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Eels Über Alles: On Julio Cortázar | The Nation

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Eels Über Alles: On Julio Cortázar

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One evening, perhaps a decade ago, I was walking along Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown when a fishmonger, rushing out of his shop carrying a tank full of eels, slipped. Before he could let out a curse, there were eels and elvers everywhere: dark and gleaming, slithering over pedestrians’ feet, wriggling off onto the asphalt, escaping through the storm drains, animating every crack in the concrete. For a minute, maybe two, the tight weave of reality tore open and boiled about our ankles.

From the Observatory
By Julio Cortázar.
Translated by Anne McLean.
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About the Author

Ben Ehrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich’s most recent novel is Ether.

Also by the Author

W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.

A Russian novelist’s fight, in life and art, to see the world afresh in all its cruelty and splendor.

Julio Cortázar would have been delighted. In the forty years he spent writing novels, short stories and works not so easily categorized, Cortázar reveled in the unexpected lurking within the everyday: not beneath its surface but spread right there on the skin of things. Again and again, he turned Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical principle—that each event in the universe be accepted as exceptional—into a literary mandate. A wristwatch could be “a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air” and still tell time. A short story could take the shape of an instruction manual for the most routine of tasks (crying, singing, winding said dungeon, killing ants in Rome), or a compendium of tales about fantastical but oddly familiar species. A novel didn’t have to progress from the first page to the last, hung on a rigid skeleton of plot: it could proceed in oblong leaps and great steps backward, like a game, say, of hopscotch. “Literature is a form of play,” said Cortázar. But playing, as he knew and as every child knows, can be the most serious thing in the world. So Cortázar was thorough: no expectation was so fundamental that it could not be toyed and tinkered with. All the built-in cabinetry of prose fiction—setting, character, point of view—could be rendered fluid. Eels could squirm through everything.

As might be expected, he made little attempt to resolve the contradictions that marked his life and work. Cortázar was a Latin American in Paris—and more of one there, he insisted, than he would have been had he continued living in Buenos Aires, which he had left in 1951 at age 37. He was a socialist with no patience for the stiff pieties of a “literature for the masses,” a devotee of the European avant-garde who remained faithful to Fidel Castro long after Cuba’s revolution had ceased to be fashionable. It is perhaps because he so stubbornly resists categorization, as much as for the ludic complexity of his work, that Cortázar is in these parts more admired than he is read. The Anglophone literary imagination (or perhaps just its material substrate: the market) appears to have room for only one Latin American giant per generation—Borges, García Márquez, the freshly beatified San Bolaño. Cortázar was too weird, too difficult, too joyously slippery to make the cut.

He is still some distance from obscurity, but the translations of Cortázar’s last novel, the madcap political anti-thriller A Manual for Manuel, and his final collection of stories, We Love Glenda So Much, have been allowed to fall out of print, as has the collage-like essay, story and ephemera collection Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. Three other titles—including the transcendent, choose-your-own-superlative Historias de cronopios y de famas—had met the same fate until New Directions rescued them at the turn of the millennium. A great deal, though, remains unavailable in English, a misfortune that the translator Anne McLean and the good people at Archipelago Books have been doing their part to correct.

In 2005 Archipelago published McLean’s elegant translation of Diary of Andrés Fava, followed two years later by Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, which Cortázar wrote with his wife, Carol Dunlop. The two titles effectively bookend Cortázar’s writing life. He finished Andrés Fava in 1950 as a sort of annex to an early novel, Final Exam, which remained unpublished until after the writer’s death in 1984. Autonauts, which chronicled the thirty-three days he and Dunlop spent traveling from Paris to Marseilles without leaving the freeway or its rest stops, was the last strictly literary work Cortázar would complete—not that there is anything strict about it. Archipelago’s latest offering, From the Observatory, is a slender, gorgeous thing, a photo-essay-cum-prose-poem-manifesto published in 1972 during a critical and surely painful period—the “hour of the jackals,” Cortázar would call it in a poem—when the contradictions that he had up to that point been able to keep in balance could no longer be sustained.

* * *

By itself, Diary of Andrés Fava is not a work of great importance. Yet perhaps even more directly than the novel from which it sprang, it illustrates just how far Cortázar would travel, and how far he always was from home. Diary of Andrés Fava is what it claims to be, a journal (“the little froth, surplus to the struggle”), or a fictional version of one kept by the eponymous and mildly Cortázaresque Fava, who appeared as well in Final Exam. He muses about music, friendship, philosophy, but mainly about the specific sort of air he breathed, which is to say: literature.

For Fava, as for Cortázar, that meant writings from the distant north and east. Borges, in whose journal, Los Anales de Buenos Aires, Cortázar was already publishing stories, is just barely visible here, and the entirety of Latin American literary production merits only condescension. “Argentine books are as boring as a game of fifteen-sweep,” Cortázar writes. “Provincial literature is infinitely tedious.” Hemingway, Eliot, Blake and H.G. Wells all come up, as do Kant, Heidegger and Hesse, the latter for a drubbing. Marx gets a mention, but an ambivalent one, for Fava’s heart, like his creator’s, was mainly with the French: Valéry, Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Sartre, Gide, Lautréamont.

Even after his political turn in the 1960s, Cortázar would share with his symbolist and surrealist idols a committed aestheticism (“If you really have to suffer,” Fava quips, “let it be not for what you write but how”) and an abiding concern that language not remain subservient to anything so drab as meaning. (Duller than a game of fifteen-sweep, that.) If the rift between thought and expression was irreparable, the only thing to do was to cut the tattered link between them, “to hoist language up until it reaches total autonomy.” In abstract, aphoristic form, Fava begins to tease out what this would mean for Cortázar’s fictions: a “farewell [to] prosody,” an effort “to undo the successive horizontality” of text.

A year after he finished Diary of Andrés Fava, Cortázar left Buenos Aires for France, where he would live until his death. And although he had resigned from his university post in 1946 to protest Juan Perón’s election, and Final Exam’s implicit critique of Peronist Argentina was among the reasons that the novel remained unpublished, his exile was more literary than political. (Only later, in the 1970s, would Argentina’s military government explicitly prevent his return.) “I wanted [to] get to know the streets and the places one finds in the books,” he later explained, “the streets of Balzac or of Baudelaire.”

From across an ocean, Cortázar began to publish the collections for which he is now best known. Those early stories combine a sense of Borgesian vertigo and Poe-ish metaphysical dread with a surrealist taste for the fantastic. A tiger roams a country mansion, a man vomits rabbits, another is transfixed by and transformed into an impenetrable pinkish salamander, another sprawls in an armchair reading a novel in which the protagonist is about to murder a man sprawled in an armchair reading a novel. The best of them—like “Las Babas del Diablo,” known in English as “Blow-Up,” after the title of the Antonioni film it inspired—don’t stop at narrative punning and hall-of-mirrors trickery. They push the very form of the short story, and the philosophic premises upon which it rests, inside out. If most stories function as vessels, striving to contain discrete morsels of character and plot, Cortázar’s worked more like bombs. They pretend to be stories, innocent enough, but they sneakily focus their attentions on that very act of narrative containment. They search out the seams and when, in a spooky, silent blast, they rip through them and release all that carefully repressed energy, nothing—not character, plot, point of view, not the possibility of writing, representing, reading, understanding—survives undamaged.

The destruction was not gratuitous. Cortázar was attempting to build something new, to create a freer and more open literary space in which writer and reader might interact without the traditional constraints. At the same time that he was sabotaging the story as he knew it, Cortázar was constructing utopias in prose on the ground he’d cleared. Where else could his beloved cronopios—“those wet green objects,” unlucky but large of heart—and his precise, prancing famas roam? His stories from the early 1960s were more than just assaults on the tyranny of narrative. Each one acts as an invitation to dance.

Hopscotch, the novel for which he is still most famous, is quite explicitly a call to come out and play, to bring your lucky penny, or the shiniest pebble in the coffee can hidden beneath your bed. Right there on the first page, Cortázar invites you to skip across his novel’s 155 chapters consecutively, or in the leapfrog order he directs (beginning with chapter 73, then on to one and two, then 116, then three) or in whichever sequence you prefer. Don’t worry about the details: it’s a novel, after all, and hence about love, and art, and death. The game is as serious as always.

* * *

Like many of his contemporaries, Cortázar would feel a profound kinship with the Cuban revolution. In his case it provoked an awakening. Fidel and his barbudos seemed to be doing in the world what Cortázar was doing on the page, crafting it audaciously anew. Cortázar, theretofore largely apolitical and separated by more than just an ocean from his Latin American roots, would be transformed by his first visit to Cuba in 1961. (He published both Hopscotch and Cronopios within two years of that trip.) Solidarity with the revolution allowed him to fill “the great political vacuum” that he had discovered within himself, to dispel the sense of his own “political uselessness” that he acquired in its wake.

He was not willing, though, to abandon Paris for the more fertile insurgent soil of the Americas, or to sand away the roguish complexities of his prose. For a while, Cortázar felt able to defend his choices with confidence. In 1967 he wrote to the Cuban poet Roberto Fernández Retamar, deflecting criticism from the left on both fronts. He wrote of the “paradox of rediscovering from a distance,” via the Cuban revolution, a Latin America that he never would have been able to perceive had he stayed in Argentina. And he declined to give ground over his ultimate allegiances: “I consider myself above all a cronopio,” Cortázar wrote, “who writes stories and novels with no goal other than that arduously pursued by all cronopios, which is to say, his own delight.” If his books had already gained a cult following among radical Latin American youth, it was because, Cortázar speculated, they tapped into the same liberating spirit as the revolution, because his readers found in them “a vital echo, a confirmation of latencies, of glimmers, of openings towards the mystery and strangeness and the great beauty of life.”

By the time he wrote that letter to Fernández Retamar, the radical artistic openness that marked the early days of the revolution was decidedly on the wane. Cortázar found himself under attack from his supposed comrades for the irrationalism, obscurantism and even the eroticism of his prose. In 1971 the increasingly autocratic revolution’s relationship with its international fellow-travelers reached a crisis. After the Cuban secret police arrested the poet and novelist Heberto Padilla, some fifty prominent European and Latin American leftist intellectuals, Cortázar among them, attached their signatures to a polite “Open Letter to Fidel Castro,” published in Le Monde, asking the Cuban leader to “re-examine the situation.”

Castro was furious, and raged back in a speech directed at “the brazen pseudo-leftists…living in Paris, London, and Rome…who instead of being here in the trenches live in bourgeois salons 10,000 miles away.” The letter’s signers, Castro announced, would no longer be welcome: Cuba’s doors were closed to them. It’s hard to imagine that Cortázar did not take the scolding as a personal rebuke. Without Cuba, he would be just another bloodless liberal poseur, a vain, sunny-afternoon ally to the oppressed.

He responded with an oath of fealty to Fidel. “What’s the point of writing good prose,” the poem began. “Lackeys if they don’t sign and even more jackals when they do/what’s the point of writing, measuring every phrase”? But Cortázar’s ambivalence soon gave way to another kind of doubt—“Who am I in front of the people who struggle for salt and for life,/What right have I to fill more pages with negotiations and personal opinions?”—and finally to disavowal: “You’re right, Fidel: only in the fray is there any right to discontent/Only from within can criticism emerge.”

Cortázar would never again publicly question the trajectory of the Cuban revolution, or at least not directly. But his next novel, A Manual for Manuel, his first explicitly political work, would contain a quiet critique of the narrow vision of human possibility entertained by Leninist apparatchiks. If Cortázar had been cowed by Castro’s dressing-down, it didn’t show in his fiction. The novel follows a loose band of bohemian Latin American exiles in Paris as they plot various absurdist provocations and finally a real kidnapping. Mainly they talk, and in their conversations they articulate the fear that despite all their revolutionary optimism, “we’re carrying the corpse on our backs, the, terribly old, rotting corpse of time and taboos,” such that the much-vaunted “new man” tends to “take on the face of the old man as soon as he sees a miniskirt or an Andy Warhol movie.” The book was not released in Cuba, and Cortázar would never write another novel.

* * *

In 1972, between the Padilla affair and the publication of A Manual for Manuel, Cortázar published From the Observatory. Less than ninety pages long, it combines photos Cortázar shot while on a trip to India in 1968 of the Moghul-era Maharajah Jai Singh’s monumental eighteenth-century observatories with an essay of sorts about, yes, eels, and also about stars and Jai Singh and sex and science and revolution. The photos are gorgeously composed: rough, grainy, almost abstract images of the twisting marble ramps and staircases that the maharajah built to track the paths of stars. They look like stone stagings of a De Chirico canvas, or, closer to Cortázar’s heart, one by the Mexican surrealist Remedios Varo.

Cortázar is particularly interested in eels of the Anguillidae family, the ones spawned in the Sargasso Sea that swim thousands of miles in a “seething dense black cable…as if guided by a formula of stars” to the freshwater rivers and streams of Europe, where they bed down in mud for eighteen or so years until the time comes to make the reverse journey from creek to river and across the sea again to spawn and then to die. The eels stand in for all that drives us but slithers out of reason’s grasp: “the silent clamor of underwater currents,” the cosmic push and pull of eros, “a will we have no words for on this side of the delirium.”

But, Cortázar reminds us more than once, his essay is not some mushy mystical endeavor. He’s not looking for dissolution. Hence the other side of the dialectic: the maharajah’s giant-scaled astronomic instruments, their grand attempt to measure the immeasurable. (The sky here is sister to the sea: “an eel that is a star that is an eel that is a star that is an eel.”) On this side falls not just science but the ordering, abstracting work of language, or, as McLean’s superb translation has it: “discourse, this course, the Atlantic eels and the eel words, the marble lightning of Jai Singh’s instruments.”

In From the Observatory Cortázar is something more than torn. Aesthetically, at least, he is a worshiper of language, and of the maharajah’s ghostly stone grammar. (“Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur.”) But to the degree that reason strives to contain chaos, to corral the eels and pin the stars to the tyranny of their orbits, it gives the writer pause (“Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society, position themselves for ambush again”). This ambivalence grows especially keen when it comes to revolution, which, as Cortázar figures it here, is not so much a redistribution of wealth and influence but a metaphysical and poetic “alliance with the open,” with “the redheaded night” and the eels and stars that reel within it.

The essay is not really about Anguillidae at all. Cortázar offers a critique, safely wrapped in metaphor, that he did not feel otherwise free to voice. He is addressing an actual revolution that took place on an actual island not far west of the actual Sargasso Sea, one that broke his actual heart. In its technocratic scientism, that revolution was, he implies, trapped in a “false definition of the species” that allowed “idols [to] persist beneath other identities: work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love.” He even appears to nod to Padilla, who was his friend, by referring to “the few who lean out to look” at the aforementioned redheaded night, and who, for their courage “will be pilloried to death…confessions dragged from their tongues.”

From the Observatory ends with the subversive if entirely apolitical expectation that “another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum,” that a “real science”—perhaps one that looks more like literature—will one day be born and will allow us to make the leap that Jai Singh took, from “the astrological slave to the man who stands in dialogue with the stars.” There’s something heartrending about all this, and particularly about the forced, almost desperate optimism of Cortázar’s conclusion. It has a tragic, shivery feel, as if Cortázar understood that, faced with the demands of history, he was entirely out of his league. But who among us isn’t?

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