Julio Cortázar 1914-1984
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Julio Denís) Argentine novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, critic, translator, and dramatist.
The following entry presents criticism on Cortázar's short fiction from 1991 through 2003. See also Julio Cortazar Literary Criticism (Introduction), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 10, 13.
Cortázar is one of the seminal figures of the “Boom,” a surge of excellence and innovation in Latin American letters during the 1950s and 1960s. Influenced by Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, Cortázar is considered to have enlarged literary tradition with a consistent inventiveness of style, language, and theme. Like Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and other contemporary Latin American writers, Cortázar combined fantastic and often bizarre plots with commonplace events and characters. Much of Cortázar's fiction is a reaction to the Western tradition of rationalism to represent reality. To this end, he experimented with narrative identity, language, time, space, and form in his short stories.
Cortázar was born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1914. At the age of four, he moved with his parents to their native Argentina, where they settled in a suburb of Buenos Aires. An excellent student and reader, Cortázar began writing at a young age and completed a novel by the time he was nine years old. After earning a teaching degree, Cortázar taught high school from 1937 to 1944. During this time Cortázar began writing short stories. He taught French literature at the University of Cuyo in Mendoza, Argentina; however, by 1946 he had resigned from his post after participating in demonstrations against Argentine president Juan Péron and moved to Buenos Aires, where he began working for a publishing company. Also in 1946 Cortázar published his first short story, “Casa tomada” (“House Taken Over”), in Los anales de Buenos Aires, an influential literary magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. Between 1946 and 1948 Cortázar studied law and languages to earn a degree as a public translator. In 1951 Cortázar published Bestiario, his first collection of short stories, and also received a scholarship to study in Paris, where he became a translator for UNESCO. In 1953, collaborating with his wife, Cortázar completed translations of Edgar Allan Poe's prose works into Spanish. Later that year he adopted France as his permanent residence. Throughout his life Cortázar traveled extensively—primarily between Argentina, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the United States—often lecturing for social reform in Latin America. He continued to publish writings in several genres and to work as a freelance translator from the 1950s until his death in 1984.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Cortázar's short stories are representations of a surreal, metaphysical, horror-filled world that prevailed upon his imagination. In these works, he often expressed a conflict between unreal and real events by allowing the fantastic to take control of the mundane in the lives of his characters. Significant in this transformation from the ordinary to the bizarre is the compliant acceptance of extraordinary events by Cortázar's characters. His fascination with the double, a character's other, or alter ego, and his related concept of “figures,” or human constellations, is evident in numerous short stories. For example, in “Lejana” (“The Distances”), Alina Reyes, a wealthy South American woman, becomes obsessed with visions of a beggar woman living in Budapest whom Alina believes is her true self. She travels to Budapest, believing she will relieve the woman's suffering and her own by assuming her real identity as a beggar. After the women embrace on a bridge, Alina is left standing in the bitter cold as the beggar woman walks away in Alina's body. Cortázar often employs motifs in his fiction based on games, children's play, and music as representations of humanity's search for an existence that surpasses limits imposed by logic and reason. With “El perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”), he not only incorporates the syncopated rhythms of jazz music to illustrate this search, but also begins to explore existential questions and focus on the inner lives of characters. Modeled upon jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, the eponymous pursuer of the story is protagonist Johnny Carter, a character whose inability to articulate what he seeks is a source of anguish, while his talent for intuitive expression through music allows him to approach reality beyond ordinary existence that has been closed to most of humanity. In contrast, the narrator, a jazz critic and biographer, is entrenched in the analytical delineation of Johnny as he writes his biography—a book that is incapable of authentically portraying the artist's life.
Cortázar addresses complexities in the relationship between art and life in several works, and his short stories also reflect his concern for political and human rights while upholding his belief in open-ended art, in which he states it is the writer's responsibility “never to recede, for whatever reasons, along the path of creativity.” Cortázar evidences his political convictions in several works, including his early short story “Reunión” (“Meeting”), a fictional account of the Cuban revolution as told by Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara, and “Segund vez” (“Second Time Around”), in which Cortázar utilizes the repressive political situation in Argentina during the 1970s, when citizens often disappeared under false arrests, as a backdrop for his delineation of a woman's experiences surrounding an official summons. According to critics, the narrative voice, which changes from the first-person perspective of a bureaucrat to the third-person limited perspective of the woman, and then back to the bureaucrat's point of view in the last sentence, emphasizes the mysterious and omniscient nature of the summons, creating an Orwellian sense of institutionalized paranoia that extends that work beyond the Argentine government to encompass other Latin American totalitarian regimes.
In Cortázar's short fiction, contrasting elements such as the fantastic and commonplace; past, present, and future; reality and dream; and the self and the other, blend to suggest multiple layers of meaning that invite varied interpretations. Critics have suggested that Cortázar strove for this ambiguity as a means to express what may exist beyond humanity's rational perceptions. His stories are often characterized by humor despite their generally serious themes, and they are noted for his technical innovations in point of view, language, and form. Moreover, there have been psychoanalytical and feminist interpretations of his stories. Along with his novel Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch), Cortázar's short stories have established him as a leading voice in modern literature. Critics regard his contribution to Latin American literature as profound.
Since his death in 1984, Argentine novelist, poet and short story writer Julio Cortázar's reputation in the English-speaking world has fluctuated, the trend heading more towards a waning than a waxing. Known-of rather than widely read, some recognition is still afforded him as the author of the 1963 novel Hopscotch, and also of the excellent short story from which Blowup, Michelangelo Antonioni's iconic depiction of Swinging 60s London, was liberally adapted.
Hopscotch's reputation comes partly from its experimental form: a three-part novel comprising numbered paragraphs, it can be read according to an alternative, non-linear pattern in which the final section becomes a metatextual commentary on the first two. More importantly, Hopscotch was influential in terms of the shifting registers and jazz-influenced riffs of its prose. A key text of the so-called Latin American "boom", Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes have both credited it with modernising Latin-American literary language, while Gabriel García Márquez paid homage by alluding to it in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Yet it is Cortázar's short stories that represent, in the words of Argentine critic Jaime Alazraki, the "vertebral column" running through his work. Those written in the 1950s and 1960s offer the strongest case for their author's greatness. A fecund mixture of surrealism, symbolism, nouveau roman experimentation and Borgesian fantasy, Cortázar enthusiastically seeds his realistic settings – for the most part split between Buenos Aires and Paris – with impossible invasions of the fantastical and supernatural. The effect is often a refined philosophical take on the "uncanny tales" strand of speculative fiction.
Cortázar left Argentina for Paris in 1952, where he remained for the rest of his life, taking work as a Unesco translator. He translated Poe, whose aura pervades House Taken Over (1944), first published in Borges's magazine Los anales de Buenos Aires. It describes a brother and sister living a self-contained life in their large family home in Buenos Aires. When unnamed others infiltrate part of it, the brother and sister seal it off and live in the remainder. The identity of these others remains tantalisingly obscure, brother merely telling sister, "'I had to shut the door to the passage. They've taken over the back part.'" Later, further noises signal that the entire house has been breached, and the owners flee into the night after locking up the house to protect burglars from whatever "it" might be that has taken residence.
Typically of Cortázar, and anticipating the magical realist style that would brand him and his fellow "boom" authors of the 1960s, fantastical happenings are mostly accepted by his characters with the same amount of surprise the opening of a beer might garner in Bukowski. Another defining trait is the prominence of ambiguity. Depending on its readers' theories, House Taken Over might be horror, social satire, political commentary or psychological thriller.
House Taken Over featured in Cortázar's first collection, Bestiary (1951), the title story of which augments ambiguity with surrealism. Isabel spends the summer at her Aunt Rema's house, a normal bourgeois residence but for one fact: a large tiger roams the premises, with servants and family members constantly reporting where it is and which rooms or parts of the garden must currently be avoided. The strange, resentful and implicitly violent atmosphere between Isabel's cousins adds a further layer of unease.
Identity proves to be Cortázar's greatest fascination. His characters frequently lose or swap their identity, or suffer some kind of possession. In Axolotl, a man at an aquarium appears to become one of the amphibians he is viewing. The Distances sees a rich woman hug a beggar on a Budapest bridge, only to watch herself walk away and realise she is now trapped in another body. A Yellow Flower describes a man murdering a teenage boy whom he is convinced is his own precipitate reincarnation. Perhaps most audacious among these is the profoundly chilling Secret Weapons (1959), in which a post-war Parisian man appears to become the executed German who raped the girl he is courting several years ago, during the Occupation. With its building atmosphere of terrible violence and small, significant details obsessively recycling and developing throughout the text, it's extremely close in style to David Peace.
You don't have to endorse the claim Cortázar made shortly before his death that his short stories were the best things ever to have been written in Spanish to appreciate him as a remarkable and versatile talent. His most appealing quality is the apprehensive oddness with which he infuses reality. Even one of his "straighter" stories, the Beat-influenced The Pursuer (1959), is richly strange, its narrative jumps and extended conversations between death-stalked Johnny (based on Charlie Parker) and the jazz critic Bruno adopting the rhythms of the form with which the story is concerned. Here, too, identities shift and break apart ("I am not I," Johnny says feverishly) while through Bruno, Cortázar makes the admission: "I prefer the words to the reality that I'm trying to describe." If you could do what he could with words, why wouldn't you?
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