Eels Über Alles: On Julio Cortázar
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.
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.
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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.”