Julio Cortázar Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cortázar, Julio 1914–

An Argentinian novelist, short story writer, translator, and poet, Cortázar is considered a master of fantastic literature. In his hands, the fabric of reality is woven almost imperceptibly with threads of fantasy, creating a unique fiction that often bears the influence of his fellow fantasist, Borges. Cortázar probes the subconscious of his characters, and often the reader is confounded in his attempt to decipher whether he is in the realm of the bizarre or is witness to the machinations of a deranged mind. Cortázar's work marks a departure from traditional Latin American literature, offering a dazzling display of language and structural openness. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

José VáSquez Amaral

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


The contemporary Argentinian … is suffering from a grave crisis of identity. The crisis is much more serious than the one that usually accompanies the individual who wishes that a certain man were his father but knows deep in his heart that he is not. All the apparent factors for a legitimate origin from the gaucho are present and it is only by a cruel twist of fate that the contemporary Argentinian is not even an illegitimate child of the gaucho. About all that he can claim is a literary or imaginary descent from that immensely seductive figure, unique in the history of the disappeared races of the Americas. With a great deal more complexity and morbidity than one would suspect from the non-existence of a particular much desired ancestor, the contemporary Argentine is suffering from a loss that he cannot possibly replace by any means at his disposal. It is this complexity and this morbid state of the Argentine people that is the very core of the novel by Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch.

Cortázar is one of the most accomplished craftsman in both the novel and the short story in the letters of his country and indeed, in the Spanish-speaking world. In the short story he has only one rival, the master of the short story in Spanish and one of the great masters of the genre, Jorge Luis Borges, his compatriot. Some of the short stories that are included in one of his early volumes (End of the Game) are masterpieces that bear comparison with any produced in any contemporary literature. One of these, "The Lines of the Hand," seemed to me to foreshadow the length and the style of the short story of the future. Another, "Flattening the Drops," seemed to indicate the type of short story that could be conveniently read by a passenger being shot into space in a rocket that would land him in any part of the world in a matter of minutes. Julio Cortázar has a decided genius and inclination towards the shorter narrative, beyond question. (pp. 160-61)

One may safely say that what holds [Hopscotch] together, in the last analysis, is the quest of the entire Argentine nation for a personal and a national identity…. Hopscotch is the inevitable return trip of the Spanish galleons that went back to Spain and Europe laden with the gold of the New World. Or, at least, Hopscotch is the tolling of the bell for the trips that the Latin American used to make in search of that sense of "belonging" that took him to the studios, universities, taverns, and fleshpots of the Old World.

In Hopscotch even the protagonists cease to be natives of the country to become an assortment of the flotsan and jetsam of the world cast upon the sand of ancient gay Paree. The novel, had James Joyce not preempted the title, could just as well have been called Exiles. The dramatis personae of the narrative are a group of displaced persons who have not been uprooted from their original homes by the wars but by the sense of no longer...

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Roberto GonzáLez Echevarria

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[Cortázar suggests] that there is no break between the 'real' and 'fantastic' in his stories but instead a mode of presenting the 'real' that transfers it to the level of the 'unusual' (insólito)….

As in many of his short stories, Cortázar builds "La autopista del sur" upon a single situation; a set of circumstances within which the action and the characters are framed (more on this later). In "La autopista del sur" the situation is a traffic jam on the outskirts of Paris that begins on a Sunday afternoon and lasts days, months, and perhaps even years. The people caught in the jam are forced to organize communes to pool their supplies, trade services and help one another until they can reach Paris. The story focuses on one of these communes…. (p. 133)

The technique of building a story upon a single situation is a device that Cortázar uses quite consciously. He has compared it to the photographer's technique….

[The plot] is not the whole story; the story is encased within a situation that is charged with potential meaning in itself…. The situation, then, works as a sign, charged with multiple potential meanings that emerge in the telling of the story, the 'utterance' of that sign. This is obviously the case in "Blow-up," in which the protagonist, a photographer, explores the various possible meanings that arise from a situation he has captured on film; the story begins hesitantly, as if the narrator were uncertain of how to make of this 'situation-sign' an utterance, a praxis…. (p. 134)

The situation-sign that serves as point of departure for "La autopista del sur" is both a "slice of life" (a recorte de la realidad in the sense given this term by Cortázar) and a blatantly literary device [that of continuing heterogeneous characters in an inclosure of some kind]. (pp. 134-35)

The inclosure has several functions. It may serve to isolate a group of characters in order to observe their responses under unusual circumstances … where the emphasis lies upon the psychological and moral behavior of the characters. It may also … present a perfectly rounded microcosm that is a scaled down model of a macrocosm, or a model for a possible one. Here the emphasis lies not so heavily on individual responses as on the model institutions created to regulate them…. Finally, the inclosure may be an allegory. (p. 135)

In "La autopista del sur" Cortázar exploits all these traditional functions of the enclosure: the commune is a microcosm, an isolated society that depends only on itself for survival, institutions and customs are created to regulate the interaction of the characters and … it is also a sort of theatrum mundi.

But in Cortázar's story the nature of the device is particularly complex because there are, in fact, two inclosures—the traffic jam and the commune created by the characters. The aperture of which Cortázar speaks in his [essay] "Algunos aspectos del cuento" produces in "La autopista del sur" a double exposure—a picture where two distinct images are superimposed…. [In "La autopista del sur," however, the split worlds do not offer a direct commentary upon] general metaphysical problems. If the story does indeed refer to them, it does so only in a very devious way. (pp. 135-36)

It is quite obvious that Cortázar saw in La rentrée [the return to the city of Parisians after August...

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Lanin A. Gyurko

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Las babas del diablo," one of the most challenging of the short stories of … Cortázar, the protagonist Roberto Michel is confronted with and, finally, overwhelmed by the deceptions posed by visual perception, chronological time, and discursive language. His account is a desperate attempt to arrive at the nature of truth about the traumatic experience that has destroyed him—ironically, rendering him incapable of conveying it in a rational manner. The reality of the experience is so unsettling that Michel ends by doubting whether it is knowable, communicable, or even whether it really exists apart from his imaginative consciousness.

Michel is a split personality in several respects. His background is both French and Chilean. His life is composed primarily of his professional work as a translator and his avocation, amateur photography. As a translator he constantly deals with the problem of finding the exact form to transmit meaning between Spanish and French, two different modes of structuring reality. Michel is also split psychologically. His identity and his sanity are destroyed by the imaginative reliving of an experience that he initially has believed are the maneuvers toward the seduction of a young boy by a woman. When he re-creates the episode within his consciousness, he comes to the anguished realization that the woman is merely the bait, acting to lure the boy for a man who is waiting in the background, outside the frame of the photograph that Michel has taken of the encounter and subsequently blown up. Desperately wishing to intervene to save the boy from this new menace that for Michel represents the truth which he had initially failed to comprehend, the protagonist is driven to the limits of imaginative and emotional participation and cracks under the strain.

The protagonist finds that truth is difficult to arrive at because his senses are limited or faulty in their perception of external reality. In particular, he profoundly distrusts his visual sense…. Roberto sees photography as a means of complementing his visual sense. For him it is more than a mere hobby; it is a means of capturing truth…. For Michel photography is the means of discovering new, unexpected, and hidden meaning of a reality that is complex and multi-dimensional. For the protagonist, truth lies not in external appearance but in subjective apprehension. There is no absolute, exteriorized truth independent of the effect of experience upon the perceiving consciousness. The course of Michel's narrative demonstrates the danger of his solipsism, as he becomes entirely absorbed within the "truth" created by his own mind, a truth that may not only be a relative one but a self-delusion.

The camera wielded by Michel the photographer is analogous to the point of view expressed by Michel the writer. Photography becomes a means of expressing his own personality—his own unique way of viewing reality…. The concrete world thus becomes an external correlate of the mind, just as language becomes the symbol or metaphor of emotion. And just as Roberto rebels against the tyranny of the camera lens, that forces his subjectivity into a fixed mold, so also does he chafe at the restrictiveness of traditional grammar, syntax, and conceptual language, which bind his emotions into a prefabricated, rigid mold that dilutes or distorts them and thus falsifies his identity. (pp. 204-05)

Although Michel begins by focussing objectively upon the woman and the boy, describing their appearance and behavior, he quickly moves into a realm in which he feels much more comfortable, that of imaginative attribution and prediction. (p. 206)

As he watches the woman and the youth [engaging in what appears to be a seduction attempt on the part of the woman], Michel is like an imaginative author who supplies alternative endings to the encounter…. That Michel's imaginative world is much more the center of his attention than the more prosaic reality he is witnessing is indicated by his closing his eyes on the captivated boy and the predatory woman while he is in the very process of observing them, in order imaginatively to formulate a salacious outcome…. Michel himself unwittingly gives an indication of the romanticized, fantasy quality of his thought when he states that the persons would be acting "como en las novelas" [like in novels]. Roberto seems to be deliberately cutting himself off from what is actually happening in order to fictionalize the incident. Ironically, although he believes he is moving toward absolute truth, he may be manufacturing only fictional truth, i.e., writing a story.

Michel himself is at times aware of the impetuousness of his imagination. He originally believes that his snapping of the photograph will act as a means of placing the episode in a banal or innocuous perspective free of the menacing quality he may be only projecting onto the encounter. He thinks that the photograph will act to reduce the blowup of the incident that his febrile imagination already is making to its "tonta verdad" [silly reality]…. But just the opposite occurs. Michel later makes two enlargements of the photograph, increasing it to life-size. He thus acts to convert what may only be a pedestrian external reality into a physical form that coincides with his imaginative exaggeration of the incident. The result is an ironic equating of Michel and the blowup, and, finally, the dominance of photographic image over the helpless individual. (pp. 207-08)

It is ironic that the photograph which has served to foil the seduction attempt and to save the boy now turns on its creator. Michel sees the blowup as the means used by the frustrated man and irate woman to exact their vengeance on him. As Roberto becomes convinced of the full horror of the episode, he now wants desperately to rescue the boy again. The tension that he feels and his anguish and frustration become excruciating as his desire to intervene is seemingly rendered impossible by his entrapment within another time and space…. Michel's own weapon has been turned against him. Sure now that what he had originally perceived was a lie, he can only stand shocked and bewildered before the blowup, which now becomes a theatre of consciousness in which the inevitable victory of the woman and the man seems to be occurring.

Imagination for Michel is both a positive and negative force. It is his imagination that turns the blowup into a nightmare which Roberto responds to as a reality. Yet, at the same time, imagination becomes the means through which the protagonist transcends chronological time and physical space, projecting himself into the photograph, again diverting the attention of the woman and permitting the youth to escape…. Once Michel has imaginatively entered the frozen time and space of the photograph, he remains trapped there. The first time, on that Sunday in early November, when he opened his eyes after having shut them to speculate on the sordid outcome of the encounter, he came back to everyday reality. This time, however, upon opening his eyes that he has closed in terror, the danger has disappeared. The photograph is tranquil; the woman and the man have disappeared, and there is only the sky:...

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Ana MaríA HernáNdez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cortázar has always shown a keen interest in the Gothic aspects of vampirism. He is thoroughly acquainted with the numerous nosferoti preceding and following Bram Stoker's darkly illustrious Count and jokingly refers to himself as one of the "undead," since he is allergic to garlic and preserves an oddly youthful appearance at sixty-two years of age. (p. 570)

62 works with a very complex system of cross-references and allusions, functioning on different levels but with the central theme of vampirism as a common basis. The novel's major "keys" are presented in the first paragraph. The words spoken by the fat client ("Je voudrais un chateau...

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Evelyn Picon Garfield

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Cortázar's short stories we expect to encounter a multifaceted reality. By depicting a normal setting and conventional characters Cortázar gains our confidence and puts us at ease with his tales. Innocently reading on, we suddenly find ourselves trapped by a strange and sometimes unreal situation, an oneiric and even fantastic turn of events. In this way we are exposed to and at times threatened by another possible but illogical dimension of the apparently routine reality set forth in the stories. From "Casa tomada" (The House Taken Over) and "Lejana" (The Distances) in Bestiario (1951) to "El otro cielo" (The Other Heaven) in Todos los fuegos el fuego (1966) Cortázar has presented us with a view...

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Jorge H. ValdéS

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cortázar's intention [in A Manual for Manuel is] to provide the reader with an understanding of the "apparently" confused and undeniably complex state of contemporary world affairs and, especially, the conflicts of Western society. To achieve this, he characterizes a group of revolutionary Frenchmen and Latin Americans in Paris fighting the oppression of bourgeois capitalist governments, including such destructive organizations as the CIA. The struggle, however, encompasses far more than politics; it is a quest for the total liberation of Man from the egotism, fears, and taboos brought about by a derailed historical course….

Cortázar is very conscious...

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