Ah, the Fredonna Tree

A Certain Lucas

by Julio Cortázar, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Knopf, 160 pp., $12.95

Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden

by Heberto Padilla, translated by Andrew Hurley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 250 pp., $16.95

A House in the Country

by José Donoso, translated by David Pritchard and Suzanne Jill Levine
Knopf, 352 pp., $16.95

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…

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