Saturday, December 4, 2010

Julio Cortázar: Narrador y protagonista - or, Actor/Director?

La noche boca arriba (The Night Face Up) [Seix Barral, 1983] is one of Cortázar's best-loved short stories. The majority of his short fictions are so well known, in fact, that one could have a conversation with friends fondly recalling plots and characters as if reminiscing about a friend's exploits during his wilder days (...remember the man who was murdered by his own sweater? And the guy who burped up bunny rabbits in the elevator?). So often does Cortázar's voice tickle the consciousness of the reader with his inimitable humor that this tonal commentary carries over from story to story. It is the author's tone of voice as narrator that at times colors the protagonist's, and at the same time one could never fault his writing for breaking the contract between writer and reader so that one might abruptly stop reading and, disenchanted, back up to find the thread of the story again.
In "Final del juego," (End of the Game) the 1st person narrator is an unnamed adolescent girl who, with her sister and cousin, Holanda and Leticia, play an intricate game of statues and attitudes by the train tracks in Argentina's countryside. All three girls are smitten with Ariel, a schoolboy who rides the train and is captivated by their imaginary theater. But it is Leticia, who suffers from a debilitating illness, who captures his heart in the end. Cortázar's wit and imagination completely inhabit the perspective of the narrator girl, and she is as insightful and real as Horacio in Rayuela (Hopscotch). Cortázar's essence is always in conversation with the reader, whether he is a rare Mexican salamander in an aquarium in "Axolotl" or the criminal narrator in "Los amigos," a man about to shoot an old mafia friend, in one of his shortest and most compact stories. By creating fiction with characters that hopped worlds and planes of existence, the writer was free to transgress the boundaries of control-- characters could direct, authors could be actors, and readers were invited even more effusively than in Borges' world, to participate, to share in the irony of writing, and still walk away amused.
This is the relevance of teaching his work today, to students of literature who are not necessarily writers, or who may be taking such a course in order to fulfill a curriculum requirement, yet still want to read something meaningful to them. (For writers, I think the key is to revel in the paradox he offered with that irony; one has to drop the self-importance of writing before writing anything meaningful.)
Cortázar's restlessness in his fiction portrayed classic shifts in perception that today are the basis for contemporary narratives in literature as well as film. Consider the motorcyclist who crashes his bike in Paris and straddles the reality of the man running away from ritual Aztec sacrifice, in "La noche boca arriba." This story is so tightly written one looks for the seams in every line-- it is the same story of Jacob's Ladder, forty years later and in another language. The photographer in "Las babas del diablo" whose chilling darkroom discoveries did, in fact, become film in Antonioni's Blow-Up. Many years later, the formal hopscotch of Rayuela, with his directions to hop around from chapter to chapter, is echoed by Ana Castillo in The Mixquiahuala Letters. And, so, the quintessential Latin American male writer who once alienated 51% of readers by referring to "passive" readers as-- lectores hembra (female readers)(!)-- learns his lesson (he did apologize). His fiction has gone viral.