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.