales de Buenos Aires in 1947, “Bestiario” introduces several of the very characteristics we now recognize as the core of Cortázar's fictive universe: a creative approach to narrative voice, a penchant for deeply, often painfully, probing characters' psyches, and a fondness for testing the limits of reality. “Bestiario” sets forth a rather static scenario wherein something has gone awry in typical Cortázar fashion. The story unfolds like a good mystery, although rather than “whodunnit,” the question is rather to determine what forms the nucleus of one family's “dirty little secret.” Suspense builds as the protagonist, Isabel, rather arbitrarily enlists symbols to help her fit together the pieces of a strange family puzzle.

As noted above, a good deal of debate has centered on the tiger's possible symbolism.2 However, by interpreting the tiger and “Bestiario's” other symbols in a conventional way, some interesting possibilities have been overlooked. Narrow symbolic interpretations tend to deny the story's inherent ambiguity and also fail to note the wide variety of functions that symbols perform, as well as the ways in which they operate. Symbols contribute to narrative development through foreshadowing, characterization, and/or providing story structure. The reader must dispense with traditional notions in order to appreciate fully Cortázar's masterful and innovative manipulation of symbols via the uniquely limited narrative perspective of a child on the threshold of adolescence.

Alazraki adopts a new symbolic perspective in his study, “Sonata en verde menor: Relectura de ‘Bestiario’.” Although his central observation is not necessarily new, “el tema-eje que organiza el relato y determina los recursos narrativos que garantizan su eficacia es el tránsito de Isabel de la infancia a la pubertad …,” (111) his discussion indeed sheds new light on the story. Alazraki focuses his energies on the narrator's manipulation of the color green. First, he acknowledges that although green is one of Cortázar's preferred colors, that alone does not necessarily mandate a color analysis: “el valor de esas preferencias depende del grado de coherencia y funcionalismo con que se insertan en el texto …” (120). Alazraki then demonstrates that indeed the color green is highly functional in “Bestiario” and, perhaps, provides the common thread that holds the narrative together. This reading of the use and significance of the color green is both imaginative and persuasive.

For the purposes of this study, what interests us as much as, if not more than, Alazraki's findings is his method. His initial stance is that of a reader open to the text's nuances and subtleties, an approach he has long favored. Here, Alazraki illustrates with the color green how one must remain flexible when considering symbol in Cortázar. He asserts:

El verde de ‘Bestiario’ define también el tema del cuento (el encuentro de Isabel-niña con su adolescencia), pero … su aparición no es una estricta repetición del mismo tema, de la misma palabra con el mismo sentido (el escenario del pasaje), sino que alude a variaciones sobre el mismo tema. Cada una de esas variaciones replantea el tema y aporta, a su vez, nuevos matices y grados de información. Desde esa gama de verdes, el relato afina, precisa y apuntala la ambigüedad como una elección.


The rest of his study chronicles the eight instances that the color green is mentioned and assesses how the “meaning” or use might change each time, but yet how each reference ultimately contributes to the story's development. In the present study, we shall adopt Alazraki's perspective with the intent of demonstrating that, in addition to the color green, other symbols in “Bestiario” also benefit from this type of analysis, thereby futher enriching the reading experience.

Symbolism performs two central functions in “Bestiario.” First, by carefully examining the signification of symbols, the story's main issue is gradually, and thus suspensefully, revealed. Only through analyzing the “meanings” of the symbols do we begin to understand the “meaning” of the story. However, this is not a simple task when each symbol's “meaning” fluctuates by losing its singular correspondence or, in other words, one signified for each signifier. As Alazraki has suggested, the “meaning” or symbolism of an object may shift in response to the protagonist's evolving comprehension of her situation. In an attempt to understand what she witnesses, Isabel unconsciously establishes relationships between characters and symbols which eventually dissolve, or else becomeoverlapped with another association, when she links the same symbol to someone else. These associations between characters and symbols, mostly animals, progressively reveal the story's central conflicts. Secondly, the progress between successive symbols actually furthers the story line and thus provides narrative structure. The story flows from one symbolic animal to the next like links in a chain of contiguous yet distinct narrative moments. As Isabel contemplates each incident, one symbol, or clue, emerges, illuminates another facet of the problem, and subsequently disappears until, incident-by-incident and symbol-by-symbol, the family picture begins to clarify. Thus, the beauty of the story resides in this dual shifting technique: signification shifts between each symbol and its multiple, tenuous “meanings” and narrative shifts from one symbol to the next that advance the story. By considering the story in detail, we can better understand Cortázar's creative implementation of shifting symbols.


A brief plot summary may prove useful to orient the reader. “Bestiario” recounts how Isabel, a young girl from Buenos Aires, spends a summer in the country with her cousin Nino and the rest of the Funes family: Nino's father, el Nene, who seems to be Nino's uncle, and Rema, who is probably Nino's aunt. As is the case in “Casa tomada,” the ambiguous kinship among these characters lends the family a mysterious air and intensifies the reader's anxiety as the plot unfolds. Throughout the summer, Isabel and Nino entertain themselves by collecting and examining assorted bugs. The children are free to explore, but, like the others, they must adjust their plans according to the movements of a tiger that roams the house and gardens at will. Remarkably, no one attempts to eradicate the tiger and it is only mentioned when it is necessary to determine its location in order to avoid it. The characters' nonchalance towards this inexplicable, alarming situation arouses the reader's curiosity because the family's logical, even logistical, approach to the problem is surprisingly (perhaps even suspiciously) passive.

The story gains momentum as Isabel becomes less interested in Nino's games and more intrigued by the strained relationship between the irascible Nene and Rema, whom Isabel idolizes. Isabel detects and is upset by the tension within the family. Caught in limbo between the edge of childhood and the threshold of maturity, Isabel's rather naive perspective infuses the narrative with a worrisome vagueness. As she strings together observations of el Nene and Rema, Isabel unconsciously projects her feelings about them onto the animals around her in such a way that they symbolically convey what she is unable to verbalize. The reader, who is limited to Isabel's highly metaphorical mind, follows this succession of subtle clues that gradually lead to a realization which Isabel herself cannot make: el Nene is abusing Rema. Since we are confined to Isabel's perceptions and interpretations, the nature of el Nene's abuse remains unclear: we never know the extent to which it is sexual, physical, and/or emotional, nor whether it is incestuous. The reader's reaction to this scenario is all the more horrible since details are left to the imagination. In the end, Isabel purposely sends el Nene to a room where he is mauled by the tiger, an act which wins her Rema's eternal, albeit unspoken, gratitude.


Although “Bestiario” is physically divided into eleven segments by blank spaces in the text, the story is really comprised of seven individual sections, most of which are anchored by one animal image. The only animal that transcends this pattern is the tiger. Although much has been said about this tiger, which, ironically, is never actually “seen” by the reader, its structural significance has been overlooked.3 Just as it is free to roam the property, so it permeates the text. In fact, the tiger provides the story's framework, since it is both the first and the last significant animal to appear. Also, its multiple appearances serve as a common thread among the discrete sections, thus supplying narrative unity.

The story's opening section, which essentially recounts Isabel's invitation to and subsequent arrival at Los Horneros, the Funes homestead, is atypical in that one animal image does not predominate. Instead, this section is more reflective of the title since it incorporates several symbolic animals and begins establishing their significance with regards to narrative structure, characterization, and foreshadowing. Although this section does not utilize the types of symbolic shifting that concern us here, it does merit some commentary for its myriad uses of symbolism.

As mentioned previously, the tiger is present from the beginning. Prior to Isabel's departure, one of her relatives worries, “no me gusta que vaya … No tanto por el tigre, después de todo cuidan bien ese aspecto.”4 This casual reference to a dangerous, exotic animal immediately attracts the reader's attention. Why is there a tiger at Los Horneros and, more curiously, why isn't it a cause for concern? Furthermore, if the tiger isn't a deterrent to Isabel's visit, what is? Isabel's own reference to the tiger is equally vague. When recalling her previous visit to Los Horneros, Isabel cites the tiger's addition as a notable change: “Todo [era] más menudo, más de cristal y rosa, sin el tigre entonces” (142). These two offhand references to the tiger pique the reader's curiosity about Los Horneros.

Various animal images in this first section illustrate Isabel's relationships with other characters. Two strikingly similar passages reveal Isabel's fondness for Rema and for her cousin Nino, whose quasi-epithetical evocation depends on animal imagery:

Antevivía la llegada en break … la alegría de Nino cazador de cucarachas, Nino sapo, Nino pescado … Ahora Nino en el parque esperándola con la red de mariposas, y también las manos blandas de Rema … ‘Tía Rema me quiere tanto’



Oh andar del break, vaivén para traerle el entero acuario de su anterior venida a Los Horneros … apenas tres años atrás, Nino un sapo, Nino un pescado, y las manos de Rema que daban deseos de llorar y sentirlas eternamente contra su cabeza, en una caricia casi de muerte y de vainillas con crema, las dos mejores cosas de la vida.


These snippets of Isabel's stream of consciousness present crucial information and direct the reader's attention to several issues as the story continues. First, Isabel's thoughts of Nino establish a pattern of metaphorical linking between humans and animals that indirectly suggests their similarities. This tendency to characterize via zoomorphosis is prevalent throughout the story. In this case, Nino's image is inextricably intertwined with his interest in animals. This technique also foreshadows how the children's play will depend almost exclusively on animals. These thoughts are intimately related to images of Rema and her hands. In both excerpts, Rema's hands connote pleasure and symbolize Isabel's longing for her attention. It is essential to recognize Isabel's love for Rema as communicated through this hand symbolism because her hands are the only major symbol that retains its original “meaning,” and, moreover, it is Isabel's attachment to Rema that drives the story to its climax. Later, in two central episodes, the way Isabel associates Rema's hands with animals expresses her understanding of and feelings about Rema and el Nene's relationship. Furthermore, the double presentation of Nino, the animals, and Rema, stresses their significance.

The metaphorical description of Isabel's memories as “el entero acuario de su anterior venida a Los Horneros” (142) also raises some interesting questions. Do the aquatic animals of the repeated phrases “Nino sapo, Nino pescado” prompt such a description? Does Isabel unconsciously anticipate being trapped, as though in an aquarium, at Los Horneros? This aquarium image foreshadows the future importance of the ant farm, another miniature realm of animals held captive under glass, and suggests the scrutiny that Isabel, as an outsider, will exert on the closed environment of Los Horneros.5

Other animals in this opening section contribute to Isabel's characterization and foreshadow later events. At one point, Isabel recalls a “jaula rota” (139) among her mischievous deeds, a reference which implies granting freedom to an otherwise captive being, while also alluding to Isabel's capacity for destruction. It also evokes images of an animal accidentally released. So, this one object may relate to Rema's imprisonment, especially since she is later compared to a bird, and to Isabel as her liberator, the same Isabel who will intentionally unleash the tiger on el Nene. In the same vein, this section's final anecdote also foreshadows how Isabel's inquisitiveness can be fatal: “encontró un bicho de humedad paseando por el lavabo. Lo tocó apenas, se hizo una bolita temerosa, perdió pie y se fue por el agujero gorgoteante” (143).

“Bestiario's” second section begins to reveal the triangular conflict wherein Isabel and el Nene are both indirectly struggling over Rema. Isabel dislikes el Nene, the antagonistic, violent force within the family, while, on the other hand, she admires and is concerned about Rema, whose silence is troubling. Here, Nino's childish interests begin to act as a foil for Isabel's development. Unlike Nino, she becomes less amused by the mere collection of things like leaves and bugs and more intrigued by the Funes family itself. Unsatisfied by cataloging and describing, her emphasis shifts to more analytical endeavors.

In this second section, Isabel writes to her mother about the tiger, indicating that Rema usually checks on the tiger's location before the family goes to the dining room. Although it evidently threatens the family, this tiger is taboo. Isabel apparently would like to ask about it, but “Rema parecía detener, con su tersa bondad, toda pregunta. Estaban tan bien que no era necesario preocuparse por lo de las piezas” (145). This is our first indication that the tiger represents something repressed, something that Rema in particular prefers not to discuss. In fact, her phrase “no era necesario preocuparse por lo de las piezas” (145) avoids mentioning the tiger altogether when it is clear that the animal, not the rooms themselves, poses the threat. Isabel's preoccupation with the tiger persists, which accounts for its ubiquitous presence in the text.

The children's first extended interaction with the animal world occurs when they spend a week observing mosquito larvae through a microscope. Although the previous reference to an aquarium was fleeting, this time the narrative develops the notion of life viewed beneath glass more fully. Unlike the animal imagery to come, there is only one meaning behind the larvae symbolism. Here, studying the larvae metaphorically foreshadows what will become Isabel's secret activity: she will analyze the world of Los Horneros through the microscopic lens of her conscience and make some unpleasant discoveries, much the way she and Nino discover the “rebullente horror” of the larvae. In both cases, what begins as a harmless diversion becomes a frightening experience when the microcosm comes into focus.

In a continuation of the animals-observed-through-glass leitmotif, the creation of an ant farm constitutes the story's third section. Like the larvae under the microscopic lens, the ants within the glass container suggest the silent, subterranean forces at work in the Funes home. This animal imagery, which is even more well-developed, is the first that exhibits signification shifts. As Isabel becomes increasingly preoccupied by Rema and el Nene, she projects her emotions onto the ants and sees in them a reflection of her human environment. While grappling with issues she senses but doesn't understand, Isabel associates the ants with several people; with each new association there is an accompanying change in symbolic meaning. Consequently, these shifting associations reveal her changing attitude and growing assertiveness.

The ants themselves are concrete visual symbols of frenetic energy: “las hormigas parecían furiosas, y trabajaban hasta la noche … repentinos arranques de furor o de vehemencia, concentraciones y desbandes sin causa visible” (149). For Isabel, the ant farm first represents a miniature version of Los Horneros, where she now feels trapped just like the ants: “le gustaba repetir el mundo grande en el cristal, ahora que se sentía un poco presa, ahora que estaba prohibido bajar al comedor hasta que Rema les avisara” (149). Resentful of her captive state, Isabel is pleased that no tiger menaces the ants: “le encantaba pensar que las hormigas iban y venían sin miedo a ningún tigre” (149). However, she immediately contradicts herself by imagining a tiny tiger roaming behind the glass: “a veces le daba por imaginarse un tigrecito chico como una goma de borrar, rondando las galerías del formicario” (149). This image has many ramifications. First, the phrase “a veces” indicates that Isabel indulged in this fantasy more than once. But why would she inflict an imaginary tiger, like the one she so detests, on the helpless ants? This thought evidently alludes to her desire for power or her longing to be in control while also exposing her own capacity for violence. Furthermore, the tiger's comparison to an eraser is curious. Would Isabel like to make the tiger disappear, to erase it from existence? On the other hand, this eraser-sized tiger could foreshadow how, in the larger world, the tiger will eventually eradicate el Nene. This miniature tiger is clearly a product of Isabel's imagination, but because the ant farm represents Los Horneros, we are left wondering whether the phantom-like tiger of “el mundo grande” is real or not.

In Isabel's mind, the ants also reflect Rema and el Nene's relationship. Twice, Isabel associates ants with el Nene. While lying in bed, she remembers the following scene:

[Rema] le llevaba el café y él que tomaba la taza equivocándose, tan torpe que apretó los dedos de Rema al tomar la taza, Isabel había visto desde el comedor que Rema tiraba la mano atrás y el Nene salvaba apenas la taza de caerse, y se reía con la confusión. Mejor hormigas negras que coloradas: más grandes, más feroces.


Isabel innocently interprets el Nene's actions as clumsy errors rather than intentional advances. Nevertheless, her abrupt segue to the ants indicates that she senses something violent. Having already observed el Nene's behavior, the reader easily understands how Isabel connects him to the ants. Are her thoughts about ferocious ants a sublimation of her desire to harm el Nene? Does she unconsciously consider him combative like the ants? The notion of conflict continues when Isabel imagines the war that will ensue upon combining red and black ants in the same container: “seguir la guerra detrás del vidrio … Salvo que no se pelearan. Dos hormigueros, uno en cada esquina de la caja de vidrio … Pero casi seguro que se pelearían, guerra sin cuartel para mirar por los vidrios” (148). Not only does Isabel notice the hostility, but she also seems anxious to incite it. Finally, we must wonder why Isabel recalls this scene. Although she is evidently oblivious to the undertones of what she has seen, she is nonetheless fascinated. Her sensitivity to Rema and el Nene's relationship continues to sharpen.

Later, Isabel has a second flashback to the same incident, which now becomes reminiscent of a scene from Buñuel's film Un chien andalou. When a reflection makes it seem as though Rema's hand were inside the glass with the ants, “de pronto [Isabel] pensó en la misma mano dándole la taza de café al Nene, pero ahora eran las hormigas que le andaban por los dedos, las hormigas en vez de la taza y la mano del Nene apretándole las yemas. -Saque la mano, Rema -pidió” (150). Although previously this scene only vaguely disturbed Isabel, this time she perceives an identifiable danger in the ants. The ants now undoubtedly represent el Nene, and thus are a threat to Rema, more specifically to that part of Rema that brings Isabel affection: her hands. By asking Rema to move her hand, Isabel is clearly trying to remove Rema from harm's way. Then, Isabel immediately asks, “¿Él está enojado con usted, Rema?” Even though el Nene has not even been mentioned by name, Rema's reaction indicates that she understands and wants to avoid discussing him. She flees silently from the question, like a startled bird taking flight: “La mano pasó sobre el vidrio como un pájaro por una ventana … andaba por el corredor como escapando de algo” (150). Rema's retreat confirms Isabel's suspicions that something is amiss between these two, but she still does not understand and is mostly concerned about having upset Rema: “Isabel sintió miedo de su pregunta, un miedo sordo y sin sentido, quizá no de la pregunta como de verla irse así a Rema” (151). At this point, as the reader begins to intuit the sexual nature of el Nene's violence; the furious, frantic ants easily represent the repressed sexual energy that pulsates invisibly beneath his surface. Upon Rema's departure, “le pareció [a Isabel] que las hormigas se espantaban de veras” (150); the ants seem to mirror both Isabel and Rema's emotional states. Finally, Isabel envisions the ant farm's passages as “crispados dedos dentro de la tierra” (151).

In the middle of “Bestiario” further references to the ants frame Isabel's stream-of-consciousness flashback about Nino's ball accidentally breaking el Nene's window. Rema, who is putting Isabel to bed, forgets to move the ant farm away from the bed as Isabel had asked. As Isabel tries to sleep, she is so troubled by what has happened that she relives the scene of el Nene beating Nino twice, as though she cannot believe it: “arrancó a Nino de un tirón … le empezó a pegar, miraba a Rema cuando pegaba, parecía furioso contra Rema y ella lo desafió un momento con los ojos, Isabel asustada la vio que lo encaraba y se ponía delante para proteger a Nino” (153-4). Although Nino's tearful face haunts Isabel, the underlying conflict between el Nene and Rema really captures her attention. Isabel recognizes that el Nene's anger is really directed towards Rema, who defies him by protecting Nino. When Isabel looks at the ant farm, she is frightened to find the ants still working, “como si no hubieran perdido la esperanza de salir” (154). This disturbing observation, all the more dramatic since it concludes this portion of the story, may suggest that el Nene is still seething with aggression towards Rema, aggression that seeks an outlet much like the ants trying to escape. Furthermore, Isabel's reactions to the ants mirror her feelings about Rema and el Nene's relationship: whereas both initially fascinated her, both are now equally frightening, just as we saw with the previous larvae image. To recapitulate, the ants have undergone a series of associative shifts. First, Isabel related to their sense of entrapment, which caused her to compare the whole ant farm to Los Horneros. Then, Isabel associated the image of el Nene taking Rema's hand with the ant colonies attacking each other. The ants have thus become the medium through which Isabel visualizes her understanding of el Nene and Rema's relationship. Consequently, the ants represent the invisible yet violent forces pent up in el Nene and in herself which Isabel senses and fears, yet cannot define. Thus, the ants, as symbols, have contributed to character development, the progress of the plot, and have foreshadowed the story's conclusion. Nevertheless, the ants' symbolic importance disappears at this point since they are never subsequently mentioned in the story.

In a letter to her mother, Isabel comments about Rema's sadness then interrupts herself with an anecdote about how she and Nino almost encountered the tiger one day. Isabel then returns to write that Rema cries at night. From her bedroom, she overhears Luis ask Rema what is wrong and then mutter, “Es un miserable, un miserable,” (157). Isabel undoubtedly deduces that el Nene is the miserable bastard, although she still does not completely understand why. By couching her anecdote about the tiger among her observations about Rema's sadness, Isasbel establishes an unconscious connection between the two. Somehow, the danger of this wild, prowling animal is related to Rema's unhappiness. The reader is now able to conjecture more easily about the probable cause of Rema's sadness. We recall that Rema has reacted similarly to Isabel's curiosity about both the tiger and el Nene: distressed by Isabel's perspicacity, she has refused to explain or respond to either issue. Consequently, the reader is able to detect the link between the tiger, Rema's sadness, and el Nene. Undoubtedly, the tiger in some way represents el Nene's potential threat to Rema.

The next link in the symbolic chain is a praying mantis that the children catch at the dinner table. Rema is disgusted by the bug and asks the children to get rid of it. As with the ants, Isabel will associate the praying mantis with other characters, and the bug's symbolism fluctuates accordingly. Although this insect's common English name glorifies its prayer-like stance, ironically the female praying mantis often eats her mate after copulation. While studying it, Isabel muses, “hubiera querido decapitar al mamboretá, darle un tijeretazo y ver qué pasaba” (158). Here, the mantis' violence seems transferred to Isabel, who symbolically assumes the role of the destructive female and thus foreshadows the story's ending. Later, she unconsciously links Rema and el Nene to the mantis: “pensó que nunca había visto a Rema besando al Nene y a un mamboretá de un verde tan verde. Le movía un poco el vaso y el mamboretá rabiaba” (159). Although this association is indirect, it is nevertheless evident that Isabel is further converging upon the real nature of the problem. The sexual implications of her observation are clear.

Later that evening, el Nene tells Isabel to have Rema serve him a lemonade and then for Isabel to go to bed immediately. Oblivious to the implications of el Nene's command, Isabel grumbles, “Claro que iba a subir a su cuarto, no veía por qué tenía él que mandárselo” (160). The reader, however, intuits that el Nene is attempting to draw Rema to him and wants to ensure that Isabel does not disrupt his plan. Rema thwarts his plot by having Isabel serve the lemonade despite el Nene's orders otherwise. Converted into an unsuspecting pawn in their game, Isabel's love and compassion for Rema peak in a passage that clearly anticipates the story's climax:

Rema, Rema. Cuánto la quería, y esa voz de tristeza sin fondo, sin razón posible, la voz misma de la tristeza. Por favor. Rema, Rema … Un calor de fiebre le ganaba la cara, un deseo de tirarse a los pies de Rema, de dejarse llevar en brazos por Rema, una voluntad de morirse mirándola y que Rema le tuviera lástima, le pasara finos dedos frescos por el pelo, por los párpados.


Isabel does not comprehend Rema's sadness, which she characterizes as “sin razón posible,” yet she still desires her love and attention, once more symbolized by her hands.6 Isabel tries to console Rema by announcing that she has freed the mantis, “Ya tiré el mamboretá, Rema” (161). This action foreshadows how Isabel, like the female praying mantis, will soon get rid of an equally disturbing presence for Rema el Nene. While lying in bed that night, Isabel recalls el Nene's reaction to her return with the lemonade: “estaba aún mirando la jarra … como alguien que mira una perversidad infinita. … Ella tenía que traérmela. A vos te dije que subieras a tu cuarto. Y no ocurrírsele más que una respuesta tan idiota: Está bien fresca, Nene. Y la jarra verde como el mamboretá” (161-2). By indirectly linking el Nene's lemonade to the praying mantis through the green color symbolism, this incident also foreshadows el Nene's impending fate.

To recapitulate briefly, then, the inclusion of the mantis in and of itself is a highly symbolic narrative gesture. Given the animal's normal mating pattern, it immediately contributes to the story's sexual dimension. The mantis is first associated with Isabel, to whom it seems to transfer its violence since she considers decapitating it. Next, the mantis is related to Rema and el Nene's relationship. Finally, the mantis is linked solely to el Nene, whom Isabel will eventually banish just as she gets rid of the bug.

Snails provide the focal point for the story's ending. Presumably the next day, Nino is anxious to collect snails by the stream, but Isabel is no longer interested in such infantile pursuits and realizes that she is changing or has changed in ways that Nino has not: “Ella lo veía de repente tan chico, tan un muchachito entre sus caracoles y sus hojas” (162). Although the reader is already aware of her transformation, this is the first time that Isabel recognizes her own maturation. Thus, the snail imagery first comments on character development. During lunch, Nino gives Rema a blue snail, thereby associating her with these animals as well.

In the final episode, snails become linked with the tiger, both of which symbolize the family dynamics. As the family prepares to retire from the dining room, Isabel offers to learn the tiger's location although she actually acquired this information earlier. Meanwhile, the snails momentarily create family unity: “Rema y Nino tenían las cabezas juntas sobre los caracoles, estaban como en una fotografía de familia” (163). Could her desire to perpetuate this harmonious scenario prompt Isabel to lie about the tiger's whereabouts? When Isabel reports that the tiger is in el Nene's study, we sense that something is about to happen. Her attention turns to Rema, “que tocaba un caracol con la punta del dedo, tan delicadamente que también su dedo tenía algo de caracol” (163). This unlikely comparison becomes comprehensible when we recall that Rema's hands represent her affection: Isabel foresees Rema's affection slowly emanating towards her, the way a snail emerges from its shell. Soon Rema will not have to worry about el Nene and, like the snail, will no longer need to hide behind a hardened wall of silence. Isabel's indifference to the tiger's apparent attack on el Nene confirms this conjecture:

[estaba] perdida, estudiando los caracoles que empezaban despacio a asomar y moverse, mirando de pronto a Rema, pero saliéndose de ella como una ráfaga, y obsesionada por los caracoles, tanto que no se movió al primer alarido del Nene … estaba sobre los caracoles como si no oyera el nuevo grito ahogado del Nene … inclinada sobre los caracoles esbeltos como dedos, quizá como los dedos de Rema.


Like the romantic heroine she dreamed of being, Isabel has won Rema's undying gratitude, in the exact terms of her fantasy: “Rema pasándole la mano por el pelo, calmándola con un suave apretar de dedos y un murmullo contra su oído, un balbucear como de gratitud, de innominable aquiescencia” (165). Isabel's predisposition towards violence has finally manifested itself in order to protect Rema. Consequently, the snails are the only animal image that acquires positive connotations. Reflective of family unity, the snails' movement, which coincides with el Nene's demise, symbolizes the restoration of normalcy. This normalcy will enable Rema, whose fingers are compared with the snails, to bestow affection on Isabel once more.


At the end of “Bestiario,” the reader is left wondering about the mysterious tiger, whose attack on el Nene provided the story's climax. Every reader seems to formulate a personal theory about the tiger's meaning, which is not surprising, given its shadowy yet pervasive status throughout the text. It may allude to the bestial, primitive urges that impel el Nene's perverse behavior. On the other hand, like Isabel, it is a strange presence at Los Horneros, and thus may reflect how Isabel eventually stalks el Nene. Among its multiple connotations, the tiger clearly illustrates Cortázar's notion of an “otherness” or “other side” that defies logical explanation. This concept is evident throughout Bestiario and in Cortázar's early fiction in general. One has only to think of the strange force that expels the siblings from their home in “Casa tomada” or the watery existence of the axolotl to recall Cortázar's preoccupation with other “realities.” We have seen with the tiger, as with the other animals that it is not possible or even productive to attempt to identify one role or one meaning for each animal, since each typically communicates several different messages. With regard to “Carta a una señorita en París,” Alazraki once more underscores the necessity of recognizing and appreciating Cortázar's symbolic suppleness when he comments: “En un cuento que está construido sobre las tensiones y silencios de una metáfora, [r]establecer el plano de la literalidad hubiera equivalido a destruir esa magia que relampaguea a lo largo de todo el cuento” (77). The same is true of “Bestiario”; since the animals' symbolic connection to the “real” world is not fixed, the reader must reassess their significance continuously. Thus, this technique coaxes the reader to survey, contemplate, or question reality repeatedly. What we “know” is never stable. This is how Cortázar conjures up his fictional magic—by suggesting a realm of possibilities that point to a different reality, but then allowing the reader to envision that realm personally and individually.


  1. Most criticism of “Bestiario” dates from the 1970's and, while covering many of the early trends in Cortázar criticism, the studies nevertheless fail to appreciate the story in its entirety by focusing primarily on one issue. Among the ideas discussed are the debate between “fantastic” and “surreal” interpretations, the use of doublings or the presence of an “other,” archetypal or mythical readings, and studies of narrative technique. While the presentation of a complete bibliography is not feasible, some of the more noteworthy studies are listed under Works Consulted.

  2. Consult the aforementioned studies by Mac Adam, Matas, and Reedy. Also of interest are the following: Aronne-Amestoy, Lida. Utopía, paraíso e historia, 107-41; Kerr, Lucille. The Beast and the Double: A Study of the Short Stories of Julio Cortázar. 58-63; and Wood, Don E. “Surrealistic Transformation of Reality in Cortázar's Bestiario.” 239-42.

  3. Deservedly, there has been a great deal of speculation as to the tiger's significance. As is frequently the case with Cortázar's symbols, critics have suggested a wide variety of interpretations. For example, Julio Matas claims that the tiger es “la presencia amenazante del mal … [cuyo] alter ego es el Nene” (596). On the other hand, Alazraki warns against just such simplification: “Si el tigre es apenas una máscara o el desdoblamiento del Nene, el relato se convierte en una fácil adivinanza y deja de ser ese complejo juego de vacilaciones y claroscuros que de manera ejemplar da cuenta el texto” (En busca del unicornio, 173). Still another reader, Antonio Planells, firmly ties the tiger to Isabel: “El símbolo que representa ese estado de Isabel es el del tigre, esa fiera que todos llevamos dentro, la libido freudiana” (85). Many, such as Bockus Aponte see the tiger in more general terms as a concretization of the irrational human psyche (16). Regardless of the tiger's symbolic interpretation, the only study which focuses primarily on the tiger as a structural device is Albert de la Fuente's “Tigres y estilos en Bestiario,” an article which is difficult to follow at times. The tiger's significance as a structural element, whose presence helps to shape the text, cannot be underestimated and thus deserves the attention it receives here.

  4. Julio Cortázar, “Bestiario,” Bestiario (1951; Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1986) 139. All subsequent quotations refer to this edition and will be denoted by page numbers in the text.

  5. This issue is studied thoroughly by Daniel Reedy in “Through the Looking Glass: Aspects of Cortázar's Epiphanies of Reality.”

  6. Although there has been a fair amount of discussion about Isabel's feelings for Rema, including allegations of lesbianism, Isabel's desire to prostrate herself and to die for Rema in order to win her pity are prototypically romantic notions and perhaps not so unusual for a sexually immature child. It is likely that Isabel has transferred the love and loyalty for a mother-figure to Rema.

P. Eric Henager (essay date spring 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6805

SOURCE: Henager, P. Eric. “Physical Competition and Identity in ‘Día Domingo’ and ‘Final del Juego’.” Aethlon 17, no. 2 (spring 2000): 77-91.

[In the following essay, Henager elucidates the role of sport and physical competition and its connection to the development of identity in Mario Vargas Llosa's “Día domingo” and Cortázar's “Final del juego.”]

An incident like the murder of Colombian soccer player Andrés Escobar after he had scored an autogol for the U.S. team in the 1994 World Cup reminds us that modern sports differ significantly from “play,” defined by Allen Guttmann as “nonutilitarian physical or intellectual activity pursued for its own sake” (From Ritual 3). Sport is an activity that seems innocent and straightforward on the surface but that often surprises us with its capacity for laying bare serious human problems, fears, and desires. In this paper I analyze the role of sport and physical competition in the development and potential resolution of juvenile identity crises as represented in two short narratives, Mario Vargas Llosa's “Día domingo” (1959) and Julio Cortázar's “Final del juego” (1964).

The scarcity of Spanish American stories in which sport is a primary thematic element might suggest that writers of the region for the most part accept the notion that sports, detached from real life and its more profound problems, do not deserve the attention of serious literature. There are, of course, exceptions, particularly among writers of the Post-Boom or the novísima narrativa who are more inclined than writers of most earlier generations to incorporate in their fiction phenomena of popular culture, among them, sports.1 If one were to scan anthologies, course syllabi, and Ph.D. reading lists in Spanish American literature, however, s/he would find precious few references to sport. Maybe sport and physical competitions are underdeveloped as literary topics (in Spanish America and elsewhere) because as children too many writers fell, like Umberto Eco, into:

… that category of infants or adolescents who, the moment they kick the ball—assuming that they manage to kick it—promptly send it into their own goal or, at best, pass it to the opponent, unless with stubborn tenacity they send it off the field, beyond hedges and fences, to become lost in a basement or a stream or to plunge among the flavors of the ice-cream cart.


Broad stereotypes aside, we might simply state that among those scholars and writers who think about sports at all there is a considerable amount of bias against considering sport a meaningful activity. Others go even further, seeing sport as not merely an activity that lacks meaning but as a substitute for meaningful activity. Sociologist Ellis Cashmore summarizes sport as represented in the work of Paul Hoch and other Marxist thinkers as a pursuit that “siphons off potential that might otherwise be put to political use in challenging the capitalist system” (85). Since the texts I analyze below are both short stories, I should note that some writers, many of them also from a Marxist approach, have critiqued short narratives in terms similar to those used to develop Marxist critiques of sport. As late as 1970, for example, Edward Hyams was still maintaining that short story writing was “like painting conventional water colors: it calls for as much skill as ever and it can convey considerable pleasure, but it has nothing to do with the age we live in and cannot say much about our predicament” (91).

Taking into account, therefore, that one body of scholarly work suggests that sport “siphons off potential” and another maintains that the short story is a frivolous form that “has nothing to do with the age we live in,” it is necessary that I develop at least a brief justification for spilling so much ink analyzing sport and physical competition in two short stories. Two primary observations form such justification and provide a point of departure for my study. First, sport functions in both stories as an important developmental tool that allows the young protagonists to arrive at crucial understandings of their positions in specific groups. In both stories, a result of physical competition is the destruction of one self-image within a group and the construction of another and, furthermore, both texts imply that this early adjustment of self-image will have lasting repercussions for how the characters will understand their social roles in later adolescence and as adults. As for the short story form, brevity itself is an important structural factor in the reading I will suggest. In the same way that each pitch of a baseball game or each shot of a soccer match is intensified by both its proximity and its potential cause-effect relationship with the final outcome, in many short stories similar in structure to the two I consider in this study, each detail is intensified by its proximity and potential cause-effect relationship with the ending. On the short story, May writes, “there is no way to deny that the shortness of the form seems inevitably to require some sense of intensity or intensification of structure and emphasis on the end—a requirement that is absent in the novel” (116). Norman Friedman maintains that “a story binds us more closely to the sentence than a novel and less closely to the word than a poem. Since the end is pushed closer to the beginning, each sentence carries a special urgency and calls for a higher level of attention” (27).

The measured time and space of the sporting event (nine innings, four quarters, ten rounds) also suggest a link with the short story, reminding us of the length parameters that have been debated ever since Edgar Allen Poe's famous definition of the short story as a tale in which the artist has “deliberately conceived a certain single effect to be wrought” (123). The debate has continued in the Latin American context through, among others, Horacio Quiroga's mathematical limit of “3.500 palabras, equivalentes a doce o quince páginas de formato común” (“3,500 words, or twelve to fifteen traditionally formatted pages”2; “La crisis” 94) and Julio Cortázar's insistence on the importance of a story's brevity in producing the intensity that resides, he states, “en la eliminación de todas las ideas o situaciones intermedias, de todos los rellenos o fases de transición que la novela permite e incluso exige” (“in the elimination of all intervening ideas or situations, of all fillers or transitional stages that the novel permits or even demands”; “Algunos aspectos” 10).3 Indeed, when Quiroga and Cortázar wrote in metaphor about the effects particular to the well-written short story, the images they chose were almost invariably from the world of sport. Quiroga, for example, saw the well-crafted short story as “una flecha que, cuidadosamente apuntada, parte del arco para ir a dar directamente en el blanco. Cuantas mariposas trataran de posarse sobre ella para adornar su vuelo, no conseguirán sino entorpecerlo” (“an arrow which, carefully aimed, leaves the bow and goes directly to the target. Any butterflies that might try to light on it to decorate its flight, will only throw it off course”; “Ante el tribunal” 137). Cortázar's oft-cited metaphor borrowed, he tells us, from a friend, is that “la novela gana por puntos, mientras que el cuento debe ganar por knockout(the novel wins by points, while the story must win by knockout”; “Algunos aspectos” 6). There seems to me, therefore, a set of significant links, as I will detail below, between an event of physical competition and the short story and, more specifically, between the posture taken up by the reader of the two texts I analyze here and that of a spectator at a sporting event.

To begin my analysis of the texts themselves, I go back to the importance of ending, where in these two stories, characters and readers can finally attempt to identify winners and losers. At the end of Vargas Llosa's “Día domingo,” Miguel has defeated his rival, Rubén, in a swimming race and can thus look forward to “un porvenir dorado” (“a golden future”; 83). The most tangible product, then, of the swimming race that makes up the second half of the story is Miguel's profound self-confidence that he “había vencido esa prueba histórica” (“had conquered that historic test”; 83). The weight of this self-confidence after victory and its meaning for the reader/spectator depends heavily on what we know about the competitor from earlier in the story, specifically on Miguel's confusion, fear, and lack of control represented at the beginning. Well before Miguel can engage his rival in athletic competition, we see, as the story opens, his private side. As he walks along with Flora, he struggles to find the courage to declare his love to her: “Aterrado. Sintió que la confusión ascendía por él y petrificaba su lengua” (“Terrified. He felt the confusion flow up through his body and petrify his tongue”; 62). When he does manage to speak it is only with painful self-consciousness: “la piel cedía como jebe y las uñas alcanzaban el hueso. Sin embargo, siguió hablando, dificultosamente, con grandes, intervalos, venciendo el bochornoso tartamudeo …” (“his skin gave way like rubber and his fingernails dug to the bone. But he kept speaking, slowly, with long, pauses, all the time fighting off an embarrassing stutter”; 63). Finally, we learn that Miguel is so nervous about declaring his love to Flora that he has spent the night before crying, sharp contrast to the toughness he will put on when interacting with his group of friends, the pajarracos (“the Ugly Birds”), and when challenging Rubén for Flora's love. For Miguel's nervousness and confusion, victory in the swimming race, then, represents a dramatic remedy.

The chaos at the story's beginning is worth exploring further in order to better examine the steps Miguel takes toward fixing his sense of identity. As I will demonstrate more thoroughly further on, it is clear from the beginning that the boy's daring declaration of love is, in fact, as important—if not more important—in defining his relationship with Rubén and the other pajarracos as it is in defining his relationship with Flora. Similarly, the relationship with Rubén, based on rivalry for a girl then later on drinking and swimming contests, is much more significant in Miguel's process of forming self-confidence than is the relationship with Flora. This relationship between Miguel, Rubén, and Flora reminds us, of course, of René Girard's “triangular desire” in which “[t]he impulse toward the object is ultimately an impulse toward the media-tor” (10). For Girard, the subject's rival for the love object's affection mediates desire, given that the subject's desire is based on imitation of the rival who, by definition, desires the same object. Imitation of the rival is a crucial aspect of the story inasmuch as Miguel's victory in the swimming race allows him to take on as part of his identity that tag which so prominently figures in Rubén's: swimming champion. By beating his rival at the rival's own game, Miguel not only conquers Rubén, but also completes a perfect act of imitation, adopting as his own an important piece of the rival's identity. The subject's hatred or jealousy for the rival is in reality based on subconscious admiration, all of which, for Girard, produces profound tension for the subject (10-14). It is perhaps not too risky, in fact, to attribute some measure of Miguel's confusion on the story's first pages to just this sort of contradictory feeling for Rubén given that his rival is from the start bound up in Miguel's declaration of love for Flora. As he tries to work up courage to tell Flora he loves her, for instance, the young protagonist thinks, “Al llegar a la avenida Pardo. Me atreveré. ¡Ah, Rubén, si supieras cómo te odio!” (“When we get to Pardo Avenue. Then I'll do it. Oh, Rubén, if you only knew how much I hate you!”; 62). Moreover, this initial confusion related to Flora, an entity out of his control (something he can not conquer), is what makes necessary the athletic competition that will follow, an experience which Miguel hopes will bring about a victory that he can not achieve directly with Flora. The opening episode with Flora can be read as an indirect confrontation with Rubén which prepares Miguel for the more direct encounter that will occur later. The two episodes even follow similar sequences, inasmuch as nervous hesitation followed by a daring, hate-motivated decision to leap forward is precisely the same pattern as occurs later in the story when Miguel accepts Rubén's challenge to a swimming race:

¿Qué te has creído?—balbuceó Miguel—. Maldita sea, ¿qué te has creído?

Pajarracos—dijo Rubén, abriendo los brazos—, estoy haciendo un desafío.

Miguel no está en forma ahora—dijo el Escolar—. ¿Por qué no se juegan a Flora a cara o sello?

Y tú por qué te metes—dijo Miguel—. Acepto. Vamos a la playa.


“Who do you think you are?,” stammered Miguel. “God damn it, who do you think you are?”

Pajarracos,” said Rubén stretching out his arms, “I am making a challenge.”

“Miguel's in no shape for that,” said el Escolar. “Why don't you two just flip a coin to decide who gets Flora?”

“Why do you have to butt in?” said Miguel. “I accept. Let's go to the beach.”

Defeating Rubén in athletic competition, therefore, is the key element in the transition represented in the story from Miguel's weakness and hesitancy at the beginning to his arrogance at the end. Flora is apparently the very crux of the matter in the story's introduction but then moves quickly to the margins, a mere mediator in the boys' dynamic with each other.

These two areas of contrast, confusion and nerves at the beginning and arrogant self- confidence at the end, are key in the story's development of the notion of the private male who contends timidly with his own emotions versus the public male who moves confidently among male peers and challenges them to contests of strength or endurance in lieu of facing his own insecurities. Michael Messner makes reference to sports sociologists like Ray Raphael who maintain that:

modern societies lack the masculine initiation rituals which so often characterize tribal societies. As a result, […] today's men are confused about what it means to be a man, and they find in athletics an inadequate but nevertheless extremely salient, substitute for such initiation rituals.


It would be easy enough to read Miguel's crisis and corresponding need for competition as a natural, almost physiological response to Flora's frustrating coyness:

Esta tarde no puedo—dijo ella, dulcemente—. Me ha invitado a su casa Martha.

Una correntada cálida, violenta, lo invadió y se sintió herido, atontado, ante esa respuesta que esperaba y que ahora le parecía una crueldad.


“I can't this afternoon,” she said sweetly. “Martha has invited me over to her house.”

A hot, violent current invaded him and he felt hurt, bewildered by the answer he had expected but that now seemed a horrible cruelty.

After all, his confusion begins to be dispelled as soon as Miguel joins his male friends, the pajarracos, in the bar where he “[r]ecuperó el aplomo de inmediato: frente a los hombres sí sabía comportarse” (“immediately recovered his poise: he knew how to act around men”; 66). Miguel's nerves are eased and his confidence built in this group that enforces a strict and clear code:

Entre los pajarracos no hay secretos.


Between pajarracos there are no secrets.

Los pajarracos no pelean nunca.


Pajarracos never fight.

Cuando un pajarraco hace un desafío, todos se meten la lengua al bolsillo.


When a pajarraco makes a challenge, all the others keep their mouths shut.

Applicable then to Vargas Llosa's story is the observation that Jacque Joset makes in his study of games in Cortázar: “El final del juego se inscribe, pues, desde el principio—incluso desde antes del principio—en las reglas que, se supone, conocen los jugadores” (“The end of the game is already registered from the beginning—even before the beginning—in the rules that all the players supposedly know”; 7). The solution to the chaotic lack of control Miguel feels as the story opens begins when he arrives at the bar with his close male friends and culminates in the athletic competition. In both contexts, strict rules apparently make everything, including winning and losing, clear and restore Miguel's sense of balance and self-worth. Messner and other feminist and pro-feminist writers on sport might tend to critique the story's implication that the young boy's introduction to the adult male world implies strict separation from females and ritual feats of strength and endurance like those that sports provide. For Messner, “sport is not an expression of some biological human need; it is a social institution” (8). With its given and unquestionable rules, sport can provide a zone of comfort in which the athlete escapes direct confrontation with interpersonal issues. One notes, for instance, how Miguel and Rubén decide the issue of Flora. Rubén says, “Te apuesto a ver quién llega primero a la reventazón […] Si ganas […], te prometo que no le caigo a Flora. Y si yo gano tú te vas con la música a otra parte” (“I'll bet you on who gets to the breakwater first […] If you win […], I promise that I won't ask Flora out. And if I win, you'll go sing your song somewhere else”; 72). When Miguel wins the race, therefore, the question of Flora for both boys is definitively settled and Miguel is confident of the aforementioned “porvenir dorado” (“golden future”). The final resolution of the problem is, nevertheless, a false one. Miguel's confidence and supposed bright future with Flora—“Flora lo estaría esperando con los ojos brillantes” (“Flora would be waiting for him with her sparkling eyes”; 83)—are based on his conquest over Rubén. The story gives us no indication at all that Flora will actually accept the boys' arrangement and happily pair off with Miguel. The part of Miguel's identity crisis related to interaction with girls has thus been artificially resolved through sports but, returning for a moment to Girard, the sporting competition becomes truly significant for Miguel's sense of identity primarily as it takes shape amidst other young males.

As has already been discussed, Flora nearly disappears as an issue in the story even before the competitions in the bar and the swimming race cement Rubén solidly as the point of the triangle of desire on which Miguel's attention and obsession is focussed. I would argue, then, that there are two competitive moments represented in “Día domingo,” the first constituting a mere prelude to the second. In the first, the opening scene in which Flora is physically present, Miguel competes against his own nerves, Flora's evasiveness, and Rubén as a rival for Flora's love. Miguel ultimately loses on all three fronts due in large part to the unfair advantage Rubén gains through his sister Martha. Martha has invited Flora to her house where Miguel knows she will leave Flora alone with Rubén, leading Miguel to think, “Era posible competir con un simple adversario, no con Rubén. Recordó los nombres de las muchachas invitadas por Martha, una tarde de domingo. Ya no podía hacer nada, estaba derrotado” (“It was possible to compete with a regular adversary, but not with Rubén. He remembered the names of all the other girls invited over by Martha on Sunday afternoons. Now there was nothing he could do. He was beaten”; 65). On the fourth page of twenty-two, this phrase, with the words “competir” (“to compete”), “adversario” (“adversary”), and “derrotado” (“beaten”), simultaneously signals a false ending of the story (the end of the first competition) and prepares the way for the other competition both by prompting the reader to assign Miguel the underdog role, thus heightening the tension of his conflict with Rubén, and also by using figurative sport language that we will see used more literally when applied to the swimming race.

The relationship between this false ending and its inversion in the story's real ending is structurally significant because, as I have argued, the false ending divides the story into two parts: 1) Miguel's interaction with Flora, the competition he loses and 2) Miguel's interaction with Rubén and the pajarracos, the stage he eventually wins. Immediately after losing in the story's first phase, Miguel consoles himself daydreaming about receiving an honor in front of a large audience:

Vestido de paño azul, una amplia capa flotando a sus espaldas, Miguel desfilaba delante, mirando el horizonte. Levantada la espada, su cabeza describía media esfera en el aire: allí, en el corazón de la tribuna estaba Flora, sonriendo. En una esquina, haraposo, avergonzado, descubría a Rubén: se limitaba a echarle una brevísima ojeada despectiva. Seguía marchando, desaparecía entre vítores.


In dress blues, a wide cape floating from his shoulders, Miguel marched forward, fixated on the horizon. He turned his head toward one side: there, in the middle of the reviewing stand, was Flora, smiling. Back in a corner, in rags, with an embarrassed look, was Rubén: Miguel paused only long enough to give him a quick contemptuous glance, then marched on, disappearing among the cheers.

This passage is also directly linked to the end of the story where winning the race apparently makes real this dream image that, as the narrator tells us, always saves Miguel when he suffers a defeat or a frustration (65). To use the common sport term, then, Miguel begins his comeback immediately following defeat, first by imagining himself a triumphant hero, then by seeking motivation to become one. The passage that follows the one above is rich with language that demonstrates how consequential the competition to follow will be for correcting Miguel's damaged sense of self and for establishing a new identity. The heroic image of victory first disappears “como el vaho de un espejo que se frota” (“like vapor wiped from a mirror”; 65). Miguel must wipe away the vapor of the fantasy image in order to see himself clearly and understand his current situation, but before looking directly into the mirror he cowers in bed and sees another mental image in which “los ojos de Rubén se torcían para mirarlo burlonamente mientras su boca avanzaba hacia Flora.” (“Rubén's eyes turned to taunt him as his mouth moved toward Flora.”) Miguel then leaps out of bed and, significantly, confronts himself before going to challenge Rubén: “El espejo del armario le mostró un rostro ojeroso, lívido. «No la verá, decidió. No me hará esto, no permitiré que haga esta perrada.»” (“The closet mirror showed him an angered face with dark circles under the eyes. ‘He will not see her,’ he decided. ‘He can't do this to me. I won't let him get away with his dirty trick”; 66). In this passage, all three figures of the Girardian triangle mentioned above appear in rapid succession. First Rubén and Flora in the unbearable kiss, then Miguel.

All of this is followed, of course, by Miguel's Girardian move toward the rival and the corresponding marginalization of Flora. The nature of this particular athletic competition allows, however, a bond between rivals that takes us beyond the terms of Girard's discussion and into a realm in which we might be better informed by Eve Kosofky Sedgwick's work on desire between men in British literature. I am not proposing that we must necessarily read latent homosexuality into Miguel and Rubén's race, only that the outward physical signs associated with athletic competition are, especially in this case, ambiguous enough that we should consider a wide gamut of the race narration's suggestive possibilities before stating any conclusions on sports as a tool in Miguel's identity search. For more reasons than one it is noteworthy that the boys race in the nude. First, their nudity is an important component in developing the sexual undertones of a sport that is already somewhat charged with eroticism.4 We note, for example, that in the passage which describes the boys as they have just disrobed for the race, the subject of the verb, “descendieron” (“they went down”), is ambiguous since grammatically its subject could be the boys or the veins on Miguel's stomach: “Cuando estuvieron desnudos. Tobías bromeó acerca de las venas azules que escalaban el vientre liso de Miguel. Descendieron.” (“When they were naked. Tobías joked about the blue veins going up Miguel's smooth torso. They went down”; 76). Juxtaposed with the verb “escalaban” (“they went up”), whose subject islas venas” (“the veins”) and dangling for just a second before the reference to stairs in the following sentence makes it more probable that the boys are to be understood as its subject, the verb “descendieron” invites the reader to focus downward along the veins to the area just below Miguel's stomach. Written as a one-word sentence between two grammatically and logically feasible subjects, therefore, “descendieron” contains the potential for bringing the reader's attention momentarily to Miguel's genitals without ever mentioning them by name. The two boys are, thus, confronting each other with their athletic bodies in an episode that also makes very much present their sexual bodies.

The suggestiveness of the episode continues on the viscous wood of the stairs “lamida incesantemente por el agua desde hacía meses, […] resbaladiza y muy suave” (“incessantly licked by the water for months, […] slippery and very soft”) where Miguel feels a nearly orgasmic “estremecimiento que subía desde la planta de sus pies al cerebro” (“shuddering that traveled from the soles of his feet to his brain”); (76). Furthermore, the space in which the competition is carried out is private, as fog and darkness separate the two competitors from the pajarracos on the beach. While plainly contributing to the sexual overtones as well, the isolation of the space also functions to permit the boys to develop their own rules that are independent from those of the social group. Miguel's winning and Rubén's losing are, in fact, not so much determined by the standards of the game agreed upon by the group but rather by some innovative adjustments that the boys make after Rubén suffers cramps and Miguel saves him from drowning. That is, Rubén has arrived first to the breakwater but Miguel hears Rubén's screams and pulls him to safety all the time caressing the knot in his stomach (another somewhat suggestive form of contact the boys might not permit themselves under normal circumstances). Independent of the group that would likely enforce a stricter interpretation of the rules, Rubén agrees to concede victory to Miguel and Miguel agrees not to tell the group that Rubén screamed helplessly. This agreement is for my analysis of sports and identity a significant feature of the story since it brings us once again to the notion of the bond with the rival and the importance of the rival in the subject's emerging sense both of victory and of self. In his famous study on game theory, Anatol Rapaport writes,

It seems that in a fight, the opponent is mainly a nuisance. He should not be there, but somehow he is. He must be eliminated, made to disappear, or cut down in size or importance. The object of a fight is to harm, destroy, subdue, or drive away the opponent.

Not so in a game. In a game, the opponent is essential. […] In a way, therefore, the opponents in the game co-operate.


Janet Lever in Soccer Madness takes Rapaport's notion one step further when she writes that “[u]nlike rivals in the real world, who have opposing political, economic, or social aims, sport competitors must be protected, not persuaded or eliminated. In fact, a strong opponent is more valued than a weak one” (4). Lever's statement is instructive for my reading of “Día domingo” inasmuch as, although I am not prepared to argue that Miguel saves Rubén solely because he is a sports rival, it does seem significant that the eventual outcome of the race for Miguel, his “futuro dorado” depends in large measure on Rubén's survival. Victory means little in the absence of the vanquished. In other words, if Rubén drowns, Miguel is not so much the winner of a struggle and consequently “un hombre verdadero” (“a real man”) as he is simply a survivor of a stupid dare. When Miguel preserves his rival at the end of the story, he demonstrates Rapaport's concept of competitive cooperation but, even more importantly, he preserves his victory and thus preserves his new sense of self. It seems unlikely that he would have been able to preserve either in a more institutionalized sport setting where the presence of spectators would have constituted a difficult obstacle against the special type of bond between rivals suggested by the narrative.

Although I will develop much more briefly my commentary on identity in “Final del juego,” Cortázar's story both serves to confirm a number of the observations I have made about “Día domingo” and also provides some notable points of contrast that merit consideration. It might be argued that the girls' game in which they perform “estatuas y actitudes” (“statues and poses”) for the passengers of passing trains, is not a sport at all. I would argue, however, that the physical challenge of the game, especially for Leticia, makes it decidedly athletic and that the formalized rules make it more similar to the institutionalized games we unproblematically call sport than to informal play. In “Final del juego” we once again find a group of youngsters for whom a competition functions to address difficult issues of identity. Like the swimming race, the girls' game takes place in a space characterized by 1) its separation from spaces associated with everyday life and 2) its special set of rules that dictates behaviors. Compare, for example, the following passages that describe entrance into the respective spaces of competition in the two stories:

Abríamos despacio la puerta blanca, y al cerrarla otra vez era como un viento, una libertad que nos tomaba de las manos, de todo el cuerpo y nos lanzaba hacia adelante. Entonces corríamos buscando impulso para trepar de un envión al breve talud del ferrocarril, y encaramadas sobre el mundo contemplábamos silenciosas nuestro reino.

(“Final del juego” 170)

We slowly opened the white door, and upon closing it once again we felt something like a wind, a freedom that took us by the hand, that grabbed our entire bodies and threw us forward. Then we ran, getting enough of a head start to leap up on top of the railroad slope. From there, elevated above the world, we silently contemplated our kingdom.

Corrían contra el viento y la delgada bruma que subía desde la playa, sumidos en un emocionante torbellino; por sus oídos, su boca y sus narices penetraba el aire a sus pulmones y una sensación de alivio y desintoxicación se expandía por su cuerpo a medida que el declive se acentuaba y en un momento sus pies no obedecían ya sino a una fuerza misteriosa que provenía de lo más profundo de la tierra.

(“Día domingo” 74)

They ran against the wind and the thin mist than rose from the beach, engulfed in a frenetic whirlwind; through their ears, their mouths, and their noses the air penetrated their lungs and a feeling of ease and cleansing spread through their bodies as the slope became steeper and at a certain point their feet obeyed nothing more than a mysterious force that sprung from deep in the ground.

Clearly both competitions develop in spaces that are marked by an air of magic, alternative spaces that provide an environment for confronting identity issues difficult to face in other places. Furthermore, each space is physically separated from everyday life, in “Final del juego” by the white door, and in “Día domingo” by the stairs and the slope to the beach. Each group confronts its crisis in a space different from that in which the real problems reside, the girls by closing the white door and the boys by making what we could easily read as an archetypal descent to the ocean.

Not only the competitions' spaces but also their rules work to allow types of interaction that would be difficult in other contexts. In “Día domingo”, as discussed previously, the special rules of the swimming race allow contact, both physical and emotional, that would be problematic elsewhere. The difficult and chaotic conditions under which the boys race also work in Miguel's favor by neutralizing the apparent athletic advantage Rubén would enjoy in a more controlled institutionalized sporting environment. The same sort of equalizing effect exists in the game the girls' play. Leticia, who suffers an unnamed condition that severely restricts her movements is as capable as the other girls of performing the statues and attitudes: “Leticia era muy buena como estatua, pobre criatura. La parálisis no se notaba estando quieta, y ella era capaz de gestos de una enorme nobleza” (“Leticia was a very good statue, poor thing. Her paralysis wasn't noticeable when she stood still, and she was capable of exceedingly noble gestures”) and at another moment: “Leticia estuvo magnífica, no se le movía ni un dedo cuando llegó el tren. Como no podía girar la cabeza la echaba para atrás, juntando los brazos al cuerpo casi como si le faltaran” (“Leticia was magnificent. She didn't move even one finger when the train passed. Since she couldn't turn her head, she threw it back, holding her arms so tight to herself that they were almost invisible”; 174).

The literal game, then, is an alternative version of the other game played among the members of the family: “en una casa donde hay alguien con algún defecto físico y mucho orgullo, todos juegan a ignorarlo empezando por el enfermo” (“in a house where someone has a physical disability and a lot of pride, everyone pretends not to recognize the defect, especially the one who is disabled”; 176). In the house, everyone pretends Leticia is not differently abled but secretly recognizes that she is; within the rules of the game played by the train tracks, she has no less ability than the others. The game, therefore, is a space and a moment in which Leticia's identity is unmarked. The girls, ironically, play the game in order not to have to play the game of ignoring Leticia's difference. Like the race in “Día domingo,” then, the game is, to a certain extent, a substitution for a potentially more painful but perhaps more durable confrontation with real interpersonal issues, in this case, the problems related to Leticia's marked identity as the disabled member of the family. As the story's title suggests, however, the game can not go on forever. When Ariel, a passenger on the train, starts to critique the statues and attitudes on pieces of paper he drops as the train passes, he introduces competition into the game and, simultaneously, takes the first toward ending the game altogether. Leticia's paralysis is, of course, only negated through the game when the spectators pass by too quickly to see her in motion. Later, when Ariel drops a note to tell the girls that he intends to get off the train to meet them, all three girls immediately understand that the game is over.

At least for the fictional worlds represented in these two stories, the Marxist sport sociologists are only partially correct. Sport does sometimes occur in place of another activity that might be rationally more meaningful or practical. If, for example, Miguel's problem is timidity with girls, he would do better to seek genuine interaction with girls rather than challenging the young boys who are his rivals for their attention. Similarly, Leticia, Holanda and the narrator of “Final del juego” might better confront their discomforts in the context where they suffer them rather than inventing a make-believe world for playing a game that seeks to erase the discomforts. The stories show us, however, that sport even as substitute for one form of meaningful activity itself contains meaning with serious implications for its participants. As Miguel saves Rubén the two call each other “hermanito” (“brother”; 81) and Rubén reminds Miguel, “hemos sido siempre amigos” (“we have always been friends”; 83). In Cortázar's story, on the last day of the game, Holanda and the narrator admire Leticia's last statue as “la estatua más regia que había hecho nunca” (“the most wonderful statue she had ever performed”; 182) and later compassionately help her pick up her props. The nature of sport is that multiple competitors struggle for an objective that only one can obtain, but since a winner is nothing without a loser and vice-versa, the sport activity creates a group in which each subject's identity depends heavily on that identity assigned to the other. Whatever resentments or hatred there may be between competitors, therefore, there is always also an undeniable and inescapable bond. This is the bond that in “Final del juego” is broken when Ariel breaks the rules for spectators and that in “Día domingo” is strengthened when Rubén and Miguel arrange their deal. As much as we may question the real value of the race for Miguel's relationship with Flora, the athletic bond with Rubén changes completely Miguel's feeling of self. In an optimistic reading of “Final del juego,” the girls' abandonment of the game played by the tracks signals that they will now be able to abandon the other game of pretending to ignore Leticia's infirmity. That sort of speculation notwithstanding, it is clear at the story's end that Leticia's competitive relationship with her two rivals for Ariel's admiration has forced her to take an enormous step toward situating her physical difference among the other components of her identity. Thus, heavily marked in both stories as occupying a space and time cut off from daily life, sport ironically acts as a vehicle for radical change in the respective protagonists' emerging sense of self.


  1. Antonio Skármeta, Osvaldo Soriano, and Manuel Puig are among the best examples. In Skármeta's Desnudo en el tejado (1969), Soñé que la nieve ardía (1984), and Match Ball (1989), Soriano's Cuentos de los años felices (1993), and Puig's Sangre de amor correspondido (1982) sport is a primary thematic element.

  2. For further examples, see May 120.

  3. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.

  4. I refer the reader to Guttman's discussion of a “literary as well as psychoanalytic precedence for this aquatic eroticism” and to his examples drawn from, among others, Walt Whitman, Kate Chopin, and D. H. Lawrence (Erotic 106).

Works Cited

Cashmore, Ellis. Making Sense of Sports. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1996.

Cortázar, Julio. “Algunos aspectos del cuento.” Casa de las Américas. 15 (1962): 3-14.

———. “Final del juego.” Final del juego. 1964. Madrid: Alfaguara, 1982. 169-182.

Eco, Umberto. “The World Cup and Its Pomps.” Travels in Hyperreality. Trans. William Weaver. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986. 167-172.

Friedman, Norman. “Recent Short Story Theories.” Short Story Theory at a Crossroads. Eds. Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.

Girard, René. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins P, 1965.

Guttman, Allen. The Erotic in Sports. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.

———. From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports. New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Hyams, Edward. “England.” The Kenyon Review 32 (1970): 89-95.

Joset, Jacques. “Finales de ‘Final del juego.’” Coloquio internacional: Lolúdico y los fantástico en la obra de Cortázar. Centre de recherches Latino-americaines, Université de Poitiers. Madrid: Fundamentos, 1985, 7-19.

Lever, Janet. Soccer Madness. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

May, Charles E. The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Messner, Michael A. Power at Play: Sports and the Problem of Masculinity. Boston: Beacon P, 1992.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Selections from Poe's Literary Criticism. Ed. John Brooks Moore. New York: F.S. Crofts, 1926. 111-125.

Puig, Manuel. Sangre de amor correspondido. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1982.

Quiroga, Horacio. “Ante el tribunal.” Sobre literatura: Obras completas de Horacio Quiroga. Ed. Roberto Ibáñez. Montevideo: Arca, 1970. 135-138.

———. “La crisis del cuento nacional.” Sobre literatura: Obras completas de Horacio Quiroga. Ed. Roberto Ibáñez. Montevideo: Arca, 1970. 92-96.

Raphael, Ray. The Men from the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Skármeta, Antonio. Desnudo en el tejado. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1969.

———. Match Ball. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1989.

———. Soñé que la nieve ardía. Barcelona: Plaza & Janes, 1985.

Soriano, Osvaldo. Cuentos de los años felices. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1993.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. “Día domingo.” Los jefes. Los cachorros. Alianza: Madrid, 1991. 62-83.

David Musselwhite (essay date June 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6873

SOURCE: Musselwhite, David. “Death and the Phantasm: A Reading of Julio Cortázar's ‘Babas del Diablo’.” Romance Studies 18, no. 1 (June 2000): 57-68.

[In the following essay, Musselwhite considers the model of the phantasm in “Babas del Diablo” and other stories collected in Las armas secretas.]

‘Babas del diablo’ is probably Cortázar's best known short story, and in spite of the quite extraordinary amount of commentary dedicated to it,1 it still remains one of his most problematic,2 quite apart from the notoriety that accrued to it from being the text on which Antonioni based Blow-up. There are many things that are confusing: the hesitancy as to the person of the narrator, the grammatical permutations, the mixture of first and third person narration, the double time of the narrative—first the original scene at the parapet of the Quai de Bourbon and then the recurrence or repetition of the scene in the fifth floor apartment of the writer/photographer Roberto-Michel—the rotation of the subject positions taken up by the boy, the blond woman, the man in the grey hat and Roberto-Michel himself—and finally the ‘dead’ (and alive?) status of the narrator at the end of the story. It is true that many of these structural and narrative effects or devices are to be found in many of Cortázar's other short stories—indeed there are times when his resort to them seems almost formulaic—but they are to be found in ‘Babas del diablo’ in a peculiarly dense and complex form. A reading that succeeded in offering a more comprehensive and theoretically convincing account of the dynamics and complexities of ‘Babas del diablo’ might then go some way towards providing an interpretative model that would not only facilitate readings of other texts by Cortázar but might also provide some clue as to the obsessions and problematics that lie at the heart of his work as a whole.

The theoretical model on which I propose to base my reading is that of the theory of the ‘phantasm’ as first elaborated by Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis in their seminal article of 19643 and further developed by Gilles Deleuze, first in his Différence et Répétition and then more extensively, in Logique du sens.4

The model of the phantasm seems to me to be particularly suggestive and powerful5 but, as far as I am aware, and in spite of Burgin's 1986 book, it is not as well known as it deserves to be. In any case I have found it nowhere cited in the body of commentary dedicated to the work of Cortázar and so, because it is the primary aim of this paper to juxtapose the work of Cortázar and the phantasm, I hope I will be forgiven for first dedicating a perhaps disproportionate amount of space to a summary of the Laplanche and Pontalis essay.

Laplanche and Pontalis begin by distinguishing their account of the phantasm from all those which tended to regard it as something merely ‘imaginary’ as opposed to the ‘real’. The phantasm is not so much a ‘fantasy’ that one has, as a structure wherein one is placed; ‘… the phantasm,’ they say towards the end of their article, ‘is not the object of desire, it is a scene’ (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1964, 1868).6

Freud had explored the nature of the phantasm with his early interest in the so-called ‘scene of seduction’. Freud had found that many of his patients suffering from neurotic symptoms recounted under analysis that they had been subject to some form of sexual aggression at an early, infantile, period. The early experience had not of itself been traumatic and, indeed, had hardly been registered at the time: the traumatic response came later, at a post-pubertal moment, when, again often through an anodyne or indifferent experience, the memory of the earlier event was triggered by some associated trait and provoked a pathogenic response. In the event, it is well known, Freud had to abandon his ‘seduction theory’: on the one hand it proved impossible to discover any ‘real’ event behind the phantasm and, on the other, it was theoretically difficult to explain how an infant in its ‘innocence’ could have registered—even unconsciously—the first event, without somehow already ‘knowing’ what it was all about: i.e. you would need something like a ‘sexual-pre-sexual’ child.

The ‘seduction theory’, however, had been important for Freud. In the first place it explained the connection between sexuality, trauma and defence: it could explain why repression bore exclusively upon sexuality. Moreover, and just as importantly, the seduction theory seemed to account for the temporality of human sexuality situated between the ‘too early’ of birth and the ‘too late’ of puberty: the trauma of sexuality was occasioned by a ‘delay’. The advent of sexuality to the human being was not coincident with itself but the product of a deferral, of a resonance established between the original scene and the recollected memory.

In 1897 Freud abandoned this theory in favour, for a time, of the notion of an endogenous infantile sexuality for which the phantasms of seduction would be no more than disguises for infantile autoerotic activity. The discontinuities of the phantasm theory gave way to the continuities of biological realism. Ironically it was at just about the same time that Freud discovered also the ‘Oedipus complex’—which was to become the phantasm par excellence—in his own analysis: for a time ‘Oedipus’ and ‘infantile sexuality’ struggled to hold primacy of place in Freud's thinking—the latter for a long time predominating and risking the loss not only of the ‘Oedipus complex’ as the nuclear complex but also the abandonment of the phantasm as the specific object of psychoanalysis.

In fact Freud continued to explore the nature and structure of the phantasm. He was beginning to find that phantasms were not simply the materials offered for analysis but also, at times, the result of analysis itself—so that the phantasm was to be found at both the latent and the manifest levels of consciousness. Further, Freud found himself increasingly confronted by what he began to characterize as ‘typical’ phantasms—phantasms that recurred from patient to patient and which clearly revealed structural features transcendent to the experience of the individual. Among such phantasms figured what Freud would later characterize as the ‘primal scene’—the witnessing of parental intercourse—as well as phantasms of castration and the already familiar phantasm of seduction. Freud had, in any case, never desisted from attempting to locate and establish the ‘origins’ of these phantasms. For a time he was attracted by the notion of a phylogenetic heritage—these typical phantasms being inherited memories of real events in the distant past (but this only reproduced at a higher level the difficulties of locating a specific ‘real’ in the experience of the individual).

What makes the phylogenetic theory untenable, however, is that certain features of the recorded phantasms make it impossible to assimilate them into a purely transcendent scheme. Freud recalls the case of a paranoiac who believed she was being observed and photographed while in bed with her lover: she had heard a ‘small noise’, the click of the camera. Behind this scene Freud found the typical phantasm of the primal scene: the noise is the noise of the parents which wakes the child, and also the noise the child is afraid of making, which would betray her listening. In some ways the noise seems a purely chance occurrence but Freud goes on to say that it is hardly accidental for the noise constitutes a necessary part of the phantasm of ‘lying in wait’ (être aux écoutes) which is a typical feature of the ‘parental (i.e. Oedipal) complex’. The noise invoked in the present by the patient reproduces the very characteristic of the primal scene that allows the whole subsequent elaboration to take. ‘In other words the origin of the phantasm is integrated into the very structure of the phantasm itself’(p. 1853).

At this point Laplanche and Pontalis draw attention to the particular importance Freud gives to the role of hearing: for the noise that impinges on the phantasm may not just be brute sound, but also might be the ‘familial noise’ (bruit familial) which carries the histories or legends or traditions of parents, grandparents and, indeed, the whole tribe. The noise, then, is both interruptive and interpellative and it is a critical component of the phantasm. ‘Phantasms are produced by an unconscious combination of things lived and things heard’(p. 1854).

Moreover, what these typical phantasms refer to are origins: in the primal scene it is the origin of the individual that is figured; in the phantasm of seduction it is the origin of sexuality; in the phantasm of castration, it is the origin of the difference of sexes. What the phantasm is, above all, is the interface of biology and culture, of the purely physiological and the quintessentially human—the phantasm is the very mechanism by means of which the human itself is constituted:

What does the primal scene figure for us? The conjunction of the biological fact of conception (and of birth) and the symbolic fact of filiation, between the ‘naked act’ (acte sauvage) of coitus and the existence of the triad of mother-child-father.

(p. 1855)

The phantasm, then, is the site where desire is separated off from need, where sexuality distinguishes itself from hunger, where the cogitans separates itself from the res, where some measure of mental articulation takes the place of merely inchoate feeling. The least sophisticated account of how this ‘jump’ takes place is that which sees the phantasm as a merely imaginary and auto-erotic compensation for the loss of the real. What Laplanche and Pontalis are at pains to point out, however, is that the object of the auto-erotic phase in the evolution of human sexuality is not a real object, but a lost or virtual object—not the breast as supplier of food but the breast as the object of desire:

The ‘origin’ of auto-eroticism will be that moment when sexuality detaches itself from every natural object, sees itself handed over to the phantasm (se voit livrée au phantasme) and by virtue of that very fact constitutes itself as sexuality.

(p. 1866)

Laplanche and Pontalis immediately add however:

one could just as well say, on the contrary, that it is the eruption of the phantasm which provokes that disjunction of sexuality and need.

(p. 1866)

We have seen earlier how the phantasm is a combination of things lived (choses vécues) and things heard (choses entendues) and it is now necessary to understand a little more clearly exactly how the ‘heard’ impacts upon the ‘lived’, how the semiotic ‘rumeur’ registers on the somatic mass.

In the first place there can be little doubt that initially the rumeur—the chorus of legends, traditions, institutional inscriptions—that will later contribute to the formation of the phantasm are just as confused and indiscriminate as the brute noise of the body itself. Bit by bit, however, we can imagine their insistence and repetitiveness resolving themselves into increasingly significant clusters. It is at this point that one can begin to envisage the phantasm being born. What first attracts and beguiles the child are clusters of unstable, agrammatical, barely discernible, nonsensical (‘fort! da!’) frequencies and intensities. The ‘heard’ does not arrive in the shape of fully formed propositions and grammatically correct pronouncements. To the extent that the nebular clusters of the nascent phantasm make sense, they can only offer the unformed subject a sense of decentrement and dispersal. Not only will there be a decentering with respect to space, but so too with respect to time: without doubling and repetition the mere noise of the heard would be as meaningless as the noises emerging from the body. There can be no simple ‘now’ in the phantasm—the sense of sense can only be a secondary sense, an after-sense, a sense after the event (a ‘double take’: we can now see that the ‘delay’ or ‘after-effect’ of the ‘seduction theory’ was no more than this hiatus peculiar to the phantasm writ large). One can see that this orrery-like (an orrery without a centre) structure is made possible by the very lacks and displacements that constitute it: without these it would have no meaning. It is in this sense that the phantasm is not a response to loss—to the loss of either the real or the virtual object. Instead, it is the constitutive matrix of such losses—the lacunae, the gaps, the absences—that make desire and meaning possible.

At this point we can begin to look at the phantasm in relation to the subject or, rather, the position of the subject in relation to the phantasm. We began by remarking that the phantasm was not so much a ‘fantasy’ that one had as a structure in which one was placed. We have also noted in passing that the phantasm can be found both as a material to be analysed and as the product of analysis—that it can be found, that is, both at the unconscious level and the conscious level of daydream, both in the umbilical of the dream and spread out across the façade of the secondary revision. However, though the same elements might be found at both latent and manifest levels, the way in which those elements are structured differs greatly:

At the pole of the day dream, the scenario is centred essentially on the first person, the place of the subject marked and invariable. The organization is stabilized by the secondary process, anchored in the ‘ego’: the subject, one might say, lives his dream. The pole of the original phantasm, on the contrary, is characterized by an absence of subjectification which goes hand in hand with the presence of the subject in the scene: the child for example, is one of the many personae among many others …

(p. 1860)

In other words, at the conscious level, the phantasm will have all the coherence of a standard narrative (what Freud would call a ‘family romance’) centred on a subject with all positions stabilized in accordance with normal narrative practice. At the deeper level, however, those same elements will find themselves scrambled and the subject will not be found as an anchor to the scene but will itself be dispersed among the elements of the scene as a whole. Laplanche and Pontalis give an example:

‘A father seduces his daughter’, this might be for example the summary of a phantasm of seduction. The mark of the primary process is not here the absence of organisation, as is sometimes said, but the particular character of the structure: it is a scenario of multiple entries, in which nothing says that the subject will find itself in the first place in the term ‘daughter’; one might equally find it establishing itself in the father or even in seduces.

(p. 1861)

What we have to imagine is that the phantasm will first register at the level of the unconscious, and here it will be a chaotic, nebulous heap of all kinds of heterogenous materials without rhyme or reason: at this level subject and object, noun and verb, past and present, here and there are just tumbled on top of each other.7 As this raft of elements slowly rises up through the layers of the consciousness it will become increasingly organized, changing from a mere heterogeneity, through varying degrees of ambiguity (passive/active, sado-masochist, permutations for example), until, as it emerges into the light of full consciousness, it assumes clarity and unambiguity of expression. The series might go, for example, in the case of ‘Babas del diablo’, from ‘tú la mujer rubia eran las nubes que siguen corriendo delante de mis tus sus nuestros vuestros sus rostros’ (Cortázar, 1990: 123) to ‘el muchacho fue seducido por la mujer rubia y amenazado por el hombre del sombrero gris’. Unscrambled, ‘Babas del diablo’ reveals itself to be centred in its entirety on what Freud calls the ‘parental complex’—Oedipus.

Although I have not particularly biased my summary of Laplanche and Pontalis's article toward a reading of ‘Babas del diablo’ it must be becoming clear by now that Cortázar's short story presents us with an almost text-book example of a phantasmic structure and, when we see it as such, much of its complexity, if not perplexity, becomes clear.

First and foremost, there is the double narration—the repeating of the first incident that took place on the parapet, in the revised versions of it recounted a week later. The first scene, moreover, is clearly a scene of seduction—one of Freud's typical ‘fantasmes originaires’. But as it is retold with its varying of subject positions and nuances, we become aware that it is not only a scene of seduction but betrays features and details that reveal it to be also a version of the ‘primal scene’, and of the phantasm of castration.8 As far as the primal scene is concerned we have the classic instance of the interruptive noise—the ‘clic!’ of the camera betraying the ‘lying in wait’ (être aux écoutes—the ‘acechando’, ‘estar al acecho’ of the Spanish) of the primal scene—and in one of the permutations of the personae of the scene we have the classic Oedipal triangle:

El payaso [el hombre del sombrero gris] y la mujer se consultaban en silencio: hacíamos un perfecto triángulo insoportable [my italics], algo que tenía que romperse con un chasquido [‘chasquido’ here being the equivalent of the ‘clic’].

(Cortázar, 1990, 134)

There is, too, the moment when it is the woman who finds herself in the position of the victim—the primal scene often construed as an act of violence against the mother:

me pareció que la mujer, de espaldas al parapeto [in the position formerly occupied by the boy], paseaba las manos por la piedra, con el clásico gesto del acosado que busca la salida.

(p. 134)

As far as the phantasm of castration is concerned there is, first, the dreadful sense of impotence inflicted on the narrator:

De pronto el orden se invertía, ellos estaban vivos, moviéndose, decidían y eran decididos, iban a su futuro; y yo desde este lado, prisionero de otro tiempo, de una habitación en un quinto piso, de no saber quiénes eran esa mujer, y ese hombre y ese niño, de ser nada más que la lente de mi cámara, algo rígido, incapaz de intervención. Me tiraban a la cara la burla más horrible, la de decidir frente a mi impotencia …

(p. 138)

The threat is reinforced towards the end of the story when the man in the grey hat turns on the interfering narrator and seems, in fact, to obliterate him.

Once we understand the phantasmic nature of the episode(s) recounted in the story many of the incidental details make more sense. There is, for example, the irritation and impatience with the notion of ‘ahora’ (‘qué palabra, ahora, qué estúpida mentira’) (p. 127). We have seen earlier how there can be no ‘ahora’ in the phantasm: the phantasm is essentially split, divided, double. Significantly, we are told at the very beginning of the story that it is based upon an ‘agujero’ (p. 123)—a hole, an absence. Linked to this aporetic effect, too, is the decentred structure of the phantasm: when the narrator reviews the scene of the episode on the parapet, as it has been captured in the photograph he hangs on the wall of this room, it dawns on him that he is now looking at the scene from a different point of view due to the off-set of the camera lens:

… entonces se me ocurrió que me había instalada exactamente en el punto de mira del objectivo.

(p. 129)

The focal point of the phantasm, like its time, is always elsewhere, ever adjacent, never a here or now. We are told, too, that, ideally, the whole story might have been best told by a machine:

Puestos a contar, si se pudiera ir a beber un bock por ahí y que la máquina siguiera sola … sería la perfección. La perfección, sí, porque aquí el agujero que hay que contar es también una máquina … y a lo mejor puede ser que una máquina sepa más de otra máquina que yo …

(p. 123)

The ‘machinic’ qualities of the story lie in the impersonal, transcendent, structures of the phantasms, their typicality and generality, ‘something which transcends at the same time both the individual experience (le vécu individuel) and the imaginary (l'imaginé)’ (Laplanche and Pontalis 1964, 1850). The quasi-machinic qualities of the phantasm are perhaps best conveyed by the French term ‘agencement’ which seems to be something between a structure and a process, and for which I can find no equivalent in English. Finally there is the perplexity as to why the narrator remembers the body of the woman rather than her image—whereas he remembers the image of the boy rather than his body (Cortázar 1990, 128): could it not be that whereas the boy is primarily a cipher in the dream for the narrator himself the woman is precisely an element of the ‘naked act’ (the ‘acte sauvage’) that the phantasm seeks to translate from body to image? Perhaps this, too, explains, why she is accredited with such subhuman—animal, even inorganic—attributes:

… sus ojos que caían sobre las cosas como dos águilas, dos saltos al vacío, dos ráfagas de fango verde.


This is not even the primeval mother—it is lower, beneath the threshold of humanity, a viscous, bilious, original slime, a glimpse of that on which not even the phantasm can take purchase. Indeed there is a visceral revulsion here that perhaps threatens the very decorum of the story.

The phantasmic structure also explains the switching of narrative voices between first and third person narrative as well as the narrator's inclination to ‘bifurcate’ himself so readily (‘… Michel se bifurca fácilmente’, p. 128) his name is already a double name—Roberto-Michel; he has dual nationality—Franco-Chilean; he has two jobs—translator and photographer; both jobs suggest modes of translation—from one language to another, from the ‘real’ to the ‘image’, this last particularly close to the analogous function of the phantasm. We have mentioned earlier the two poles of the phantasm: at the one pole there might well be a first person narrative, but at the other, deeper, pole there is an absence of subjectification or, rather, the subject becomes dispersed among the manifold subject positions of the phantasm. We have already suggested that the boy is a mere cipher of the narrator. There is a clue to their identity in the shared detail of having their gloves in their pockets: ‘… guardé los guantes en el bolsillo; … llevaba unos guantes amarillos … era gracioso ver los dedos de los guantes saliendo del bolsillo de la chaqueta’ (p. 127 and p. 129), but there is some sense, too, in which at different points in the story the narrator is identified with all the narrative positions—the boy, the blond woman and the man in the grey hat—or even the Contax 1:1.2 (‘entonces giré un poco, quiero decir que la cámara giró un poco …’ p. 138) or the Remington typewriter. The ‘self’ (moi), we might say, is a ‘dissolved self’ (un moi dissous).

We can now understand why the narrator is dead (and alive..) (yo que estoy muerto [y vivo, no se trata de engañar a nadie]) (p. 124), for what the phantasm provokes is the dissolution and ‘death’ of the singular self. In this sense the effect of the phantasm is explosive (a ‘blow-up’ in a sense quite different from that intended by Antonioni) for not only is the self scattered among the various subject positions of the phantasm, it is also dispersed among the different phantasms themselves—here the phantasms of the primal scene, seduction, castration, and perhaps too, a phantasm of death, though in many ways the phantasm of death is the phantasmic structure itself. One can imagine that finding itself so scattered, so bifurcated, so strewn across so many scenarios and occupying in each scenario so many, not always compatible, positions, the self must finally collapse under such a strain. Such a collapse would be akin to some form of psychosis and I sense this is what is revealed at the end of ‘Babas del diablo’ and one might go further and suggest that this psychosis might well be a result of a failure to cope with an Oedipal overload.

It is perhaps worthwhile at this stage to compare what I have just said about the conclusion of ‘Babas del diablo’ with Susana Jakfalvi's comments on the close of ‘Las armas secretas’:

En este movimiento de superposición de varios yos (en este caso dos) el ego pierde sus límites e ingresa en una constelación que le posibilita la realización múltiple del ser, pero al final fatalmente repite el camino hacia la muerte, con lo que esta búsqueda de una dimensión suprareal queda trunca.9

The conclusions to the two stories are so similar because they are both phantasmatic structures. ‘Las armas secretas’, like ‘Babas del diablo’, is again structured around two events, the first consisting of the violation of Michèle by a German soldier at Enghien, and the second, the ‘repetition’ of this event seven years later during the visit of Michèle and Pierre to Michèle's parents' home at Clamart. The story clearly recounts the traumatic consequences not only of a violation but also of the clumsy, but, we see now, unsuccessful, attempts to eliminate that event from consciousness by the killing of the original perpetrator. The ‘return’ of the dead man in the shape of the luckless Pierre recalls Lacan's remarks on the effects of ‘foreclosure’: what is expelled from the symbolic—that is, not negotiated in consciousness—returns in the real, in hallucinatory form.10 There has been a failure, we might say, to accommodate the event, via a phantasmatic reworking, to the regulative proprieties of the ‘family romance’.

The first story in the volume, ‘Cartas de mamá’, has an almost identical structure: the precipitate and inadequately digested—that is affectively digested—dispatch of the sickly Nico means that he returns in a hallucinatory form, to haunt the life of Luis and Laura in Paris.11

‘Los buenos servicios’, another of the stories in the same volume, also has a phantasmatic structure. Again we have a structure of repetitions where a second scene, in the funeral parlour, repeats and reworks a first scene, the party at the house of the Rosays' and the looking after the dogs. Again this double structure is centred upon an absence or a lost object—this time it is the figure of the dead Bebé or M. Linard—around which swirl a welter of affects and repressed emotions, a web of hysteria and taboo. What makes for much of the fascination of this story is that due to the limited perspective or consciousness of the narrator, Mme Francinet, we can only guess at what might be the real nature of the dramatic events—homosexual jealousies, business rivalries, blackmail—that lie behind the events we are allowed to witness. There is a sense, too, that we are not dealing here with just ‘human’ affects: the first scene with the dogs clearly suggests some kind of repressed unconsciousness consisting of non-human sexuality and affective promiscuity. The folding of an animal affectivity upon the ill-defined behaviour of a human group, which is the effect of the phantasmatic juxtapositioning of the two scenes, alerts us to the fact that we are here dealing with a realm beyond mere human psychology and with constellations of affects and traits transcendent of the individual.

It is at this point that I want to suggest that the phantasm, as I have attempted to describe it in the foregoing, comes very close to providing a theoretical account of what Cortázar attempts to formulate with his notion of the ‘figura’:

La noción de figura va a servirme instrumentalmente, porque representa un enfoque muy diferente del habitual en cualquier novela o narración donde se tiende a individualizar a los personajes y a darles una psicología y características propias. Quisiera escribir de manera tal que la narración estuviera llena de vida en su sentido más profundo, llena de acción y de sentido, y que al mismo tiempo esa vida, esa acción y ese sentido no se refieran ya a la mera acción de los individuos, sino a una especie de superación de las figuras formadas por constelaciones de personajes … Quisiera llegar a escribir un relato capaz de mostrar cómo esas figuras constituyen una ruptura y un desmentido de la realidad individual, muchas veces sin que los personajes tengan la menor conciencia de ello.12

This ambition famously recurs among Morelli's notes in chapter 62 of Rayuela:

Si escribiera ese libro, las conductas standard (incluso las más insólitas, su categoria de lujo) serían inexplicables con el instrumento psicológico al uso. Los actores parecerían insanos o totalmente idiotas. No que se mostrarían incapaces de los challenge and response corrientes: amor, celos piedad y así sucesivamente … Todo sería como una inquietud, un desasosiego, un desarraigo continuo, un territorio donde la casualidad psicológica cedería desconcertada, y esos fantoches se destrozarían o se amarían o se reconocerían sin sospechar demasiado que la vida trata de cambiar la clave en y a través y por ellos, que una tentativa apenas concebible nace en el hombre como en otro tiempo fueron naciendo la clave-razón, la clave-sentimiento, la clave-pragmatismo. Que a cada sucesiva derrota hay un acercamiento a la mutación final, y que el hombre no es sino que busca ser, proyecta ser, manoteando entre palabras y conducta y alegría salpicada de sangre y otras retóricas como ésta.13

This, in turn, becomes the programme for 62: Modelo para armar.14

62: Modelo para armar is clearly a text which is susceptible to interpretation as a phantasmatic text. The whole is a kaleidoscopic permutation of repetitions where a number of apparently discrete episodes are no more than transcriptions one of the other, so that, in a sense, all the events become versions of but one event, without any one event, however, being accorded the status of being the ‘original’. As in the phantasm, these repeated events seem to be motivated and linked by a series of absences and fractures, which circulate from episode to episode: the ‘muñeca rota’, the ‘muchacho muerto’, the ‘chica inglesa’. As the series of events unfold, practically all the major personae, at one time or another, occupy this ‘default’ or ‘virtual’ position of the lost or broken object—Juan, Hélène, Celia, Nicole, Austin—so that rather than stable identities, there is a migration of affective states and conditions: pursuers/pursued, pitied/feared, attracted/repelled, killing/killed—a transcendence, that is, of discrete identities and all the old psychologies of the traditional novel. The ‘free-floating’ status of the odd figure of ‘mi paredro’ and also of the paredroi figures of Calac and Polanco, are indicative of the fortuitous and arbitrary nature of identity in the phantasmic structure. Whenever, for example, Juan, in the famous opening episode in the Polidor restaurant, comes up with a formula that seems to approximate to the experience triggered by the ‘comensal gordo’ asking for a ‘castillo sangriento’ (p. 9)—‘contradicción instantánea’ (p. 10), ‘fulgurante unidad’ (p. 11), ‘viviente constelación’ (p. 12), ‘coágulo fulminante’, ‘explosión silenciosa’ (p. 13), ‘plenitud instantánea’ (p. 14)—such formulae are precisely of the kind one might use to describe the phantasm.

It is clear from his comments on the potential of the figura, and even more from Morelli's notes in Rayuela, that Cortázar hoped to achieve some kind of epistemological or ontological break-through through this pursuit of a schema that transcended the old psychological and philosophical categories of humanism and individualism—to achieve some kind of completely new human, and even non-human, condition. Nevertheless 62:Modelo para armar, like ‘Los buenos servicio’, ‘Babas del diablo’ and ‘Las armas secretas’ ends inconclusively, or even in death and failure. Austin's nightmarish murder of Hélène is like the hallucinatory return of the ‘muchacho muerto’15; like the return of Pierre at the end of ‘Las armas secretas’, or of Nico at the end of ‘Cartas de mamá’ it is the return of an event or an experience—a residue—that refuses to be accommodated within, or surrender itself to, or be resolved by, the phantasmic structure.

I think, in a sense, that this was Cortázar's failure.16 Cortázar had a strong sense of the liberatory potential of the phantasm but there was a residual incapacity within himself to surrender to it. Malva Filer describes the impasse well:

Sin duda, pues, la idea de un yo liberado de la individualidad y, por lo tanto, ubicuo y susceptible de diversas encarnaciones, ha atraído poderosamente a Cortázar. Pero su intento de darle vida y forma se ve frustrado por una evidente imposibilidad de llevar el concepto no individualista del yo hasta sus últimas consecuencias.17

What Cortázar seems never to have realized is that the explosive disjunctions of the phantasm, the dispersal of subject positions, the dissolution of the singular subject, the scattering and shattering of identity across a multiplicity of impersonal traits and affects, the vertiginous annihilation of time through recuperative repetitions—that all these had an affirmative as well as a destructive potential. For what the phantasmic structure sets in play with its doubles and duplications, its repetitions and its lacunae, is a kind of vertiginous pendular movement whereby the dissolved self ‘is’ and ‘is not’ all the positions it occupies, and the repertoires it traverses at the same time. It is this that leads Deleuze, for example, consciously building on and extending the work of Laplanche and Pontalis, to speak of the ‘royal splendour’ or the ‘glory’—the ‘radiancy’18 to use a term he borrows from Lewis Carroll—of the phantasm, and to see in it the triumph of the eternal return. With the experience of the eternal return,

I deactualise my present self in order to will myself in all the other selves whose entire series must be passed through … At the moment the Eternal Return is revealed to me, I cease to be myself hic et nunc and am susceptible to becoming innumerable others.19

In 62: Modelo para armar Juan's perpetual sense of being part of a larger movement which seems to exclude him at the very moment that he becomes capable of thinking it—‘todo a punto de explicarse sin explicación posible’ (p. 179)—is very similar to Klossowski's gloss of Nietzsche's experience (‘I am one of those machines which can EXPLODE.20) at Sils Maria in August 1881:

What is my part in this circular movement in relation to which I am incoherent, or in relation to this thought that is so perfectly coherent that it excludes me at the very moment I think it?21

In fact the ambiguity as to whether the narrator at the end of ‘Babas del diablo’ is dead or alive, seems to me to represent a genuine dilemma in Cortázar's thinking as to the nature of death and its relation to the phantasm, a dilemma which perhaps finds its finest and most evocative formulation in Blanchot's writing on the ‘double death’ in Rilke:22 on the one hand there is a death which is merely a physical end and a removal from life, while on the other there is the death which can never be mine, because in death, as in the phantasm, the very notion of the ‘mine’ or the ‘I’ is wrested from us in a vast, vertiginous and liberating impersonality:

death as an abyss, not that which provides a foundation, but the absence and loss of all foundation … it is the inevitable but inaccessible death: it is the abyss of the present, the time without present with which I have no relation, that towards which I cannot launch myself (m'élancer), for in it I do not die, I am deprived of my power of dying, in it one dies, one never ceases and never finishes dying.23


  1. For a recent bibliography see Frederick Luciani, ‘The Man in the Car/in the Trees/behind the fence: from Cortázar's “Blow-up” to Oliver Stone's JFK’ in Julio Cortázar: New Readings ed. Carlos J. Alonso (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 205-07.

  2. Susan Jakfalvi, ‘Introducción’ to her edition of Julio Cortázar, Las armas secretas (Madrid: Cátedra, 1990), p. 43 All quotations from ‘Babas del diablo’ are from this edition.

  3. Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis ‘Phantasme originaire, phantasmes des origines, origine du phantasme’, Les Temps Modernes 19 (1964), 1833-68. English translation: ‘Fantasy and the origins of sexuality’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 49, 1 (1968), 1-18. A further edition of this translation is to be found in Formations of Fantasy ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 5-34.

  4. Gilles Deleuze, Difference et répétition (Paris: P.U.F., 1968); Logique du sens (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969).

  5. As, indeed, it did to Michel Foucault: see his comments on the phantasm in his review of Deleuze's two texts, ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’, in Language, Counter-memory, Practice ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell, 1977), p. 180.

  6. The translations from the French are my own.

  7. There are two examples of just such jumbled elements to be found at the beginning of ‘Las babas del diablo’: ‘yo vieron subir la luna, o: nos me duele el fondo de los ojos’ (Cortázar 1990, 123).

  8. That different phantasmatic scenes might be ‘successive registrations’ and translations of each other is discussed by J. Laplanche in his New Foundations of Psychoanalysis trans. David Macey (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 114, where he refers to Freud's correspondence with Fleiss, 6 December 1896, where this notion is first proposed.

  9. Jakfalvi, 1990, p. 52.

  10. Laplanche and Pontalis, 1964, p. 1849, n. 32.

  11. Deleuze 1968, p. 25: ‘Is it not true that the only dead that return are those who have been too quickly and too deeply buried, without according them the necessary rights, and that remorse testifies less to an excess of memory (mémoire) than to a powerlessness or failure in the elaboration of a remembrance (souvenir)?’.

  12. Quoted in Harss, 1966, p. 288-89.

  13. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela, ed. by Andrés Amorós (Madrid: Cátedra, 1994), p. 524.

  14. Julio Cortázar, 62: Modelo para armar (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1968).

  15. Cortázar 1968, p. 266.

  16. By ‘failure’, what I have in mind is that, instead of surrendering himself to the explosive potential of the phantasm, Cortázar found himself pursuing another aim which was couched in the many metaphors of ‘otro lado’ or the need to break through a ‘puerta cerrada’ to find a ‘más allá’ or ‘centro’ or ‘kibbutz de deseo’ (Harss, 1966, 269). This alternative version of what might be a model of transcendence is developed at length in ‘El perseguidor’, the one remaining story of the volume Las armas secretas which I have not discussed—precisely because it does not conform to the phantasmic structure.

  17. Malva Filer, ‘Las transformaciones del yo’, in Helmy F. Giacoman, Homenaje a Julio Cortázar (New York: Las Américas, 1972), p. 276.

  18. Deleuze, 1969, p. 256 and p. 280.

  19. Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle trans. by Daniel W. Smith (London: Athlone, 1997) pp. 57-58.

  20. Klossowski, 1997, p. 55. The italics are in the original.

  21. Klossowski, 1997, p. 64.

  22. Cortázar's admiration for Blanchot is well documented. See Julio Cortázar, La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (México: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1967) p. 136.

  23. Maurice Blanchot, L'éspace littéraire (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1955) p. 201.

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice, L'Espace littéraire (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1955)

Cortázar, Julio, Las armas secretas, ed. by Susan Jakfalvi (Madrid: Cátedra, 1990)

Cortázar, Julio, La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (Mexico: Siglo veintiuno editores, 1967)

Cortázar, Julio, Rayuela (Madrid: Cátedra, 1994)

Cortázar, Julio, 62: Modelo par armar (Buenos Aires: Editorial sudamericana, 1968)

Deleuze, Gilles, Différence et Répétition (Paris: P.U.F., 1968); Logique du sens (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969)

Filer, Malva, ‘Las transformaciones del yo’, in Helmy F. Giacoman, Homenaje a Julio Cortázar (New York: Las Américas, 1972)

Foucault, Michel, ‘Teatrum Philosophicum’, in Language, Counter-memory, Practice, ed. by Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell, 1977)

Harss, Luis, Los nuestros (Buenos Aires: Editorial sudamericana, 1966)

Jakfalvi, Susan, ‘Introducción’ to her edition of Julio Cortázar, Las armas secretas (Madrid: Cátedra, 1990)

Klossowski, Pierre, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, trans. by Daniel W. Smith (London: Athlone, 1997)

Laplanche, Jean, New Foundations of Psychoanalysis, trans. by David Macey (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989)

Laplanche, Jean, and J.-B. Pontalis, ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasmes des origines, origine du fantasme’, Les Temps Modernes 19 (1964), 1833-68 (English translation: ‘Fantasy and the origins of sexuality’, The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49, 1 (1968) 1-18. A further edition of this translation is to be found in Formations of Fantasy ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald and Cora Kaplan (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 5-34)

Luciani, Frederick, ‘The Man in the Car/in the Trees/behind the fence: from Cortázar's “Blow-up” to Oliver Stone's JFK’, in Julio Cortázar: New Readings, ed. by Carlos J. Alonson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 205-07

R. Lane Kauffmann (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, R. Lane. “Narrating the Other: Julio Cortázar's ‘Axolotl’ as Ethnographic Allegory.” In Primitivism and Identity in Latin America: Essays on Art, Literature, and Culture, edited by Erik Camayd-Freixas and José Eduardo González, pp. 135-55. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Kauffmann offers an ethnographic interpretation of “Axolotl.”]

Is it possible to represent alterity without reifying, colonizing, or preempting it? In the diverse modes of ideology-critique prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, the Other is often invoked as though it were an amulet to ward off a host of ideological evils—humanism, sexism, monologism, and the proliferating “centrisms” (Euro-, ethno-, anthropo-, phallo-, logo-)—considered endemic to Western thought and society. But it has always been easier to invoke alterity than to depict or commune with the Other in a nonpreemptive way. This is particularly evident in ethnography, that genre of writing about other cultures which provides the empirical basis of cultural anthropology. Looking back at sixteenth-century writers Bartolomé de Las Casas and Michel de Montaigne as early modern forerunners, we see that the intent to rescue foreign cultures from the depredations of European conquest and colonization was part of the ethnographic project from its beginnings.1 And yet, as Todorov noted in The Conquest of America, even sympathetic accounts of alterity have tended to deny “the existence of a human substance truly other, something capable of being not merely an imperfect state of oneself.”2 Has it not always been at least a tacit aim of European ethnography to capture and domesticate the Other in the web of writing—to present the Other as a trophy of sorts to the reader of ethnographies?

Such are the tough questions addressed to ethnography—indeed, to all forms of cross-cultural representation—by contemporary criticism. James Clifford has described this general crisis or “dispersion” of ethnographic authority brought on by the “breakup and redistribution of colonial power” since midcentury, and by the “echoes” of that process in social and cultural theory. Borrowing a term from literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Clifford characterized the postcolonial intellectual climate as one of global heteroglossia: “people interpret others, and themselves, in a bewildering diversity of idioms. … This ambiguous, multivocal world makes it increasingly hard to conceive of human diversity as inscribed in bounded, independent cultures. Difference is an effect of inventive syncretism.” Since Western anthropology, in self-critical recoil from its earlier links to colonialism, can no longer claim privileged access to knowledge about others, “it has become necessary to imagine a world of generalized ethnography.”3 Geertz put it more colorfully: “We are all natives now, and everybody else not immediately one of us is an exotic.”4 It seems fairly clear that we have not yet emerged from this “heteroglossic” situation, which is roughly coextensive with what we have come to know as postmodernity. Whereas telecommunications and computerization have exponentially accelerated global communication, new ethnic wars and emigration trends have exacerbated national and cultural tensions, making issues of cross-cultural representation more urgent than ever.

It may be useful to recall Clifford's summary of anthropologists' experimentation with new modes of knowing and writing about others, in their efforts to shore up the authority of their representations. Of the four main paradigms of ethnographic authority that Clifford discerns in twentieth-century ethnography—experiential, hermeneutic, dialogical, and polyphonic—the first dominated anthropology between 1920 and 1960. It corresponds to the rise of the academic anthropologist, who comes to know another culture through intensive fieldwork (using the method of “participant observation”), then writes up an authoritative, synthetic account—a mode that became normalized as the standard genre of ethnographic writing. This “experiential” paradigm, with its generally “realist” representational strategy, established a scientific norm in relation to which the next three paradigms came to be defined. In the 1960s, the interpretive or “hermeneutic” paradigm questioned the presumption of an immediate experience of others, instead likening cultural understanding to the reading of texts. Even while interpreting cultures as texts, however, its mainstream practitioners continued to follow a realist or mimetic strategy, construing other cultures as something “out there,” to be portrayed and interpreted by the ethnographer. Sometime around 1970—to follow Clifford—a still more significant shift occurred, which may be said to mark the beginning of anthropology's principal response to the postcolonial “crisis” of ethnographic authority and representation: “It becomes necessary to conceive of ethnography not as the experience and interpretation of a circumscribed ‘other’ reality, but instead as a constructive negotiation involving at least two … conscious, politically significant subjects. Paradigms of experience and interpretation give way to discursive paradigms of dialogue and polyphony.”5

My rationale for reading a literary text through the prism of ethnography, a genre usually classified among the social sciences, is an overdetermined one. First, Cortázar's “Axolotl”6 has the ambiguous ontological status of a fiction that purports at one level to be an ethnographic document: the record of an encounter between the European narrator and a remote foreign culture. Second, it seems to me that the story registers and explores, in its problematic constitution of the “other,” the crisis of authority which besets ethnography and contemporary cross-cultural representation in general. Third, Cortázar's narrative practice in “Axolotl” displays an “inventive syncretism” that not only foreshadows the paradigm shift and discursive forms of recent ethnography, but also serves as an emblem of that broader transdisciplinary trend which Kreiswirth has called the “narrativist turn” in the contemporary human sciences.7

Theorists as diverse as Hayden White, Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, F. R. Ankersmit, and Michel de Certeau have devoted much attention in recent decades to the nature and functions of narrative as a cultural practice, especially to its central place among the deep rhetorical structures and strategies that inform the cultural disciplines. In his influential “report on knowledge” in the late 1970s, Lyotard remarked the “return of narrative” in the officially non-narrative discourse of contemporary science. The postmodern condition—which Lyotard defines as a general loss of faith in “master narratives”—is accompanied by a proliferation of “little” or “local” narratives. In traditional cultures (and in Western venues where storytelling and other modes of “narrative knowledge” flourish as everyday practices), “little narratives” embody common knowledge, and thus are self-legitimating. When the scientific validation of knowledge is at issue, however, these contingent micronarratives play a different role: they displace and complicate, even when they are intended to bolster, the legitimation strategies of postmodern science.8 With their “nontotalizable discursive energies” (Kreiswirth's words), micronarratives are, as David Carroll puts it, “the form that discourse takes to express diversity and unresolved conflict and, thus, resist homogenization.”9

Clifford, too, points out the narrative character of cultural representations, “the stories built into the representational process itself,” which make ethnographic texts “inescapably allegorical.”10 The “inventive syncretism” that he notes in cross-cultural representation often takes the form of storytelling—that is, a strategy of allegorization—in social-scientific and critical discourses. As investigations of alterity become methodologically more self-conscious, and more receptive to the multiple perspectives and practices involved in representing cultural “others,” the investigator's implicit task becomes no longer simply to describe a thematized Other, but to give a plausible account of the Other's construction by the investigator's own and by neighboring disciplines. Disciplinary and generic crossovers, and allegories to relate them, are engendered in the process. Michel de Certeau's study of “heterologies” shows how the disciplines of historiography, ethnography, and psychoanalysis, each of which claims an access to scientific “truth” about “real” Others, have defined their objects and pursuits in relation not only to one another but also to once-banished “fictive” discourses, which shadow those sciences as their repressed disciplinary “others.”11 Small wonder that ethnographers, historians, and psychoanalysts have learned to practice a form of literary criticism, while critics have felt obliged to take up the intellectual habits of those neighboring disciplines.

There are distinguished precedents for reading Cortázar's “Axolotl” in the light of such cross-disciplinary allegorization. In The Repeating Island, Antonio Benítez-Rojo detects in histories and novels a “secret wish to exchange places, which brings about an unforeseen kind of coexistence between the two discourses … traveling separately but crossing each other at their respective nodes of desire.” He invokes “Axolotl” as an analogue of this “unforeseen coexistence,” or cross-disciplinary romance, of fiction and historiography.12 Roger Bartra's The Cage of Melancholy combines literary, historical, and ethnographic discourses in its critique of myths of Mexican identity. Not unlike the “contrapunteo” of Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz (analyzed in Benítez-Rojo's study), Bartra's study takes the contrapuntal, “polyphonic” form of a fugue: its even-numbered chapters provide historical analysis of the cultural mythology behind Mexican nationalism, while the odd-numbered chapters (or “vignettes”) explore, in a more ironic mode, the formation of what Bartra dubs “the canon of the axolotl”—a set of stereotypes that function as a sociobiological metaphor of Mexican national identity. The vignettes are initiated by, and structured around, a parodic transformation of Cortázar's “Axolotl.” Drawing on ludic strategies of postmodern fiction, Bartra uses Cortázar's tale as an allegorical device in performing his demythologizing anatomy of Mexican political culture.13

The human narrator of “Axolotl,” an anonymous Parisian and frequent visitor to the animals exhibited at the Jardin des Plantes, decides one day to vary his routine and to visit the aquarium instead. There he becomes fascinated with the axolotls (Nahuatl for ajolotes, protosalamanders of Mexican origin). Obsessed, the narrator returns daily to visit them, until one day he undergoes a metempsychosis (transmigration). He finds himself “with my human mind intact, buried alive in an axolotl, condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures.” The story's opening lines relate this transmigration from human to salamander in a matter-of-fact tone: “There was a time when I thought a great deal about the axolotls. I used to go and see them in the aquarium of the Jardin des Plantes and stay for hours watching them, observing their immobility, their faint movements. Now I am an axolotl.”

That statement at once frames the story's action and establishes the complex autodiegetic nature of the narration. The narrator is not only a character in the story; he is also somehow both “subject” and “object” of the transformation, speaking both as human and as axolotl. Immediately following that framing statement, the narrative voice assumes its original human identity, and proceeds to recount analeptically (in flashback mode) the story of how the transformation occurred. Thereafter, up to the moment of transmigration, the narrative first person is linked mainly to the human narrator prior to the metempsychosis, while the third person refers to the axolotls. There are important exceptions, however: at several empathetic moments, while describing the lamentable plight of the axolotls in the aquarium, the narrator slips into the first person plural, clearly identifying with, and speaking as one of, the salamanders: “I saw the diminutive toes poise lightly on the moss. It's that we don't like moving around much, and the tank is so cramped … time is less noticeable if we stay quiet.” The curious zigzagging (or counterpoint) of narrative voice between human and axolotl continues up to the key moment of transmigration, at which point the flashback rejoins the narrative present. From then on, the first person corresponds to the salamander, the third person now (as in the opening lines) referring to the human being who, estranged from his former obsession, returns only rarely, and with diminishing interest, to visit the axolotls. The closing lines, about which I will have more to say shortly, confirm this separation or estrangement, even as they create the story's central enigma: “And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.”

There can be little doubt that the instability of the narrator's identity—the oscillation of narrative voice between human and axolotl—is the key to the story's uncanny effect. Marta E. Sánchez sees in Cortázar's artful handling of pronouns and other deictic “shifters” not only the central narrative device of the story, but also the advent of a new type of fantastic literature, one not apparent to Todorov in his structural study of that genre.14 In the fantastic mode of the nineteenth century, which based its “linear” narrative style on the mimetic conventions of realism, the reader typically wavered between “natural” and “supernatural” explanations for an anomalous event. In the newer, twentieth-century mode, which Sánchez calls the “modern fantastic,” the reader's hesitation (the defining feature of the fantastic genre, according to Todorov) operates not at the level of the events narrated (the “story”), but rather at the level of “discourse,” which registers the act of narration itself. In the “modern fantastic” represented by “Axolotl,” the reader's hermeneutic challenge is no longer to figure out what has happened or how it happened, but rather to discern who or what is narrating the events. “Who is the subject of the discourse? The man or the axolotl? Or is it both?”15 While Sánchez admirably clarified the narrative mechanism of Cortázar's story, much remains to be said about the narrative constitution of the “other” in the tale. By reading “Axolotl” as an allegory of Western ethnographic discourse, I hope to glean its philosophical and political implications more fully. The tale may be seen, on the one hand, as the paranoid expression of a European bad conscience toward the conquered and colonized peoples of Latin America. On the other hand, it stands as a parable of Western philosophical anthropology and ethnographic discourse, inasmuch as it calls into question the categories by which Western thought defines human (and nonhuman) beings—thus raising the possibility of a different, non-ethnocentric way of relating to Others.

From the first moment of the encounter, the human narrator claims, retrospectively, “I knew that we were linked, that something indefinitely lost and distant kept pulling us together.” How is one to interpret this affinity? Perhaps one does well to resist the biographical fallacy of equating narrator and author, but it would be regrettably naive, in this case, to ignore the circumstances of the story's production. Cortázar, born in Belgium and raised in Argentina, moved to Paris in 1951, at age thirty-seven, and lived there until his death in 1984. By the mid-1950s, when “Axolotl” appeared, the political conscience of this Argentinean-European was awakening to the anticolonial struggles in Algeria and Cuba, although he did not discover and affirm his “true condition as a Latin American,” nor his solidarity with socialism and the Cuban revolution, until the early 1960s.16 In this context, it seems significant that the axolotls are described as having “Aztec” features, that they are amphibious and nomadic (some species are found in Africa), that they are biologically a permanently “larval” form, locked in a perpetual state of arrested development; that they have been exploited and consumed (like cod-liver oil) for their presumed therapeutic value; and that the specimens in this story are captives in a Parisian aquarium, objects of curiosity for idle Europeans.

Awareness of this web of symbolic associations should enable an ideologically richer reading of the tale. I will propose, and then proceed to explore, an interpretive hypothesis with both psychoanalytical and political dimensions. Suppose that the story serves as an imaginative resolution of a guilt complex with a collective, historical basis: the guilty conscience—or perhaps, following Fredric Jameson, I should say the guilty unconscious—of Europeans with regard to the formerly colonized peoples of the Americas.17 It is a guilt complex that Cortázar himself must have experienced in a complicated way, given his problematic identity—at once double (European and Argentinean roots) and divided (cultural identification with Europe versus an awakening political identification with Latin America).

The axolotls represent, in the present allegorical reading, not Latin America as a political or cultural entity, nor the author's biographical link to a particular nation, but rather the autochthonous, precolonial element of the “new world”: the indigenous tribes and cultures that were ravaged or colonized by Europeans. This autochthonous element, as symbolically important as it is “indefinitely lost and distant,” appears to the author's European imagination as an exotic archetype: an Aztec avatar, in the totemic guise of the axolotl, or salamander.18 A rigorous psychoanalytical study of the tale would focus on the complementary mechanisms of projection, identification, transference, and idealization as they operate in the paranoid discourse of the narrator. The human narrator's initial reaction to the axolotls is that of a reticent voyeur who shrinks before their piercing gaze. The salamanders “pressed their heads against the glass, looking with their eyes of gold at whoever came near them. Disconcerted, almost ashamed, I felt it a lewdness to be peering at these silent and immobile figures heaped at the bottom of the tank.” The observer, who once watched from a safe and dominant position, now feels watched in turn—a theme that recalls Sartre's essay, “Orphée noir,” in which European man feels himself penetrated by the returning gaze of the African colonized: “Because whites have for three thousand years enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen. … But there are no more domesticated eyes: there are only wild and free gazes, which judge our land.”19

It is the eyes of the axolotl that “speak” to the human observer of “the presence of a different life, of an other way of looking.” The narrator undergoes a process of empathetic interpretation, detecting in the salamander's eyes “a metamorphosis which did not succeed in revoking a mysterious humanity.” At first the narrator denies that this discovery is a case of anthropopathic projection, yet his own words seem to confirm such a diagnosis, in a passage that indeed foreshadows his own destiny: “I imagined them conscious, slaves of their bodies, condemned infinitely to an abysmal silence, to a hopeless reflection.” The paranoid basis of this intuition is suggested in the following passage:

The axolotls were like witnesses of something, and at times like horrible judges. I felt ignoble in front of them; there was such a terrifying purity in those transparent eyes. They were larvas, but larva means disguise, and also phantom. Behind those Aztec faces, devoid of expression yet evincing an implacable cruelty, what semblance was awaiting its hour? I was afraid of them. … Every fiber of my body reached toward that stifled pain, that rigid torture at the bottom of the tank. They were lying in wait for something, a remote kingdom destroyed, an age of liberty when the world had belonged to the axolotls.

The axolotl is thus construed as an Aztec avatar whose present suffering in the aquarium reminds the human narrator of the historical crimes committed by his European forebears, the conquistadors. This accounts in part for the narrator's ambivalent wavering between pity and fear, idealization and guilt. The most revealing example of paranoid interpretation is the “cannibalism of gold” that the narrator discerns in the axolotls' gaze. “‘You eat them alive with your eyes,’ the guard said, laughing; he probably thought I was a little cracked. What he didn't notice was that it was they devouring me slowly with their eyes, in a cannibalism of gold.” The axolotls' eyes function as mirrors that reflect back to the narrator the aurivorous gaze of his ancestors. It is as though the axolotls were avenging themselves, through this “cannibalism of gold,” for the abuses committed upon the Aztecs by the conquistadors. Note the exact symmetry of the symbolic retribution: gold, the prime motive for those historical crimes, now appears inscribed, in a strange but appropriate metonymic reversal, in the implacable gaze that accuses and threatens to “devour” the narrator. As Melanie Klein observed, paranoia is by no means incompatible with idealization of the feared object.20

The human narrator of “Axolotl” perceives in the salamanders at once “implacable cruelty” and “a terrifying purity.” Despite feeling himself “judged” and “devoured” by the axolotls, he attributes to them an idyllic past, an “age of liberty, when the world had belonged” to them. Here one may discern a phantasmagoric variant of two related European myths: that of the noble savage and that of the precolonial past as a lost paradise. The imaginary transmigration of the narrator's human consciousness into the axolotl would have the expiatory function of assuaging the protagonist's vicarious guilt—the guilty unconscious of European man about his colonial past.

It is significant that the only evident channel of “communication” between the human and the salamander is the visual medium of the gaze.21 It would be neither original nor an exaggeration to say that from Plato onward, sight has provided the metaphorical basis of Western ontology: the world and other beings are constructed by visual analogies. In “Axolotl,” the narrator visually objectifies the salamanders before identifying with them. After the first encounter, he heads for the library to look up a few basic facts about the axolotls in a dictionary (“larval stage … of a species of salamander … genus Ambystoma”), but he declines to consult “specialized works,” in favor of direct experience. The next day, he returns to the aquarium and begins to study the specimens by close observation. He counts them, giving meticulous descriptions of their physical features and lethargic movement. “Mentally I isolated one, situated on the right and somewhat apart from the others, to study it better.” This corresponds, in ethnographic research, to the “fieldwork” phase, when the investigator immerses herself in the empirical particulars of the culture studied. For traditional ethnography, vision warrants the observer's firsthand perception of the Other, and thereby the scientific veracity of the ethnographic account.22 Despite the narrator's own rhetoric of investigation, however, it becomes evident that his descriptions of the salamanders are closer to fetishism than to neutral description. The central rhetorical device of the story is hypotyposis, the attempt to bring an idea to life through the development of a vivid image, as though to convince the reader of the immediate presence of the phenomenon described.

The encounter with the Other depicted in this story is curiously one-sided: the axolotl is the passive recipient of the human narrator's interpreting gaze. The salamander seems not even to notice the presence of the human being who importunes it: “It was useless to tap with my finger on the glass directly in front of their faces: they never showed the least reaction.” This apparent lack of reciprocity does not discourage the narrator. On the contrary, he interprets the axolotls' taciturnity as a will to tranquillity, along the lines of Stoic apathy or Epicurean ataraxia (which has its rough oriental counterpart in the Buddhist nirvana): “Obscurely I seemed to understand their secret will, to abolish space and time with an indifferent immobility.” Next Cortázar's narrator employs a stratagem dear to Western rationalism—Descartes's methodical doubt—to persuade himself that his intuitions are correct, and not mere “mythology.” “In vain I tried to prove to myself that my own sensibility was projecting a nonexistent consciousness onto the axolotls. They and I knew.” The very suffering he ascribes to them—that of remaining “conscious, slaves of their bodies, infinitely condemned to an abysmal silence, to a hopeless reflection”—presupposes the Cartesian dualism of mind and body (or “intelligent” and “corporeal nature”). A recurring nightmare in Western literature, this imagined plight is yet another symptom of anthropocentric projection.23

To take a final example of the projection at work in this story: “Their blind gaze, the diminutive golden pupil, at once expressionless and yet terribly lucid, went through me like a message: ‘Save us, save us.’” It seems more likely that the human narrator invents the other's will to be saved in order to rationalize his own salvaging intentions, not unlike missionaries and colonizers throughout Latin America who sincerely thought they perceived the same supplicatory message on indigenous faces. The prototype of this “benign” ethnocentric gaze is that of the good Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, who detected in natives a primitive or “wild” Christianity, a predisposition and desire for conversion.24 It is ironic that the human narrator's gaze, which is assumed to be a reliable instrument of observation, turns out to be a vehicle of self-hypnosis. The eyes of the axolotl, which seemed to invite access to a “diaphanous interior mystery,” function as a mirror that only reflects back the stereotyping human gaze (in a way reminiscent of Lacan's “mirror stage” of ego development).25 And the aquarium glass, ostensibly a transparent medium of discovery, is actually the cage that frames and encloses the captive Other.

The predicament of the narrator at the end of the story does not bode well for the Western ethnographic project of grasping the other through close observation and description. For a fleeting moment after the “transmigration,” the exiled narrator is face-to-face with his former human self: “Outside, my face came close to the glass again, I saw my mouth, my lips compressed with the effort of understanding the axolotls. I was an axolotl now and I knew instantly that no understanding was possible.” One might read this as a tacit acknowledgment of the Other's “difference”: the axolotl's consciousness is posited as real and unique, but impenetrable. That inference is soon contradicted, however, when the narrator, speaking as an axolotl, denies that axolotls think differently from humans: “I am an axolotl for good now, and if I think like a man, it's only because every axolotl thinks like a man behind his rosy stone semblance.” The only difference acknowledged by the axolotl-narrator is one of location: “He was outside the aquarium, his thinking was a thinking outside the aquarium … what used to be his obsession is now an axolotl, foreign to his human life.” This reduction of difference to the binary spatial opposition (inside/outside), along with the axolotl-narrator's recourse to psychoanalytic terminology (“his obsession”), seem to support the interpretation of the transmigration as an instance of projective identification. Far from being transformed by communication or exchange with the axolotl, the human subject occupies the latter's place, acting as self-appointed spokesman for the mute creatures. The narrator's “discovery” that all axolotls “think like humans” reveals the limit of the anthropocentric imagination, its incapacity to conceive of a subjectivity radically different from itself.26

Only the final sentence of the story, quoted earlier, offers a remote hope of breaching this anthropocentric solipsism: “And in this final solitude to which he no longer comes, I console myself by thinking that perhaps he is going to write a story about us, that, believing he's making up a story, he's going to write all this about axolotls.” This narrative mise en abîme raises the eerie possibility that it is the axolotl after all, and not the human being, who controls the narration. This is how Marta E. Sánchez views the matter: “[Our] first reaction is to assume that man ‘speaks’ the axolotl: they are his subject matter and objects. The real case, however, is that the axolotl ‘speaks’ man. Our traditional notion of ‘man as narrator’ is undermined.”27 Sánchez infers that the ambiguity over the identity of the narrator (human or axolotl?) in the story reflects a genuine power struggle and reversal of control over the narrative voice. This politically optimistic reading would have the virtue of offering an account, however implausible, of the axolotl's accession to language. Fancying that he is simply “making up a story,” the human visitor to the aquarium (the implied author) would in effect operate as unwitting scribe, or ethnostenographer, to the axolotls, who (perhaps telepathically) dictate the text we are reading to the mesmerized author.

Sánchez detects in the axolotl-narrator's final “consolation” an echo of the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, especially that decisive moment in which the slave challenges the master and affirms his own autonomy. This revolt could also be dubbed the Caliban effect, alluding to the savage in Shakespeare's The Tempest who appropriates human language for the purpose of denouncing his masters.28 But in the scenarios of Hegel and Shakespeare, the slave had language, whereas no one taught the axolotl to speak. As Gayatri Spivak has argued, European intellectuals tend to constitute the colonial subaltern as “the Other of Europe,” “the Self's shadow,” a pseudosubject who, qua Western construct, “cannot speak.”29 The fantastic suggestion of the axolotls' autonomy that flashes at the end of the story is therefore illusory: the human consciousness which projects an imaginary subjectivity onto the axolotl continues to speak for it to the end. If the axolotl “speaks man,” or causes him to speak, it is only insofar as the human subject, first and constitutively, “speaks” the Other—that is, preempts the axolotl and speaks for it.

An analogy from traditional Western ontology may be found in Husserl's transcendental phenomenology. In Husserl's theory of intersubjectivity, the “other” is always an “intentional modification” of the transcendental ego, a noematic object for the subject that construes it; to that extent it remains dependent on that subject.30 The politically optimistic interpretation (according to which the story's “undermining” of the convention of stable narrative identity is no mere literary device, but the result of the axolotls' genuine bid for autonomy) forgets that the perennial Western ontological hierarchies—subject over object, self over other, human over animal, mind over body—are not overturned, but faithfully replicated, in the story. How little “consoling” it is, then, to suppose that the European author, instead of being always master of language and writing, should for once play scribe to the otherwise mute and physically primitive axolotls—whose only “self-determination” would be the dubious honor of smuggling themselves in as the thematic object, and illusory subject, of discourse.

The anthropocentrism of the human narrator in “Axolotl” has its counterpart in the ethnocentrism of ethnographic discourse, a discourse characterized by Stephen Tyler as “the endorphin of culture, an intertextual practice which, by means of an allegorizing identity, anaesthetizes us to the other's difference.”31 Taken as an allegory of ethnographic practice, “Axolotl” illustrates the occlusion of the Other's difference in at least two crucial ways: historical and communicative. With regard to the first, Johannes Fabian has shown how anthropological discourse typically distances its others (whether construed as “primitive,” “savage,” or “developing”) by relegating them “allochronically” to temporal enclaves within a mythical narrative of Western progress. This amounts to a denial of the other's status as a human “coeval” who intersubjectively shares the same world and time as oneself.32 The “Other” evoked in Cortázar's story is not the surviving indigenous cultures of Mexico or Central America, but the pre-Columbian Aztecs of half a millennium ago—scarcely candidates for participation in a dialogue of coevals, however sympathetically viewed. It is therefore tempting to see in “Axolotl” an instance of “ethnographic pastoral,” which Clifford deems a subgenre of “salvage, or redemptive, ethnography.” Drawing on the ethnographic topoi of the “vanishing primitive” and “the end of traditional society,” the “allegory of salvage”—the pretense that “the other is lost, disintegrating in time and space, but saved in the text”—is, according to Clifford, “built into the conception and practice of ethnography as a process of writing, specifically of textualization.” The scientific and moral authority presumed by salvage ethnography rests on the problematic assumption that “the other society is weak and ‘needs’ to be represented by an outsider (and that what matters is its past, not its present or future)”—and that the ethnographer is thereby “custodian of an essence, unimpeachable witness to an authenticity.”33

Also adumbrated in “Axolotl” is an occlusion of the Other in the communicative sense. Just as the narrator speaks ventriloquistically for the axolotls, so the ethnographer speaks preemptively for the natives, interpreting their exotic secrets in the neutral language of science, which presupposes the universality of the translated experience. Even ethnographers with “dialogical” intentions tend to recuperate and manipulate the native's voice, recording and exploiting it as “data” and “evidence” to support their theories and conclusions.34 Interposed between ethnographer and native is the former's implicit claim to translate otherness, to represent the Other in transparent terms for the true interlocutor, the reader of ethnographies, who nevertheless remains outside the ethnographic encounter. In Clifford's words, “Whatever else an ethnography does, it translates experience into text.”35 This instrumental mediation undermines any possibility of genuine dialogue in Martin Buber's sense—an authentic reciprocity between a self and another, an “I” and a “You”—and ensures that, whatever the pronouns employed by the ethnographer, the reader encounters the native only in the “third person,” as an “It,” an alien, depersonalized entity.36 Like the narrator of “Axolotl,” the ethnographer speaks of the Other but not to her, thus precluding the mutuality of real dialogue. IN the monologue of traditional ethnography, writes Tyler, “the basso of the ethnographer still speaks for the falsetto of the native. There is not yet in ethnography an effacement of the enunciating subject, of an authorial presence.”37

Does such an effacement find its literary anticipation in the final sentence of “Axolotl,” which makes the narrator's identity at least formally undecidable? This haunting ambiguity is precisely what opens the tale up to allegorical interpretation in the first place, while rendering unanswerable any question as to the story's ultimate meaning or message. We have seen how “Axolotl” recalls many of the essentializing strategies of traditional ethnography, which, as Clifford and Tyler have noted, tended to usurp the voices of real Others while concealing the fabricated nature of its own constructions. May we dismiss the story, then, as a discredited piece of colonialist fiction, whose sympathetic appropriation of the Aztec salamander would have the function of assuaging the guilty conscience of postcolonial Europe, while in effect reinforcing a colonialist ideology of European superiority?38 It would be easy enough to find “Eurocentric” statements by Cortázar himself to back up an anticolonial criticism of the story. When Evelyn Picón Garfield asked the author in an interview whether the narrator's transmigration into the axolotl was (allegedly like John Keats's empathetic identification with the nightingale of his ode) “for the purpose of experiencing the existence of the other,” Cortázar demurred. “What strikes me as terrible in ‘Axolotl,’” he replied, “is the total injustice of what occurs, because that man is condemned to the horrible destiny of remaining imprisoned in an axolotl, simply because he is fascinated with the [axolotl's] mysterious life.”39 So much for reaching out to oppressed others!

But my reading of the story is not based on the author's intention or interpretation—and it would be absurd to take the quoted comment as an adequate statement of either—but on the “political unconscious” one sees at work in the story's own narrative logic. What is remarkable about the story, in my view, is the way it both sets up a Eurocentric allegory about encountering the Other, and yet seems to invite an ironic deconstruction of that allegory. The lucid irony with which Cortázar follows his parable through to its grim implications is close to the postmodern spirit of contemporary anthropological critics like Bartra, Clifford, and Tyler.40 The predicament of the narrator after the transmigration—trapped and incommunicado in the Other's primitive body, “condemned to move lucidly among unconscious creatures”—can stand allegorically for the failure of the Western ethnographic project to know the Other through intense “participant observation” and textual description.

Cortázar evidently wrote “Axolotl” in the early 1950s, in Paris. The painful progress of European decolonization, and its cultural reverberations, would have been fully perceptible to the author, who worked as a part-time translator for Unesco. His ambiguous existential status as both “insider” and “outsider,” a Latin American intellectual who made his home in a European capital, could hardly have left him insensitive to anticolonial struggles under way in Latin America. As late as 1967 he defended, against critics on the Latin American left, the “global” intellectual vision that his European residence supposedly made possible.41 The “experiential” paradigm (with its “realist” inclination) that was still dominant in ethnography when Cortázar wrote “Axolotl”—the paradigm of intensive contact with the Other in fieldwork, distilled in the authoritative ethnographic account—came soon enough under the withering gaze of postcolonial criticism. Michel Leiris had remarked in 1950 that European ethnographers, however liberal their intentions, had always been “part of the game” of colonialism.42

It is not implausible, in this context, to see in “Axolotl” an allegorical adumbration of the impending crisis of authority in ethnographic representation, nor to view the story's narrative ambiguity as a foreshadowing of the antirealist or “modernist”43 discursive experiments tried out by ethnographers in subsequent decades—experiments that assume the dispersion of univocal authority and the critique of stable identities, whether of natives or ethnographers. In particular, the tale's uncanny ending anticipates the experiments in “polyphonic” or “plural” authorship discussed by Clifford in his survey of ethnographic paradigms. Whatever their generic differences—and my emphasis here on analogies is not meant to blur or deny such differences—both “Axolotl” and those later experiments put monological authorship into question by foregrounding the problematic status of their own discourse, pointedly obliging readers to ask “who is speaking.” In Cortázar's story no less than in experimental ethnography, “difference”—the textual production of alterity—is very much an effect of “inventive syncretism,” a rhetorical collocation of voices and perspectives once opposed. Clifford acknowledges that “the authoritative stance of ‘giving voice’ to the other is not fully transcended” in those ethnographic experiments”44—nor is that stance fully transcended in Cortázar's “Axolotl.” That partial failure does not invalidate the legitimate ethical impulse to know and acknowledge “others” in their historical reality, an urge which motivates many literary and ethnographic allegories of alterity.45 My allegorical reading of “Axolotl” suggests how difficult it remains to separate the urge to know cultural others from our deeper need to reinvent them—to explore, through fiction, our imaginary relations (affective, libidinal, or ideological) with those others. It offers another lesson as well: that those who would venture to meet the Other in authenticity must first leave behind the security and comfort of their own ontological baggage.


  1. James Clifford discusses the persistent “redemptive” or “salvage” motif of ethnography in “On Ethnographic Allegory,” in James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 112-115.

  2. Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 42. Edward Said studied the ideological functions of Eurocentric representations of a different “Other” in Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

  3. James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority,” in his The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Literature, Ethnography, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 22-23.

  4. Clifford Geertz, “The Way We Think Now: Toward an Ethnography of Modern Thought,” in his Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 151.

  5. Clifford, “On Ethnographic Authority,” 24-31, 37-54, esp. 30-31, 41, 53. One should underscore Clifford's caveats that these four paradigms are “ad hoc inventions and cannot be seen in terms of a systematic analysis of postcolonial representation” (23), and that they are “available to all writers of ethnographic texts, Western and non-Western. None is obsolete, none pure” (53-54). He also notes the persistence of the method of participant observation: “Though variously understood, and now disputed in many quarters, this method remains the chief distinguishing feature of professional anthropology. Its complex subjectivity is routinely reproduced in the writing and reading of ethnographies” (34). On experimental trends in ethnography—as a response to a perceived “crisis of representation”—see George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 40-44, 68-76.

  6. His short story “Axolotl” first appeared in Buenos Aires Literaria 3 (1954), and next in Final del juego (Mexico City: Los Presentes, 1956). English quotations are from Cortázar's The End of the Game and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), 3-9; given the brevity of the text, page numbers are not indicated. I have in a few instances modified Blackburn's translation for nuance or emphasis. The original text is readily available in several editions: I have relied on Final del juego (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1982), 151-157.

  7. Martin Kreiswirth, “Tell Me a Story: The Narrativist Turn in the Human Sciences,” in Martin Kreiswirth and Thomas Carmichael, eds., Constructive Criticism: The Human Sciences in the Age of Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 61-87.

  8. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 18-37.

  9. David Carroll, quoted in Kreiswirth, “Tell Me a Story,” 71.

  10. Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” 98-100. I shall try to forestall confusion and unintended associations by using “allegory” here to mean a narrative with an extended figurative or analogical meaning, accessible through interpretation.

  11. Michel de Certeau, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986). See, for example, “The Freudian Novel: History and Literature,” 17-34, and “History: Science and Fiction,” 199-221. Hayden White's work, such as The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), has played a crucial role in illuminating the narrative and rhetorical strategies of historiography.

  12. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James E. Maraniss (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 261.

  13. Roger Bartra, The Cage of Melancholy: Identity and Metamorphosis in the Mexican Character, trans. Christopher J. Hall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 8-9.

  14. Marta Sánchez, “A View from Inside the Fishbowl: Julio Cortázar's ‘Axolotl,’” in George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, eds., Bridges to Fantasy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 38-50. See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975).

  15. Sánchez, “Inside the Fishbowl,” 41-42. Sánchez sees Cortázar's linguistic experimentation as a radical subversion of the mimetic norms of realism: “Cortázar's fantastic breaks down the security of the [narrating] subject” (40).

  16. Cortázar, “Carta a Roberto Fernández Retamar (sobre ‘situación del intelectual latinoamericano’),” in his Obra crítica, vol. 3, ed. Saul Sosnoski (Madrid: Santillana, 1994), 31-43. This letter, published in Cuba in 1967, summarizes the writer's political evolution.

  17. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981). Jameson's postulate of a “political unconscious” at work in narratives lends allegorical force to his Marxist hermeneutics.

  18. The axolotl's “symbolic potential” as an exotic metaphor of Mexican identity was noticed by André Breton, who claimed the animal as part of Surrealism's “coat of arms” (Bartra, Cage of Melancholy, 8). Cortázar had strong links to Surrealism, and probably knew of Breton's heraldic gambit.

  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, “Orphée noir,” in Léopold Sédar Senghor, ed., Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977), ix-x (my translation).

  20. Klein's views are cited in Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1981), 186-187, 318-319.

  21. Sánchez, “Inside the Fishbowl,” 45.

  22. On the visualist bias of Western science, and of anthropology in particular, see Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 105-141; and Stephen A. Tyler, “Ethnography, Intertextuality, and the End of Description,” American Journal of Semiotics 3, no. 4 (1985): 85.

  23. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980), 18-19. Michel de Montaigne had drawn a similar mind-body distinction in conjuring his own worst nightmare, one not unlike the plight of Cortázar's narrator: “I can imagine no state so horrible and unbearable as to have my soul alive and afflicted, without means to express itself.” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1981), vol. 2, pt.6, 270.

  24. Todorov, Conquest of America, 163-164.

  25. Evelyn Picón Garfield, Cortázar por Cortázar (Mexico City: Editora Veracruzana, 1981), 94. When Picón Garfield suggested in an interview with Cortázar that the human narrator of “Axolotl” “is hypnotized by his own idea of what the animals are,” the author responded, “Exactly.” However, Cortázar's interpretive remarks on “Axolotl”in this interview differ in crucial respects from my interpretation. Concerning the function of the mirror in specular projection, see Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in his Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1-7.

  26. Roger Bartra points out that “the axolotl as metaphor makes reference to a classical anthropological theme, on which Claude Lévi-Strauss has reflected: namely, the ‘savage mind,’ dealing with the sensitive properties of the animal kingdom as if they were elements of a message” (Cage of Melancholy, 8). Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966) interpreted the thought of primitive tribes as local variants of universal human cognitive functions. Todorov discusses the relation between conferrals of “identity” and assimilation of the Other in Conquest of America, 42-44, 247-249. Clifford reminds us that “the ability of the ethnographer to inhabit indigenous minds is always in doubt. Indeed this is a permanent unresolved problem of ethnographic method” (“Ethnographic Authority” 47). In this respect, “Axolotl” reads almost like a parody of interpretive ethnography (Clifford's “hermeneutic” paradigm), whose main injunction, in Geertz's formulation, was “to see things from the native's point of view” (Local Knowledge, 56). Geertz argued that since ethnographers cannot get inside the minds of their informants, they must instead be content to construe and interpret their “symbol systems” (70).

  27. Sánchez, “Inside the Fishbowl,” 48.

  28. See Marta E. Sánchez, “Caliban: The New Latin American Protagonist of the Tempest,” Diacritics (Spring 1976): 54-61; and Wolfgang Bader, “Von der Allegorie zum Kolonialstück: zur produktiven Rezeption von Shakespeares Tempest in Europa, Amerika und Afrika,” Poetica 15, no. 3-4(1983): 247-288.

  29. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffins, and Helen Tiffin, eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), 24-28.

  30. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology, trans. Dorothy Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), 114-116. See also Michael Theunissen, The Other: Studies in the Social Ontology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Buber, trans. Christopher Macann (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 151-152.

  31. Tyler, “Ethnography, Intertextuality, and the End of Description,” 95.

  32. Fabian, Time and the Other, 37-104.

  33. Clifford, “Ethnographic Allegory,” 112-114.

  34. Tyler, “Ethnography, Intertextuality, and the End of Description,” 93. For a discussion of “Axolotl” as a dialogical experiment, see R. Lane Kauffmann, “The Other in Question: Dialogical Experiments in Montaigne, Kafka, and Cortázar,” in Tullio Maranhão, ed., The Interpretation of Dialogue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 157-194. The section on Cortázar presents, in dialogue form, some of the arguments elaborated here.

  35. Clifford, “Ethnographic Allegory,” 115.

  36. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner's, 1970). See commentary by Theunissen, The Other, 295-300.

  37. Tyler, “Ethnography, Intertextuality, and the End of Description,” 95.

  38. Abdul R. JanMohamed argues, in “The Economy of Manichean Allegory,” in Ashcroft et al., eds., The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, that the ideological function of much colonialist fiction is to “justify the moral authority of the colonizer and—by positing the inferiority of the native as a metaphysical fact—to mask the pleasure the colonizer derives from that authority” (23).

  39. Cortázar, quoted in Picón Garfield, Cortázar por Cortázar, 93-94.

  40. Neil Larsen suggests, in “Cortázar and Postmodernity: New Interpretive Liabilities”—his contribution to the valuable recent collection, Carlos J. Alonso, ed., Julio Cortázar: New Readings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)—that Cortázar's fiction appears dated to postmodern readers, in part because his “thinking remains entrapped in Eurocentrism” (69). Larsen argues that in the story “Apocalypse at Solentiname,” Cortázar (with “allegorical cleverness”) “thematizes his own ‘authenticity’ problem” in relation to an “ethnographic fetish”—the reification of cultural stereotypes or “ethnoscapes” in the search for a “true” and “authentic” Latin American culture—from which neither Cortázar's cosmopolitan perspective nor the regionalist one of his critic, José María Arguedas, manages entirely to escape. According to Larsen, the postmodern “ideology of reading” that considers Cortázar passé moves away from the utopian spirit of the “canonical decolonization” associated with the Latin American “boom,” suspecting now that such utopianism “concealed a certain overdetermining drive to recolonize Latin America (and the third world generally) through a subtle ‘voicing-over’ of the ‘subaltern’” (66). In one sense, my reading of “Axolotl” could be said to exemplify that suspicion. Yet, in another sense, I believe that, in showing how the story anticipates ethnographic developments that are motivated by a similar critical suspicion, my argument tends to corroborate Carlos J. Alonso's astute observation, in his introduction to the volume cited above, that Cortázar's “shifting and questioning of the ground on which the ideological and philosophical category of identity rests aligns him more closely with the critique of that enterprise of ontological definition which is the hallmark … of post-Boom literary production,” and with “the philosophical preoccupations that have characterized the poststructuralist period as a whole: the exploration of the subject as problematically inscribed in language and the understanding of literature as a discourse whose existence discloses the precarious foundation of the other discourses with which it shares a social and cultural space” (13-14).

  41. Cortázar, “Carta a Fernández Retamar,” 35.

  42. Michel Leiris, “The Ethnographer Faced with Colonialism,” in his Brisées: Broken Branches, trans. Lydia Davis (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989), 113.

  43. Sánchez's distinction between the “realist” narrative conventions of the nineteenth-century fantastic mode studied by Todorov, and the nonlinear, “modernist” narrative techniques of “Axolotl” (“Inside the Fishbowl,” 40) parallels the distinction drawn by Marcus and Fischer between “realist” and “modernist” ethnographies (Anthropology as Cultural Critique, 14, 25, 67-73). The periodization is of course different: the ethnographic “modernist” experiments began well after the middle of the twentieth century, whereas literary modernism began over half a century earlier.

  44. Clifford, “Ethnographic Authority,” 51.

  45. The ethical dimension of representations of alterity leads one to the work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and to wonder what a “Levinasian” reading of Cortázar's story might yield. The narrator's empathetic transformation would seem at first to be an ethical response to the “face” of the Other. The problem with such an interpretation is the doubtful authenticity of the “other” in “Axolotl.” In his Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), Levinas wrote, “The face with which the other turns to me is not reabsorbed in a representation of the face. To hear his destitution which cries out for justice is not to represent an image to oneself, but is to posit oneself as responsible” (215). In “Axolotl,” as noted earlier, no authentication through “hearing,” no modality beyond the visual, is posited.

Dedicated to Fredric Jameson. The present essay is a revised and expanded translation of my “Julio Cortázar y la apropiación del Otro,” INTI: Revista de Literatura Hispánica 22-23 (1985-1986): 317-326. It grew out of readings and discussions of ethnographic criticism in the mid-1980s with my colleagues Tullio Maranhão, Stephen Tyler, Steven G. Crowell, and Michael M. J. Fischer, to whom I am indebted. My thanks also to Erik Camayd-Freixas and Maarten Van Delden for careful readings and useful suggestions on this revised version.

Silvia Tandeciarz (essay date July-December 2001)

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SOURCE: Tandeciarz, Silvia. “Writing for Distinction?: A Reading of Cortázar's Final Short Story, ‘Diario para un Cuento’.” Latin American Literary Review 29, no. 58 (July-December 2001): 73-100.

[In the following essay, Tandeciarz views “Diario para un Cuento” as representative of Cortázar's recurring thematic interests and determines the influence of his experiences in Peronist Argentina on his fiction.]

[T]he logic of identity-formation involves distinctive associations and switching between location, class and the body, and these are not imposed upon subject-identity from the outside, they are core terms of an exchange network, an economy of signs, in which individuals, writers and authors are sometimes but perplexed agencies. A fundamental rule seems to be that what is excluded at the overt level of identity-formation is productive of new objects of desire.

—Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression

If Julio Cortázar is so widely read today, it is because his fictions—short, long, and “testimonial”—raise issues that are very much at the center of cultural debates currently raging in diverse academic circles, particularly those touched by cultural studies. As an intellectual, Cortázar's “ethics of writing” (González) and efforts to elicit a “politics of reading” (Sorensen) prefigured the kinds of shifts in discourse analysis that consume critics writing today. What I propose to do here is to read the last short story he published, “Diario para un cuento” (1983), as a touchstone for exploring some of the issues that obsessed Cortázar in the early 1980s and that continue to drive many critical interventions almost two decades later: the relationship between symbolic representation and socio-political repression; the cultivation of distinction and taste through reading and writing; the continued viability of “high art” and the impact of mass culture in this “age of mechanical reproduction” (Benjamin). In so doing, I intend to show that Cortázar's trajectory was determined, as Jean Franco most recently has noted (“Comic Stripping” 38), by his experiences in Peronist Argentina.1 But I would like to go a step beyond Franco to suggest that the reorganization of culture that Peronism effected mid-century in Argentina anticipated the global reorganization of culture—driven by the spread of mass, audiovisual, and information technologies—that literary and cultural studies currently engage. If, as Jon Beaseley-Murray suggests, the emergence of cultural studies is genealogically linked to Peronism, it follows that the lessons Cortázar derived from the time he spent in Peronist Argentina, filtered through his later political awakening via the Cuban Revolution, would speak to the kinds of questions recent shifts in intellectual production and reception have generated in our (more and more interdisciplinary) fields. As prisms for studying the shifts in cultural production that destabilize hegemonic assumptions of what constitutes cultural capital at any given time, Cortázar's and Peronism's texts offer us an exceptional opportunity to disentangle the fantasies of consumption driving both the political allegiance to and/or repudiation of Perón, and the strong fear-attraction generated by cultural studies work today.


First and foremost, “Diario para un cuento” is the story of a crime.2 It is not only the story of a murder, but rather of a series of crimes determined by efforts to achieve some form of social distinction through repression, the acquisition of valued goods, and the elimination of competition. This desire for distinction, achieved in part through the cultivation of taste, is not only constitutive of identity; it further serves to re-inscribe the paradigm of repression that defines the socio-symbolic order and drives the need for consumption in the first place. It verifies to the actors caught up in this cycle, and the readers who identify with them, “the deep divisions which bar the constitution of an integrated civil sphere” (Sorensen 364). But contrary to what a cursory overview of the story might suggest, this dynamic describes both the “lumpen de puerto y pieza de mala muerte” (324) Cortázar evokes, and those who already occupy “higher” ground (far from “las chicas del bajo,” privileged by the “high-low” cultural divide).3 In his own desire for distinction, the narrator of the story is as guilty of violence resulting from unethical modes of consumption as the “lumpen de puerto” about whom he writes. And if he finds himself trapped at the end of the narrative in a closed Derridean circuit that denies him access to the object he desires—“no (me) queda casi nada: ni la cosa, ni su existencia, ni la mía, ni el puro objeto ni el puro sujeto, ningún interés de ninguna naturaleza por nada” (342)—it is because he is trapped in a paradigm of consumption based on exploitation, colonization, and uneven exchange with which he has been unable to break (in the end he still traffics in women's bodies and words, even if now this process is mediated by high theory).

Structured as a diary—a text that substitutes for the short story our narrator really wants to write—“Diario para un cuento” resists the narrative order its writer would impose. It inscribes the narrator's efforts to approximate an event that happened “many and many years ago” (317) in Peronist Argentina while refusing the conventional narrative forms in which its author attempts to clothe it. Hence, it defies generic categorization, straddling the fictional realm of the short story and the non-fictional genres of diary and testimonio. Given the multiple autobiographical coincidences, one is tempted to take Cortázar at his word when he claims to speak in the first person: “yo que hablo en mi nombre (error que no hubiera cometido nunca Bioy), sé penosamente que jamás tuve y jamás tendré acceso a Anabel como Anabel …” (319). But the question of how to read the diary is complicated by his choice to include it in his last published collection of short stories, Deshoras (1983). In what follows, for the sake of clarity among other reasons, I will refer to its author as the narrator or translator. By safeguarding the distance between writer and narrator the diary's claim to fictionality demands, I am not proposing the text be read as pure fiction; rather, I am attempting to respect the struggle between fictionality and memory it inscribes, an issue to which I will return at the end of the article. Before moving on to examine this question, however, a brief overview of the diary's contents seems necessary. The story that emerges in the diary is not only the story of the narrator's relationship with Anabel Flores, a prostitute from el bajo, and the murder he helped to commit; it is also the story of Peronism, and of the violent rending of Argentina that, as an intellectual more concerned with personal distinction than justice and mass representation, he failed to prevent.


Once stripped of its self-indulgent reflection and theoretical angst, the story at the heart of the diary is rather simple, more a melodramatic “radionovela” (340) than the finished work of fiction à la Bioy Casares its author so desires. The narrator inherits a translation practice and its clientele; among those requesting his services are four prostitutes who pay a token fee for their translations (so they won't become a bunch of Madame de Sevignés, he argues, 323). One day Anabel appears, disrupting the structure the translator has inherited and maintained “dentro de las mismas líneas por inercia” (323). She needs him to translate her correspondence with an American sailor named William, letters in which the mundane and the cosmic are juxtaposed, in which consumption functions as the subtext for romance, in which words of love and plans of death are mixed with requests for material goods she cannot access in Argentina: “ropas de nílon” (325), “medias cristal y blusas color tango” (325), size thirty-six silver sandals and a little poison (334). Although up to then he has limited his services to the “mercadería” (323) he inherited from his old partner, he agrees to help Anabel and quickly becomes involved with her. He explains this choice stating that “Anabel fue como la entrada trastornante de una gata siamesa en una sala de computadoras” (322); she introduces life and passion to what had been mechanized, stultifying work, the formulaic task of translating patents. If before her he already trafficked in women's words and stories, his connection with Anabel revitalizes his creative writing and storytelling potential. As his muse, she opens a back door, leads him into a marginalized world he has rejected for the sake of professional appearances, a rejection upon which his identity as “un traductor público con oficina y chapa de bronce en la puerta” (324) has been based. He will become sexually involved with Anabel (“una relación tarifada entre cliente regular y mujer de la vida”, 329) while maintaining his socially sanctioned relationship with his girlfriend Susana intact.

In this arrangement, Anabel satisfies his “urgencia de sumersión, una vuelta a tiempos adolescentes con cominatas solitarias por los barrios del sur, copas y elecciones caprichosas, breves interludios quizá más estéticos que eróticos, un poco como la escritura de este párrafo …” (326). She enables a crossover that revitalizes him but that he must keep secret, separate from the world that legitimizes him as a member of a certain class with certain tastes: “puesto que Susana, puesto que T. S. Eliot, puesto que Wilhelm Backhaus” (326). His aesthetic (writerly) and erotic (gendered) choices years later continue to be confused in his narration of them because, in their interdependence, they subtend a process constitutive of his bourgeois identity: he still writes like he makes love, always seeking to preserve that distance, “guardando esa distancia” (316) his place in the social register and his aesthetic sensibility demand. And he never quite manages it: “me falta el juego de piernas y la noción de distancia de Bioy para mantenerme lejos y marcar puntos sin dar demasiado la cara” (317). Threatening to “invadirlo de entrada,” his memory of Anabel continues to destabilize a system of social relationships in which the erotic encounter functions as a vehicle for thinking the self and (his) art as aesthetic creations separate from the dangerous flood of feeling. She denies him the distance so necessary to his craft, and to his sense of self, as he has tried to construct and understand them. Thus, while providing him with that certain something “other” he lacked (still lacks) in his everyday life—“ese mundo […] demasiado pequeño y demasiado confortable” (326)—she also surfaces through his telling as a dangerous addiction, a necessary and forbidden passion that, as such, must be kept at arm's length if it is not to shatter the foundation upon which his life is built.

It is, appropriately, the doorman, Fermín, who polices this shifting identity for him. The translator projects onto Fermín how an alliance with a woman like Anabel would be read, resisting the risk public exposure would entail. Hence, he resists taking Anabel to the comfort of his own apartment, explaining: “me contuvo la idea de que Fermín el portero con más ojos que Argos la viera entrar o salir del ascensor y mi crédito con él se viniese abajo, él que saludaba casi conmovido a Susana cuando nos veía salir o llegar juntos, él que sabía distinguir en materia de maquillajes, tacos de zapatos y carteras” (327). He chooses discretion, not to protect Susana, or the doorman from his disappointment, but to protect the distinction he has cultivated and the privilege status confers. In a world propelled by appearances, his alliance with Susana situates him in a class above, separate from the doorman, commanding his respect; it assures him a measure of social power, the price of which seems to be the rigorous exclusion of those “elementos” (332) not deemed worthy by the social class to which he aspires, but who thereby become all the more invested with desire.

While translating Anabel's correspondence, he becomes aware of a plan to kill another prostitute named Dolly, who is stealing clients from one of Anabel's friends, Marucha. On his next visit, William has promised to bring a lethal poison that they can slip undetected into Dolly's drink, thereby eliminating the competition that is increasingly endangering Marucha's survival. The translator tries to dissuade Anabel, and when that fails, unbeknownst to her slips a note into her next letter asking the sailor to meet with him in private the next time he's in port. He tries to convince William—who he reads from the start as “primario y sensiblero y peligroso” (335)—that giving Anabel the poison would be folly, that it would jeopardize all their lives. Instead, he suggests William trick Anabel by giving her something that looks like poison but is benign. His motives are not, however, as noble as he would make them appear. If he assesses William as “dangerous,” it is due to more than a gut reaction; it is because he threatens to take Anabel away from him: “en el segundo whisky supe que estaba enamorado de veras de Anabel y que quería sacarla de la vida, llevársela a los States en un par de años cuando arreglara, dijo, unos asuntos pendientes” (335). In the symbolic battle that ensues between William and the translator, what is at stake is literally the translator's access to Anabel, to a way of living and, by extension, to “la vida,” itself—an access that Anabel has mediated for him. In order to defend this way of life, the translator will engage in a range of unethical conduct, first by violating one of the cardinal rules of translation—he inserts himself into Anabel's correspondence, thereby disrespecting the original and its author—and later by taking advantage of the almost confessional prestige his role as translator grants him in order to manipulate his clients (335). For him what is at stake is the breakdown of a structure of power from which he has benefited and outside of which, figuratively and literally, his life as he has known it would cease.

Following their encounter, the translator believes he has succeeded in foiling the murder plan and leaves on a short vacation with Susana. While away, he reads about Dolly's murder in the paper, La Razón, and realizes he's been left out of the loop: William has chosen to help Anabel despite the translator's machinations. He later deduces that William changes his mind when he discovers that the translator has been sleeping with Anabel, that despite his proclaimed allegiance and purity of purpose he is, in fact, an interested player, a rival: “Enterado de que yo hacía algo más que traducirle las cartas a Anabel, ¿por qué no había subido a decírmelo, de buenas o de malas? No me podía olvidar que me había tenido confianza y hasta admiración, que de alguna manera se había confesado con alguien que entre tanto se meaba de risa de tanta ingenuidad, y eso William tenía que haberlo sentido y cómo …” (338). From the translator's perspective, helping Marucha commit the murder consists of William's revenge: he trusted and admired the translator, who, it turns out, was thinking of no one but himself. “Se vengó, pensaba […] sintiendo el calambre que me subía de las ingles hasta el estómago, se vengó el muy hijo de puta, lo que estará gozando en su barco, otra que té o coca-cola, y esa imbécil de Marucha que va a cantar todo en diez minutos” (339). The American sailor gets the last laugh, and thus also establishes his clear allegiance to Anabel and the rules that organize her world. The translator, on the other hand, worried about being held responsible for Dolly's murder, essentially shuts down his practice, opts to “colgar un cartel de ausente y cerrar con llave la oficina” (335), stops seeing Anabel, and eventually relocates to Europe. Although Marucha never implicates any of them, the translator loses Anabel to William, and ends up feeling the fool.

On the surface we have here a love triangle, one that could be understood as a battle between two men for the love of a woman (Anabel). But there are various layers to this worth exploring—we have an American sailor courting an Argentine prostitute; we have an Argentine professional desiring that same woman, while simultaneously hanging on to a more properly bourgeois alliance (another triangle). We have a translator straddling several languages, a split world ruled by different laws, and a persistent desire to cross over. We have a translator who fails to understand the worlds he serves, the languages these others speak, and hence, who fails to communicate across borders that remain intact. In short, he fails to meet the potential of his professional task, instead feeding from the divisions and differences that grant him a place, give him power, define his role in that social structure.

We also have a narrator returning to a point in his life that is constitutive of his identity, a time when ritualized crossovers into the world of el bajo were still possible, the boundaries still fluid. The diary describes a dynamic akin to that Peter Stallybrass and Allon White map, in their groundbreaking study of eighteenth century England, as integral to the formation of middle class identity:

A recurrent pattern emerges: the ‘top’ attempts to reject and eliminate the ‘bottom’ for reasons of prestige and status, only to discover, not only that it is in some way frequently dependent upon that low-Other (in the classic way that Hegel describes in the master-slave section of the Phenomenology), but also that the top includes that low symbolically, as a primary eroticized constituent of its own fantasy life. The result is a mobile, conflicted fusion of power, fear and desire in the construction of subjectivity: a psychological dependence upon precisely those Others which are being rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level. It is for this reason that what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central (like long hair in the 1960s). The low-Other is despised and denied at the level of political organization and social being whilst it is instrumentally constitutive of the shared imaginary repertoires of the dominant culture.


Anabel remains, in this account, “a primary eroticized constituent of [the narrator's] fantasy life,” proving “symbolically central” precisely because she has been “rigorously opposed and excluded at the social level.” By returning to a point that proved definitive, not only for the translator, but for the country he chose to leave behind, the narrator forces a re-examination of the social and political interests that led to the betrayal of those “low-Others,” the multiple Anabels/Dollys/Maruchas, that Peronism hailed. The diary forces the question of responsibility for their systematic repression, a repression finally institutionalized, in its most grisly manifestation, by the military junta that assumed power shortly after Perón's death.

It's curious, in light of this, however, that the more obvious crime that emerges at the plot level—murder, disappearance—turns out to be the least interesting. Dolly's death is almost a foregone conclusion in this dynamic, and the narrator is more upset about being made to look a fool and a coward than about the part he has played in the murder plot. He does not know or love Dolly, but he desires Anabel; hence, his real crime consists of betraying Anabel, going behind her back, trying to establish, through a male-bonding he takes for granted, an allegiance with the sailor he assumes will reason as he has. His crime is one of hubris: he assumes he knows more than Anabel or Marucha or William; he believes himself of superior intellectual faculties. But his reason and his self-interest lead him astray. He has misunderstood the codes—male-bonding does not function as a guarantee in this other world. Other codes, other allegiances, take precedence: “Lo jurado jurado, ponele la firma” (339). In the end, he's proven wrong, the murder is committed, Anabel and William survive unscathed while Marucha receives what most likely will prove a very light sentence. And why? Probably because Dolly is as invisible and as insignificant within the social and legal structures that will prosecute her murderer, as she is to the translator. He has failed to understand what Marucha, Anabel, and William already know: that Dolly is sacrificeable and replaceable and hardly worth the investigation (within the world professionals, intellectuals, and cops share—the dominant order) that could link her death to him. In the same way that he fails to understand that bourgeois, male-bonding laws do not apply, he fails to understand that Dolly can disappear because she is already invisible—due to her gender, class, and socio-cultural markers—both to him and to the laws that rule his world. She represents the “lumpen,” another cabecita negra that had a chance to become visible under Perón, and whose fate—in which the translator and his petit bourgeois world are implicated—was to disappear. This is the mechanism of repression constitutive of identity: the translator collaborates in this murder and in its silencing as but a “perplexed agency,” simultaneously ensuring for himself a higher rung in the social hierarchy and maintaining the socio-symbolic order intact.

Before moving on to more carefully consider Peronism as the text's point of departure, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the story's gender and class features as they have been revealed thus far. The Argentines are split into two camps: in one we find (masses of) female “sobras marginales” (324) by and large; the translator lives with his woman on the other side. Mention is made of some peripheral men who interact with the women as “merchandise,” the crossover in some ways “cleaned up” and legitimized by the monetary exchange that takes place. The bulk of the diary is concerned with uncovering and narrating this largely feminized world, the eroticized center of this symbolic economy. Within that world, a death to restore “justice” (economic equilibrium, status quo) and eliminate competition is planned; but, the narrative tells us, the women are dependent on outsiders—men—to bring about their brand of “justice” or death, to restore a balance they claim Dolly has disrupted. Two men marked by their respective cultural, political, and economic contexts—the Argentine translator and the American sailor—stand between these women and Dolly's disappearance, two men who suggest diverging alliances and forms of engagement. Dolly's disappearance is effected through an international alliance, unwittingly bolstered by national cooperation. The translator—representative of a professional middle class and an intellectual elite—fails to intervene, to help, in an adequate way; he thus leaves the door open for the American sailor—a man of working class extraction—to resolve things in a way that suits him (but not necessarily the Argentine world of el bajo). The sailor's actions preclude the possibility of an internal national/Argentine alliance, the coming together of these two worlds coexisting in the same territory. But the stage for his entry is already set by the dynamic of exploitation the Argentine translator enjoys: by failing these women who are struggling to survive in a world that has given them nothing; by accepting the structure of power and privilege that marks their possible interactions, the translator seals their and his own fate. Given the translator's ethical lapse, his refusal to become engaged, the only viable solution presented to this feminized nation—a certain sector—is to accept foreign intervention and to resolve conflict through murder. The dominant order is restored, new/old borders get reinscribed, and violence (fascism) proves the only answer.

The translator feels himself excluded from the “happily ever after” ending that finds Anabel and William dancing a milonga and abandons ship—an option that, in contrast to the girls of el bajo, is open to him. In the forty-year period that transpires, he metamorphoses into the narrator of this story, a man bewildered by the position he assumed in his youth: “Como con tantas otras cosas en ese tiempo, me manejé entre abstracciones, y ahora al final del camino me pregunto cómo pude vivir en esa superficie bajo la cual resbalaban y se mordían las criaturas de la noche porteña, los grandes peces de ese río turbio que yo y tantos otros ignorábamos” (324). As our guide into the world of el bajo, the narrator points to other possible responses, ones that might have led to a “happily ever after” for all. And he serves as a guide for the reader in the eighties, suggesting what kind of human being that reader must be when confronted with a similar choice, the kind of choice an Argentina defined by human rights violations, torture and disappearances presents. While the positions, the kinds of involvement imagined, are still gender-coded—we all must become male heroes (or “lectores machos”) to save the feminized victims of a very macho (now military) regime—the way is open to every reader, regardless of gender, to become a “lector comprometido,” to assume this male-coded role and change history.4


“Is it high culture's representation of Argentina that has left it in fragments?”

—Jean Franco

Narrated from Europe in February 1982, as the dictatorship that has ravaged Argentina for six years embarks on a final, bloody attempt to remain in power by recovering the Malvinas from the British, the diary makes no direct reference to the Proceso (1976-1982). Instead, the story at its center is set in a Buenos Aires that, “al final de los años cuarenta” (316), has been transformed by the rise of Perón. Although mentioned only peripherally in this article thus far, and directly in the diary only once, Peronism is key to decoding the crimes and desires the diary inscribes. First and foremost, as I have begun to argue above, the diary can be read as a metaphor of the middle class Argentine intellectual's reaction to and struggle with Peronism: it reassesses the binary that the relationship between an oligarchic, Europeanizing, liberal vision of Argentina (the translator's) and a Peronist, nationalist and populist “other” (Anabel) set up. If on one level it interrogates a moment that defines its narrator, on another it signals his complicity—as a professional and intellectual—in the silencing of a popular subject (the working classes, Perón's “cabecitas”), in the suppression of the masses for the sake of reactionary economic, political, and social structures. It underlines as it questions the failure of those “on high” to grant representation and interpretive power to another world with another ethic; and it signals a libidinal investment in this world that remains deep, even as, for the sake of power, distinction, and increased cultural capital, on a political and structural level it must be denied. The repression of Anabel, recoded as the repression of Peronism (in its most expansive, promising phase, the Peronato), thus prefigures the murder at the plot level.5 And along these lines, the diary lays some of the responsibility for the violence that increasingly erupts, culminating with the Proceso, on the shortsightedness of intellectuals who, while engaged in their fantastic literary games, consistently ignored “una humanidad humillada, ofendida, alienada” (Cortázar cited by Gonzalez Bermejo, 120) coexisting with them in the same national territory.

Indeed, Cortázar, himself, like his narrator, would come to see more than a decade after the Peronato (1945-1955) that, despite its limits, Peronism represented “la primera gran sacudida de masas en el país” (Gonzalez Bermejo, 119-120), a chance for wider cultural and political representation, for a reorganization of power. In his own words, “había empezado una nueva historia argentina. Esto es hoy clarísimo, pero entonces no supimos verlo” (Gonzalez Bermejo, 119). Cortázar's position as an intellectual more interested in listening to Alban Berg than to the roar of the multitudes and Peronist propaganda outside his window echoed a reaction that the majority of established Argentine intellectuals shared at the time. As Angel Rama noted, Cortázar was among those who, having rejected Peronism in its earliest manifestations later returned to the movement to affirm its renewing potential:

Un escritor como Julio Cortázar, que se fue de la Argentina a comienzos de los 50 por no poder soportar al peronismo, volvió a Buenos Aires para decir su esperanza en la acción renovadora de la juventud peronista. Tal comportamiento define la actitud asumida por escritores más jóvenes, pertenecientes a doctrinas de izquierda (como David Viñas) que si no se incorporaron al peronismo, se situaron a su lado como compañeros de ruta, desde lo que aspiró a ser una izquierda radical del peronismo. Otros ingresaron alborozados a las filas, sin ninguna suerte de discriminación, en una actitud destinada a redimir la vieja culpa—haber incomprendido los aspectos positivos del movimiento en su década triunfal de 1945 a 1955. …


This “vieja culpa” is precisely what Cortázar's return (as narrator) through Anabel might exorcise. In this renewed attempt to access Anabel and understand the period she embodies, his narrator owns up both to his complicity in the murder, and to the crime his lack of engagement constituted. In both cases, the consequences are the death of a popular subject: the disappearance of that subject and her story from his (story). By returning, moreover, he is also owning up to the central role Anabel—and the Peronist masses she embodies—has played in the constitution of not only his identity, but the “shared imaginary repertoires of the dominant culture” (Stallybrass and White, 6). By writing about her directly, by making her central to his story, and by assuming responsibility for her marginalization, his return has the potential to intervene and disrupt those dominant repertoires that have persisted through ritual exclusions.

But Peronism is present as more than mere referent in this extended metaphor. Beyond describing one intellectual's love-hate relationship with the low-Others Peronism brought to the fore and his complicity in their systematic repression, the diary links the very model for achieving the plenitude associated with social distinction to the dizzying ascent of Juan Perón and Eva Duarte. It is a model disseminated by the Peronist state and eagerly consumed by the masses, from which the translator distances himself (since ostensibly, he already has the kind of distinction class extraction, diplomas, and “cultured” taste afford): “Esos tiempos: el peronismo ensordeciéndome a puro altoparlante en el centro, el gallego portero llegando a mi oficina con una foto de Evita y pidiéndome de manera nada amable que tuviera la amabilidad de fijarla en la pared (traía las cuatro chinches para que no hubiera pretextos)” (323) While the Peróns' ubiquity helps explain (as “pretexto”) the translator's disgust with a State that intrudes in his private sanctum and denies him the right to exercise his own good taste in choosing what to display on his walls, Evita's exemplar social mobility clearly underlies the desires expressed through the practices of consumption in which the “chicas del bajo” engage. The tension these two positions reveal has to do with the upper classes' desire to maintain their distinction in light of the menace the masses—and mass reproduction—represent; and with the desire of those from el bajo to acquire the very commodities that might place them in a class above. As Sorensen comments, “every choice depends on what is construed to be of value in the upper classes' eyes; social anxiety marks these options because the desire to belong is foreclosed” (370).

Anabel's requests for material goods, her preoccupation with fashion and appearances take on a deeper significance read in this light. On the one hand, Peronist culture has given her both a figure to emulate—Evita—and a reason to believe appearances, careful self-representation, can alter seemingly intractable material/economic circumstances.6 On the other, as the narrator notes, there are always those like Fermín, “el portero con más ojos que Argos,” who will be able to distinguish between the “real” thing and the copy, blocking the kind of upward mobility scripted by the Peróns, at least within Argentina.7

But whatever the limits of the script, it is clearly Evita's life story that precedes Anabel's. Beyond the hate or adoration with which accounts of her life are inflected, they all emphasize the upward mobility she embodied, the rags to riches fairy tale she cultivated. Whether rendered as a prostitute who slept her way to power (Alan Parker's recent cinematic adventure, “Evita,” comes to mind), or a saint who worked tirelessly to transform the lives of the disenfranchised, the image of Evita marketed by the Peronist state is that of a taste-full, well-coifed, lusciously dressed young woman in full control of her domain. In the words of Tomás Eloy Martínez:

El pueblo la imaginaba rubia y de ojos celestes pero Evita Duarte no era como la pulpera de Santa Lucía cuando llegó a Buenos Aires en 1935: no cantaba como una calandria, no reflejaba la gloria del día. Era (dicen) nada, o menos que nada: un gorrión de lavadero, un caramelo mordido, tan delgadita que daba lástima. Se fue volviendo hermosa con la pasión, con la memoria y con la muerte. Se tejió a sí misma una crisálida de belleza, fue empollándose reina, quién lo hubiera creído.


Her ascent to the center of power proved that even a bastard daughter could become a princess. And it is the interpretation with which she laced her “crisálida de belleza” that determined her transcendence: by presenting herself in this national melodrama as Perón's creation, she helped people believe that even if their own lives were not exemplary, by following her lead, with Perón and Peronism, they could become so. If she was useful to Peronism, still mobilizing its militant Left (“Si Evita viviera, sería Montonera”) years after her untimely death, and hateful to the aristocracy, it is because by making her own life and body exemplary, she managed to script a model for the masses to follow: she gave birth to a new social body, and helped discipline it within a Peronist frame.8

Evita's prominence within Peronism—she was so important, key foundational moments in the movement were rewritten to make her present9—also helps explain the feminization of Peronism within the diary. That the two worlds presented are gendered, that Peronism is coded female via Anabel, makes sense not only given Evita's protagonism in Perón's success, but also that of the masses of working class women who joined men and children in the physical take over of the city's symbolic center during the October 1945 manifestations that brought Perón to power.10 The case of Argentina during the Peronato represents another stage on which the dynamics explored by Andreas Huyssen in a European context once again played themselves out:

[W]hen the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries conjured up the threat of the masses ‘rattling at the gate,’ to quote Hall, and lamented the concomitant decline of culture and civilization (which mass culture was invariably accused of causing), there was yet another hidden subject. In the age of nascent socialism and the first major women's movement in Europe, the masses knocking at the gate were also women, knocking at the gate of a male dominated culture.


Because the rise of Perón coincided with the much increased participation of women in the public sector—a phenomenon brought on by accelerated industrialization, import substitution, and rural migration into Buenos Aires—and because Peronism proved instrumental to female suffrage, its associations in the Argentine imagination with the feminine, working class, and subaltern have since loomed large.

But if Evita's story captivated the masses, it was able to do so in part because of the real economic changes Perón's administration staged. As Catalina Wainerman has noted:

[F]or several years, at least until approximately 1949 … the working classes enjoyed unprecedented privileges, with increases in their real wages that extended from 10 to 50 percent. During those first years, on the other hand, ceilings were placed on food and transport prices, and the government began building low-income housing projects. The worker thus had access to the purchase of a bicycle, a radio, a refrigerator or washing machine, manufactured in Argentina.

(32, my translation)

Félix Luna's impression echoes this view of the early Peronist years as a grand “fiesta” marked by the “new, magical purchasing power” salary increases from 1944 to 1947 made possible (466). The impact of increased consumer capacities among all sectors, but particularly working class sectors, is worth underscoring because it, too, left its mark on Peronist mythology and nurtured a belief in modernization, increased consumer freedom, and “progress” that, for better and worse, came to be embodied by Evita and associated with Perón. For many, these years suggested how far Argentina and all Argentines, with Peronism, could go.

It is in the context of this Peronist fiesta, then, that we must understand the gifts scattered like red flags throughout the story. If Anabel must prostitute herself to receive gifts, it is because she only has her body to offer in trade; but she nevertheless can exercise discriminatory taste in selecting those gifts to craft an appearance that can maximize her social mobility, enable her to travel, to empower herself, to find legitimacy elsewhere. Consequently, what we must read as ciphered in Peronism is the advent of a mass culture industry and a re-distribution of capital that potentially turned every hard working Argentine into a discriminating consumer. And if Peronism threatened to erase distinction through the consumption of mass cultural products, it also forced those invested in preserving traditional power structures to redefine themselves in the face of this challenge.

Jean Franco argues that this is precisely what Cortázar does when he becomes a discriminating consumer of mass culture; her observations about Cortázar's “epic of consumption” (Piglia quoted by Franco, 39) become intelligible in this context, underlining “what will afterwards constitute, for Cortázar, the grounds for sociability and identity—namely, taste” (38). She goes on to explain:

Because, in the contemporary world, taste can no longer be grounded in firmly established values or universal criteria, it becomes a matter either of market classification or of elective affinities. The arbitrariness of these affinities in Cortázar's work—the bond may be forged just as effectively through the mediation of Louis Armstrong, or of Gesualdo, or a shared project such as traveling slowly along the freeway from Paris to Marseille—destroys “distinctions” on the grounds of nationality, class, or gender […] [G]roup cohesion also depends on the exclusion of those who do not understand, of those who are bound by routine, are lacking in imagination and emotionally crippled. […] Because Cortázar repeatedly constitutes ephemeral groups on the basis of arbitrary and unmarketable taste, it follows that value, once thought to be intrinsic in the work of art, has migrated to the aesthetic experience itself.


Franco also points out that Peronism was instrumental in shaping this aesthetic (39). Cortázar's shift from an appreciation of high culture to an identity based on the discriminating consumption of all culture (mass included) can be read in the diary as a response to the democratization of culture driven by Peronism's inversion of cultural hierarchies. Although this link is never made explicit, it is this context that provides the explanatory framework for the narrator's emphasis on taste. His preoccupation with protecting the distinction he has cultivated prompts his recurring observations regarding Anabel's choice in dress, for example: “me acuerdo más de la cartera de hule y los zapatos con plataforma de corcho que de su cara ese día” (322); and earlier, “lo que más se veía de ella era la cartera de hule brillante y unos zapatos que no tenían nada que ver con las once de la mañana de un día hábil en Buenos Aires” (320). His memory of Anabel is constantly associated with the purses and shoes she wore to their meetings, accessories he finds flashy and inappropriate, out of context. He does not read her fashion statements as part of her charm or as evidence of a newfound financial freedom; rather he uses them to distance himself from her, underlining the differences between the two of them, differences now confirmed not by access to consumer goods, but by the tasteful vs. uncultured/low-class consumption of (cheap imitations of) them.

But if Franco is correct in mapping this aesthetic, it seems that by the end of his life, Cortázar himself was attempting to deconstruct it, signaling the kind of damage such “short-lived heterotopias” (Franco, 39) could cause. By returning to Peronism, he returns to a moment that propelled this shift through an unprecedented economic and cultural revolution; but he also returns to re-examine and critique the positions he adopted as a response. While tracing its genesis, the diary thus also problematizes this mode of engagement/representation. Seen from the perspective of its narrator, the problem is that this aesthetic of consumption (possession) to establish distinction/taste (through distance) cannot deliver the kind of plenitude access to the desired object represents. Integral to its very functioning is the distance/separation that prefigures it as primary condition of possibility: because writing in Cortázar, as Franco so eloquently has argued, as process of identity formation has to do with the elaboration of taste, it cannot function simultaneously as a vehicle for solidarity (or “access” in the diary's vocabulary), no matter how much that solidarity may be desired. All it can do is prove the intractability of a symbolic system predicated on structures of exclusion, an aesthetic of consumption, the defense of distinction. No matter how rigorously he searches for that access/solidarity, the critical and creative languages he has at his disposal will fail him because they preempt, through their very modus operandi, the erasure of difference that dispossession, true solidarity entail.

This becomes particularly clear in another story the diary contains. It is the story of a rape, of routine violations that occurred in pre-Peronist Argentina and that Peronism promised to change. The story of Anabel's rape, told through the story of “la Chola” (332), is helpful both because it sheds light on a symbolic economy based on uneven exchange and violence, and on the difference in this triangulation of desire the Peronato might have made. It underscores Peronism's challenge to entrenched structures of domination while suggesting, simultaneously, that if this challenge in the end proved cosmetic at best, its failure was due, at least in part, to the elitist and intellectual resistance with which it was met.


The story of the rape emerges two-thirds of the way into “Diario,” after a brief commentary on a patriotism located in a “pampa” that Anabel rejects: “Tanto lío que arma ése por la pampa, Anabel despectiva encendiendo un cigarrillo, tanto joder por una mierda llena de vacas. Pero Anabel, yo te creía más patriótica, hijita. Una pura mierda aburrida, che, yo creo que si no vengo a Buenos Aires me tiro a un zanjón” (331). Her experience of that pampa has not been one to inspire loyalty, a longing to return; her memory of “la pampa” does not occasion any nostalgia; in fact, her survival, her sense of self, depends on the distance she has managed to establish between her urban present and her pampa past. The myth of “la pampa” as the seat of Argentine identity does not ring true for her—a sign, among others, that patriotism and national identity for her (and those like her) diverge from popular and commercial constructions, urban versions created by those located far from a pampa they therefore desire. It is not clear from this exchange where Anabel would fix her own sense of national pride, if, indeed, she has any—except perhaps in the economic opportunity the city offers her, as it offers her access to the translator-narrator, access to voice, access to his world and its interpretive power.

In contrast to this mythological pampa, the story of Anabel's rape reveals an eroticized world constructed through violations enacted on the bodies of women. The story, told here through the rape of another woman by another rapist, disrupts what might otherwise have been conceived of as a failed romance, an uncomplicated longing for the lost body of the nation. It signals the incongruity of a nationalism defined through the rape, torture, and disappearance of (women's) bodies, Anabel's among them. It signals the incongruity of a heterosexist, patriarchal and classist national identity that destroys the objects it simultaneously desires and denies. And it signals the incongruity of an economic system that transforms repression into profit. The translator's attempts to access through Anabel an Argentina he lost—perhaps Alberto Castillo's Argentina—thus are disrupted on all these levels by Anabel's uneasy fit in that Argentina, and by the impossibility of embracing and loving Anabel as she deserves to be loved.

We encounter the story of the rape in bits and pieces:

Poco a poco los recuerdos confirmatorios y de golpe, como si le hiciese falta contármelo, la historia del viajante de comercio, casi no había empezado cuando sentí que eso yo ya lo sabía, que eso ya me lo habían contado. La fui dejando hablar como a ella le hacía falta hablarme (a veces el frasquito, ahora el viajante), pero de alguna manera yo no estaba ahí con ella, lo que me estaba contando me venía de otras voces y otros ámbitos con perdón de Capote, me venía de un comedor en el hotel del polvoriento Bolívar, ese pueblo pampeano donde había vivido dos años ya tan lejanos, de esa tertulia de amigos y gente de paso donde se hablaba de todo pero sobre todo de mujeres, de eso que entonces los muchachos llamábamos los elementos y que tanto escaseaban en la vida de los solteros pueblerinos.


Anabel brings the narrator-translator back to this past he has left behind; he hears her story through this other one, in which he has participated on slightly different terms. The narrator classifies this story of rape in the same way he will classify the story of the murder Anabel (and he) will later help commit: “a veces el frasquito, ahora el viajante” (331). They are both stories, he argues, Anabel feels she must tell him, both entailing crimes of passion that conclude with female victims. The story of the rape illuminates a dynamic that later repeats with the murder—one that, in turn, illuminates larger crimes, a pattern that defines their common Argentine history, albeit one they inhabit differently.

In the diary, the narrator writes the story as he heard it from a friend, “el pelado Rosatti,” (332) not Anabel. By telling the story from his perspective, he resists counterfeiting Anabel's experience, he resists an easy ventriloquism that would pretend to deliver Anabel to us—her readers—but ultimately would prove a lie. Although he does not explicitly say so here, the story's semi-confessional frame sets up this preferred reading, whereby he resists violating Anabel all over again, this time with words that, not being her own, would only falsify her story. He believes that the only way he can tell the story of her rape, the story she tells him, is as he has heard it from the perspective of the rapist, Rosatti. What we read, then, is Chola's rape, not Anabel's, becoming with the narrator its passive witnesses, a new audience consuming the violation: Rosatti is a traveling car salesman who visits a widow when it proves convenient for his route, brings her presents and sleeps with her. The widow has a daughter for whom he also brings gifts. They are satisfied with this arrangement for a while, until one day he shows up with bigger gifts than usual:

[H]abía vendido un Plymouth y estaba contento, la viuda agarró por el hombro a la Chola y le dijo que aprendiera a darle bien las gracias a don Carlos, que no fuera tan chúcara. Rosatti, riéndose, la disculpó porque le conocía el carácter, pero en ese segundo de confusión de la chica la vio por primera vez, le vio los ojos renegridos y los catorce años que empezaban a levantarle la blusita de algodón.


Later, in bed, he feels different with the widow: “y la viuda debió sentirlas [diferencias] también porque lloró y le dijo que él ya no la quería como antes, que seguro iba a olvidarse de ella que ya no le rendía como al principio” (332). Because, we are led to believe, the widow is afraid he will abandon them—cease to come by the ranch bearing gifts—she presents him with her daughter instead. We are told that they—the narrator and his friends—never knew the details of the arrangement, how it came about. But the end result is the complicit rape of la Chola by the widow and her traveling car salesman: “en algún momento la viuda fue a buscar a la Chola y la trajo al rancho a los tirones. Ella misma le arrancó la ropa mientras Rosatti la esperaba en la cama, y como la chica gritaba y se debatía desesperada, la madre le sujetó las piernas y la mantuvo así hasta el final” (332-332).

The story, when Rosatti tells it, is met with silence. Years later, when Anabel tells her own, the narrator again remains silent, resists telling her that he has heard it all before:

¿Qué le podía decir? ¿Que ya conocía cada detalle, salvo que había por lo menos veinte años entre las dos historias, y que el viajante de comercio de Trenque Lauquen no había sido el mismo hombre, ni Anabel la misma mujer? ¿Que todo era siempre más o menos así con las Anabel de este mundo, salvo que a veces se llamaban Chola?


The questions with which he ends this story are basically a reflection on the power relations involved, on how crimes get perpetrated, repeated over and over again within certain symbolic, political, and economic systems. The rape of la Chola/Anabel marks the erasure of their selves in ritual acts of violation—acts that become necessary, it seems, through poverty and become possible because men like Rosatti, and men who have been conditioned to treat women like “mercadería” will not be called upon to assume the monstrosity of their crimes. But they are also possible because women become accomplices of power in their search for economic security; in this case, a mother turns against her own child in an act of ultimate betrayal. As with Marucha and Dolly, this is an instance of a woman, as a member of a subaltern group, turning against another in a desperate battle for capital and basic, material survival. Economic motives determined by patriarchal, capitalist structures thus shape the possible interactions between women and men, the violence by which they are defined.

In the rape of la Chola, all the issues raised by the diary implode: we have a crime that reveals power dynamics constructed through gender, race, and class privilege; we have the impossibility of accessing the victim of that crime, of reading the story in her voice, because we stand on the side of those who write the stories, on the side of men, on the side of power. Their privilege and desire, constructed through rigid exclusions (I am not that: not poor, not racially mixed, not illiterate, not a woman whose role in life is to service men), coupled with their sense of entitlement, thus make possible a spectrum of violations—rape, death, neo-colonial impulses. And women, in ultimately self-destructive, desperate efforts, become their accomplices, seeking satisfaction through the very structures that ensure their submission, through those structures that keep them subject.

The narrator's inability to recount Anabel's rape directly—like the difficulty he encounters when he tries to write the short story that generates the diary—has to do with his refusal to speak for Anabel: “¿Cómo hablar de Anabel sin imitarla, es decir sin falsearla?” (317). But it also reflects his resistance to narrate the story from a perspective of power, and the difficulty of finding another way to tell it, in the absence of Anabel's own testimonio. Telling Anabel's story through the rape of la Chola, as narrated by Rosatti, is as close as he can come to narrating what happened to her before her move to Buenos Aires. In so doing, at least he can expose the power dynamic the episode encodes, the fact that “todo era siempre más o menos así con las Anabel de este mundo, salvo que a veces se llamaban Chola” (333). His mistake, however, is to believe that its meaningfulness is limited to the structural level on which the rapes repeat, and does not include the specificity of each story. Anabel's rape might echo Chola's rape as seen from a site of privilege; but if we are able, finally, only to see that structural dimension we run the risk of losing Anabel, of erasing her, the specificity of her experience, of her history, from the realm of representation. We run the risk of losing the details that make the crime possible, differently, each time. Because the story remains one of power, told from the perspective of those in power—the rapist, his accomplices—it fails to suggest how the outcome might change could it be written differently, from another perspective, in a different voice.

The elements of this story echo the other stories captured by the diary: the same poverty, the same sort of exploitation by one who has recourse to gifts, the same betrayal by trusted ones, the same silent spectator who collects stories failing to change them, believing he is simply an innocent bystander receiving them because others—Rosatti, Anabel—need to tell them. What repeats in the case of this story of rape is not only the first instance of violation, but the complicity of silence that does not hold the perpetrators of violence accountable. The men who hear Rosatti's stories from their desert of women, aching for “the elements,” voyeuristically participate in Chola's rape, united at once in pleasure and shame, a bond their shared silence seals: “Ninguno de nosotros hizo el menor comentario, el silencio espeso duró hasta que el pesado Salas soltó una de las suyas y todos, y sobre todo Rosatti, empezamos a hablar de otras cosas” (333). It is a bond the narrator breaks years later in the privacy of his diary, to ruminate, through Anabel, on what happened to Rosatti and la Chola; but it is also a bond that has constituted him as historical subject, as part of a brotherhood (a not so “short-lived heterotopia”) that has shaped his sense of identity, his choices, his future. His failure to respond or intervene as an “actor comprometido” then and again, with Anabel, make him a silent accomplice, a criminal. It is a silence, a complicity, which has determined the outlines of history, permitting the crime to be committed again because the perpetrators are not denounced by the male fraternity that constitutes the nation to which they belong.

If the translator misreads William when he makes his appearance years later, it is because he assumes William subscribes to the same fraternal code that bound him to Rosatti in their vow of silence. Hence he responds to Anabel's request for help by deciding to ignore the problem she's signaling, and by trying to make her American lover complicit in that denial through trickery, another form of silence. But William, as interested outsider, disrupts this system, chooses Anabel over the translator, and thus also disrupts the triangulation of desire off of which the translator feeds. He disrupts the commercial circuit into which the translator, another “viajante de comercio,” has inserted himself and from which he profits (Frölicher, 340). William chooses to see and love Anabel as more than “mercadería” to be used, kept, or put aside according to one's whims. By recognizing her, privileging her needs, he repeats a classic Peronist gesture, legitimizes her story and substitutes the language of propriety with the language of love.11 And his rejection of the translator's codes—echoing the melodramatic, Peronist emphasis on loyalty and love—threatens not only the translator's livelihood, his writing economy, but the fraternal, social and political institutions erected precisely to police such dangerous allegiances.


So what are we to make of all this? In the dizzying structure of concentric circles through which the diary weaves its stories of violation—the innermost being Chola's rape, the outermost, the rape of Latin America through the demands of globalization—a continuum of criminality emerges, a continuum predicated on a desire for power, capital and distinction. If Peronism attempted to alter the configuration of the national in Argentina, it did so by giving voice to those masses marginalized in liberal, traditional histories, the same masses the military would later re-discipline through their own systematic, state organized repression. But despite the new alliances Peronism forged, despite the revolutionary momentum that created new historical subjects and for the first time gave them a voice, in the end traditional structures of power remained intact. What it nevertheless managed to do, however, was expose intellectual work that trafficked in signs, codes, languages, spaces, bodies in order to achieve distinction, cultural capital, social status, dominance. If it also eventually revealed itself as fabrication, more spectacle and fireworks than true revolutionary transformation, it nevertheless conveyed an important lesson when it helped expose the links between repression, (discriminatory) consumption, and representation. All three proved integral to the construction of (national/personal) identity, itself a mobile, fluid thing.

Given the struggles for interpretive power the Peronato foregrounded, literature's ability to represent (in the literary and political senses of the word) and its ethical responsibility to do so become all the more urgent. The diary links the failure of Peronism encoded in Dolly's murder to the narrator's failure to prevent it; and these failures in turn subtend his “failure” to change history, write the story he wishes he could write—that story of access, of solidarity, that “cuento capaz de mostrár[se]la de nuevo” (324). The diary ultimately reveals, as Aníbal González puts it, “The writer's craft [as] a sublimated version of the mechanisms of aggression used by those in power and those who wish to have power” (250); that is, the complicity of language—as a symbolic system constructed through processes of differentiation and exclusion—in socio-political violence, in the reproduction of identities predicated on repression. This is why the absence of Anabel's/Chola's versions, their testimonios, produce a cognitive irritability in the narrator's account, begging the question of whether the task of writing—of fixing stories, through inscriptions, in history—is a task always necessarily allied with the dominant sectors in fields of power. In other words, can a writer disaffiliate with power (Mohanty)?

It is this cognitive irritability that drives Cortázar's formal experimentation in the diary, his appeals to high theory (through Jacques Derrida) and to literary fathers (Adolfo Bioy Casares, Edgar Allan Poe, Aldous Huxley) who might help him carve out a different path to follow. But each of his appeals proves futile because each of them entails repression, ellision, sublimation in the name of “good taste” and intellectual sophistication (González, 242), “el juego de piernas y la noción de distancia […] sin dar demasiado la cara” (317). It is Derrida who best articulates the futility of his attempt to capture Anabel in a short story when he cites him at diary's end: “Ahora que lo pienso, cuánta razón tiene Derrida cuando dice, cuando me dice: No (me) queda casi nada: ni la cosa, ni su existencia, ni la mía, ni el puro objecto ni el puro sujeto, ningún interés de ninguna naturaleza por nada. Ningún interés, de veras, porque buscar a Anabel en el fondo del tiempo es siempre caerme de nuevo en mí mismo, y es tan triste escribir sobre mí mismo aunque quiera seguir imaginándome que escribo sobre Anabel” (342). In other words, the lesson to which Derrida and the others lead is that access, “real” representation is impossible—that in our attempts to represent the other, all we accomplish is self-representation, all we do is expose ourselves. The act of writing condemns the writer to solitude, distance, because it is predicated on separation from one's subject; it is this separation that enables the writer to see, to tell. And it is also this separation that guarantees the distinction the literary work confers.

Derrida also alludes, in the passage Cortázar quotes, to a second problem this writer faces. When he refers to “el puro objeto” and “el puro sujeto,” concluding “no tengo jamás acceso a lo bello en tanto que tal,” (318) he is elaborating a theory of representation in which all representation is perceived as copy: that is, all representation—high, middle, and lowbrow—necessarily lacks the aura of the original. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion would lead one to believe that only through solidarity with the original, through political action, might one recover the lost aura. If in Jean Franco's estimation Cortázar has reoriented his search for distinction by focussing not on the product, but the process, a shift that enables incorporating into his discriminating taste mass culture objects (i.e. reproductions), what this reading of “Diario” suggests is his final disenchantment with literature, itself, with representation. “Diario” suggests that in the age of mechanical reproduction, all that is possible in search of the auratic is solidarity, collaboration, allegiance with those low-Others, the subaltern, previously relegated to the printed page. Plenitude can only be accessed beyond the literary, beyond representation.

Aníbal González's powerful question à propos Cortázar's story “Press Clippings,” “But is a literary reply ethical?” (252) follows this same line of thought. He argues that: “In ‘Press Clippings,’ Cortázar addresses the question of how to react ethically as a writer to acts of violence and evil, only to discover that literature itself is violent. […] The best literature can do, it seems, is to ‘graft’ the Argentine mother's clipping onto its own textual body and pass it on to the reader, along with the ethical dilemma it poses” (252-3). That is, to borrow from Diana Taylor's language in another context, to act as witness: “to make visible again, not the invisible or imagined, but that which is clearly there but not allowed to be seen” (27). In González's formulation, certain literary genres are less violent and lend themselves more to producing this desired response, like melodrama and testimonio, the combination of which produces the press clipping Cortázar grafts. He writes: “Despite their frequent claims to objectivity, moralism is pervasive in testimonial narratives, since, like melodrama (to which many of these texts recur), they always deal with fundamental polar oppositions: truth versus falsehood, justice versus injustice, society versus the individual […] Testimonial narratives impose upon the reader the burden of making a moral choice, partly because they make ethically unacceptable the option of reading them as fiction” (251-252). But this moral choice usually results from the manipulation of the readers' emotions (252), a method that in the end also makes them suspect; they remain complicit in a system that “is not innocent” (253), that is founded upon the violence it ostensibly writes against.

And yet, “Diario para un cuento” suggests a more nuanced argument and response to the question of ethical representation. Because it shifts the emphasis from the act of writing, as something objectifiable and disinterested, to the writer's loci of enunciation, his positionality, it foregrounds the issue of engagement, of method as well as product and intent. It articulates not what literature can do, as if it were an animate object with a will of its own, but what writers can and cannot do within this signifying system. It suggests that while Derrida's postmodern observations about écriture may be provocative and alluring, they are also potentially misleading. Hence the statement Cortázar's narrator makes just before re-telling the story of Anabel's/Chola's rapes: “no siempre hay invención o copia” (331). I read this to mean that there may be some forms of writing that are up to the ethical challenges representations of the subaltern pose. Some forms of writing might prove equivalent to other gestures of solidarity—among these, those forms that tend more to the historical/real than to the fictional, and that demand of its authors the kind of engagement “good” translation models.

This is why preserving the distinction between translator/narrator and writer/Cortázar, mentioned at the outset, proves so important. While the diary-as-genre presents itself as historical and subjective “truth,” Cortázar's decision to include it in a collection of short stories (fiction) enables him to add a critical layer to his narrator's observations, and particularly to the sense of failure with which the diary concludes. Its publication transforms that theoretical failure into a kind of triumph: something has been accomplished here, even if it is not what this translator/narrator intended. Its publication demands that we read the diary as another construction subject to interpretation, that nevertheless alludes to a reality that its witnesses no longer can ignore: not everything is invention, fabrication, copy. Because the violence the diary represents is real, it “impose[s] upon the reader the burden of making a moral choice” (González, 252); but because it is also reconstructed, it is able to direct an interpretation that underscores the role of story tellers and readers in the interested manipulation of those realities. It demands an active engagement with the testimonios offered within it, while simultaneously stressing the role of the reader in reproducing or changing the stories these subjects tell.

What is more, it signals a particular writerly/readerly posture as deeply imbricated with the violence it describes. The auto-critique it contains refers to a translator who traffics in the world of el bajo “sin dar la cara,” as though this were a game and the goal were to “marcar puntos” rather than achieve economic and social justice. It critiques a writer so preoccupied with personal distinction, he willingly plays a game predicated on the absence of justice—without an underclass, the search for and preservation of distinction would be impossible. And it condemns intellectual interventions that make writing complicit with other socio-political mechanisms of repression.

But it also opens a door to a different form of engagement. If Cortázar's translator is a “bad” translator, in that he violates translation's most sacred codes, “Diario para un cuento” does not for this reason proclaim an end to all translation. In fact, translation surfaces as the very model to follow if it is an “ethics of writing” or a “politics of reading” that we seek. Walter Benjamin describes good translation by invoking the work of Rudolf Pannwitz. He writes, “The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language” (81, my emphasis). In other words, as readers and writers we must allow ourselves to be transformed by the other, thereby enabling the other to speak through our texts (also the task of testimonio). By critiquing the translator he was, Cortázar thus opts to privilege a different kind of writing, one that can minimize Ego (despite Derrida's proclamations) for the sake of solidarity, and the material transformation of those social, political, economic conditions that silence the subaltern and sustain violent hierarchies of power. With this last story, he suggests that while writing can be used to secure social privilege, it also can be used to upset and transform a social contract predicated on the search for distinction. Instead of renouncing literature (as essentially violent), it is up to us, its practitioners, writers, readers, critics, to expose the interested nature of writing and begin to dismantle the hierarchies of power that continue to structure our institutional practices.


  1. While many critics have addressed Cortázar's contributions to current debates through provocative, theoretically informed readings of his fiction—the collection Julio Cortázar: New Readings (1998) edited by Carlos Alonso is particularly noteworthy in this respect—the role of Peronism in shaping this fiction remains largely unexplored.

  2. All citations are from the 1985 edition published by Alianza, and will be noted parenthetically in the text.

  3. El bajo refers to the lowest-lying part of the city, geographically speaking, that closest to the river. In the Buenos Aires of the forties, el bajo referred to the port area full of brothels and generally associated with prostitution, tango, and criminality. El bajo is, in short, literally the margin, the city's dark underside, and it is inhabited by what Stallybrass and White denominate “low-Others”.

  4. By now infamous, the reference to the “lector-hembra” and “lector macho” dates back to Rayuela. Cortázar differentiates between passive and active readers along gender lines: the “lector-hembra”—as opposed to the “lector macho” presumably—is a passive reader who likes the author to fill in the gaps so as to make the reading experience approximate the cinematic. Everything is neatly resolved for her. The other kind of reader (macho, by default) enters the text fully, like an adventurer, helping to shape the characters' destinies through his reading. The “lector macho” hence anticipates Cortázar's later formulation of the “lector comprometido.” For Cortázar's own detailed description of these various kinds of readers, see chapter 109 of Rayuela.

  5. The Peronato refers to Perón's first two terms as president, the period extending from 1945 to 1955. This period is generally recognized as the most promising in terms of political and social reorganization/representation.

  6. The film version of the story, also titled “Diario para un cuento” (1997) makes this association explicit when it adds an exchange between the translator and Anabel not part of the original text. In this exchange, Anabel, while gazing in the mirror and tying her hair back in a knot, asks the translator if he sees her resemblance with Evita. The film by Jana Bokova was screened at the 15th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival (April 1999).

  7. The diary does suggest, despite itself, perhaps, that entry into the United States can effect the erasure of difference, the blurring of class/race/gender attributes that lead to marginalization in the national sphere. As such, it suggests not that the United States is a non-racist, non-classist, non-sexist place, but rather that the category of the foreign and/or immigrant can supersede other discriminatory categories that limit individual possibilities. In this sense, it is “the land of opportunity,” as long as it remains far from the discriminating vision of those (compatriots) in the know.

  8. As John Kraniauskas articulates it: “On the one hand, Eva Perón appears to mobilise an increasingly powerful working class whilst, on the other, her image and words disseminate a love story that pedagogically matches subjects—newly enfranchised women and men—to an authoritarian order headed and organized from the state by General Perón” (128).

  9. See Marysa Navarro, “Evita and the Crisis of 17 October 1945: A Case Study of Peronist and Anti-Peronist Mythology,” Journal of Latin American Studies 12, 1 (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

  10. For an insightful and provocative reading of these events, see Daniel James, “October 17th and 18th, 1945: Mass Protest, Peronism and the Argentine Working Class,” Journal of Social History 21:3 (1988): 441-461.

  11. John Kraniauskas' reading of Evita is particularly rich in this respect. As he puts it, “Peronism was a politics of intensities and emotions, and love figured large in the discourse of Eva as it was circulated, accompanying her image as both propaganda in newspapers and newsreels and pedagogy in schools” (127).

I am grateful for the generous support of a summer research grant at the College of William and Mary that enabled me to research and write this article.

Works Cited

Alonso, Carlos, ed. Julio Cortázar: New Readings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Beasley-Murray, Jon. “Peronism and the Secret History of Cultural Studies: Populism and the Substitution of Culture for State.” Cultural Critique 39 (1998): 189-217.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Random House, 1988. 217-251.

———. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux parisiens.Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Random House, 1988. 69-82.

Cortázar, Julio. “Diario para un cuento.” Los Relatos 2. Juegos. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1985. 315-342.

———. Rayuela. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1963.

Franco, Jean. “Comic Stripping: Cortázar in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Julio Cortázar: New Readings. Ed. Carlos Alonso. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 36-56.

Frölicher, Peter. “El Sujeto y su relato: ‘Argentinidad’ y reflexión estética en ‘Diario para un cuento.” Inti 22/23 (1985-86): 337-344.

González, Aníbal. “‘Press Clippings’ and Cortázar's Ethics of Writing.” Julio Cortázar: New Readings. Ed. Carlos Alonso. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 237-257.

Gonzalez Bermejo, Ernesto. Conversaciones con Cortázar. Barcelona: Editora y Distribuidora Hispano Americana, S.A., 1978.

Huyssen, Andreas. “Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other.” Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 188-207.

James, Daniel. “October 17th and 18th, 1945: Mass Protest, Peronism and the Argentine Working Class.” Journal of Social History 21:3 (1988): 441-461.

Katra, William H. Contorno: Literary Engagement in Post-Peronist Argentina. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1988.

Kraniauskas, John. “Political Puig: Eva Perón and the Populist Negotiation of Modernity.” New Formations 28 (1996): 121-131.

Luna, Félix. Perón y su tiempo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1984

Martínez, Tomás Eloy. La novela de Perón. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1991.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Porous Borders: Anti-racist, Feminist Education in the New/Old World Order.” Talk presented at the “Representations and Realities: Constructing Women's Lives” Lecture Series, The Women's Studies Program, Duke University, 1 March 1994.

Navarro, Marysa. “Evita and the Crisis of 17 October 1945: A Case Study of Peronist and Anti-Peronist Mythology.” Journal of Latin American Studies 12.1 (1980): 127-138.

Rama, Angel. Literatura y clase social. Mexico: Folios Ediciones, 1983.

Sorensen, Diana. “From Diaspora to Agora: Cortázar's Reconfiguration of Exile.” MLN 114:2 (1999): 357- 388.

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Taylor, Diana. Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's “Dirty War”. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Wainerman, Catalina, Elizabeth Jelin, and María del Carmen Feijoó. Del deber ser y el hacer de las mujeres: dos estudios de caso en Argentina. Mexico, D.F.: El Colegio de Mexico, 1983.

Brent J. Carbajal (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3255

SOURCE: Carbajal, Brent J. “Illusive Reality in Cortázar's ‘Las Babas del Diablo’ and Antonioni's Blow-Up.Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 29, nos. 1-2 (2002): 169-76.

[In the following essay, Carbajal examines the theme of illusive reality in “Las babas del Diablo” and its cinematic adaptation, Blow-Up.]

It goes without saying that many of Julio Cortázar's writings have to do with the ambiguous and illusive nature of any “true” reality. In fact, Cortázar himself would probably agree with the assessment that “it goes without saying,” owing to the fact that he often explored in his fiction a crisis in language and literature in which discourse fails to convey reality and actually distorts any intended message. Scholars have lauded Cortázar's complicated narrative structures and points of view, and students have for years, after struggling mightily with the Byzantine twists and turns of the Argentine's plots, marveled at his evocative portrayals of how fantasy and dream are just as real, perhaps more so, than their perceived reality. It is not, however, the intent here to attempt to improve upon the superb body of extant criticism on Cortázar's existential queries, his questioning of reality, or his concerns with linguistic subversion. Instead, the goal here is to demonstrate how the theme of illusive reality as registered in Cortázar's story “Las babas del diablo,” published in 1959, contributed to one of his famous readers, Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, realizing a marvelous thematic depiction of “reality found” in his 1966 film Blow-Up.

While Antonioni credits Cortázar's story as the basis for his film, the number of changes that the director made to the plot would make it seem more appropriate to consider “Las babas del diablo” the inspiration for Blow-Up rather than its basis. Antonioni's reading of the story provided him the framework around which to construct his film, but while the story is replete with a questioning of reality and an illusive truth, the film ultimately, in the final scene, offers a glimpse of what is perhaps the only “true” reality: that in which the individual believes and participates. In brief, both the author and the director are concerned with reality; Cortázar's narrative questioning leads to Antonioni's answers.

The famous opening lines of “Las babas del diablo” serve to anticipate the struggle that Cortázar's protagonist, Michel, will experience in his endeavor to communicate his experience to others. The story begins:

Nunca se sabrá cómo hay que contar esto, si en primera persona o en segunda, usando la tercera del plural o inventando continuamente formas que no servirán de nada.1

With this opening sentence, Cortázar establishes the problem of point of view that is so important in much of his work. The narrative switches leave the reader confused and bewildered as to what is the truth and what is fabrication or imagination. This very postmodern technique of confusing point of view underlines a concern with subjectivity in the defining of any reality; point of view is seen to be what gives reality its identity and what makes it communicable, in some fashion, to others. Cortázar emphasizes the ambiguity of how reality is translated, however, throughout his story and even in the title; the phenomenon described by the expression “Las babas del diablo” may also be referred to as “hilos de la virgen.2

In discussing “Las babas del diablo” in his article “Blow-Up: The Form of an Esthetic Itinerary,” David I. Grossvogel states that the story is:

primarily a tale about the impossibility of telling and about the frustration of seeing—twin expressions of the ontological dilemma that defines man, for Cortázar, as an irreducible separateness that recognizes similarly hermetic presences, […], without being able to assimilate them through either perception (sight) or definition (telling).3

Grossvogel reads the story as a treatise, of sorts, on how mankind's attempts to categorize and translate his reality are doomed to failure, but that in that failure is to be found an almost reassuring sense that the endeavor to transcend the restrictions of language and ontology at least conveys an understanding of the problem. It is this endeavor that seems to have most impressed Antonioni and inspired his own artistic approach to the issue.

To give a plot summary of either the story or the film is made very difficult by the fact that the narrative destabilization in “Las babas del diablo” and the confused actions and motivations of the protagonist in Blow-Up create doubt in the mind of the reader/viewer as to the validity or importance of any given event or statement. The basics of the story, however, are that Roberto Michel, a photographer and translator in Paris, takes a photograph of a boy and a woman. The boy flees after Michel takes the photo, and Michel then surmises that the woman was attempting to seduce the boy. Later, upon enlarging the photo, Michel comes to believe (he actually thinks that he sees), that the woman was trying to entice the young boy for a perhaps depraved older man who was waiting in a car. Michel is amazed at the difference between the reality he saw and the reality in the photograph (which he also sees). Struck by the fact that he might have saved the boy by taking the photograph and interrupting the sordid reality, Michel relates his story to the reader while admitting the inadequacies of any supposed verisimilitude with what happened or even with what he saw.

In the film Blow-Up, Antonioni changes the scene from Paris to London and changes the protagonist's name to Thomas. Like Michel in the story, Thomas is a photographer, but a professional who does portfolios for film stars and other projects. Thomas takes a photo of a man and a woman embracing in a park, interrupting with his camera what was perhaps a clandestine meeting, and is then asked by the woman to relinquish his film. He does not, and in enlarging his photo he believes that he is able to discern a dead body in the background of his shot. He goes to the park and finds the body (the viewer is not sure if this is “real” or not), but then later is unable to confirm the body's existence on film or in “reality.”

There is obviously much more to both the story and the film than these summaries would indicate, but the cursory outline of the storylines is sufficient to identify that both communicate a concern with how the imposition of a framework, the photograph frame in this case, alters reality and creates a new one. As Brent MacLaine writes in his article “Sleuths in the Darkroom,”

Roberto Michel, when he takes a photograph of the characters in the park, freezes events into an interpretation that belies the reality of those events.4

The same, of course, could be said of Thomas and his photograph in Blow-Up, and reality is clearly seen as being subject to alteration and perhaps manipulation simply by its susceptibility to the whims of human perception and the tyranny of representation.

In “Las babas del diablo,” Roberto Michel professes an understanding of just how ambiguous or changeable reality can be. His frustrations with the act of telling, as registered in the opening of the story, his penchant for repeated examination of events after their occurrence (something that ultimately changes the nature of the events, to his way of seeing), and his confessions to doubts about his own place in time all indicate that for him reality is illusive. Cortázar underlines this point by interrupting the narrative and subverting Michel's “truth” with parenthetical commentary that questions the validity of Michel's story. The technique of intertwining first—and third—person narration also points to the importance of how an event is told in defining that event. Michel is aware of the falsity of perception and communication, however, so the interruption of his narrative really only serves to emphasize the doubts he has already expressed:

Creo que sé mirar, si es que algo sé, y que todo mirar rezuma falsedad, porque es lo que nos arroja más afuera de nosotros mismos, sin la menor garantía, en tanto que oler, o (pero Michel se bifurca fácilmente, no hay que dejarlo que declame a gusto).5

Roberto Michel feels a great need to tell his story. However, just as Cortázar has conveyed in so much of his work, any telling is simply a falsified version of what is being told; reality is illusive to the writer or teller because he or she cannot experience what it is to actually be the reality described.6 David Grossvogel writes that:

the artist can neither tell as he knows he must, nor can he accept not to tell, or tell inadequately. He must possess through words (if he is a writer) the objects of his world […], but the words have an opacity equal to his own ontological encapsulation: he cannot be the other and therefore cannot tell what that other is, and the failure of telling extends to his inability to tell in its fullest the failure of telling.7

As the “other narrator” in “Las babas del diablo” indicates, “Michel es culpable de literatura, de fabricaciones irreales.”8 Also guilty of this, but well aware of it, is Cortázar. That reality has to remain illusive for the teller is understood by the author, but it does not prohibit him from presenting a vivid questioning of how reality is, in general, perceived and accepted. When Michel takes the photograph in the park and slices a fragment of reality out of what he was witnessing, he changes that reality at the time, and then also afterwards when he interprets the enlargements. The reader is left wondering if reality can be “real” at all if it can't be adequately or truly experienced, perceived or communicated. In concluding his article “Estructura, tiempo y fantasía en ‘Las babas del diablo,’” José Ortega emphasizes the gap between what is and what is told, and that Cortázar illuminates not reality, but that reality is altered by illumination and thus made illusive:

La dificultad de establecer relaciones recíprocas entre el plano de la realidad exterior y la dimensión fantástica explica la ambigüedad que caracteriza a este relato. Pero la fantasía opera dialécticamente entre lo real y lo posible posibilitando la aprehensión de ese devenir que escapa a la función representativa del lenguaje.9

The intent of the present study is to illustrate how Michelangelo Antonioni takes Cortázar's ontological questioning a step further in Blow-Up, particularly in the final scene of the film. As mentioned, “Las babas del diablo” served more as inspiration for the film than as a foundation or basis in storyline. Antonioni himself explained:

The idea for “Blow-Up” came to me while reading a short story by Julio Cortázar. I was not so much interested in the events as in the technical aspects of photography. I discarded the plot and wrote a new one in which the equipment itself assumed a different weight and significance.10

The changes Antonioni made, especially in the final scene, provide a measure of satisfaction for those in pursuit of some grasp of reality.

While the film and the story both deal with how reality is falsely translated, at the end of Antonioni's film there is a scene that transmits a glimpse of Antonioni's true conception of reality; an answer to Cortázar's questioning, in a sense. This scene involves Thomas interacting with a group of clown-like mimes engaged in a game of tennis without tennis balls or rackets. At first simply amused by the silliness of the game, Thomas becomes gradually enthralled by the “action.” When finally an imaginary ball is hit over the fence and into the adjacent field, Thomas is encouraged to retrieve the “ball” and throw it back to the players. This he does, effectively joining the game, and the film ends with the sound of a tennis ball bouncing on the court as the result of Thomas' having thrown it.11

Critics have interpreted this scene in many different ways, but it is clear that reality and fantasy mix here. What was purely make-believe for Thomas becomes reality when he participates; once he throws the ball back over the fence he is no longer an outsider looking in, so he can experience the reality. What Cortázar so masterfully elucidates in his fiction is that reality and fantasy are really the same thing depending on point-of-view. In the film, Thomas changes point-of-view and as a result converts what was “false,” for him, into something real, again, for him. Bittini expands on this idea and even includes the viewer:

Thomas's participation in the game confirms his belonging to this world. The fact that Thomas and we start hearing the sound of a ball means that we are all living in this world.12

Both Cortázar's Michel and Antonioni's Thomas try to capture reality by means of photography; they both fail. Both Cortázar and Antonioni, being modern thinkers and aware of postmodern thought, engage in artistic representation of ontological angst. As MacLaine puts it, they understand “the violence done to reality by a reifying art and imagination.”13 Michel wonders about how anything can ever really be told, and Thomas seems to find no reality in his world other than the superficiality of his friends, his profession, and his approach to life. All of these similarities between the story and the film have been studied and interpreted in many intelligent ways in scholarly criticism. The final scene of the film, however, seems to have escaped the attention given the “larger,” ontological, aspects of both the story and film.

To suggest, as some critics do, that Thomas' returning the imaginary tennis ball to the mimes reflects his becoming totally lost in the world of illusion is to miss Antonioni's point.14 If illusion and reality are ultimately seen to be differentiated only by point-of-view, then Thomas could very well have finally found his reality by participating with the mimes. The protagonist here discovers that he can't observe reality and capture it with a camera or any other device; reality is unique to the moment and must be experienced. Grossvogel explains:

When Thomas returns the imaginary ball to the mimes, in a participatory gesture, he has understood that the self-hypnosis of looking for a leg in a non-objective painting or a gun within the black and white blots of a blow-up is sterile.15

Much like Cortázar blends his protagonist with his narrator and mixes present with past and future in “Las babas del diablo,” Antonioni eliminates the hazy line of demarcation between reality and fantasy. Inspired by the postmodern questioning presented in Cortázar's story, Antonioni created an answer out of the problem: if reality is illusive because it can't be truthfully expressed, then the answer is to experience it, believe it, and understand that we all experience our own reality, the only “true” reality that can be experienced. The sound of the tennis ball on the court is the sign that Thomas is participating in a reality; whether or not we choose to participate is up to us, but we hear that reality along with Thomas and are invited, as was he, to believe. We see, in both the story and film, that reality cannot be transmitted in any true sense, and we experience this disappointment along with the protagonist; this disappointment is, then, a reality for us. In his article on image in film, Erwin Koppen essentially sustains this very point when he writes that Michel and Thomas set out to document reality through photography, but learn that:

chasing the tail of “reality” is a fruitless endeavor, although it leads to a kind of self-knowledge. Both heroes are made conscious of the fact that their craving to know, record, and control reality can only be satisfied through the power of their imagination and its artistic potential.16

Michel wonders how he can possibly narrate what he has to tell; he expresses his concerns many times. Thomas learns what Michel seems to know, and that is that one's own reality is exactly that: one's own. Perhaps the best way to summarize both the story and the film, the questions and the answer, is to quote from “Las babas del diablo” and Michel's rambling about truth. Could Michel's clouds and gulls be Thomas' tennis ball?

nadie sabe bien quién es el que verdaderamente está contando, si soy yo o eso que ha ocurrido, o lo que estoy viendo (nubes, y a veces una paloma) o si sencillamente cuento una verdad que es solamente mi verdad, y entonces no es la verdad salvo para mi estómago.17


  1. Julio Cortázar, “Las babas del diablo”, Las armas secretas, Buenos Aires, Sudamericana, 1968; p. 77.

  2. See Bittini for an excellent comparison of the story and the film. Bittini finds many differences between the two, among them the loss of the original ambiguity of the story's title when translated to English as “Blow-Up.”

  3. David Grossvogel, “Blow-Up: The Forms of an Esthetic Itinerary,” in Jaime Alazraki, (ed.), Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar, New York, G.K. Hall & Co., 1999; p. 145.

  4. Brent MacLaine, “Sleuths in the Darkroom: Photographer-Detectives and Postmodern Narrative,” Journal of Popular Culture, 33.3(1999), 79-94; p. 89.

  5. Julio Cortázar, op. cit.; p. 83.

  6. Grossvogel writes very eloquently on this issue as he makes the point that Michel's concerns and doubts in the story very directly reflect Cortázar's issues as a writer.

  7. David Grossvogel, op. cit.; p. 147.

  8. Julio Cortázar, op. cit.; p. 89.

  9. José Ortega, “Estructura, tiempo y fantasía en ‘Las babas del diablo’”, Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, 364/366 (1980), 407-413; p. 413.

  10. David Grossvogel, op. cit.; p. 147.

  11. See Knight for an interesting interpretation of this scene. He sees the scene as a questioning of reality rather than as an answer to how reality can be perceived.

  12. Patrizia Bittini, “Film is Stranger than Fiction: From Cortázar's ‘Las babas del diablo’ to Antonioni's Blow-Up,Romance Languages Annual 7 (1995), 199-203; p. 203.

  13. Brent MacLaine, op. cit.; p. 89.

  14. See both Grossvogel and Bittini for various interpretations of the mime scene.

  15. David Grossvogel, op. cit.; p. 154.

  16. Erwin Koppen, “The Image in Film: On Cortázar's ‘Las babas del diablo’ and Antonioni's Blow-Up”, Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 33(1984), 45-48; p. 48.

  17. Julio Cortázar, op. cit.; p. 79.

Works Cited

Antonioni, Michelangelo, dir. Blow-Up. Perf. David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave. MGM, 1966.

Báez Báez, Edith María. “Versiones de la realidad en ‘Las babas del diablo’ de Cortázar.” Hispanic Journal 14.1 (1993): 47-61.

Bittini, Patrizia. “Film is Stranger than Fiction: From Cortázar's ‘Las babas del diablo’ to Antonioni's Blow-Up.” Romance Languages Annual 7 (1995): 199-203.

Cortázar, Julio. “Las babas del diablo.” Las armas secretas. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1968. 77-98.

D'Lugo, Marvin. “‘Las babas del diablo: In Pursuit of Cortázar's Reel World.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 11.3 (1977): 395-409.

Grossvogel, David. “Blow-Up: The Forms of an Esthetic Itinerary.” Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. Ed. Jaime Alazraki. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1999. 144-154.

Knight, Arthur. “Three Encounters with Blow-Up.” Film Heritage 2 (1967): 3-6.

Koppen, Erwin. “The Image in Film: On Cortázar's ‘Las babas del diablo’ and Antonioni's Blow-Up.” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature 33 (1984): 45-48.

MacLaine, Brent. “Sleuths in the Darkroom: Photographer-Detectives and Postmodern Narrative.” Journal of Popular Culture 33.3 (1999): 79-94.

Ortega, José. “Estructura, tiempo y fantasía en ‘Las babas del diablo.’” Cuadernos hispanoamericanos 364/366 (1980): 407-413.

Urbistondo, Vicente. “Cinematografia y literatura en ‘Las babas del diablo’ y en Blow-Up.” Papeles de Son Armadans 71 (1973): 229-243.

Amanda Holmes (essay date April 2003)

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SOURCE: Holmes, Amanda. “Residential Unhomes in Short Stories by Julio Cortázar and Ilse Aichinger.” Neophilologus 87, no. 2 (April 2003): 246-64.

[In the following essay, Holmes compares the question of home in Cortázar's “Casa tomada” and Ilse Aichinger's “Wo ich wohne.”]

In his short story “Casa tomada,” Julio Cortázar creates what Anthony Vidler calls an “unhomely house”—a house that prevents the dweller from experiencing the comfort and shelter that a home should otherwise offer. Characters feel ill-at-ease inside these houses, fleeing them to escape the disquieting inner environments as the once cosy spaces become unhomely. Cortázar's urban home loses all signs of safety as the siblings leave its confines to escape the invading Other. The dichotomy of heimlich and un-heimlich converges in this residence through the incursion of an exterior force onto the interior.

As the Other in “Casa tomada” enters the house, the brother and sister progressively close off those sections that have been appropriated. Finally the occupants find themselves in the middle of the night without access to the kitchen or the bathroom, they hurriedly abandon their home and, once safely outside, discard the key. The Argentinean Cortázar (1914-1984), most renowned for his novel Rayuela [Hopscotch] (1963), important for its experimental narrative structure that encourages the reader to jump around in the book, has enjoyed extensive debate concerning “Casa tomada,” his first published short story.1 Some of the most prominent analyses of this story by literary scholars see the experience of Cortázar's characters as similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Alazraki 1983), a baby in the mother's womb (Andreu 1968), excrement in the intestines of the body (Ramond 1985), or the bourgeois elite in Peronist Argentina (Concha 1975). I will examine “Casa tomada” as it resonates comparatively with another short mid-century narrative “Wo ich wohne” [Where I Live] (1952) by the Austrian author Ilse Aichinger. As Cortázar explores connections between subject identity and the home, Aichinger imagines the dramatic retreat into the self caused by an equally unnerving experience of a redefined familiar interior. Aichinger's “Wo ich wohne” features a narrator who returns home from a concert to find that his or her apartment has moved down from the fourth to the third floor until, by the end of the story, the narrator is living in the basement and wonders where he or she (the protagonist's gender is never defined) will live next.

Ilse Aichinger (1921) has won several important awards for her work. In 1952, the year of publication for “Wo ich wohne,” she became the first woman to win an award from the Gruppe 47—the German literary circle established after World War II to try to develop a language that could deal with the legacy of the Nazi era. She has written several collections of short stories, poetry and radio plays, as well as one novel Die größere Hoffnung [Herod's Children] (1948), which relates the wartime experiences of a half-Jewish girl. Aichinger's work contends with the Austrian environment as it was influenced by the Nazi era, her interpretations of spaces resist construction through referential language as she unabatedly destabilizes the role of words and their ability to create meaning. By placing Aichinger's “Wo ich wohne” alongside Cortázar's short story, I consider the significance of the individual's relationship to both language and space in the post-World War II urban setting.

Both authors use the interaction between the inhabitants and the microcosm of the urban home to respond to social and political tensions inherent in these cities of this time-period. The architecture of the homes bears the mark of the past in both stories, locating the buildings in the midst of mid-century urban conversations between past grandeur and present-day discord. As the vehicle for nostalgia, the architectural styles of the fictional buildings come to represent divisions between past and present, as well as between private and public space. The imposition in both stories of some inexplicable Other on the individual residence probes the concept of home in mid-century Vienna and Buenos Aires, underscoring the inescapability of the city's impact on the lives of its inhabitants and questioning the nature of the walls, both architectural and linguistic, that separate Self from Other.

Although both stories take place within private homes, the city functions as an active protagonist in them as well. An unexplained urban entity influences the living spaces of the characters, challenging their understanding of security and comfort. The urban sites are the instigators of fear, and the architecture of the city homes draws that fear into the lives of the main characters. The walls of the buildings do not serve their purpose of protecting the inhabitants from the outside, but rather allow for an inexplicable intrusion of the urban space into the private lives of the characters.

Theoretically, walls are created for protection from the elements and the exclusion of strangers, producing ambiguous feelings of both security and fear. Peter Marcuse claims that “walls today represent power, but they also represent isolation; security, but at the same time fear.” This dual symbolism rests in the function of walls as dividers between victim and oppressor:

Boundary walls have come to reflect one of the chief characteristics of our historical experience: that those who oppress are themselves limited by their oppression, those that [sic] imprison are themselves imprisoned, that power dehumanizes those that [sic] exercise it as well as those against whom it is exercised. […] We accept walls that divide people and rigidify the relations among them as inevitable. They pervade our cities, they are visible (or block our sight) wherever we look, they symbolize status, rank, and power (or its lack), they are taken for granted and accepted as desirable, in one form or another, by everyone.


The ambiguous representational system inherent in city walls becomes the framework for the imaginary buildings defined by Aichinger and Cortázar. By exploiting this ambiguity, the authors challenge feelings of security and protection of the traditional home, presenting the urban un-home. Both authors emphasize the power inherent in a building, especially in buildings that have absorbed historical significance. With opposing attitudes towards the histories of their cities, the authors comment on the capacity of the present to destroy our relationship to the past by creating stories in which present and past meet inside representative buildings. Both authors use architecture as the element that spans the temporal trajectory. To this end, I will relate the works of Aichinger and Cortázar to the history of the architectural styles of homes in both Vienna and Buenos Aires, as well as to the social and political histories represented by these styles to demonstrate, finally, how architectural and linguistic ambiguities in these stories interrogate the concept of home under the oppression of postwar urban space.

The impact of World War II on the two fictional urban environments acts as a remnant of the real, linking the imaginary cities of the stories with their real counterparts. In “Casa tomada” the first-person narrator wants to read French literature, but finds that “Desde 1939 no llegaba nada valioso a la Argentina” [Since 1939 nothing of value reached Argentina];2 in “Wo ich wohne” the elevator has not functioned since the war—“der Lift ist seit dem Krieg nicht im Betrieb.”3 The war creates a cultural deficiency for the inhabitant of Buenos Aires, whereas for the Viennese it directly impacts the physical space of home.

Both narrators see World War II as an event that structures their understanding of the social reality that surrounds them, a perception that seems odd in the case of Buenos Aires. Cortázar's narrator appears excessively distanced from his immediate habitat, focusing more on what is happening across the Atlantic Ocean, bemoaning the fact that the war has curtailed his ability to stay up-to-date on literary happenings. The narrator apparently sees no value in literature other than that produced in France, but also only notices his immediate political surroundings in its relation to his residence. He worries that his European-style urban mansion will be demolished, and feels uneasy living in the front of the house, in a space the size of an apartment like “los que se edifican ahora, apenas para moverse” [the ones they build now, with hardly enough space to move] (12). For Cortázar's narrator, the good literature comes from Europe as do the showy homes, but he is unwilling to accept the new urban architectural structure of the apartment, which incidentally also comes from Europe. His understanding of Europe ends with the beginning of the war or even before, with a time when urban mansions were still a part of European urban reality.

In both stories, the relationship between the buildings, the characters and World War II demonstrates the narrators' attitudes towards modernity. A broken elevator for Aichinger's narrator points to the paralysis of postwar Vienna;4 Cortázar's narrator is stuck in the past, in a nostalgia for Europe and its literary classics, undesirous of modernity. The characters all seem incapacitated. Aichinger's narrator feels she cannot even mention the strange movement of the apartment, and she tells nobody.5 The same is true of the neighbors, who do not discuss the unusual situation, and the narrator attempts to adapt to the movement of the apartment as readily as possible. The brother and sister in Buenos Aires are not surprised by the noises behind the oak door of their house. They seem to have an implicit understanding of what or who has invaded the home, but the reader is never complicit in this knowledge. The siblings act alone in their attempts to protect themselves and save their house from the intrusion. These attitudes of silence and self-protection vis-à-vis a persistent oppressor are fundamental to both stories.

However, the characters embrace different methods for self-preservation: Aichinger's narrator chooses to remain entirely passive and does not consider vacating her apartment; the Cortázar couple actively close off portions of their home and finally leave the space. The narrator of “Wo ich wohne” is trapped, whereas in “Casa tomada” the brother and sister manage to escape. Indeed, Aichinger's narrator is surrounded by an identical personal space on each level of her descent: at every level she still hears the student breathing on the other side of the wall and her apartment walls and furnishings never change; even the bread remains where she has left it before returning home. The narrator is encompassed by her space, surrounded by her furniture, but incapable of preventing the apartment as a whole from moving. Analogous to the population of mid-century Vienna, trapped inside an occupied city with architecture that points to a thriving imperial past, the narrator of “Wo ich wohne” descends silently along with her apartment.6 Her primary concern is how her lifestyle will change when she finds herself in the sewer, or even worse, in “d[en] Feuer[n] im Innern der Erde” [the fires of the inner earth] (58). She approaches her entrapment with an attitude that seems to express her determination to keep one aspect of life intact: at least she still knows “where she lives.”

The irony inherent in the title of Aichinger's piece resonates with the mid-century Viennese residential experience. For much of the Viennese population, the experience of residing in Vienna from the 1920s to the 1950s was one of displacement, uneasiness and, during the Nazi occupation, terror. Aichinger herself lived in apartments in Vienna throughout her childhood and World War II, spending the war with her mother of Jewish heritage in a room on the same block as the Gestapo headquarters. Aichinger's half-Christian heritage saved her and her mother, as her daughter's guardian, from the Nazis, although those on her mother's side of the family all died in concentration camps.7 When Aichinger and her mother looked for a new apartment after the war, all the downtown residences had already been rented, and they had to move to the outskirts of the city.

The architecture of apartment buildings in Vienna—from the apartments on the Ringstrasse to Red Vienna's functionalist housing complexes—in many ways symbolizes the rise of modernity. One famous multi-story apartment project emerged in the 1860s out of the development of the Ringstrasse by the Emperor Franz Joseph during the modernization project of the city.8 At the turn of the century, zoning laws were implemented and apartment buildings were limited to a certain number of floors depending on location.9 New architecture for apartment buildings was developed between the World Wars, this time by the Social Democrats who inaugurated the subsidized housing projects for low-income families of Red Vienna.10 The short description of the apartment and the building in “Wo ich wohne” signals its state of disrepair by its focus on the inoperative elevator. A symbol of modernity, the building of “Wo ich wohne,” like the real Vienna of the time, has become rundown; its maintenance neglected.

Aichinger's narrator remains both dislocated and trapped inside her own residence, unable to escape the nostalgic ties to her home, but also lacking any control over her small urban space. While residents of postwar Vienna grappled with this contradictory relationship to the city, some inhabitants in mid-twentieth-century Buenos Aires also felt isolated from their immediate surroundings. Indeed, the architecture of the urban homes of mid-century Buenos Aires also pointed to a glorious past, but in this city, rather than reflect architecture that originated in Latin America as the Viennese apartment building reflected a Viennese architectural past, the building styles of Buenos Aires matched those of nineteenth-century Europe, particularly of France and Italy.11

In Buenos Aires, the urban mansion symbolized the city's aristocratic past. After Independence, Buenos Aires and Spanish American cities in general rejected colonial architecture in favor of that of France, Italy and Britain.12 Architects were repeatedly brought from Europe by the government to design buildings or even to create new plans for the city of Buenos Aires. Along with the large population increase in turn-of-the-century Buenos Aires—due to immigration from overseas and migration from the countryside—came a need for new housing. City housing projects after 1870 created a small number of tenements that housed six people to a room, often with residents of different cultural backgrounds sharing the small space (Gutiérrez 480). Under the new governance of the Radical Party after 1916, the European-style architecture that had symbolized the authority of the aristocracy began to be replaced by new apartment buildings and housing projects for the middle class. The narrator's claim, at the beginning of Cortázar's “Casa tomada,” that today “las casas antiguas sucumben a la más ventajosa liquidación de sus materiales” [old houses succumb to the most advantageous sale of their materials] (7), alludes to the new housing strategies of the era.13

The Viennese apartment building and the urban house of Buenos Aires represented the grand past for the respective cities. In “Wo ich wohne,” the apartment for the Viennese protagonist is the style of home that she proudly, albeit uneasily, inhabits; the Buenos Aires couple of “Casa tomada” prefers a spacious European-style home and considers living in an apartment the beginning of an inevitable end. Indeed, when the siblings are pushed out of the back part of the house by the invaders, they dislike living in the front because it resembles one of the contemporary apartments with hardly any room to move—“apenas para moverse” (12). This arrogant attitude towards their modern space underscores the isolation of the siblings as they live their daily lives. Lacking any interest in modernity, the siblings strive to enclose themselves in a space that represents the urban past of Buenos Aires: the expansive downtown house. Although at home in this limited space, the siblings seclude themselves from the contemporary experience of the city. As a result, they live as outsiders surrounded by a city that understands a modern reality very different from theirs. It is this city that finally expels them from their home.

While in “Wo ich wohne” the socio-political web around the story points to the feeling of entrapment in postwar Vienna, in “Casa tomada” the connection between the fictional architecture of the home and that of the real Buenos Aires of the time-period, as well as the location of the home in the city create a caricature of the contemporary urban political scene. The authority that controls the siblings supernaturally haunts their private space, scaring away the unproductive urban elite. As this scenario parodies a Peronist Buenos Aires, it also underscores Latin American debates concerning the role of Europe in post-colonial space.14

The colonists of this story develop from the nineteenth-century colonization of European ideas from Italy, Germany, Britain and primarily France. Following interpretations of regionalist literature of the first half of the twentieth century, it is tempting to characterize this dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed as one between populist and cosmopolitan, or even using the classical binary of civilization and barbarity.15 Each of these binaries too narrowly defines the two entities of inhabitants and intruding Other. Rather, the attachment of Cortázar's strange siblings to France and Brussels signals their outdated, indeed, colonialist attitude towards their immediate surroundings of Buenos Aires.

In this context, Cortázar's short story both revives the globally appreciated uncanny tale of haunting and reflects political realities of Argentina during this time period. As part of the production of Boom literature, Cortázar's tale rejects colonial domination of Latin American space, but also critiques what has become of Buenos Aires without the European influence. Cortázar bases the oppression in his fictional story on one that is grounded in the real text of the postcolonial city. As in “Wo ich wohne,” the cultural echoes of the surrounding city stand out as principal features for the interpretation of the story. Each of the three references to Buenos Aires in Cortázar's text—trips to the downtown bookstores, the name of the street where they live, and the description of the city dust—opens up a series of connotations.

Uninterested in validations of Latin American culture and society, the narrator explicitly looks to Europe for cultural experience: his Saturday excursions downtown which involve seeking out the latest French novel, characterize the narrator as fostering an intellectual detachment from Buenos Aires. Indeed, his disappointment that nothing of importance has reached Argentina since 1939 (11) forces him to reread the French books in his library. As the Other enters the house, it moves in from the back—“la parte más retirada” (12)—the part of the house that contains the library of French books.

This library side of the house also faces a named street, Rodríguez Peña, associating the intrusion with an explicit location in Buenos Aires: downtown, close to the governmental buildings, in a central location for involvement in city activity. In addition, the name signals a historical text: Rodríguez Peña was an influential organizer for Argentinean independence.16 The named street runs behind the house, as if the building sought to conceal its actual location, for the reader never discovers the name of the street that would give the house its official address. The invading Other moves from the back to the front of the house, or from the section that locates the story in the “real” Buenos Aires outside of the text to the part that remains anonymous and must be imagined without any “real” referent. Buenos Aires intrudes into the siblings' Europeanized haven.

One of the only reasons the siblings have to venture into the back of the house is to do the cleaning, and it is through this household chore that the city of Buenos Aires impacts their hermetic lives. Indeed, the narrator explains that:

casi nunca íbamos más allá de la puerta de roble, salvo para hacer la limpieza, pues es increíble cómo se junta tierra en los muebles. Buenos Aires será una ciudad limpia, pero eso lo debe a sus habitantes y no a otra cosa. Hay demasiada tierra en el aire, apenas sopla una ráfaga se palpa el polvo en los mármoles de las consolas y entre los rombos de las carpetas de macramé; da trabajo sacarlo bien con plumero, vuela y se suspende en el aire, un momento después se deposita de nuevo en los muebles y los pianos.


[we would almost never go beyond the oak door, except to do the cleaning, it is just incredible how much dust collects on the furniture. Buenos Aires might be a clean city, but that's because of its inhabitants and nothing else. There's too much dust in the air, with just a small puff of wind the dust collects in the marble surfaces of the console tables and between the diamonds of the macramé table covers; it's a lot of work to get rid of it all with the duster, it flies and suspends itself in the air, a moment later it settles down again on the furniture and the pianos.]

Along with the irony inherent in the focus on the dusty air of “Buenos Aires” (literally “good air”), this passage shows the narrator's definition of the city to consist of the space independent of its inhabitants: “Buenos Aires será una ciudad limpia, pero eso lo debe a sus habitantes y no a otra cosa” [Buenos Aires might be a clean city, but that's because of its inhabitants and nothing else] (13). Here the “city” is separate from the people who reside there. The inhabitants can do only so much to maintain a clean city, according to the narrator, but in essence Buenos Aires is a dirty place. Although the siblings clean regularly, they are forced to accept the dust's penetration into their home, as they are forced later to accept the incursion of the Other.

Cortázar's “Casa tomada” explores the modern city in conflict with a city that rested on the past of another space: Europe. Although modernity in architecture meant a return to Hispanic architectural styles as well as indigenous ones—styles that had developed in the Americas during the colonial past—, it also meant a break from French, Italian, German and British architectural models. Architects in mid-century Buenos Aires finally looked for methods to create a modern American city, rather than a modern European one. Cortázar's story responds to this attempt. European traces no longer belong in Buenos Aires, although Cortázar's haunting Other, the bullies that force out the old elite, hardly form an appropriate political alternative. Cortázar parodies both old and new Buenos Aires, suggesting skeptically that neither political control holds the key to modernity.

In postwar Vienna, modernity has also been thwarted. In Aichinger's “Wo ich wohne,” the thriving modern state, like the elevator in the Viennese apartment building, has been left in disrepair since World War II. Although modernity hovers in all aspects of the narrator's experience of urban life—the narrator attends concerts, rides the tram, and presses a timed button in the hallway of the apartment building—the building has now become uncannily animated, beyond human control. While Cortázar's characters act to isolate the invaders in one part of the house, the narrator of Aichinger's story finds herself paralyzed as she faces the disquieting situation of a moved apartment. The terror of social interaction moves her to passivity and she remains alone in her apartment imagining uneasy situations. She worries that, if she were to walk up to the original floor of her apartment and ask around, other inhabitants of the building would confront her with the question “Was suchen Sie hier?” [What do you want here?] (56). This question fills the narrator with horror: “Und diese Frage, von einem meiner bisherigen Nachbarn gestellt, fürchte ich so sehr, daß ich lieber liegen bleibe, obwohl ich weiß, daß es bei Tageslicht noch schwerer sein wird, hinaufzugehen” [And this question, posed by one of my previous neighbors, frightens me so much that I would rather stay lying down here, although I know that it will be even more difficult to go upstairs and ask by daylight] (56). The logic that daybreak brings will heighten the illogical perception of the movement of the apartment. However, the same neighbors, whose judgement the narrator fears, are also presumably struggling with the same conflicts of identity: if they speak they are judged insane; if they don't speak, they will have to allow the manipulation of their personhood.

The interiority implicated in the silent act finds a response in written language according to Aichinger. In an interview in 1971, the author explains that she sees writing as the best means of achieving silence: “[Schreiben] bedeutet für mich den Versuch, zu Schweigen, vielleicht schreibe ich deshalb, weil ich keine bessere Möglichkeit zu schweigen sehe” [[Writing] means for me the attempt to remain silent. Perhaps I write because I see no better possibility to keep silent] (Moser 26). As Aichinger retreats into writing she marks her understanding of written language as the means of communicating the emotional impact of the War. The only language that can communicate is that of her fictional texts, stories that record visions which haunt her imagination.

The contradictions inherent in Aichinger's comments on silence and writing are voiced also by the narrator of her story. The narrator's terror of voicing words and communicating through spoken language, her extreme introversion and fear of the wrath of others cause her to keep her thoughts inside herself. She entices the reader into the narrative with her whispered confession: “Ich will es nicht laut sagen, aber ich wohne tiefer” [I don't want to say it out loud, but I live lower] (55). As she confides in the reader, she exposes her desire to be heard. The narrator finds a need to transfer her thoughts in an act of communication that is also silent: the written word.

The narrator feels so connected to her apartment that she feels its movement marks her as physically unusual, and that people can notice this strange domestic experience on her person: “In der Straßenbahn überrascht es mich, daß der Schaffner mich behandelt wie die übrigen Fahrgäste und niemand von mir abrückt” [In the tram I am surprised that the conductor treats me like the other riders and no one moves away from me] (58). Even inside her building, the narrator physically reacts to the space. Her exhaustion after climbing three flights of stairs signals to her that she already must have climbed the four flights to her apartment: “Gewöhnlich überfällt mich im dritten Stock eine Art von Erschöpfung, die manchmal so weit führt, daß ich denke, ich müßte schon vier Treppen gegangen sein” [Regularly on the third floor I am overcome with a kind of exhaustion that sometimes goes so far that I think I must have already climbed the four flights of stairs] (55). Her physical interaction with the building helps her recognize her own apartment, and the first move down one floor seems almost in response to a wish that she expresses: she wishes she were already home—“Ich wollte, ich wäre schon hier!” (55). To her dismay, this fairy-tale wish comes true, and her apartment is indeed now on the third floor of the building.

The wish-come-true scenario and the narrator's decision to lie down and rest from her exhausting climb up the stairs lead to the possible interpretation of the text as merely an hallucination. However, the layers of imagination surpass the prescriptions of a simple frame story. The narrator imagines confrontational retorts by her neighbors as well as humiliating dialogues with her landlord and cleaning lady in her fancied struggle to appeal the relocation of her apartment. Her imagined interactions with others reveal her perception of the city as a judgemental, unsympathetic, unreliable space. The home to which she clings surpasses her control, as she is left in her apartment wondering how she will fare in further movements down to the depths of the earth. Lacking personal dominion over her living space, she does not have the ability to control her own movement from one home to the other. Rather the space controls her, moves her, and forces her to live where it prescribes. She remains trapped.

The added emphasis in “Wo ich wohne” on one specific event—the descent of the apartment—demonstrates the uneasiness that the situation causes in the narrator's mind and the un-homeliness of her own space. The concentration on one unusual object or event to emphasize the feeling of the uncanny is a technique used frequently by Aichinger in her stories, including “Mein grüner Esel” [My Green Donkey] and “Die Puppe” [The Doll] among others. In these stories, Aichinger creates situations which question the sense of ownership that inhabitants feel towards their environments. The narrator of “Mein grüner Esel” seeks ownership of an animal—a green donkey—that likely does not exist. The need for attachment is juxtaposed in each instance with the rejection and oppression of the city. In later stories, Aichinger focuses on specific architectural features, such as a balcony in “Zweifel an Balkonen” [Doubts about Balconies] or a crossbeam in “Der Querbalken,” to evoke this contradictory attitude towards urban space.

Like many of Aichinger's later prose texts, “Zweifel an Balkonen” (1972) has no recountable storyline. Here Aichinger avoids traditional narrative techniques that focus on relationships between characters, and chooses the balcony as the focus for a discussion on homelands. She writes with linguistic associations, not with relationships, bypassing words such as “during” and “because.”17 The uncanny, in this story, emerges in the haziness of the border between human and thing as well as through the provocation of language to become unrepresentational; at times in the text even the man becomes indistinguishable from the balcony. The reader stumbles through the text as if through a labyrinth, always searching for comprehension. The story repeatedly leads from the abstract back to the literal; from balconies as representatives of the ideology of home, back to balconies as material objects. A balcony is a place for drinking coffee, where one plays Halma, where soldiers throw their caps when they come home from war, but it also symbolizes the Heimatgefühl [feeling of home].18

In the balcony text, Aichinger uses the word balcony so frequently—twenty-one times in the first paragraph—that it becomes incomprehensible, the attention of the reader redirected towards the keyword of the text: homelands (Lorenz 176). In “Wo ich wohne” and “Mein grüner Esel” the focus on a single object stands out. The emphasis on object in “Zweifel an Balkonen” reaches an extreme. Language itself hovers between representation and misrepresentation. Aichinger's associations in the text persistently evade a clear transitional quality, and the reader is left groping for answers. In comparison with this story, the symbolic descent of an apartment becomes a traditional means to represent oppression. In “Zweifel an Balkonen” language itself oppresses the reader as the architectural structure of the balcony slides through representations causing the reader doubts about language as a communicative device.

The vacillation between familiar and unfamiliar uses of language causes a disquiet in the reader trying to interpret Aichinger's story. Likewise, the narrator of “Wo ich wohne” cannot find the language to convey her disturbing discovery of the relocated apartment. For Cortázar the language of fiction also moves beyond that of conventional communication. Jaime Alazraki explains:

Reliving language meant for him [Cortázar] what it has always meant to literary art: converting the signs of its code into means of expression of a new code, that of literature. A notion or situation inconceivable in the language of communication—a person turned into an insect—becomes possible through the language of fiction. Fiction speaks where language remains silent. Furthermore, fiction dares to enter that region which is out of language's reach: a space irreducible to physical scales, a time outside the clock's domain, emotions not yet recorded in psychology manuals.

(Alazraki 1999, 135)

In Alazraki's analysis, Cortázar's perception of language is similar to Aichinger's claim that she writes because she has found no better way to stay silent. According to Alazraki, Cortázar understands that “fiction speaks where language remains silent.” Both authors provoke their readers to understand language that lurks not in reality but beyond, in our imagination of the real. With fiction, Aichinger calls on the young people to work with their dreams: “die Träume aus dem Schlaf zu holen, sie der Ernüchterung auszusetzen und sich ihnen doch anzuvertrauen” [to take dreams out of sleep, to sift out the disillusionment and to make them a part of you] (Aichinger, “Rede an die Jugend” 20). Fiction allows Aichinger to express emotions that have not yet found a place in referential language. Cortázar also explores this linguistic space.

In “Casa tomada,” as well as in stories such as “Después del almuerzo” [After lunch], Cortázar uses a symbol to represent this unique capacity of fiction. They refer to unspecified others by personal pronouns: in “Casa tomada” it is a “they” that invades the home; in “Después del almuerzo” it is the “él” [he/it] that the boy takes for a walk in downtown Buenos Aires. In each of the stories, the characters have more information than is imparted to the reader. The reader is unable to identify the “they” or the “he/it,” and it is left up to speculation: in “Casa tomada” the “they” is in some way connected to the city; in “Después del almuerzo” the “he/it” is in some way a member of the family—a handicapped child, an old man, or perhaps even some fantastical being.

These unidentified subjects represent Cortázar's perception of fiction as a language that reaches beyond conventional communication. Without a specific referent, the “they” or the “he/it” remain in the realm of the language of fiction for the reader. Cortázar creates a sense of the unnamed entities for the reader, ushering in an uneasy aura surrounding them. The reader empathizes with the characters who obviously fear—in the case of “Casa tomada”—or resist—in “Después del almuerzo”—these beings without stable referents. The unrepresentational quality of these entities recalls the haziness of misrepresentational language in Aichinger's “Zweifel an Balkonen” and the fear of language described in “Wo ich wohne.” The word “they” without definition of its referent can signify so much that it cannot be controlled. The reader's imagination fans out through the possibilities, and an uneasiness sets in.

In “Casa tomada,” the feared “they” becomes associated with an architectural element of the old home, namely the oak door. This door divides the front from the back of the house and is slammed closed by the narrator to prevent the entrance of the Other into the front of the house. In this way, the narrator divides the house between the home and the un-home, and a fear of the door reflects the fear of the “they”:

De día eran los rumores domésticos, el roce metálico de las agujas de tejer, un crujido al pasar las hojas del álbum filatélico. La puerta de roble, creo haberlo dicho, era maciza. En la cocina y el baño, que quedaban tocando la parte tomada, nos poníamos a hablar en voz más alta o Irene cantaba canciones de cuna.

(16; My italics)

[During the day, there were domestic sounds, the metallic brushing of the knitting needles, a creak when turning the pages of the stamp album. The oak door, I think I already said, was massive. In the kitchen and the bathroom, that touched the part that was taken over, we started to speak in louder voices or Irene sang lullabies.]

By tucking this depiction of the door between elaborations of their lives, the text underscores the narrator's uneasiness with this wooden structure as it signifies what lurks behind it. Instead of describing their perception of the “they,” the narrator replaces the “they” by the door. The oak door represents the dual characteristics of walls identified by Peter Marcuse: both connector and divider, protector and excluder. Here, Cortázar uses this dualism in his construction of a penetrable fictional wall. The door protects from the intruders, but not enough to guarantee the security of the inhabitants. The brother and sister still have trouble sleeping and toss in their beds listening intently to the sounds of the house, “de noche se escuchaba cualquier cosa en la casa” [at night one would hear all sorts of things in the house] (16).

The language of fiction allows Cortázar to explore a “they” that can penetrate a wall, but also portrays an entity that is inescapable. In this case, that entity is the modernity of the city, as the narrator and his sister have resisted any desire to leave the past behind. The door's closure causes the inhabitants to change their routine. They no longer need to do the cleaning in the back part of the house, and they restrict themselves to the apartment-sized space in the front as well as to the items of entertainment that they have in that part of the house. The door changes the perception of space within the house:

Cuando la puerta estaba abierta advertía uno que la casa era muy grande; si no, daba la impresión de un departamento de los que se edifican ahora, apenas para moverse; Irene y yo vivíamos siempre en esta parte de la casa, casi nunca íbamos más allá de la puerta de roble …


[When the door was open one noticed that the house was very big; if not, it seemed like an apartment like the ones they are building now, with hardly enough room to move; Irene and I always lived in this part of the house, we would almost never go beyond the oak door …]

When the door is open it exposes the spaciousness of the enormous house by revealing the length of the hallway that extends from the back to the front of the house. When it is closed, the brother and sister live in the present, in the small apartment typical of the time in Buenos Aires.

The siblings experience a change of identity with the closing of the door and the creation of the wall: from one attached to the maintenance of the house to a focus on pure survival. After the residents close off the back part of the house, they stop thinking, indicating their overwhelming concern for survival: “Estábamos bien, y poco a poco empezábamos a no pensar. Se puede vivir sin pensar” [We were fine, and little by little we started not to think. One can live without thinking] (16). The characters do not have personal dominion of the spaces that define their identity. Like the relationship between the narrator of “Wo ich wohne” and her apartment, this home oppresses not only the characters' bodies by subjugating them to undesired living accommodations, but also their identities. The narrator of “Wo ich wohne” attempts to accustom herself to the lack of control she has over her home and lacks the confidence to discuss it with her neighbors. The siblings of “Casa tomada” finally relinquish all concern for the house, throwing the keys in the gutter for fear that another would enter the home and be exposed to the Other's oppression. This radical adaptation to the strange situations highlights the passive reaction of individuals towards an oppressive controlling Other.

The limitations of language explored by Cortázar in his short stories are often conflated with symbolic spatial barriers, such as the divisions between rooms in “Bestiario” [Bestiary] the walls of the aquarium in “Axolotl” and the door in “La puerta condenada” [The Condemned Door]. For Cortázar, these barriers are flexible: the rooms that house the tiger in “Bestiario” are sometimes off-limits, sometimes not; the walls of the aquarium in “Axolotl” do not stop the narrator from turning into a fish and encountering Mexican cultural heritage in the process; in “La puerta condenada,” Cortázar speculates on the limits between the real and the imaginary through the object of a hotel door. In this story the narrator hears a baby crying behind a closed door between his room and another in a hotel. When he asks the hotel managers about the woman and her baby, he is assured that there is no baby and that the crying is a part of his imagination. Here, as in “Casa tomada,” a wooden door emphasizes the sense of hearing in the character restricted to one side of the wall.

A closed door accentuates the desire to know what is happening on the other side because of its potential to be opened. In “Casa tomada” the protagonists know what is on the other side but, in their fear, remain obsessively attentive to any noises they hear, whereas in “La puerta condenada,” the narrator seeks to clarify sounds that only he seems to hear in order to validate the perception of his own senses. The door of “Casa tomada” divides private spaces within a house that is almost too familiar to its occupants. “La puerta condenada” explores the limits between public and private space in a hotel where visitors come and go, defining rooms as their own private spaces for a few days and then moving on.

As Carlos Alonso and some contributors to a recent volume have argued, the uncanny for Cortázar is located in a condition of “betweenness”: it is the limit, the barrier, or the wall that runs between reality and the supernatural. The short stories “Lejana” [Distant], “Cartas de mamá” [Letters from Mother], and “El otro cielo” [The other sky/heaven] all use doubles to question the nature of subject identity and nationality. In each case the division between the Self and the Other involves an imagining on the part of the Self of the Other's identity. Language often plays an integral part in this quest for understanding as is explicit in “Lejana,” in which the protagonist Alina Reyes believes that her double exists as the final part of the anagram of her name “es la reina y …” [is the queen and …] (Cortázar, “Lejana” 36). The imagined end of the sentence becomes the reality: her double survives scantily in Budapest. The divider here involves reality and fantasy, language and fiction as well as the physical locations.

The walls and barriers of the fictions of Aichinger and Cortázar are unstable obstructions that can be crossed, providing no security and no division. Physical walls at times provide only flimsy protection as is the case in “Casa tomada” and “La puerta condenada,” or lose their stability and move by themselves as in “Wo ich wohne.” The language of “Zweifel an Balkonen” moves easily between referential and non-referential language, and the characters of “Axolotl” and “Lejana” transform unhesitantly into others. Walls of architecture, language and personhood are deconstructed in these texts by Aichinger and Cortázar and replaced by unstable barriers that can be moved and penetrated, shifted and destroyed. The stories rest on these barriers, they warp them and redesign them, flirting with the reader's understanding of city and text, real and imaginary. Walls that should both protect and exclude do both at the same time, thereby canceling out the signification: the Other penetrates, controls and oppresses the Self in each story, as the characters attempt to protect themselves by familiar walls and barriers. The language of silence is the language of fiction, a language that rests in this uneasy space between reference and nonreference, one that relies on dreams as well as reality.


  1. “Casa tomada” was first published by Jorge Luis Borges in the Buenos Aires journal Sur. Later editions include this story as the first of the collection Bestiario, in which many of the stories parody Peronist Argentina.

  2. Julio Cortázar, “Casa tomada,” Casa tomada y otros relatos (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1995) 11. All subsequent references from this edition.

  3. Ilse Aichinger, “Wo ich wohne,” Wo ich wohne: Erzählungen, Gedichte, Dialoge (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1963) 55. All subsequent references from this edition.

  4. After World War II, Vienna was occupied by the four allied forces and did not gain autonomy until 1955.

  5. The gender of Aichinger's protagonist is never defined in the story. Other interpretations of the story have considered the protagonist to be male. Because the story is written by a woman and reflects aspects of her biography, I will consider the protagonist to be female.

  6. Hans Wolfschütz touches on this interpretation in his brief discussion of “Wo ich wohne” when he describes the narrator as “a prisoner of the old-established ways.” He claims that “the narrative “I” cannot even begin to think in terms of protest; it remains transfixed by its own helplessness and vulnerability, finding some fleeting consolation in the fact that up to now the narrower ‘world’ of its own home has at least stayed the same” (Wolfschütz 167).

  7. Aichinger's grandmother and her mother's sister and brother were all sent away to Minsk in 1942. Aichinger's twin sister Helga managed to escape to England in July 1939 to join her aunt, two months before the outbreak of war, during one of the last waves of immigration. Aichinger and her mother could not get a visa. For more details about Aichinger's biography see Reichensperger.

  8. The large apartment buildings constructed around the Ringstrasse were designed with four to six floors, usually with no more than sixteen units. These buildings were modelled on the British style and were set up as multiple-family dwellings in which the first floor held the commercial space, the second floor had spatious apartments for higher classes, and the third floor was often further divided into smaller dwellings. The designs of the façades and the windows became less lavish the higher up in the building (Schorske 46-51).

  9. For a discussion on urban planning ideas in turn-of-the-century Vienna see Banik-Schweitzer.

  10. These projects—called the Gemeindebauten—improved on earlier low income housing designs and especially on the hated Gangküchenhaus [corridor kitchen tenement]. The Gemeindebauten created small, bright interconnected rooms with toilets, running water and gas contained within the apartment. These new apartments most importantly got rid of the long corridors with shared taps and toilets that had been typical of low income housing (Blau 206-207).

  11. For a concise overview on the influence of European urban planning ideas on Latin America see Hardoy 20-49.

  12. Francisco Bullrich sees this as an extreme shortfall for Argentinean architecture as he perceives the nineteenth-century European architectural styles as lacking originality at that time period. He bemoans the focus on revivalist architectural movements in Europe (Renaissance, Gothic, etc.) and Argentina's loss of beautiful Hispanic architecture of the pre-Independence era such as the Cabildo (Bullrich 14).

  13. With the rise of industrialization, European cities had modernized and moved into new housing ideas that attempted to consolidate cities with highrise or at least multistory apartment buildings. The French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier gave a series of nine talks in Buenos Aires in 1929. Le Corbusier's ideas on city planning included a plan for the city of Buenos Aires and other Latin American and Third World cities. One of Le Corbusier's main concerns was traffic flow. To relieve this, he proposed a city made up of twenty-four sixty story skyscrapers for offices and hotels for 10,000 to 50,000 people, surrounded by multiple housing units of six stories with sunroofs for 600,000 people surrounded again by Garden Cities that would house two million people. He envisioned Latin American cities as the ideal space for the completion of his ideas, however forgot that Latin America lacked the economic and political superstructure necessary to create such designs (Hardoy 36-41). See also Ortiz 121.

  14. For an analysis of how Cortázar's depiction of Latin America coincides with other mid-century Boom writers, see Amar Sánchez 19-35.

  15. Carlos Alonso's discussion of autochtonous writing becomes compelling here as it complicates the relationships between author and cultural heritage in Latin America. In Cortázar's story this dialogue is enacted between the characters and the Other in the city.

  16. Nicolás Rodríguez Peña, a member of the military that successfully defeated the British during their invasion of the River Plate (1806-1807), was also one of the organizers of the secret society in favor of Argentinean independence. He supported the May Revolution of 1810 that spurred an insurrection against the Spanish colonial government.

  17. Aichinger claims this in a piece that begins the collection of stories in which “Zweifel an Balkonen” appears called “Schlechte Wörter” [Bad Words] (Aichinger, Schlechte Wörter 8).

  18. Contrary to the claims of several critics that Aichinger's text need to be taken at face value—Heinz Schafroth claims that Aichinger's texts need should be read “ohne Umwege über Symbolik, Mystizismus, Hermetik” [without detours through symbolism, mysticism and hermeticism]—I argue that the balcony clearly has a symbolic resonance (Schafroth 129).

Works Cited

Aichinger, Ilse. “Rede an die Jugend,” in Ilse Aichinger: Materialien zu Leben und Werk. Ed. Samuel Moser. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1990, pp. 18-20.

———. Schlechte Wörter. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1976.

———. Wo ich wohne: Erzählungen, Gedichte, Dialoge. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1963.

Alazraki, Jaime. En Busca del Unicornio: Los cuentos de Julio Cortázar. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1983.

Alazraki, Jaime, Ed. Critical Essays on Julio Cortázar. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1999.

Alonso, Carlos, ed. Julio Cortázar: New Readings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Alonso, Carlos. The Spanish American Regional Novel: Modernity and Autochthony. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Amar Sánchez, Ana María. “Between Utopia and Inferno (Julio Cortázar's Version),” in Trans. M. Elizabeth Ginway. Julio Cortázar: New Readings. Ed. Carlos J. Alonso. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 19-35.

Banik-Schweitzer, Renate. “Urban Visions, Plans, and Projects, 1890-1937,” in Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1937. Eds. Eve Blau and Monika Platzer. New York: Prestel, 1999, pp. 58-72.

Blau, Eve. “Großstadt and Proletariat in Red Vienna,” in Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1937. Eds. Eve Blau and Monika Platzer. New York: Prestel, 1999, pp. 205-208.

Concha, Jaime. “Criticando Rayuela.Hispanamérica 4.1 (1975): 131-151.

Cortázar, Julio. Casa tomada y otros relatos. Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1995.

Ferré, Rosario. Cortázar: El romántico en su observatorio. N.p.: Literal Books, 1990.

Fiddler, Allyson. “Post-War Austrian Women Writers,” in Post-War Women's Writing in German: Feminist Critical Approaches. Ed. Chris Weedon. Providence: Berghahn Books, 1997, pp. 243-268.

Gutiérrez, Ramón. Arquitectura y urbanismo en Iberoamérica. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, S. A., 1983.

Hardoy, Jorge E. and Richard M. Morse, Eds. Rethinking the Latin American City. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. Ilse Aichinger. Kingstein/Ts.: Athenäum Verlag, 1981.

Marcuse, Peter. “Walls of Fear and Walls of Support,” in Architecture of Fear. Ed. Nan Ellin. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997, pp. 101-115.

Moser, Samuel, Ed. Ilse Aichinger: Materialien zu Leben und Werk. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1990.

Ortiz, Federico F. “1920-1940: El fugaz paso de la modernidad,” in Arquitectos europeos y Buenos Aires 1860-1940. Eds. Clara Braum and Julio Cacciatore. Buenos Aires: Fundación TIAU, 1996, pp. 115-125.

Ramond, Michèle. “La casa de sus sueños: sobre ‘Casa tomada’ de Julio Cortázar,” in Lo lúdico y lo fantástico en la obra de Cortázar. Madrid: Editorial fundamentos, 1985, pp. 97-109.

Rosenblat, María Luisa. “La nostalgia de la unidad en el cuento fantástico: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ y ‘Casa tomada,’” in Los ochenta mundos de Cortázar: Ensayos. Madrid: Fernando Burgos, 1987, pp. 199-210.

Schmid-Bortenschlager, Sigrid. “Der Ort der Sprache. Zu Ilse Aichinger,” in Das Schreiben der Frauen in Österreich seit 1950. Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 1991, pp. 86-94.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, pp. 46-51.

Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

Wolfschütz, Hans. “Ilse Aichinger: The Sceptical Narrator,” in Modern Austrian Writng: Literature and Society after 1945. Eds. Alan Best and Hanz Wolfschütz. London: Oswald Wolff, 1980, pp. 156-180.


Cortázar, Julio (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 10)