Julio Cortázar: an unfinished roadmap
Nearing the writer’s centennial, a look at how he divested narrative of literary etiquetteAttempting to chart a roadmap of the late writer Julio Cortázar — whose 100th birthday anniversary is commemorated on August 26 — is not unlike a children’s game, meaning, of course, that tracing his life is following the parcours of a life in permanent motion — and not a small-scale reproduction of an adult world in which convention reigns supreme.
Born in Belgium (by chance, as he liked to say, or “a mixture of tourism and diplomacy,” because his father was the commercial attaché at the Argentine Embassy) Cortázar spent his early years in the southern BA province suburb of Bánfield. The young Cortázar, given to reading with voracious appetite, must have spent long hours working on his literary formation as he commuted from Bánfield to the BA city downtown premises of the Normal Mariano Acosta, where he graduated as a school-teacher and then as a literature teacher. It must have been a continuum with his introverted childhood, which he did not recall as happy, his health weak and often bedridden, which prompted his mother to feed the child the books she deemed suitable for a boy his age: Salgari, Verne, adventure sagas.
This bit of information, however, does not suffice to trace the literary evolution of a young man who would, after strenuous work and years of toiling as a schoolteacher in several towns in the BA province and in Mendoza, come to literary promise. It was in this northwestern province where, perhaps for the first time, he was able to truly combine work and intellectual proclivities as a teacher of French literature.
He was already busy at work on what would become his oeuvre majeure — a monumental, convention-shattering novel like Rayuela (Hopscotch), 1963; and two impressive sets of short story collections like Bestiario (The Bestiary), 1951, and Todos los fuegos el fuego (All Fires the Fire), 1966. In spite of Rayuela’s undeniable impact on Latin America’s and the world’s literature, it is arguably on account of his short stories that Cortázar started a literary revolution. True, it was a revolution of lesser impact than Rayuela’s, perhaps, but Cortázar’s true genius lay, in many regards, in the way his prose divested short stories, as a genre, of their rigid structure and etiquette. “Like writers who dress up before putting pen to paper,” as Cortázar himself would quip.
Rayuela shared these same qualities with Cortázar’s short-story output, but this was due, to a large extent, to the random, contingent nature that pushed its characters — mainly Olivera and La Maga — through the meandering streets of Paris, playfully resorting to a game of chance, of happy or fateful encounters, always unplanned; a world that could no longer contain the happy-go-lucky nature of a man like Olivera, whose playful nature would have led him to insanity in a more realistic, less permissive world.
In Cortázar’s world, a man like Olivera, or the men and women who inhabit his dislocated yet unified universe, would have been labelled a non-conformist at the political and existential levels, and a madman by psychological and sociological standards. As another example, how to account for, in a different, “normal” context, the randomly irreverent acts of people who need a detailed manual to successfully achieve the task of climbing up a stair, a set of instructions to wind up a clock, an exemplary lesson on how to weep?
The homo ludens so deeply ingrained in Cortázar’s individualist nature made it look as though all of these instruction manuals and how-to books were there for an ancestral reason which no one before him had dared acknowledge.
It was on account of the precarious, weird mental state and social conduct of many characters in his novels and short stories that Cortázar, for literary study purposes, had to be showcased as either a “fantasy” or “experimental” author, or both types. But Cortázar, at his very best, never tampered with “fantasy,” a genre for which he had much too respect to ever attempt it, “only” accepting a commission from the Universidad de Puerto Rico to translate the whole of fantasy literature meister Edgar Allan Poe, a loving piece of work that, to this day, remains the canonical Spanish-language version of Poe.
The “experimental” label, on the other hand, gets a straightforward blow in the face when one reads such masterly, linear narratives like Torito, a first person account of a boxer’s decadence; or the visual continuum of a story like El perseguidor (The Pursuer), a subliminal evocation of the disintegration of a celebrated jazz performer.
Categorization, then, is a notion that collides with Cortázar’s perception of his own body of work, and this is how most of us — cronopios and famas* alike — would love to remember him: immersed in situations and thoughts which, like a beacon, guide us through an endearingly dark but seemingly impenetrable world.
* In Cortázar’s universe, mainly in his shorty-story collection De Cronopios y de Famas (1962), “Cronopios” are presented as naive, idealist, disorderly and sensitive creatures. In contrast, the “Famas” are rigid, well-organized and sanctimonious.