Julio Cortázar
Julio Cortázar; drawing by David Levine

Julio Cortázar died in February 1984. He had become for many, as he said of his own departed heroes, Chaplin, Cocteau, Duke Ellington, Stravinsky, a person in whose death one dies a little. The writings remain, but there are questions we can no longer ask. What will he do next? How does he see his own work? What does he think of this war, that policy, this scandal, that song?

These are not the only or the most important questions we ask of a writer, and theoreticians from the New Critics onward have been arguing that we shouldn’t ask them at all. But they are natural questions, part of our sense that writing is done by people, not angels or machines, and they hover in the mind even if we know nothing about the writer, even if he or she never gives interviews or writes letters. The “death of the author” was a metaphor for Roland Barthes, and an interesting one, meant to dethrone a gloomy and demanding (and mainly French) monarch. But when an author literally dies (when Roland Barthes died), we miss not his dark rule but all the words he now won’t write, all the thoughts that can’t come into being. We still feel this, curiously, when we know quite well that a writer has dried up, or did his best work long ago.

This aspect of loss is particularly marked in the case of Cortázar because he was such a restless and inquisitive writer. He published volumes of epigrams, memories, poems, fantasies. His novels often read like notebooks, full of gags and quotations and fugitive ideas. Only in his short stories did he immerse himself thoroughly in his imagined worlds, adopt the often slangy and elliptical idioms of his various characters with the amazing range and fluency he could call up when he wanted. For this reason his stories, or the best of his stories, seem to be his most substantial achievement. But his other writings matter too. In them he eloquently lived, as Barthes once said he hoped to, the contradictions of his time. We often talk as if we thought writers should create and then vanish, like God at the end of the seven days—this is what being a “creative” writer means. And certainly writers are better off doing this than laying down the law. To be the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, as Auden shrewdly said, is the ambition not of poets but of the secret police.

But there is another role: that of witness, partial, human, willing to learn. We need to see our world in the mirror of minds that care about it; that enjoy it, I’m tempted to add, as Cortázar enjoyed jazz, whiskey, Robert Musil, politics, friendship, writing, certain forms of insolence or provocation. In A Certain Lucas, Cortázar’s central character attends a concert where a pianist throws himself “with his hands full of Khatchaturian at a completely defenseless keyboard,” provoking rapturous enthusiasm in the audience. Lucas meanwhile is groping on the floor, searching under the seats. Asked by a lady if he has lost something, he promptly replies, “The music, madam.”

Cortázar was born in Brussels in 1914; grew up, studied, and began to write in Argentina. In 1951 he moved to Paris, where he stayed for the rest of his life, apart from occasional travels. For many years he worked as a translator for UNESCO; and he became a French citizen in 1981. He was an ardent supporter of the Cuban revolution, even in his later, less attractive phases, and of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But his socialism was so full of mischief and so romantic that his critics often wondered whether it was socialism at all. What are we to make of terrorists who kidnap a penguin, as a group does in A Manual for Manuel? Cortázar’s implicit reply was a cheerful version of Orwell’s argument on the same theme: we don’t make bitter sacrifices in order to build a world even grimmer and more humorless than the one we have ruined. An implication of Heberto Padilla’s Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden is that on the contrary we are doing just that, that this is the name of Cuba’s current business.

Like all Latin American writers in the second half of this century, and more than most because he was Argentinian, Cortázar was influenced by Borges. He takes from Borges a sense of the world as radically provisional, a flimsy structure both terribly unsound and strikingly durable. But where Borges is interested in the swaying edifice, the dizziness of order, Cortázar is concerned with everything the order excludes. He dreams, as many writers have done, of the “others”: twins, doubles, the rejected, the buried, the forgotten. But he dreams of them not in fear but with a welcoming generosity that becomes part of his signature.


“Jekyll knows very well who Hyde is,” he writes in A Certain Lucas, “but the knowledge is not reciprocal.” Cortázar doesn’t want to send Hyde on the rampage, he does want to let him in on the secret. In “Distances,” one of his finest stories, a well-off girl in warm Buenos Aires is haunted by and finally changes places with a ragged second self in Budapest, snow filling up her broken shoes as she trudges off across a bridge: schizophrenia as a redistribution of goods and sorrows. In another story, “Apocalypse in Solentiname,” the author takes photographs of some naive paintings in a commune in Nicaragua: pictures of a fish, a horse, cows, a lake, “a church that doesn’t believe in perspective.” When he projects the slides in Paris they show only a succession of horrific newsreel images: shootings and torture and bombings, a parade of contemporary violence and oppression. The third world’s other face has magically crept onto the film in the crossing.

Most of Cortázar’s stories have been translated into English, and all four of his novels. The places to start, or to return to, are perhaps Hopscotch and 62: A Model Kit among the novels, and End of the Game and A Change of Light among the collections of stories. A Certain Lucas, published in Spanish in 1979, is a minor work, what Graham Greene would once have called an entertainment—often charming but rather clogged by the whimsy which every now and again sandbagged Cortázar’s intelligence. The inhabitants of an imaginary country have tiny goldfish injected into their veins, and are made happy by the thought of these little creatures coursing through their blood. A character discovers that cats are telephones (as well as being cats), but we can’t answer or decode the calls they transmit, and we don’t know how to dial on them. “What good does my discovery do me or any of us? Every cat is a telephone, but every man is just a poor man.” A luxury dining car is set up on the Paris metro, traveling a different route each day in order to keep away the gaping plebes. Diners particularly enjoy the sight of people scrambling to and from their tiring work. Cortázar identifies his mood here as Swiftian, but the irony is very tame.

Lucas is an alter ego of Cortázar’s, a portrait of the artist as the man he sometimes feels he must be. The book gives us fragments of his memories, projects, conversations (“Lucas, His Shopping,” “Lucas, His Hospitals,” “Lucas, His Shoeshines 1940”), and a series of essays and jokes not attributed to Lucas but plainly coming from a kindred mind: a tale about the transport of corpses by night in provincial Argentina; a parody of contemporary literary criticism; a celebration of Dr. Johnson as polygraph (“a writer who deals with diverse material”):

In little more than a year, five essays and twenty-five reviews by a man whose principal defect, according to himself and his critics, was indolence…. I have a great liking for polygraphs who cast their fishing poles in all directions, pretending at the same time to be half-asleep…. When all is said and done, that’s what I’m doing with this book, but Dr. Johnson’s indolence looks to me like such an inconceivable fury of work that my best efforts won’t reach beyond a vague rousing up out of a siesta in a Paraguayan hammock.

Lucas tries to cut off the hydra heads of his habits (“For example, you take a cut on the head that collects records, and you take another on the one that invariably lays his pipe down on the left-hand side of the desk”) and argues, as a “literary militant,” with the “nonliterary militants” who want him to write stuff that everyone can understand. Parodying the pompousness of his own tone but meaning every word he says, Lucas insists that that’s what most writers are doing already, that “there are no known limits to the imagination,” and that he cannot “abstain from exploring beyond the explored, or exploring by explaining the explored.” Lucas at last agrees he will write more simply if his comrades will give up cars and tractors and television. Perhaps the note on which to leave Lucas, and Cortázar, is the one suggested by their list of admired pianists, which includes Backhaus and Jelly Roll Morton, Bud Powell and Dinu Lipatti, Maurizio Pollini and Marian McPartland:

At the hour of his death, if there is time and lucidity, Lucas will ask to hear two things: Mozart’s last quintet and a certain piano solo on the theme of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” If he feels that there won’t be enough time, he’ll only ask for the piano record…. Out of the depths of time, Earl Hines will accompany him.

“History, old Marx,” Heberto Padilla wrote in a poem published in these pages in 1971, “is not enough.” He is still right, but history obviously didn’t take kindly to the remark. Padilla was imprisoned by Castro as a dissident and forced to recant. He spent nine years under virtual house arrest, and was allowed to leave Cuba in 1980. His case became a signpost for many foreign supporters of the revolution, an instance of how very little dissent the regime was prepared to tolerate. Padilla, a distinguished poet and translator, doesn’t say when he wrote his novel Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden, but a version of it seems to have been part of the brief against him in 1971. It is a novel of disappointment and creeping fear, of the hardening of revolutionary fervor into dogma, and of the pollution of private lives by politics: “The difficulties of the political movement had eaten away like an acid at habits, dreams, even the deepest loyalties…. The country’s political tensions had crept into everything—they hung over everything, dominated every life, got into the mouths and subconsciousnesses of everyone. Not even the breakup of a marriage was free of their taint.”


In an afterword to his novel Padilla speaks of the imperfection of “books written under socialism”—as distinct, he must mean, from books written by socialists living in Paris, pace Mitterrand. The books of Cuba, or of the Eastern bloc, Padilla suggests, are necessarily desperate or neurotic. They “require an impossible reading by an impossible reader, since no reader will have the kind of knowledge required for their understanding.” The argument is not entirely clear to me, but Padilla seems to say that we must overpraise or overdisparage or overexcuse writers like himself or Solzhenitsyn or Kundera or Pasternak, whom he mentions: we can’t look at them straight. This is probably right, but I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to look at them straight, and the whole line of thought sounds like a premature apology. If there are no readers, why is the book being published, and who are we?

The plot, or rather the unresolvable central situation, of the novel concerns two men in Havana: Gregorio, an alcoholic novelist trying (not very hard) to reform, hampered by his sloth and despair, and by the energetic help of his wife, who reconstructs his lapses and errors like a “furious archeologist, throwing up to him his own shameful skeleton, his ugly prehistory”; and Julio, a translator who cannot find an outlet for his diffuse and murmuring resistance to what is happening to Cuba. Julio argues with his brother-in-law, learns he is being followed, and finally has some sort of breakdown in which he sees the heroes of the title, “heroes of all sizes and ages—heroes suddenly as puzzled as clumsy, frightened children, heroes who moved like lancers to the sound of fife and flute,” chewing the grass he has been meaning to cut for days.

They grazed—on all fours they cut the greenery with their teeth…they brandished their useless weapons, which would never again destroy. Children would come later, or a council of old men, under the clean vines returned to their original innocence, purged of history. He wanted this deluge to swallow everything—acts, speeches and apothegms, philosophers and enchanters, prophets and kings and secretaries-general and bishops of all churches.

It is a telling vision, an impossible peace, and it answers an earlier dream of Julio’s, in which he meets Castro and can’t voice his complaints. Castro blows out a huge puff of smoke from his cigar and asks, “And what would you do if you were Prime Minister? I’ll give you one minute to answer. What would you do in my place?” He waits. Julio’s “intelligent, sick, old weight of objections” is no use to him now, and he answers, “Exactly what you do, Fidel.” The novel ends with Gregorio and Julio, who at times seem like figments of each other’s imagination, getting drunk and going swimming, incoherently sharing their helplessness.

Julio has other problems, since he bullies his mistress cruelly, and can’t bear the thought of whatever sexual experience she may have had before she met him. In spite of Padilla’s remarks about political tensions creeping into everything, it’s really hard to see what the revolution has to do with this, or with Gregorio’s drinking and baffled day-dreaming. Much of this novel clusters around the ideas of getting old and getting lost; around the amount of battering and patching up a human relationship will stand; around the distaste some Cubans feel for their steamy tropics, their longing for the clean, cold winters of the north.

It must have been the unhappiness of the book that irritated the authorities, since the revolution has prohibited gloom and despair. It is a brave work in this sense, a statement of the right to sadness, which is as important as any other right. That said, and without putting in any kind of plea for positive heroes, I must admit I find Gregorio and Julio a pair of old whiners, so deeply dipped in self-pity that they tend to brush away all continuing sympathy and sustained interest. Kafka’s Joseph K., whose miserable end is evoked in the novel, is an eager extrovert by comparison.

In his recent book Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes plays a game of banning various sorts of fiction. “There shall be no more novels in which a group of people, isolated by circumstances, revert to the ‘natural condition’ of man…no more novels about incest…a twenty-year ban on novels set in Oxford or Cambridge…. A total ban on novels in which the main character is a journalist or a television presenter….” He proposes a quota system for fiction set in South America:

The intention is to curb the spread of package-tour baroque and heavy irony. Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles…ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle.

At first sight the Chilean José Donoso, whose remarkable Obscene Bird of Night moves among mutants and convents and magic, seems a candidate for exclusion from the quota. But Donoso is a more thoughtful writer than the game allows, and his imagination is profoundly historical, so that even his fantasies are freighted with a complicated and inextricable past. He doesn’t entirely avoid the package-tour baroque, perhaps; but he was one of the inventors of the tour, and the baroque in A House in the Country, published in Spanish in 1978, is not what it seems.

The overworked term magic realism rests on a simple theory. If reality feels fantastic to you, it will be realistic to portray it in fantasies. Donoso’s earlier hallucinations, García Márquez’s legends and tall tales, allow them to depict not only the social and material world shared by so many novels, but the same world infiltrated by ghosts and lies and unshakable memories—which is the way most of us experience it, although Latin Americans no doubt have a clearer first-hand sense of such things. Not the opera house in the jungle, but the parliament or the presidential palace invaded by exuberant opera.

Donoso’s implied argument in A House in the Country is quite different. He suggests that Latin American dreams are not merely suffered but actively sought out. Fantasies are not collectively felt as realities, they are made up by particular classes or a conspiracy of classes, who confect the opera and then live in it. This is a novel about the exorbitant denial of reality and the painful cost of unraveling falsehood. A principal character, caught among tumbling illusions, thinks he will never again “embrace any philosophy more concrete than his own disillusionment.” Or less concrete either. By a curious but quite logical circling, the abandonment of realism as a mode returns us to realism as a view. Those fantasies have a name: they are the sand people keep throwing in our eyes.

Donoso’s disappointment and anger are similar to Padilla’s, then, although their sources are quite different. Cuba is a mirror of socialism’s international rigidity; Chile a microcosm of the special distress of Latin America. Padilla is saddened by what he sees as the revolution’s betrayal of the merely human; Donoso by a society that can’t make a revolution or anything else, can only collapse under the weight of its refusal to face facts, and of the hatreds it manages to provoke.

Marulanda is a rural estate in an unspecified country at an unspecified time, but there are plenty of signs pointing to Chile, somewhere around the turn of the century. The splendid house, with its murals and stairways and terraces and peacocks and park, is built above an old salt mine, which provides endless tunnels, and secret access to the countryside. The local natives, humiliated and impoverished, mine gold and hammer it into delicate sheets which, sold in the capital, form the basis of the immense wealth and social standing of the Venturas, the family that owns the estate and the house. The mild natives are held to be cannibals who may revert at any minute, because this myth keeps the family together and permits them to picture themselves as crusaders for civilization. Cannibalism does come up in the novel in several gruesome guises, but not among the natives. At the end of the story, a group of foreigners, suspiciously resembling Americans, are planning to buy up the mines and the estate, and possibly exterminate the supposed man-eaters.

Every summer the Venturas, thirteen brothers and sisters and in-laws and thirty-three children, descend on the country house for three months, and elegantly do nothing, too caught up in their fictions about how wonderful they are even to realize they are bored. Their first commandment, we learn, is that “under no circumstances should anyone confront anything openly, that life [is] pure allusion and ritual and symbol.” Thus Celeste, a woman of fifty-two, has long been blind but no one acknowledges this, and she elaborately describes objects and scenes and clothes as if she could see them. Adriano, in his late forties, is thought to be crazy, and he is kept in a straitjacket and doped with laudanum. No one pays any attention to his occasional cries. A tubercular girl is prevented from coughing within earshot of the adults—or as Donoso puts it with withering sarcasm, “She was forbidden during the day to feign that absurd consumptive-heroine’s cough.” The children are unloved and regimented, needed only as family ornaments; the parents in return are suspected and hated. A band of servants mediates between the two groups, ringing the great curfew bell, and administering fierce punishments to the children after dark. The place has the aura of an insane idyll, the Trianon on the eve of the Bastille’s fall.

The children are already plotting. Two of them want to escape with piles of gold; others are furtively pulling up the railings of the park, they are not sure why; another waits to see which seditious band she will join; yet another plans to release his father, Adriano, and get him to lead a grand revolt. Collectively the children have managed to plant in the adults’ heads the suggestion of a visit to a fabulous local site, glade and lake and waterfall, which may or may not exist, but is soon made the object of a projected day’s picnic.

The adults take off on their excursion, leaving all the children behind, and what follows is perhaps predictable, and quite close to Julian Barnes’s first proscription regarding isolated groups reverting to the natural condition of man. There are echoes too of Lord of the Flies and Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, those other miniature models of civilization in disarray. The children at Marulanda quarrel and panic, and some go berserk. Adriano descends from his confinement and takes command; and the natives, perfectly friendly, surround and enter the house. A commune is born, an antisociety, which is soon prey to all kinds of internal dissent and difficulty, notably between those children who relish their freedom, and those who hanker for the return of the adults—that is, between those who see the new dispensation as theirs and those who can’t wait for it to sink back into the old order.

What happens next is less predictable. The adults return from their picnic? Not quite. They almost return, get wind of the rebellion, and send the servants to clean it up, while they move on to the comforts of the capital city. There is a massacre at the house, a state of emergency ruled by the servants, and then the adults return to the pacified place—but not before Adriano, three children, and many natives are dead, and other children have fled or are disfigured by torture. The adults’ impressive strategy is to see none of this, and to take no note of the ruined house and the grass-devoured park.

But I have not mentioned Donoso’s most brilliant and most haunting touch. The adults have been gone for a day, but a year has passed back at the house, time enough for young girls to have children, for the seasons to turn, for crops to grow and new habits to settle. The adults stay away for another year while the servants reestablish order, and then come back pretending they have been gone only the one, initial day. The children are confused, the adults argue, they count time in strange ways. How could anyone conceive and bear a child in a single day? It’s not a child, it’s only a doll, all make-believe, aren’t children wonderful? And the perfectly real, human baby is drowned before anyone gets a chance to look at it.

This conflict of times suggests not only the familiar gulf between generations, but a conflict of classes. What the family, the adults, want is to freeze or abolish time, to inhabit an enchanted island somewhere off history’s coast. But the children are history, their time is growing time, and the natives, long exiled from history, now want to return to its forward motion. And then time and their inheritance are snatched from them by the foreigners and their cleverest ally in the family.

I don’t think Donoso intends a detailed political allegory here—although Adriano’s career and death bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Salvador Allende. Donoso insists on the invented quality of his material, and scorns realism as altogether too comfortable, even when it is offering unpleasant truths. He makes a lot of fussy entrances as the self-conscious author which don’t, alas, become less fussy because he knows what he is doing. His novel is an “artifice,” he says, a “monologue”; nothing it refers to exists beyond the page. The children are “boys and girls who, as in a Poussin painting, caper in the foreground, untraceable to any model because they are not portraits, their features unconstrained by any but the most formal lineaments of individuality or passion.” “I make no appeal to my readers to ‘believe’ my characters: I would rather they were taken as emblems—as characters, I insist, not as persons—who as such live entirely in an atmosphere of words.”

Donoso is teasing us, but perhaps he also takes his quarrel with realism a little too seriously. Even emblems have to be emblems of something. What he has done in fact is to write a historical fable about a large shift of power in Latin America, about the end of an old order. And the fable works, as many fables do, by slipping in and out of allegory. At times the servants must represent the army or the police, and the children the poor or the disenfranchised. At other times they are servants and children, nothing more. But we can’t hide among the words quite as easily as Donoso suggests, and no doubt he doesn’t really want us to. “I am myself,” a scheming servant says. “I don’t represent anyone”—meaning he is looking out for his own interests and not those of the ruling class he hoped to profit from. This is like Mother Courage saying she is against war, and one of the children immediately identifies the idea as preposterous. The characters may be emblems—and their elaborate talk and manners make it hard to see them as anything else—but the realities they intermittently evoke are not. There is no immunity for words, as Heberto Padilla discovered. History is not enough, but it requires our constant attention.

This Issue

July 18, 1985