Julio Cortázar

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1249 words.)

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novel, had James Joyce not preempted the title, could just as well have been calledExiles. 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 being able to feel that they are in the right place or locale. (p. 161)

Significantly, too, the two main characters of the novel, La Maga and Horacio Oliveira, are both Argentinians who have come to Paris in search of nothing in particular, of anything that comes along or of whatever they can find….

Horacio Oliveira and La Maga are not irresistibly drawn to one another like the lovers of old. Theirs is not the grand passion that used to sear the pages and inflame the reading avidity of the generation that was brought up on Lawrence or Miller. (p. 162)

The two main characters were poor devils when they left their native country and city; they are perhaps even more impoverished devils when they return, or at least, when one of them returns.

The novel is filled to the bursting point with all the current and past philosophies and attitudes of man both East and West. It can be used as a compendium of what people have thought from the Bible, the Upanishads, the Golden Flower and the I Ching to Alejandro Korn and Creative Evolution. It is all there and it is made to appear, one must agree, in a rather plausible human context. Plausible because it is, in effect, a summation of all the disenchantment of Western man with what he has sought, thought, or loved, that has slowly but inexorably turned to ashes, even as he has thought and felt that it is secure and tightly felt in his very hands.

Reading the acrostic novel that this Argentinian has produced, many points of similarity and contact come to mind…. [Hopscotch] is like a threnody or a funeral dirge for all the golden dreams that the once pink and glowing man of the West had thought possible. In its succession of all kinds of defeatist and sad little stories one is also reminded of the circles in hell that Dante, the archetype of the man of the Middle Ages, saw. But there is a difference: Dante's inferno was located in a hereafter and as punishment for foul deeds performed on this sinful earth. Hopscotch is a compendium, rather complete, of the labyrinth adumbrating the ruins of the edifice of the West.

For this reason, the reason that always accompanies the prophets of doom, this novel mainly concerns itself not with the grandiose failure that Paradise Lost or Mann's The Magic Mountain tells about; its failure is the niggling, corrosive, everyday hacking away at the very core of contemporary man. Remember that Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian, and that this means that he is one of the first Europeans to have witnessed the collapse of dreams of the grandiose which have never come true…. [Every] single instance of rebellion in the novel of Cortázar is a rebellion against a column of smoke. (pp. 163-64)

No one in contemporary Latin American letters is more successful in the acquarelle of minimal failure. The big failure is always a mural or an etching: Cortázar is a master of the watercolor. (p. 164)

In many respects this novel is a sort of carbon copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Had it been written 50 years ago, it would have been considered as revolutionary as the Irish master's work. Unfortunately so much of what Cortázar does, technical and otherwise, has that ashen flavor of the déja vù. No matter how hard he tries, the reader always knows how and, sometimes, what is going to happen next. It is only as a piece of literary information for those who cannot read Joyce in the original, for the monolingual of Latin America, that Hopscotch is a decided and brilliant boon. Its ultimate value may lie in that it is a much more decadent production than the Irishman's. And it is much more decadent in the sense that it mirrors a national tragedy that is absent in the work of Joyce. Argentina and the Argentinian move on to the wide screen of the world and proclaim their frustration and total ennui with everything that the West has until now sold as the guiding light of the entire planet. (p. 165)

José Vásquez Amaral, "Julio Cortázar's 'Hopscotch' and Argentinian Spiritual Alienation," in his The Contemporary Latin American Narrative (copyright © 1970 by Las Americas Publishing Co.), Las Americas Publishing Co., 1970, pp. 157-65.

Roberto GonzáLez Echevarria

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[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 vacations] a ready-made symbol for something that has been a major theme throughout his works—modern technological society and its very precarious balance. Confined in their useless metal cages, the people in the jam are obvious examples of alienated modern man. At the end, when the jam finally dissolves, each person returns to a mechanized existence controlled by machines…. The commune, on the other hand, is a primitive, tribal world of food-gathering, rituals and folklore. The people, deprived of all the trappings of modern civilization, return to a natural state where each depends on the other directly and where bonds of solidarity form; it is almost a perfect primitive Christian society.

It could very well be concluded then, particularly in view of the slightly melodramatic ending, that Cortázar offers in "La autopista del sur" an alternative to modern civilization; that the story is an indictment against modern life. In short, that the double exposure creates a dialectic between the modern and primitive worlds present in the two images. Yet, while this interpretation may be valid and justifiable, it seems to me that the 'topicality' of the story conceals a more profound reflection, not directly about man's condition, but about fiction.

The most salient characteristic of the traffic jam is its facility as metaphor. The commune, too, is not only a standard (and today standardized) alternative to technological society but consists of a series of literary topoi…. Implicit in the entire story is also the image of the highway of life, so dear to the writers of romances of chivalry and of picaresque novels. In addition, there is the suggestion that the commune is organized by a mysterious supernatural being that keeps all the cars in close formation…. And the characters of the commune form, as a group, a sort of theatrum mundi or medieval dance of dea : there is Youth—the two boys in the Simca—; Old Age—the old couple in the ID Citroen—; the Clergy—the nuns in the 2HP—; a Soldier—the soldier in the Volkswagen; and a couple of lovers, the engineer and the girl in the Dauphine. The dance of death motif is accentuated when someone throws a sickle into the middle of the commune, another symbol of medieval vintage. Cortázar's symbols are nearly always trite and obvious…. This is not due to Cortázar's lack of imagination or subtlety. The triteness and the platitudinous meaning of his symbols and devices have a very specific purpose in his works: to focus attention not on the meaning of the literary sign but on the sign itself.

Some years ago—in 1947—Cortázar suggested in one of his first publications that the contrivance of an autonomous, self-sufficient fictional world was an absolute requirement in short-story writing…. (pp. 136-38)

The inclosure device is not merely one mode of short-story writing but an ontological characteristic of the genre; all fiction and short fiction in particular is a closed, autonomous world. Thus, the inclosures in "La autopista del sur," while projecting the obvious meanings indicated above, as well as being a 'recorte de la realidad', are ultimately symbols of fiction itself. This is the reason why Cortázar utilizes literary signs that are so blatantly literary and also the reason for the platitudinous meanings of those signs.

This interpretation of the inclosures becomes clearer if one notices the relationship between the traffic jam and the commune at a formal level. Cortázar creates the commune before the reader, as when in the modern theater the actors themselves bring the properties onto the stage and then proceed with the representation of the play. In this respect the relationship between the commune and the traffic jam could be said to be homologous to that between the play within the play and the play itself…. Cortázar gives a meticulous phenomenological description of a self-contained world, of a complete cosmos. But the important thing is that he creates that fictitious world openly and arbitrarily, as if he were inviting the reader to analyse the elements of his fiction, the props of the set and the grease paint on the actors' faces.

The arbitrariness by which Cortázar constructs his fictional microcosm alludes to the arbitrariness of the real world. His 'utopia' points to a macrocosm that may be just as arbitrary and perhaps just as fictional…. In Cortázar's utopia everything has a place because he has arbitrarily created a grammar that will contain it; everything, including the characters, has a name because he has wrought a grammar that will accept it. Toward the end of "La autopista del sur" snow covers the ground—winter has set in on the people who had left for Paris on an August afternoon. But this is not a break with the syntax of Cortázar's new world…. The two situation signs have become one; a fiction within a larger fiction, all fictions a fiction, all fires a fire. Cortázar's "La autopista del sur" falls within a very rich tradition of literature whose main preoccupation is literature. (pp. 138-40)

Roberto González Echevarria, "'La autopista del sur' and the Secret Weapons of Julio Cortázar's Short Narrative," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1971 by Newberry College), Winter, 1971, pp. 130-40.

Lanin A. Gyurko

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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: "el cielo limpio, y después una nube que entraba por la izquierda, paseba lentamente su gracia y se perdía por la derecha" [a limpid sky, and then a cloud that entered from the left, passed slowly in its grace and disappeared to the right]…. Yet the quietness is eery and deceptive because it does not mark the return of Michel to normalcy but instead indicates that the protagonist is now so alienated from reality that instead of the blowup of the scene as literally taken he can see only the enlargement as it has been transformed by his imagination. The reader finally realizes that the mentionings of clouds and birds that Michel has repeatedly made throughout his narrative are not references to real objects but only imaginary ones, racing across the sky of the blowup, i.e., within the dislocated psyche of the protagonist. It is extremely ironic that Michel, who has lamented the frequency with which his visual sense deceives him by misinterpreting the true nature of physical reality, is now the uncomprehending victim of a much severer deception—he is deluded in believing that he can still separate the external from the internal world…. Michel sits mesmerized before the photograph. As the blowup acquires a demonic life, the identity of Roberto is reduced, until at the end of his experience he no longer knows who he is. His mind has become blank. He has been dehumanized to an object, an inert camera lens, incapable of asserting his integrity or his will. He has been spiritually crushed by the experience. This is why he states at the beginning of his account "estoy muerto" [I am dead]…. (pp. 209-11)

Chronological time no longer has any meaning for Michel. Immersed in the past that he is experiencing as a present reality, he realizes the absurdity of the word now: "Ahora mismo (qué palabra, ahora, qué estúpida mentira)" [Right now (what a word, now, what a stupid lie)]…. He thus finds clock time to be deceptive; for him, true time is cyclic. (p. 211)

Michel moves from an interested but uninvolved contemplator of both the real-life experience and the photograph of it, to an ironic hero. It is only in retrospect, when he is back in his apartment reflecting on his intervention, that he congratulates himself on taking the photograph whose moral basis has come after the fact…. But the second time that Michel intervenes, his intent is totally moral. Even though he plays the part of the camera, it is without the aesthetic preoccupation that has marked his first shot on the scene, except perhaps in a symbolic sense, i.e., he now wishes imaginatively to remove the man as a threat to the boy just as he previously has deleted both man and car for their aesthetic irrelevance.

As a narrator, Michel struggles to capture with words a reality that seems to defy linguistic expression. Roberto feels himself constrained by the limitations of conventional language in the same way that he has previously felt himself to be imprisoned within chronological time and sequential space. His linguistic captivity also parallels his mental confinement within the hell of his own turbulent consciousness. Although he feels compelled to communicate his experience as a means of emotional catharsis, perhaps as a way of restoring his shattered identity, he is at the same time overwhelmed by the futility of attempting to understand and express the truth of the incident…. The protagonist finds the mold of rational expression inadequate to convey the bewilderment, horror, and absurdity of his experience and the corrosive effect it has had upon him. What he winds up with after rupturing established linguistic patterns is a deformed language that borders on gibberish and yet that does, ironically, reflect his mental derangement…. The unbalanced Michel has become like the impressionable but static lens of the camera, that records the image of anything it is focussed on. (pp. 212-13)

Michel's narrative is a mélange of three types of language. The associative language with which he begins his account captures the flux of his disoriented consciousness, in a form that seems to be going nowhere…. The second type is a smooth, direct, and coherent language that contrasts with Michel's muddled first-person account. It is employed by the third-person voice that may be either an author with limited omniscience who intervenes in the narrative of Michel, confining himself only to the personality of Roberto, or it may be the means used by Michel to exteriorize the self in order to obtain a clearer focus upon it, through a more objective stance that shores up and provides direction to his first-person rambling. An indication that this voice may be merely a disguised first-person is that the scattered impressions of clouds interrupt the third-person narrative as well…. The continual shifting between first and third persons provides another indication of the split in Michel's identity. The third-person voice, basically sympathetic, at times chides Michel for his imaginative exuberance through parenthetical asides … and yet at the same time concedes that Roberto's febrile speculation may hold the key to understanding the true intent of the woman, i.e., that truth can be revealed through the imagination…. (pp. 213-14)

Just as Michel has little confidence in his visual sense so also does he distrust language. He is sensitive to the way that the careless use of language can deceive…. The inadequacy of conventional language to convey the subleties of truth parallels not only the limitations of reportorial photography but also the insufficiency of the aesthetic photograph that Michel makes of the woman and the boy, that records only a half-truth. Just as Roberto imaginatively transforms the blowup, inserting the figure that will complete the meaning, he also transforms language to conform to the subjective patterns of emotional experience. Just as Michel has made a visual blowup of the image of the woman, he now provides the reader with a verbal closeup of her. He does not wish merely to describe her appearance but to fashion a word-portrait that will reveal her soul.

He finds conventional adjectives inadequate, since they only approximate her true nature (a type of soft-focus)…. He ends up by discarding this vague, abstract language and replacing it with one that is poetic—associative and evocative, concrete, sharp and vivid. This is the third type of language…. Symbol and metaphor dramatically convey Michel's emotional state. Green symbolizes the horror and revulsion that Roberto feels as he is confronted with what he believes are the preliminaries to sexual perversion. The delicate malevolence—the paradoxical combination of attractiveness and ominousness, softness and cruelty that the woman represents for Michel—is conveyed through the poetic devices of metaphor and hyperbole…. Michel gives language a wry twist to express the complex, ambivalent reality of the scene that juxtaposes innocence and perversion. Roberto begins by describing the boy as escaping swiftly and lyrically: "perdiéndose como un hilo de la Virgen en el aire de la mañana" [fleeing as the spit of the Virgin in the air of the morning] …, and then goes on to provide an ironic amplification to his simile: "Pero los hilos de la Virgen se llaman también babas del diablo" [But the spit of the Virgin is also called the spit of the devil]…. The same substance can be referred to by two names that have connotations which are diametrically opposed: angel spit and devil spit, just as Michel's photograph contains both the angelic and the demonic, and just as the process that results in the freedom and salvation of the boy will eventuate in Michel's own damnation. Although the boy escapes, Roberto is left to confront the monstrous underside of the situation, as the frustration of the man and woman at losing their prey is now directed toward the protagonist.

Michel's narrative is a paradoxical fusion of creation, recreation, and destruction. On the one hand, he attempts and at least partially succeeds in creating a new idiom to capture the trauma of his experience. He also replaces the incomplete truth that is the photograph with the fuller, imaginative creation that he accepts as the whole truth. Significantly, however, the climax to the narrative is only an imaginative one. Narrative tension increases at this point, as Michel's thoughts pile up on top of one another to convey his anguish and desperation. Now the third-person voice drops out of the narrative, and the perspective is intensified by being confined totally to Michel's stricken consciousness…. The movement of the narrative as a whole is from limited objectivity to total subjectivity, from nonengagement to overwhelming vicarious participation and from rational and controlled use of language to disassociated psychic flux. The main movement is also primarily a negative one, from initial misapprehension to final self-delusion. (pp. 214-16)

The truth about what actually occurred that Sunday morning is impossible to establish. Michel's imaginative intuition is extremely intriguing and quite plausible, yet it nevertheless remains unsubstantiated. (p. 216)

His attitude of not acting but always reacting, allowing himself to be determined by circumstance, event, and other personalities, is one that pervades his entire narrative and, even more, his whole life. As a translator he is linguistically passive, acted upon by the language of another person, whose thoughts and syntax he is subordinate to. As a photographer, instead of fixing unstable, elusive reality in his lens and forcing it to yield up its truth, it is Michel who becomes fixed by his photograph. Even the climax of his narrative, which on one level presents him as an intervening figure, is but his desperate reaction to the overwhelming power of his own imagination….

The maximum irony of the narrative may lie in the distinct possibility that the horrible truth that Michel believes he has discovered about what was actually occurring between the man, woman, and boy, may be but another fabrication of his volatile consciousness. He thus may have destroyed his own self, becoming ironically, the victim of a mere self-delusion. Michel himself is aware of the relative nature of what he has accepted as truth…. Truth within "Las babas del diablo" is like the clouds that float across the blowup that is Michel's imagination, the clouds that constantly change in size and shape. Truth is protean, evanescent, and perhaps only imaginary—or nonexistent. The only truth for Michel, and one which, ironically, he is unaware of, is the horrible reality of his own broken, obsessed, and deluded consciousness. (p. 217)

Lanin A. Gyurko, "Truth and Deception in Cortázar's 'Las Babas del Diablo'," in The Romanic Review (copyright © by the Trustees of Columbia University of the City of New York; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXIV, No. 3 (May, 1973), pp. 204-17.

Ana MaríA HernáNdez

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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 saignant") refer to a raw Chateaubriand, but also to the "blood castle" at Csejthe (near the town of Fagaraș in Romanian Transylvania) where Erszebet Báthory (the "Blood Countess") performed the deeds that made her famous in the early seventeenth century. The restaurant Polidor alludes to Juan's namesake, Dr. John William Polidori (private physician to Lord Byron), who conceived his novel The Vampyre during the memorable soirée at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland (15 June 1816) at which Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was born. (p. 571)

Upon entering the restaurant Polidor, Juan decides to sit facing a mirror; immediately we are reminded that vampires, according to folklore, have no reflection. Even though we are not told whether Juan sees his reflection or not, his mental confusion at this point shows that he lacks mental "reflection." Loss of reflection or of the "shadow" is a rather common occurrence in tales of supernatural horror; in most cases, this phenomenon is associated with some kind of diabolical pact or ceremony performed in one of the magical vespers…. The loss of the shadow—Jungian symbol for the repressed, true self—implies a loss of the soul or a loss of virility. Most importantly, it implies the loss of the capacity to establish lasting human relations. A man without a "shadow" is [a wanderer]…. Juan performs his ritual (entering the restaurant Polidor, buying the book, sitting in front of the mirror) on a magical vesper, Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve marks the birth of a Divine Child, likewise a Jungian symbol for the true self. But this child will be condemned to death by men's spiritual "blindness." Similarly, the young patient who represents Juan's true self is condemned to death by Juan's own spiritual blindness and egoism. Juan deliberately looks for loneliness and degradation in the magical vesper associated with love and hope; and as a result of his diabolical rite, he will lose his soul at the end of the novel. The mirror also alludes to the incantatory spells celebrated by Countess Báthory in order to preserve her youthful appearance. She celebrated these rituals at dawn, facing a mirror.

Another "key" is provided by the bottle of Sylvaner that Juan orders. The first letters of its name contain a reference to … Transylvania, Cradle of Vampires. Throughout the novel Cortázar alludes to "the Countess" in connection with the Hotel of the King of Hungary but does not mention her by name. Countess Báthory, a native of Hungarian Transylvania, was walled in as a punishment for her crimes. However, neither the crimes nor the punishment took place in Vienna. Critics who have traced the allusions to the Blood Countess have skipped a second set of mirror images: those associating the Viennese Frau Marta with Erszebet Báthory's Aunt Klara, who initiated her niece in the sadistic practices that made her famous…. Significantly, Clara is the name of the heroine of Cortázar's first, unpublished novel, "El examen." She was married to a character named Juan. Does Cortázar include Klara Báthory (Frau Marta) in the novel because he sees her as his own sweet Clara twenty years later? Does he blame Juan for her metamorphosis?

A further key is provided by Tell, who reads a novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The novel is, most probably, "Carmilla," reputedly the best vampire story ever written. In this novel, as in "Christabel," the vampire is a woman and a lesbian…. In the novel we find a play of mirrors involving an older, sinister vampiress (Countess Mircalla Karnstein) and a younger, seductive one (Carmilla) who captivates the young heroine with her fatal charms. The theme of lesbianism plays a central role in Cortázar's works. This aberration, openly admitted in the case of Hélène, is subtly suggested in most other feminine characters. Paula forms a strange liaison with the homosexual Raúl; Paula/Raúl, as their names indicate, seem to be two sides of the same personality. During Horacio's conversation with the clocharde the latter hints at a possible relationship between herself and La Maga. Ludmilla, Andrés Fava's mistress in Libro de Manuel, has a lesbian past as well. (pp. 571-73)

Homosexuality involves a failure to grow beyond the early narcissistic stage and come to terms with the "otherness" of the opposite sex. Cortázar's self-centered, narcissistic heroes are bound to look for women who resemble them as much as possible, so that in loving them they would still be loving themselves. Likewise, in possessing them they would really be possessing themselves. Juan and Hélène are two manifestations of the same personality. A relationship which originates in a failure to deal with "the Other" and in a desire to "recover oneself" must be, in essence, vampiristic.

By dealing with its psychological implications we discover the very essence of Cortázar's vampirism, which is—in spite of the many references to Gothic novels—essentially psychological, like Poe's. Rather than Sheridan Le Fanu's "locked room" situation (briefly parodied in the episode of Frau Marta and the English girl), what we have here is a set of relationships like those uniting Ligeia to her husband or Madeline Usher to her brother. Juan's obsession with the remote, cold and cruel Hélène is as metaphysical as that of the typical Poe hero. For Juan, as for Morella's or Ligeia's husband, "the fires were not of Eros." He really wants to possess Hélène's essence, not her body. He cannot even approach her, and when he does, he does not "see" her. He makes love to "Hélène Arp, Hélène Brancusi, Hélène dama de Elche." Nor does he "see" Tell, on whom he projects his ideal vision of Hélène, too…. Tell is indeed nothing more than a "thing" on which Juan "feeds."… The rest of the characters, too, are vampires or are vampirized in their turn: Nicole and Marrast by each other, Celia and Austin by their respective parents, Austin by Nicole, Nicole by Calac (aspiring), "la gorda" by Polanco.

Hélène, the most evident vampiress, is branded by the pin she wears, which has the form of a basilisk: "The basilisk has such a dreadful stare that birds at which it merely glances fall down and are devoured." The vampire, likewise, fixes and petrifies its victim with its stare. "Vision" is Hélène's terrible attribute. Her vision, however, is no different from Juan's "blindness." Hélène does not look at the other in order to see him; she looks at him in order to immobilize and devour him. Neither she nor Juan will be able to break the spell that hangs over them, for they are incapable of understanding the symbolic events of which they are part. (p. 573)

Allen Tate and D. H. Lawrence agree that Poe's heroines are turned into vampires through a man's inability to awaken them to womanhood: "D. H. Lawrence was no doubt right in describing as vampires [Poe's] women characters; the men, soon to join them as 'undead,' have, by some defect of the moral will, made them so." The same can be said of Hélène…. [It has been said that] love for an ideal vision is a sin against the Moon Goddess, against life…. His inability to see Hélène makes Juan cling to her, vampire-fashion—or like a child to its mother—expecting her to satisfy his needs and conform to his ideal of her. (pp. 574-75)

Austin's meeting and falling in love with Celia stands out as one of the most idyllic love scenes in the whole of Cortázar's writings. In this scene Austin and Celia "look"—literally and symbolically—at one another. Open, honest love between man and woman breaks the spell of the vampire. Through their act of love Austin and Celia, now free, are cleansed from their former "perverse" entanglements; they take the "bath" Juan and Hélène were always unable to take in their nightmare. Juan and Hélène, on the other hand, experience a blind, negative and mutually destructive encounter. Imprisoned in their respective egos, they act out a grotesque parody of the act of love.

Austin, described as "Parsifal" and later as "Gallahad" and "Saint George," acts the part of the mythological hero, slaying the Dragon he has first "seen."… Nicole is, in reality, a mirror image of Hélène, just as Marrast and Calac are mirror images of Juan. The latter's spiritual impotence is reflected in Marrast's statue (sculpted on an "oilcloth stone" and, as such, "soft") and in Calac's "failure." Juan/Marrast/Calac fail Hélène/Nicole through their deliberate blindness and softness, and the latter retaliate by turning into vampires and haunting them. At the end of the novel Juan cannot participate in Feuille Morte's "rescue." He is a victim of his own monster. (pp. 575-76)

Ana María Hernández, "Vampires and Vampiresses: A Reading of '62'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 570-76.

Evelyn Picon Garfield

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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 of reality riddled with holes, what I like to call a "Swiss cheese" reality. One of his most famous characters, Johnny of "El perseguidor" (The Pursuer) describes this reality:

That made me jumpy, Bruno, that they felt sure of themselves. Sure of what, tell me what now, when a poor devil like me with more plagues than the devil under his skin had enough awareness to feel that everything was like a jelly, that everything was very shaky everywhere, you only had to concentrate a little, feel a little, be quiet for a little bit, to find the holes. In the door, in the bed: holes. In the hand, in the newspaper, in time, in the air: everything full of holes, everything spongy, like a colander straining itself….

                                         (p. 577)

Ever since Las armas secretas (1958) the exceptional departures from routine life and the glimpses of an illogical and provocative facet of everyday reality seem to have become gradually suppressed by the heavy and relentless hand of custom. Routine seems to reestablish itself more and more in Cortázar's stories, despite the author's clear protests in his volumes of miscellaneous excerpts. Even in "El perseguidor" the jazz critic Bruno sought refuge in his customary life in order to protect himself from the provocative reality that Johnny perceived and described through his music. Neither did the protagonist of "El otro cielo" return to the mysterious galleries of Paris, but instead he remained in Buenos Aires, subjected to a conventional life.

Of all the stories published before Octaedro, "La autopista del sur" (The Southern Throughway) best exemplifies the definitive victory of routine over a desired and exceptional reality. In that story … some travelers find themselves immobilized in a traffic jam. This common situation achieves unrealistic proportions when the traffic jam lasts months. As the seasons rapidly progress, the people organize a societal nucleus among the stationary cars and eventually embrace a new routine as inhabitants of the highway, until suddenly the cars once again begin to move toward the capital. Even in the face of a fantastic and bizarre situation such as a traffic jam which lasts months, custom reestablishes its sovereignty. (p. 578)

Unlike the disquieting invasions found in the short stories of Bestiario, in "Verano" [in Octaedro] the unusual provocation to daily routine materializes in the form of a horse, a less oneiric danger than an inexplicable noise, a less fantastic threat than some fabulous mancuspias [the strange, menacing animals of "Cefalea" in Bestiario] and a more realistic intrusion than that of a tiger roaming through a house [as in "Bestiario"]. In addition, the ephemeral presence of the horse and child does not threaten to destroy permanently the couple's ordered daily coexistence. In fact, at the end of the story a long sentence rhythmically embodies the implacable return of routine:

… if everything was in order, if the watch kept on measuring the morning and after Florencio came to get the little girl perhaps around 12 o'clock the mailman would arrive whistling from afar, leaving the letters on the garden table where he or Zulma would pick them up silently, just before deciding together what they felt like having for lunch.

                                          (pp. 579-80)

Perhaps it is the presence of death and tears that exasperates me as I read Octaedro. Nevertheless, death is constantly a part of almost all of Cortázar's works. As he himself pointed out, 'death is a very important and omnipresent element in all I have written." Perhaps my reaction to these stories is influenced in part by Cortázar's last novel, Libro de Manuel, published a year before Octaedro. In that book, as before in Rayuela, the author juxtaposes playful and humorous situations with serious ones and adds a new political emphasis. I miss the homo ludens so apparent in Lonstein's language, in the scenes concerning the strange mushroom, the fantastic turquoise penguins or the absurd protests unleashed in the restaurant. By now, however, I should be quite accustomed to the obvious lack of humor in Cortázar's short stories. Since Historias de cronopios y de famas, perhaps his most surrealistic book from the perspective of a playful atmosphere reminiscent of paintings by Joan Miró, the short stories have continued to be devoid of the humor found in the novels. It was, in fact, Calac and Polanco's ridiculous adventures which at moments saved the novel 62 from its abysmal cynicism. Are there any such playful and humorous elements which deliver Octaedro from the weary despair and sadness which penetrate every page? (p. 586)

I should have believed Cortázar when he said that Historias de cronopios y de famas is a book which should only be written once. He categorized it as his most playful book, "really a game, a very fascinating game, lots of fun, almost like a tennis match, sort of like that." Then he cautioned me that it was necessary to distinguish between the ingenuous joy of that collection and the humor which he planned to conserve in the rest of his books. Nevertheless, in Octaedro he has hardly preserved humor in any form.

Traditionally humor had not played an important role in Cortázar's short stories, nor does it now. Instead, the primary characteristics of his short stories have been the constant threat of an illogical and mysterious force to man in his daily existence and the subsequent defeat of that apparent reality by the unknown. Octaedro continues the short story tradition established by Cortázar, for it, too, haunts us with nightmares, obsessions and disconcerting provocations which menace everyday existence. But there is a serious and sad divergence from previous tales. The strange zone which Cortázar continues to describe no longer implacably terrifies nor intrigues the protagonists, nor the reader nor even Cortázar himself, as much as it produces despair. The author tries to describe this other illogical facet of reality in more realistic terms than was done in previous stories. It seems that the terror once experienced in the face of the unknown has now given way to a compromise won over many years. As Cortázar himself says in "Las fases de Severo": "It is always surprising to see how sudden lapses into normalcy, so to speak, distract and even deceive us."…

The different atmospheres that prevail in Cortázar's novels and short stories have become more obvious in these last few years. In the short stories man is as impotent as ever when faced with the exceptional in life, although at times he still seeks it out and plays to discover it. He now more easily accepts fleeting chance encounters and momentary outbursts of terror, after which he almost always returns in despair to accept routine life or to face death. In the novels, on the other hand, the author's joyful imagination fights to survive by means of unusual adventures, ingeniously playful language and political optimism. For instance, despite the descriptions of political torture, Libro de Manuel saves Cortázar's fiction from wallowing in the cynicism of the previous novel, 62. As with Rayuela, Libro de Manuel embodies possible searches; and in opposition to the pervasive and definitive presence of death at the end of 62, death in the final scenes of Libro de Manuel promises regeneration.

It is important to note that love continues to fail completely in the last two novels, for Juan and his friends in 62 as well as for Andrés in Libro de Manuel. Nevertheless, in the latter novel the pessimism generated by the absence of unselfish love between man and woman in the individual, personal sphere is diminished by optimism in the political and ideological sphere. Octaedro is very different from that latest novel, for these short stories are laden with death, tears, fleeting love affairs and impossible explanations. The pessimism that prevails on the personal level of love between man and woman is but one element of the human destinies that are ultimately altered very little by exceptional events and discoveries glimpsed through dreams, obsessions, dangerous provocations and even chance. Octaedro is a continuation of the Cortázar that we know, but there is a difference: Julio is finally accustomed to viewing the other zone of reality. He knows it is there. He experiences it. He tries to share it with us. But he finally must return from it to his everyday reality in despair. (pp. 588-89)

Evelyn Picon Garfield, "'Octaedro': Eight Phases of Despair," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 576-89.

Jorge H. ValdéS

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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 of his literary technique. Capturing the reader's interest from the beginning, he makes him undergo the confusion and torment experienced by the protagonist. At the same time, Cortázar provides the reader with moments of joy, eroticism, and sheer humorous absurdity in the lives of his characters—all of which indicates an intention to evoke a rich and varied response. It is the range and complexity of A Manual for Manuel that will appeal particularly to the sophisticated reader and will attain for the novel, in Cortázar's own terms, permanent status as a true bridge. (p. 388)

Jorge H. Valdés, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1979 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), February, 1979.


Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 10)


Cortázar, Julio (Vol. 15)