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The Not So Light Fantastic

Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Harper and Row, 183 pp., $8.95

A Manual for Manuel

by Julio Cortázar, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Pantheon Books, 391 pp., $10.95

It used to be the fashion, in literary conversations and the fiercer sorts of criticism, to proclaim solemn and exclusive preferences for certain patches of an author’s work: to praise the short stories of Henry James, for example, and grumble about the novels; to insist on the Baudelaire of the prose poems and disparage Les fleurs du mal. No doubt most writers are more of a piece than these easy divisions suggest, and criticism, one likes to think, is something more than the rattle of emphatic or excited opinions. So it would be a mistake simply to choose between the novels and the short stories of Julio Cortázar, or to use the novels of Gabriel García Márquez as sticks to beat his stories with. And yet, and yet.

A Manual for Manuel is a novel by one of the century’s most gifted writers of short stories; and Innocent Eréndira is a volume of short stories by the most famous of contemporary Latin American novelists. Differences of genre do matter, and it is a form of laziness to assume that everything an author writes is of equal value—more precisely, it is the lazy form of the sensible assumption that everything an interesting author writes is likely to be of interest.

The question is not particularly acute in the case of García Márquez, since I take it no one wishes to deny that his fame rests squarely and justly on his novels. One Hundred Years of Solitude was a narrative tour de force which captured for the first time the comic sadness of a world in which slaughter and miracle, old wives’ tales and ugly Americans, are joined in an inextricable confusion. The Autumn of the Patriarch pursued the theme of loneliness into the life of a great dictator, a man made up of a dozen Latin American autocrats, but also a grotesque vision of a sort of Franco-across-the-sea; and to say that the novel was not the disappointment that even the writer’s admirers were half-expecting is already to say a great deal for it. The stories, however, with the exception of two or three of the pieces collected in English in the volume No One Writes to the Colonel, which speak eloquently for themselves, come to us mainly as complements to the novels, clues, extensions, further reading. This is especially so for Innocent Eréndira, and even the book’s blurb insists on the virtues of García Márquez (“one of the world’s greatest living writers…in these stories one finds the uniquely original qualities that…”) rather than the merits of the actual merchandise.

Still, the title story—in its full form “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother”—is both charming and haunting, a fairy story of underdevelopment, the fable of an exhausted Cinderella who knocks over a candle and burns down her tyrannical grandmother’s house, and is forced by the old ogress to sleep with as many men as it takes to pay for the considerable damage and loss. Another story, “Death Constant Beyond Love,” makes effective use of what one might call the past prophetic tense, perfected by García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude: a jumping of the narrative gun so that we know (or think we know) what has happened before it happens, but still wait for the fulfillment of the story’s promise. “Senator Onésimo Sánchez,” this story begins, “had six months and eleven days to go before his death when he found the woman of his life.” Before his death, we should observe, and not, say, before doctors said he was likely to die. Having found the woman, the senator clings to her, sinks his face into her fragrant armpit, and gives in to his mortal fear. The story ends:

Six months and eleven days later he would die in that same position, debased and repudiated because of the public scandal with Laura Farina and weeping with rage at dying without her.

These two pieces were written between One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, and they show us García Márquez looking for ways of linking the loneliness of lost communities—Eréndira’s grandmother represents, among other things, a ludicrous civilization in the desert, since the house the girl accidentally burns down contains Roman baths, Venetian glass, and a gilded piano, and the dinner table, where only the grandmother eats, is always set for twelve—to the lonelinesses of political power and submission, and even rebellion. Eréndira is rescued from her grandmother by missionaries, but goes back to her when the old lady manages to reassert her domineering spell. Finally, Eréndira persuades someone to murder the tyrant, and disappears, leaving both her savior and the corpse to their separate solitudes. Senator Onésimo Sánchez, even before he finds the woman of his life, understands that politics thrives on the pretense of defeating nature in his constituency, but only on the pretense. If the desert were really to bloom, they would all be out of business.

Of the other stories in this book, nine are very early, and are mainly appealing for flickering moments of dialogue which they can’t quite live up to. “Don’t open that door,” a woman says. “The hallway is full of difficult dreams.” “Madam,” a doctor says to another woman, “your child has a grave illness: he is dead.” In 1947, when the first of these stories was written, García Márquez was nineteen. Most of these early pieces concern marginal or scarcely imaginable conditions: the death of someone already dead, the life of a ghost watching the living, the separate existence of a self in a mirror, the conversation of a couple who meet only in dreams, and cannot find each other in waking life. One has the sense of someone trying to modernize Poe: interested in states of consciousness, casting around for metaphors of dislocation and absence.

The one story in the volume which is neither early nor late is “The Sea of Lost Time,” written in 1961. Here García Márquez is plainly experimenting with the mixture of history and fantasy which was to work so well in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but fantasy has all too easy a time of it. A gringo appears in a rotting Latin American community and begins to distribute money, but the story veers off into whimsy: drowned corpses get younger as they travel the oceans of the world, and a whole colorful village thrives at the bottom of the sea, because “A Sunday sank at about eleven o’clock in the morning.”

Whimsy of this kind is always cropping up in García Márquez, in the novels as well as in the short stories, not often enough to weaken his best work, but often enough to lend a soft edge to most of the writing, a harmlessness which we do not find in Cortázar, for instance. Fantasy, in García Márquez and elsewhere, comes off best when it sketches desire, or mirrors a fantastic reality, or simply disturbs a comfortable acceptance of the unacceptable. Whimsy does none of these things. Whimsy is itself consoling, an amiable collaboration of writer and reader in consequenceless make-believe, a reduction of fantasy to coyness. When Eréndira’s grandmother is killed, green blood spills out of her; when the gringo in “The Sea of Lost Time” goes to sleep, he uses up the air in his room and objects lose their weight and float about. This is fun that soon wears thin. On the other hand, when a paper butterfly made by Senator Onésimo Sánchez first flies out of the room and then turns into a butterfly painted on a wall, the interaction between impossibilities is complicated enough to raise questions, and the questions themselves are given an additional thrust when thousands of bank notes begin to imitate the butterfly and glide about in the gust of the fan which is cooling the senator’s room. “You see,” the senator remarks, “even shit can fly.”

With Julio Cortázar the issue of the relative success of novels and short stories becomes more challenging. Cortázar is an Argentinian who was born in Brussels in 1914 and has lived in Paris since 1952; and one way of approaching the issue would be to say that this scanty biographical information is neither here nor there as far as the stories are concerned, but is written into every line of the novels, where Argentina, exile, and Paris crop up constantly.

The short stories are closed, independent, “spherical,” in Cortázar’s own image. “The sign of a great short story,” he says, “is what we might call its autarchy.” And again: “It seems to me a form of vanity to wish to intervene in a story with somebody other than the story itself.” Cortázar’s stories are even more delicate than these comments suggest, since he has the remarkable gift of seeming interested in everything except the twist or point of his tales, of lavishing such democratic care on every detail that nothing seems to be there simply to move the story along. Conversely, the frequent extravagances of these works are systemically underplayed.

An early piece called “Bestiary,” for example, which appeared in English in a volume called End of the Game, depicts a long sad summer on an Argentinian estate, three adults and two children locked in an apparent tedium which ripples with half-submerged threats and worries, the whole thing recounted with Jamesian finesse from the point of view of one of the children. But the crucial fact, which Cortázar mentions only a few times, and in the most offhand way possible, is the tiger which lives on the estate and roams the house at will, taking whole floors and rooms out of use as it goes:

Almost always it was Rema who went to see if they could go through into the dining room. The second day she came into the large living room and told them to wait. A long time went by until a peon let them know that the tiger was in the clover garden, then Rema took the children by the hand, and everyone went in to lunch.

In a recent story, “Apocalypse in Solentiname,” not yet translated, Cortázar, in the person of Julio Cortázar, much-traveled writer, recounts a visit to Costa Rica and Nicaragua:

press conference with the usual things, why don’t you live in your country, how come Blow-Up was so different from your story, do you think the writer has to be committed? At this point I know I shall be interviewed for the last time at the gates of hell, and the questions will obviously be the same, and if by chance I end up chez St. Peter it won’t be any different, don’t you think that down there you wrote stuff that was too hermetic for the people?

Cortázar spends a day at Solentiname, a community founded by the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal, and, much taken with some paintings the peasants there have done—fishes, lakes, horses, churches, infants—he photographs them. Back in Paris, he projects the slides and sees, not Solentiname, but the other face of Latin America, shot after shot of torture, murder, terror, corpses, fleeing women, dying children. When his girl friend comes in and runs the slides through again, she sees only the primitive, handsome paintings. “How well they came out,” she says. Even when told in his own person, a Cortázar story is not really personal.

The chief sign of the delicacy of these stories, and of their power, is the avoidance of allegory where it seems virtually unavoidable. The prowling tiger, the dark side of the pastoral—these are the “meanings” in these stories, their paraphrasable point. But their movement doesn’t really yield emblems or statements, tigers of anguish or lessons of contemporary history. It suggests rather the fragility dining rooms and idylls, the possibility that the screens which shield us from historical and psychological horror could crack at any minute. What matters in the later story, for example, is not what the slides show in Paris, but the uncanny invasion of comfort which the slides represent. No whimsy here.

In distinction to all this, Cortázar’s novels are magnets which attract all kinds of random pieces of his life and reading: quotations, clippings, afterthoughts, memories, experiences, jokes, parallels. “In the years of Hopscotch,” he writes in an essay,

the saturation was such that the only honest thing to do was simply to accept this torrent of meteorites which came in from the street, books, conversations, day-to-day accidents, and convert them into passages, fragments, necessary or optional chapters….

Similarly, A Manual for Manuel is full of newspaper cuttings and statistics. “No one should be surprised,” Cortázar says in his preface,

by the frequent inclusion of news stories that were being read as the book was taking shape: stimulating coincidences and analogies caused me from the very start to accept a most simple rule of the game, having the characters take part in those daily readings of Latin American and French newspapers.

62: A Model Kit is a novel which Cortázar kept deliberately free of such intrusions—anyone who knows me will realize how hard it was, he remarks—but then once the book was finished he wrote, with visible relief, an essay which brought out all the missing allusions and connections, the other life of the writing mind: Aragon, Nabokov, Rimbaud, an inscription found on a house close to Lake Como, essays by Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty.

Cortázar’s novels, in other words, are slangy, private, garrulous, and funny; his stories are severe, aloof, decorous, and magical, each one stylistically tuned to the idiom of its characters. The stories make the novels look messy and self-indulgent; the novels tend to make the stories look a little city. And here, it seems to me, is a critical question of some importance.

I would think that a person who said that only Cortázar’s stories really count had missed the pleasure and the significance of the novels. On the other hand, I would suspect that a person who claimed to enjoy the novels and stories equally really didn’t like either very much. The works are markedly different, and such catholicity of taste is scarcely distinguishable from having no taste at all. I should say at once, then, that Cortázar’s best stories seem to me to have a life of their own which the novels have only in scattered moments, and that in spite of the remarks I’ve quoted above, this is not really a matter of open or closed forms.

In the stories, fears, failures, and illuminations are presented as facts, pieces of a puzzle which have fallen out into memorable configurations. In the novels the same things are argued about, converted into problems and negotiations, and one has the feeling, especially in Hopscotch and in A Manual for Manuel, that Cortázar is seeking an alibi for a certain parsimony of sentiment, indeed perhaps for the austerity which allows him to write his stories as he does. It was right to hang back, it was right to refuse that person, that passion, that cause, that devouring demand on your independence. In Hopscotch, this variety of emotional avarice is presented as half-heroic, the stand of Stephen Dedalus against the ensnaring forces of church and state and family and love. In A Manual for Manuel it is seen as distraction and cowardice, but even there it is given an enormous amount of space in which to make itself appealing, and to point out the drawbacks of the committed life.

A Manual for Manuel is in several ways a revision of Hopscotch, and is more successful, I think—a remarkable book in spite of my rasping comments. Here as in the earlier work, there is a group of fast-talking cronies living in Paris, most of them Latin Americans; once again a man is caught between two women, trying to believe that his vacillation is freedom; again, there is a small child; and again, a rage for allusions, which in this case run from Stockhausen and Henry James to Judy Garland and Joni Mitchell, but begin to converge on the grim facts of torture in Latin America, soberly recited, scarcely talked about.

This last feature indicates something of the difference between the two novels, the careful separation of similarities. The group of cronies is not discussing jazz and literature, as in Hopscotch, it is planning an operation which it calls the Fuck, prudently translated here as the Screwery, which is to culminate in the kidnapping of a high Latin American official in Europe, and the death of Marcos, the most attractive and authoritative of the cronies. The small child in Hopscotch dies, but in this book the child not only lives but represents the playful and humane future these engaging subversives may not be able to bring about. He is Manuel, and it is in this sense that the novel is a manual for him, the legacy of an adventure and a generation. The joke, by the way, is the translator’s. The Spanish title of the book is simply Libro de Manuel.

More literally, Manuel’s mother is making him a scrapbook of multilingual newspaper cuttings, which includes plenty of details of political oppression, but also an inspirational quotation from Paracelsus and a number of items describing things like the theft of 9,000 wigs by a group of Latin American guerrillas, the two months prison sentence of a young Argentinian for “disrespect for the national anthem,” and the advantages of fried sandwiches for weekend excursions. And in the place of Morelli, the tired but brilliant experimental writer of Hopscotch, there is the novelist himself, named only as “the one I told you,” making ghostly exits and entrances, collecting data for his book, talking to his characters not as their author but as their friend and chronicler. What’s more, the one I told you is said to have disappeared before the text reaches the form in which we read it, and the final compilation appears to have been made by one of the characters. The effect of this complicated, shifting confession of artifice is not to suggest that everything is fiction, but to destroy the conventional distinction between fiction and reality. At the end of the book Marcos, dead, ends up in the morgue where his close friend works.

Look at the way we came to meet here [the friend says], nobody’s going to believe it, nobody’s going to believe any of all this. It had to be us, that’s for certain, you there and me with this sponge, you were so right, they’re going to think we made it all up.

These are the last words of the novel. The novelistic coincidence, the occasion for a nifty soliloquy, is clearly made up, and that is what we think. And the preliminaries to the grand kidnapping, which include a series of “microagitations” such as screaming in a Paris cinema just when Brigitte Bardot is about to display what the audience came to see, or eating standing up in a fancy restaurant, or importing a turquoise penguin from Argentina, ostensibly as a gift to the zoo at Vincennes, do not strike one exactly as bits of documentary truth. But neither Cortaázar nor his characters nor the one I told you made up Brazilian prisons, or American military (and paramilitary) aid to Latin America, or the urgency of the struggle against the uninvented miseries of half the world. “We may need,” the philosopher J.L. Austin said, in a remark quoted by H.L.A. Hart in a recent New York Review, “the grace to be torn between simply disparate ideals.” We also need the courage to shout and fight whenever one or more of these ideals is assaulted, and that is what Cortázar is doing in this book.

Cortázar, I suspect, is enough of a metaphysician not to accept the line about disparate ideals. The whole direction of his work denies such divisions, the Screwery implies a liberation from every oppression which weighs on us, sexual, political, cultural, and so on. It is his sense of how much confusion and multiplicity an authentic revolution would have to accommodate that makes Marcos such a commanding figure, and the same sense governs Cortázar’s novel, which is a running plea for a saving frivolity in the midst of serious concerns. Thus screams in a cinema and the jet flight of a penguin lead directly to a risky kidnapping; practical jokes and political agitation are not to be locked away in separate zones; screwing and the Screwery are part of the same grand scheme.

So much is done in jest and because of what we think is jest and then the other thing begins afterwards and underneath there’s a kind of surreptitious recurrence of the jest or the pun or the gratuitous act….

At one point, Marcos’s friend from the morgue insists that everyone leave their solemn plotting and come to watch his poisonous mushroom grow. It is only the elect of the novel, like Marcos and one or two others, who understand the importance of this “idiotic comedy”:

In this idiotic comedy there was for Marcos something like a hope, that of not falling into too complete a specialisation, that of keeping a little play, a little Manuel, in one’s conduct….

This way, Cortázar’s implication goes, the victorious revolution stands a chance of avoiding the repressions of tomorrow, of fending off all the Robespierres and Stalins who lurk behind the deadly earnest faces of today’s good guys, those “fascists of the revolution,” as another character calls them.

I find this argument attractive, and I think frivolity is a real value. A man who makes puns, a character in Stendhal says, cannot be an assassin. But the truth of this view is horribly in complete—for every redeeming joke in the world there must be four or five assassins making puns as they go about their business—and it is not in any sense a political view. The chief fault of Stalin and Robespierre, after all, was hardly their lack of a sense of humor. Similarly, I suspect that the metaphysical union of all our enemies and all our longings into the Great Screwery is not only a strategical error, but a secret alliance with the other side. If everything has to be liberated at once, many people will stay at home in their prejudices, daunted by the manifest impossibility of the task. Sexual and political freedom, for example, seem to me essential goals, but I see no reason why the fights should be fought on the same fronts. We do need the grace to be torn between disparate ideals, and never more so than when the distance between them seems endless.

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