Julio Cortázar (1914-1984)

In all that Julio Cortázar ever wrote, be it novel, short story, play, poem, essay, or collage, he pitted all his intelligence, passion, and playful humor against unthinking acceptance of the given, the automatic, and the imposed, and sought to discover and forge a wider, freer, more authentic definition of humanity. The explosive revelation and the tenderness of his texts together with the example of independence and solidarity of the man stand as important examples in Latin-American letters.


Born on 26 August 1914 to Argentinian parents, Julio José Cortázar and María Herminia Descotte de Cortázar, who were in Brussels on a business trip during the German invasion, Cortázar did not travel to Argentina until four years later. When he returned to Europe for good at the age of thirty-seven, his destiny as an essentially Argentinian and Latin-American writer was set. Without the European perspective, however, and the wide, eclectic European culture that is the hallmark of the Argentinian intellectual, novels such as Rayuela (1963; translated as Hopscotch, 1966) would not have been possible. Something similar is true of the complex dual perspective of novels by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier such as Los pasos perdidos (1953; translated as The Lost Steps, 1956).

Cortázar was brought up with his sister, Ofelia, in the Buenos Aires suburb of Bánfield after their father abandoned the family. Though Cortázar described to Graciela de Sola his early life in a big, animal-filled garden as paradise, he added that this memory is tinged by excessive sensitivity and frequent sadness. He soon began to feel asphyxiated by the narrowness of family life, he explained, when for example his relatives threw a party to celebrate their acquisition of a refrigerator. Cortázar was a precocious reader with a special preference for so-called fantastic literature, and at the Mariano Acosta school, where he studied, he retreated into a small group of literary-minded friends and the patronage of teachers who fostered the passion for the classics that colors his early poetry, and who tried (unsuccessfully) to publish his schoolboy essay on Pindar.

In 1932 he qualified to teach primary school and in 1935 as a secondary-school teacher. After he spent just one year in studies at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, his family's economic situation forced him to accept teaching posts in the remote provincial towns of Bolívar and Chivilcoy, where he read large quantities of foreign literature and polished some sonnets of his. From 1944 to 1945 he taught French literature at the Universidad de Cuyo in Mendoza but chose to resign in 1946 after being involved in political agitation against Juan Perón, for which he was briefly imprisoned. After returning to Buenos Aires, Cortázar took an administrative post in the Cámara Argentina del Libro (Argentine Book Chamber), a publishing group, and from 1948, after rapidly completing a degree as public translator, he exercised that profession until 1951. In 1949 he traveled to France and Italy. The best account of his reaction to his country on his return is to be found in the poems of "Razones de la cólera" (Reasons for Anger), some of which were published in 1971 in Pameos y meopas ("Peoms and Meops" ) but which are best read with the accompanying commentary by Cortázar in Salvo el crepúsculo (Save the Twilight; published in the year of his death, 1984), in which "Razones" appears in its entirety.

Cortázar's first publication was Presencia (Presence, 1938), a slim volume of sonnets under the pseudonym Julio Denis, which were characteristic of the "Generation of the 1940s," a group that included his friend Daniel Devoto. Cortázar had also written many stories, but he did not begin to publish them until they came up to his stringent standards. In 1944 in the magazine Correo Literario he published a "fantastic" short story, "La bruja" (The Witch), which he never included in any anthology, and in 1946 and then 1948, in Los Anales de Buenos Aires , Jorge Luis Borges published Cortázar's first major stories, "Casa tomada" (House Taken Over) and "Lejana" (Distant), which were later included in Bestiario (1951). In 1949 the dramatic, poetic Los reyes (The Kings) was published. The language is highly literary, even precious, but the reversal of accepted, ready-made structures, in this case those of myths, makes the work in many ways a paradigm of much of Cortázar's later production. The Greek king of the title, Minos, represents the repressive order of authority and the Freudian superego, while the monstrous Minotaur is the maligned force of joy and sensuality. King Theseus of Athens is a feeble-headed automaton to whom Ariadne gives the thread so the Minotaur will be able to escape after killing Theseus (in a reversal of the legend). In most of his subsequent work, monsters will remain for Cortázar both a frightening threat to the everyday order and a source of liberation, an alternative, truer order.

By the mid 1940s, however, political events under Perón and his faction were threatening Cortázar and the Europeanist, rather elitist class of writers to which he belonged, including many of those associated with Victoria Ocampo's Sur magazine. A marked distaste for the atmosphere developing at the time is evident in Cortázar's El examen (The Examination), a novel written in 1950 but not published until 1986. After a nightmarish day in which two couples maintain endless conversations about the nature and fate of Argentina and wander the streets of Buenos Aires, where a threat that is clearly Peronism becomes a deadly plague, then a mysterious all-enveloping mist, and then causes crumbling streets, Juan and his fiancée leave for Europe. This is what Cortázar did, too, when in 1951 he left for Paris with a scholarship from the French government. In Paris he soon realized that if he were to be authentic, he could not cast off the mental and existential reality he had brought with him. Much of his later work is the chronicle of that return to his own personal, national, and continental reality. Oliveira, the hero of Rayuela, is his first character symbolically to return to Buenos Aires in his place.

Cortázar resided in France for the rest of his life, in Paris and later also in his summer house in Saignon, Provence. During most of those years he would spend some months working as a translator for UNESCO and then traveling widely. In 1953 he married another translator, Aurora Bernández, and their friendship was to survive their divorce some twenty years later. Late in his life he married a young Canadian writer, Carol Dunlop, who died of leukemia in 1982, and with whom he wrote several stories, including Los autonautas de la cosmopista (The Autonauts of the Cosmopike, 1983), an affectionate, surrealist account of a one-month trip down a French motorway. To the end Cortázar would go against the grain of the expected to try to see what the alienation of modern life makes invisible. For practical reasons he applied for French citizenship and was granted it by a special decree of President François Mitterand in 1981.

In the same year that he left Argentina (1951), Cortázar published his first collection of stories, Bestiario . There is much disagreement as to which is the essential Cortázar: the novelist or the short-story writer; there is little doubt, however, that together with his fellow countryman Borges he has written the best and most important corpus of short stories in the Spanish language. He was also a lucid thinker on the nature of the short-story genre and wrote some illuminating pieces, such as "Del cuento breve y sus alrededores" (Of the Short Story and Its Environs), in the collage work Ultimo round (Final Round, 1969), and "Del sentimiento de no estar del todo" (On the Feeling of Not Being Quite There), in another miscellany, La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos (1967; translated as Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, 1986). In the latter he argues that significant writing springs from a position of "extrañamiento" (strangeness) with regard to reality and rationality in the writer. In the Ultimo round piece he argues that stories are often the exorcizing of a neurosis or obsession, written in a sort of trance or "état second" (second state), as if simply transcribing an oneiric reality already formed in the deeper regions of the psyche. The story is thus autonomous from the author to an extent and deals in basically archetypal material through which it communicates directly with the reader.

These comments are generally borne out by the experience of reading his stories, except perhaps that the later stories become more selfconscious and intertextual, and are often skillfully calculated to carry a political dimension. What they manage in an unequaled manner is to question the hegemony, discrete separateness, and naturalness of the status quo, the ego, and socially accepted concepts of time, identity, and reality. These structures are questioned by being related to something different from them, what Cortázar has called "lo otro" (the other). This other might question, control, or become unexpectedly related to the given. Continuity between phenomena and dimensions occurs where one expects separateness, and discontinuity where one expects uniformity. One of the most basic structural features of the stories is analogy--between individuals, situations, and times--and a passage to another dimension suggested by such analogies. Models or forces that control the present and the lives of characters become of fundamental importance. Such models may take the form of the lives of people long dead, literary texts, myths, or even pieces of music. Related to this process is the giving of a fantastic, often vaguely animal shape to what has been repressed, feared, or ignored by an individual or group.

The discontinuity, surprise, or shock that decenters the character in some stories has varying effects. In "La autopista del Sur" (The Southern Thruway), from Todos los fuegos el fuego (1966; translated as All Fires the Fire, 1973), the traffic jam that lasts for several months causes primitive patterns of behavior as well as romances that sadly will not transfer back into normality. In "La banda" (The Band), in Final del juego (1956; translated in End of the Game , 1967), Lucio Medina, a cultured character, enters a cinema expecting to see an Anatole Litvak film but instead sees a large group of female employees of a shoe company marching up and down the stage and playing instruments awfully out of tune, while their families applaud. As a result of the experience and its philosophical aftermath, Medina abandons his profession and disappears from the country. In "Lugar llamado Kindberg" (A Place Called Kindberg), in Octaedro (1974; translated in A Change of Light, 1980), the charming encounter of the traveling salesman Marcelo with the sensual vitality of the young hitchhiker Lina drains his future life of meaning, and, after leaving her, he crashes into a plane tree at 160 KPH.

Continuities or disturbing links are established between very different sorts of realities. In Bestiario, for example, two stories show different but related links. When the identification is between individuals, the result is the doppelgänger: in "Lejana," for example, the middle-class Alina Reyes discovers, initially as a mental presence provoked by an anagram but later as a reality, that she has another self in a hungry, beaten beggarwoman in Budapest. The double is what she most fears, her opposite socially but also an image of her own suffering. In "Axolotl" the link is between species, as a man exchanges his identity with a fish. Continuities between individuals across time as well as space add an extra dimension, with obvious notions of metempsychosis, or an unconsciously imposed destiny. The heritage can be one of unexplainable violence, as when a fiancé is taken over by the presence of a dead Nazi rapist in the title story of Las armas secretas (The Secret Weapons, 1959); or a complex destiny of failure, as in stories such as "Segundo viaje" (Second Trip), in Deshoras (Out of Phase, 1983), where a mediocre boxer is inexplicably possessed of an enormous talent that takes him on exactly the same route through success to death as his most admired boxer and compatriot some years earlier. The lives of the musicians in "Clone," in Queremos tanto a Glenda (1980; translated in We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light, 1984) are dictated by a piece of music, while in the stories of Todos los fuegos el fuego extremely complex formal parallels are developed between actions in different epochs and cultures, which create ambiguities, as when the reader is not sure in "La noche boca arriba" (The Night Face Up) whether the prime reality is the death of the protagonist in an Aztec war or in a motorcycle accident in Paris.

Another sort of disturbing continuity, common to the fantastic tale but handled with special dexterity by Cortázar, is that between art and reality, reading and acting. Related to the true occurrence of the structure is "Instrucciones para John Howell," in Todos los fuegos el fuego, where the spectator-spectacle barrier is broken as the hero is taken from his seat in the theater and made to enter a play; he realizes that, if he is to save the life of the heroine, he has to fight against the plot dictated by the script in order to avert its inevitable outcome. More purely metafictional is the brief and brilliantly executed "Continuidad de los parques" (Continuity of the Parks), in Final del juego, where a man is sitting in an armchair reading about a character who sets out with a knife and eventually enters a room where a man is reading a book....

Some of Cortázar's later stories are extremely complex combinations of many techniques and levels of writing, achieving a powerful combination of referential prose, intertextuality, and a sustained meditation on the nature and ethics of writing. This is the case, for example, of "Recortes de prensa" (Press Clippings), in Queremos tanto a Glenda, a story that marks the culmination of his overtly political writing, which began with "Reunión," in Todos los fuegos el fuego , and became an important component of collections such as Alguien que anda por ahí (Someone Walking Around, 1977; translated in A Change of Light ). "Recortes de prensa" reproduces a clipping about the dreadful tortures and murders inflicted by the Argentine military on members of one family and explores the morality of writing about such violence from a safe distance. It questions the distance between writing and reality, here a moral and political issue using all the refined techniques derived from many years of writing experience. The woman narrator, in Paris, is asked by a sculptor friend to write a text to accompany some of his sculptures on the theme of violence. She then shows the sculptor the clipping. While the intensity of their reaction seems to link Buenos Aires and Paris, as happens metaphorically in many early Cortázar stories, they wonder what use their own art is in the face of such brutal reality. They are in a way like the reader in "Continuidad de los parques." When the writer leaves, she comes across a girl crying in the street, which repeats an incident described in the newspaper, in which police abducted parents and left the children alone. She goes with the girl and finds the father torturing the mother with cigarettes: the written account becomes reality. The narrator strikes the torturer and together with the victim ties him up to torture him in his turn. Not only has the fact-fiction dichotomy been reversed but also the situation of the torturers. The writer is no longer "on the good side," safe and with a clear conscience that it is only the others who do such things. Her account, however, is interspersed with recollections from literature (Jack London) and films. Over the next few pages there is some hesitation over whether the woman has dreamt, invented, or lived the episode. When she telephones the sculptor with a verbal account that resembles the plot, then tells him that it is her story, readers may begin to think that she has simply invented the tale, but her mental state does not confirm this. The sculptor subsequently sends her another clipping, about the torture and murder of a man in Marseilles and the disappearance of a girl. Not only does the frightening nature of the story heighten the awful reality Cortázar is trying to communicate, but it also makes it difficult for the reader not to question assumptions about the passivity of his own role on reading accounts of political atrocities.

Cortázar's own political evolution through the 1950s, but especially over the following two decades, was remarkable. Perhaps the most important factor was the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Cortázar and his wife, Aurora, were invited to Havana as jury members for the Premio de Casa de las Américas in 1963. After this occasion he endeavored to return every two years and maintained until the end of his life a faithful but not uncritical support for the revolutionary process there. He gradually came to realize and to admit that he had been mistaken in his evaluation of the significance of Peronism as an important popular mass movement. Despite an increasing political awareness, however, and an enthusiastic espousal of the cause of the student movement that culminated in Paris in May 1968--which Cortázar documented in a significant article in Ultimo round--his politics and creative literature did not really come together in a fruitful manner until the 1970s, with his novel Libro de Manuel (1973; translated as A Manual for Manuel, 1978). The main body of Cortázar's novels was published in the 1960s: Los premios (1960; translated as The Winners, 1965), Rayuela (1963), and 62: Modelo para armar (1968; translated as 62: A Model Kit , 1972). Los premios is a rich, readable, exciting novel, a somewhat allegorical story (though Cortázar denied it) of a sea cruise that never gets beyond the Río de la Plata; half the ship is put out of bounds by the authorities on the unconvincing excuse of the outbreak of a rare form of typhus. The prohibited stern becomes a taboo or repressed area on many levels, and the attempt by the passengers to storm it symbolizes their desire to explore these areas and incorporate "the other" into their personal and national lives. Life with the prohibited area missing is seen as absurd, a kaleidoscope, and a product of chance unratified by any deeper certainties, like the lottery that gave the passengers their winners' tickets. The inauthenticity of the characters' lives, their class snobbery, and their refusal to face their fundamental dilemmas or accept their own sexuality are translated into the illness of a child, who only recovers when the stern is reached. This illness of the child, who represents the values and intuitive contact lost or destroyed by the adult mind, is repeated in later novels. Indeed Los premios contains many of the key elements of later works but does not manage to combine them in their most effective manner.

The double text is an example of one of these elements. The main narrative is interrupted at regular intervals by nine chapters, in italics, of a fundamentally different sort of writing, which offers a metaphysical and linguistic commentary on the action. Its author or focus, Persio, searches for the figuras that would symbolically order the chaos of the various strands of the text, but the symbolism of the stern is almost too abundantly clear already, and the density of the avant-garde writing, despite its interest, jars readers too abruptly alongside the text it is supposed to complement; it possibly tempts many readers to pass over these soliloquies. The technique, however, prepares one for the "optional chapters" of Rayuela, which interact far more dynamically with the main text, and for the dual narrators of 62 and Libro de Manuel. As authorial alter ego and collective double, Persio anticipates Morelli in Rayuela and similar characters in later Cortázar novels. Persio's mistrustful but ironically flamboyant style of language is expanded and developed in Rayuela. He sees language as an accomplice of all that hides the deeper truths; of official, nationalistic rhetoric; and of the dualistic structures of rationality, which prevent a fusion between the apprehending subject and reality. The consciousness that all he possesses in order to go beyond language is language leads to the dialectical denouncing of one discourse by another, in this and in later texts, and to a fundamental heteroglossia.

Though a fine novel, little in Los premios led readers to expect the revolution in the use of language and in the novel form in Spanish effected by Rayuela, the story of Horacio Oliveira, a middleaged Argentine intellectual, similar in some ways to Cortázar, who lives a bohemian existence in Paris, where he meets the mysterious La Maga; she brings to a head his dissatisfaction with life and his own hyperintellectualism and offers him the example of a more authentic, though more magical way of relating to reality. But in destroying that which separates him from her world, he destroys their relationship, and possibly (indirectly) causes the death of her son, Rocamadour, and herself. Returning in Cortázar's place to Argentina, Oliveira must try to reconcile himself with reality, perhaps through the truths he has gained in Paris. Society is represented by his old friend Traveler and Traveler's wife, Talita; and as the presence of the long-dead La Maga begins to make itself felt, much depends on how the group reads the situation. In an open-ended finale, where Oliveira is possibly going mad or committing suicide, the question of his possible reconciliation with reality and his fellows is left very much up to the reader to answer.

The novel has three parts: the thirty-six chapters of the first are set in Paris; the twenty of the second in Buenos Aires; while the third, optional part has seventy-five generally short pieces. These are intercalated, contrapuntally, into the text according to instructions given in a direction board at the beginning of the novel, and the reader physically mimics the game of hopscotch and the spiritual search of the protagonist as the reader leafs through the volume in search of the next chapter. There is thus a double opposition: between two places, as so often in the short stories; and between two sorts of writing.

Many of the "dispensable chapters" are attributed to Morelli, a fictional author within the novel, related to Cortázar but not to be confused with him. These are generally either pieces of theorizing on the novel form, or else quotations from other writers. Each sort of chapter has a dual function. On the one hand, the ones in the third section explain and offer a widening of perspectives following an earlier chapter; or else, by dint of their difference or pointed unrelatedness, they contradict the established meaning, pluralize readings, and disturb the reader by subverting his traditionally stable relationship with a univocal text. Though Rayuela has often been dubbed an antinovel for aspects such as these, Morelli claims that the novel form is precisely a shared, collective ground. The Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin similarly believed what he called heteroglossia, or using the language of others, to be perhaps the essential trait of the novel. Oliveira and Morelli are concerned at the automatisms of language, at its arbitrary authority parading as naturalness; and a multivoiced text, rather than displaying the prestige of its impeccable intellectual pedigree, seriously undermines the authoritative voice of the more traditional novel.

Other "dispensable chapters" belong more firmly to the narrative, but react contrapuntally with the main chapter they follow, contrasting with it in tone, content, or even genre. The humorous will follow the tragic; the grotesque, the pathetic. However, such combinations are also present in the main text, as when, for example, in a chapter with which Cortázar was particularly pleased, Oliveira and La Maga separate while pulling faces at each other and writing with laughter at each other's clichés. The reader who welcomes such tensions and difficulties, and abandons the inertia of a passive, cathartic relation with the story for a critical examination of his own reactions and an active involvement in the text,is referred to by Morelli as an accomplice reader. Reading becomes a critical process rather than the absorption of a message. Such multigenre characteristics are not exclusive to Rayuela but are also central to Cortázar's collage works and to books such as Prosa del observatorio (Prose from the Observatory, 1972), in which what is basically a prose poem on two apparently heterogeneous themes (eels and stars) alternates with photographs of an observatory in India, while interspersing the alien technical jargon of two French scientists.

The first phrase of Rayuela, "Would I find La Maga?," establishes the fact that Oliveira's quest is inseparable from La Maga. Her presence and loss suffuse the first chapters with a haunting pathos. La Maga is a highly mythified character and belongs to the same long literary tradition as does André Breton's Nadja. She is chaotic and ignorant and neglects her child, and yet has powers of intuition and a seemingly spontaneous and unmediated relation with reality that destroys Oliveira's confidence in the power, or rather validity, of his intelligence. In a way she radicalizes or universalizes a dissatisfaction in Oliveira that had been simply local. La Maga's role is similar to that of dreams, which affect Oliveira strongly, giving him the certainty that there is a better, happier state outside the structures of the given and the waking mind. The novel attempts to produce a similar effect of strangeness in the reader through the use of disturbing techniques and discontinuities. La Maga's effect on Oliveira is to create a heightened sense of the absurd in him, a sense of the falseness of conventional society. His very lucidity, however, prevents him from essaying any solution to his predicament because he fears that the solutions he can envisage simply belong to the problem. The result is sterility, and paralysis of will and emotion. He senses that La Maga's love could be a solution; but La Maga tragically appears to Oliveira to be the most dangerous trap. His mistreatment of her and their love is the first and most painful stage in his attempted liberation from convention, biological reflexes, and civilization in general.

When Oliveira returns to La Maga's room to find that her son, Rocamadour, has died without her knowing, he refuses to follow the normal pattern of behavior and offers no gesture of compassion toward the mother. His attitude finally puts him beyond the pale; he is expelled from his group of friends and reaches the sort of zero point for which he had been looking.

Toward the end of the first part La Maga disappears, and it is not known whether she simply leaves or commits suicide, perhaps by drowning in the Seine. This ambiguity and her role for the rest of the novel are skillfully used to pose the question, which is never resolved, whether La Maga returns in some sort of fantastic way to Buenos Aires and her death takes on a deeply mythical and archetypal character, or whether these are simply figments of the imagination of an increasingly deranged Oliveira. The mythical reading is certainly prepared for by a few highly poetic erotic passages in which La Maga seems to want Oliveira to kill her during their love affair so she can be reborn like a phoenix or propitiate a release of cosmic forces.

On his return to Buenos Aires, Oliveira seems to have acquired some of the attributes of La Maga: he acts as an irritant, a messenger, and an inquisitor to the Travelers, Manuel and Talita, and denounces their life-style as La Maga had his. Manuel is Oliveira's doppelgänger, what Oliveira was before he set out for Paris, and, despite a ludic and attractive life-style, Manuel represents Oliveira's more conventional self. Talita acts as a bridge between the two men, who come gradually to represent two different forms of logic, or perhaps two different ways of reading. She is an alter ego of La Maga, but also her opposite in that she is a reader of encyclopedias, a form of classification alien to La Maga, and also a pharmacist, and thus associated with medicine, always a sign of repression in Cortázar's works. As the tension among the friends, who feel they are part of a game larger than themselves, gradually grows, they move from their jobs in a circus (life in its amusing absurdity) to jobs as warders in a lunatic asylum (life in all its fundamental and dangerous absurdity). The crisis point finally comes when Oliveira goes down to the asylum morgue with Talita and, believing her to be La Maga, kisses her. In all of Cortázar's 1960s novels one can discern a symbolic descent to Hades--like that of Orpheus, for example, to recover Eurydice--to recuperate a lost force or vital presence. La Maga comes to represent what Oliveira finds lacking in modern life and reproaches the Travelers for repressing or ignoring.

The onus is very much on Manuel, as the more conventional side of the duality formed by the two men, to react to Oliveira's kissing his wife. According to which sort of reading Manuel chooses, several "truths" are possible, including these: La Maga has returned as a ghost, or as a mythical force of vitality; Oliveira has simply tried to seduce his wife, to which the easiest response is jealousy; or Oliveira has gone mad. To declare someone mad is one of the most traditional and effective ways of dismissing what one does not accept, and Manuel is briefly tempted by this solution, as Oliveira, undecided himself as to exactly what is happening, barricades himself in his room. Madness, however, has taken on several connotations in the novel, where Oliveira muses on the possibility of "joining the world, the Great Madness." In a mad world, to go mad is to be reconciled to reality and society, to be at one with its absurd or conventional laws. It is this acceptance, of which Oliveira has always before been incapable, that his long path has prepared him to embrace. When Talita and Manuel take his side against the authorities, he feels an intense solidarity with them, a love and a harmony that no longer represent a threat or a capitulation.

The ending of the novel is open: perhaps Oliveira throws himself out the window; perhaps he goes mad; perhaps he goes home to his girlfriend. The whole experience of Rayuela, however, suggests that there can be no final, static reconciliation between conventionality, or closure, and that which denies it and is different from it. The reading of the book nevertheless offers a more dynamic and enriching relationship with "the other," a model for the questioning of the unthinking acceptance of the given as natural and inevitable.

Five years after Rayuela was published, Cortázar produced 62: Modelo para armar, which is not as widely read as it deserves; it is his most complex and perhaps most endearing and amusing work. The overt intertextuality and theoretical apparatus of the "dispensable chapters" and endless intellectual conversations of Rayuela are absent in this deceptively light work. However, some of the motivating thought behind 62 is outlined in an essay in Ultimo round , "La muñeca rota" (The Broken Doll), and parallel texts by writers such as Felisberto Hernández, Vladimir Nabokov, and Louis Aragon are acknowledged. The impersonal or transpersonal psychology of 62 is mapped out in chapter 62 of Rayuela. Another form of intertextuality is offered by a series of texts cryptically alluded to in the novel but only minimally cited. Referred to as figuras, they seem to dictate the actions of groups of characters or at least determine the significance of these actions. Toward the end of Rayuela Oliveira feels that his relationship with the others was becoming like a chemical relationship outside them and beyond their control, associated with La Maga or the force or vitality she carried. Rayuela was marked by a search for La Maga, and 62 is also a search, but an impersonal search to go beyond the state of Homo sapiens. Juan searches throughout for Hélène, but in a novel where one is not so much the sum of one's own acts but of those of other, his search is far from straightforward. Whether Héène is a vampire, a homosexual, or simply an anesthetist is determined by the attitudes of others in the narrative.

The suspicion of a deeper meaning or organization underneath a surface reality and psychology always haunted Cortázar, who saw chance as one of the main means of discovering such a deeper level, in that chance is not dictated by an intentionality springing from conventional aims or ideas. The image of the lottery in Los premios and Oliveira's wanderings through Paris to meet La Maga by coincidence, and thus on a deeper plane, are systematized in 62 and promoted to the level of theme and methodology: the instantaneous pattern formed by insects flying around a lamp is an image of the creation of meaning in the work, which Cortázar describes as a series of elements, ideas, and experiences circulating around a void, which is the text in the making. The Mexican poet and critic Octavio Paz similarly talks about the poem being signs in search of a meaning. Wordplay is consequently important in 62 insofar as it bypasses intentional signification, as in the story "Lejana," where an anagram of the protagonist's name reveals her deeper identity. The novel opens with an avalanche of wordplay, as Juan sits in a restaurant and various words come together from different sources to suggest to him a strong link between the woman he loves, Hélène, and vampirism, offering him knowledge he is not fully prepared to face.

Chance on a thematic level is present in various forms. A curious character called Monsieur Ochs makes dolls, which become something of a cult because their purchaser cannot know what they contain: anything from a hundred-franc note, to a comb, to an object of considerable obscenity. Ochs is symbolically connected with the Roman emperor Elagabalus, reputed to be the inventor of lotteries. A doll passes from character to character--apparently according to the flow of relationships between them--and carries the evolving meaning of the novel, until the doll is finally broken open to reveal the guilt of Hélène and the punishment implicit in the initial wordplay, which has been fostered by the bad faith of Juan and which controls the meaning of Hélène's relationships with others such as the young girl Celia. Other characters participate in the general aleatory thrust of the novel in a provocative and ludic fashion, such as Marrast, who builds his statue upside down and plots to send mischievous messages to the Neurotics Anonymous with unforeseeable results.

The fluid nature of the psychology of the novel is articulated through two structures developed from previous works. The action among the group of friends takes place in three European cities: Paris, London, and Vienna, known as the zona, a development from the geographical dualism of Rayuela. Dualism is restored, however,by the opposition between the zona and a construct known as the ciudad (city), which is all three cities and a separate, oneiric area to which the inhabitants have access. In the ciudad, the characters seem to search for each other and at the same time for toilets and showers to bathe, to cleanse themselves perhaps of the guilt that seems to come from their involvement in the figuras. Related to the ciudad is the figure of mi paredro, a collective double who embodies many of the substitutive or even repressive attitudes connected with the narration. Mi paredro develops as a synthesis of existential doubles, such as Manuel Traveler, and authorial doubles, such as Morelli. Mi paredro can be any one of the characters, but also takes on a separate identity and appears when characters, out of embarrassment, cowardice, or prejudice, prefer substitution or sublimation to an acceptance of the truth.

It is through him or activity associated with him that the figuras function, the main figuras, or models, being the stories of St. Sebastian, Parsifal, and the Bloody Countess, and the myth of Actaeon and Diana. The association of monstrosity (from the Minotaur of 1949 to the vampire of 1968), guilt, and possible liberation was to be taken up again simultaneously on the sexual and political fronts in Libro de Manuel .

The 1970s were an important and dramatic time politically in Latin America. The decade started with great hope and elation with the Chilean Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende, whose investiture Cortázar attended, but the fascist coup there in 1973 (the protest against which Cortázar joined) was followed by others in Uruguay, Bolivia, and Argentina (in 1976),after which Cortázar considered himself truly a political exile from his country. Only in 1979, with the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, did the tide of right-wing oppression start to turn. Such turmoil naturally provoked a great amount of debate among Latin-American writers. Though novelists including Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, and Cortázar aligned themselves in the 1960s with the Cuban Revolution, they, and most specifically Cortázar, were attacked from the Left for separating their politics and their writing; for the alleged irrationalism, pornography, and elitism of their work; and for their inferiority complex vis-à-vis Europe. What such critics were demanding was basically some form of social realism.Cortázar constantly countered by arguing that it was the job of the left-wing writer to promote liberation on all fronts, not just the strictly ideological, indeed that to ignore other aspects of liberation (sexual, literary, and behavioral) was simply to store up problems for the project of a future socialist man. A watershed came in 1971, when the Cuban poet Herberto Padilla was imprisoned for alleged counterrevolutionary activities, and a letter of protest was signed by a host of intellectuals from around the world. When Fidel Castro counterattacked, accusing the signatories of playing into the hands of imperialism, a second letter was sent, which Cortázar did not sign. Instead he published a poem, "Policrítica a la hora de los chacales" (Multicritical in the Time of the Jackals), in which he reasserted his strong support for the revolution but demanded a space in which to defend it his own way.

Against this background, and as a dialogue with it, Libro de Manuel was published in 1973. In the story of a political kidnapping in Paris, Cortázar tries to reconcile various previously incompatible demands: literary experimentation, a political message accessible to a wide public, sexual liberation, and political action. The novel was written quickly to serve the urgent purpose of offering information and opening a debate, and it cannot be judged by the same rigorous and purely literary criteria as earlier novels. Many of the techniques used to achieve his new aims were adapted from previous works. Real newspaper clippings, for example, of political events, violence in France, and torture in Vietnam are intercalated, almost in an aleatory fashion, and are read by the characters. The idea is, of course, a development of the "dispensable chapters" of Rayuela. The provocative, ludic attitude of Oliveira in that novel and the aleatory, absurdist activity of Marrast and the others in 62 play an important role in Libro de Manuel, as the revolutionaries attempt to increase the receptivity of the Parisians to alternative behavior and break their faith in the immutability of their system by Dada-like gestures, such as putting old cigarette butts into new packets and eating in restaurants while standing up.

The problematics of writing are as firmly foregrounded and debated in this novel as in Rayuela and are resolved in a similar way. At least three characters are concerned with writing and language. The intellectual Andrés realizes, on listening to avant-garde music, that he can only concentrate when he hears the melody of the piano and realizes that fully to abandon traditional narration, though it might carry with it values the author is impugning, is to lose the reader and fail to communicate. As elsewhere, a double text is adopted, with two authors and two sorts of writing: in this case, the straightforward narration of the kidnapping and its ideological rationale, alongside a highly metaphorical logic of personal motivation that counterpoints it, questioning and complementing it. One narrator, "el que to dije" (he who speaks to you), separates all the information into its personal and political dimensions and refuses to make any links among these dimensions. At a certain point his classification breaks down, though, and he lapses into a parody of the Iliad before dying or disappearing. It is left to Lonstein to reshuffle the information, and Andrés is presented as finishing the actual writing.

It is Lonstein and Andrés who wage the main war on the eroticism front. The former's dissertations on various sexual taboos, especially masturbation, hark back to the language of Los reyes , as he recommends turning monsters into princes by accepting them for what they are. His profession as corpse-washer in a morgue is a metaphorical projection of his cleansing of language through opening its most scabrous aspects. In a related sequence, for Andrés, the intellectual who is hovering between contemplation and action, the breaking of sexual taboo, specifically the one against sodomy, becomes an essential step in breaking down certain barriers in himself in order to allow him to take on a full and lucid commitment to the revolutionary action.

Cortázar's own generosity and active commitment to the cause of justice in Latin America throughout the 1970s and up to his death cannot be questioned. He was a member of the Russell Tribunal and campaigned tirelessly, to the detriment of his health and literary production, against the atrocities of the military regime in Argentina and in support of the Nicaraguan Revolution. The theme of political terror was portrayed with increasing intensity in his short fiction and in works where Cortázar indulged his taste for defying generic classification, such as Vampiros multinacionales (Multinational Vampires, 1975), which combines the form of the comic strip and its characters with real people and political analysis and information. Some of his royalties were donated to causes such as the care of political prisoners in Argentina, the Russell Tribunal, and the Pueblo Sandinista of Nicaragua. His preoccupations and activities are amply and often movingly illustrated in a volume of essays he wrote with Dunlop, Nicaragua tan violentamente dulce (Nicaragua So Violently Sweet, 1983). Cortázar died in Paris on 12 February 1984 of leukemia and heart disease.


From: Boldy, Steven. "Julio Cortazar." Modern Latin-American Fiction WritersFirst Series, edited by William Luis, Gale, 1992. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 113.


  • Further Reading
    • Cartas desconocidas de Julio Cortazar: 1939-1945, edited by Mignon Domainguez (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1992).
    • Gustavo Luis Carrera and Victor Suárez, Nuevas viejas preguntas a Julio Cortázar (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1978).
    • Ernesto González Bermejo, Conversaciones con Cortázar (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1978).
    • Evelyn Picon Garfield, Cortázar por Cortázar (Jalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 1981).
    • M. V. Reyzabal, "Bibliografía de y sobre Cortázar," Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos, 122, nos. 364-366 (1973): 649-667.
    • Marta Paley de Francescato, "Bibliography of Works by and about Julio Cortázar," in The Final Island: The Fiction of Julio Cortázar, edited by J. Alazraki and I. Ivask (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978).
    • Sarah de Mundo Lo, Julio Cortázar, His Works and His Critics: A Bibliography (Urbana, Ill.: Albatross, 1985).
    • E. D. Carter, Jr., "A Chronological List of Cortázar's Works" and "Annotated Bibliography," in his Julio Cortázar: Life, Work, and Criticism (Fredericton, N.B.: York Press, 1986).
    • Graciela de Sola, Julio Cortázar y el hombre nuevo (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1968).
    • E. D. Carter, Jr., Julio Cortázar: Life, Work, and Criticism (Fredericton, N.B.: York Press, 1986).
    • Jaime Alazraki and Ivar Ivask, eds., The Final Island: The Fiction of Julio Cortázar (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978).
    • A. M. Barrenechea, "Estudio preliminar," in Cuaderno de bitácora de "Rayuela," by Cortázar and Barrenechea (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1983).
    • Steven Boldy, The Novels of Julio Cortázar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
    • Fernando Burgos, ed., Los ochenta mundos de Julio Cortázar: Ensayos (Madrid: Edi-6, 1987).
    • J. C. Curutchet, Julio Cortázar o la crítica de la razón pragmática (Madrid: Nacional, 1972).
    • Carlos Fuentes, "Cortázar: La caja de Pandora," in his La nueva novela hispanoamericana (Mexico City: Mortiz, 1969), pp. 67-77.
    • N. García Canclini, Cortázar: Una antropología poética (Buenos Aires: Nova, 1968).
    • Helmy F. Giacoman, ed., Homenaje a Julio Cortázar: variaciones interpretativas en torno a su obra (New York: Las Americas, 1972).
    • Luis Harss, "Julio Cortázar, o la bofetada metafísica," in his Los nuestros (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1969).
    • Ana Hernández del Castillo, Keats, Poe and the Shaping of Cortázar's Mythopoesis (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1981).
    • David Lagmanovich, ed., Estudios sobre los cuentos de Julio Cortázar (Barcelona: Hispam, 1975).
    • Pedro Lastra, ed., Julio Cortázar, El Escritor y la Crítica (Madrid: Taurus, 1981).
    • Alfred J. MacAdam, El individuo y el otro: Crítica a los cuentos de Julio Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Librería, 1971).
    • J. Poulet, ed., Co-Textes, special Cortázar issue, 11 (April 1986).
    • Review of Contemporary Fiction, special Cortázar issue, 3 (Fall 1983).
    • Revista Iberoamericana, special Cortázar double issue, 84-85 (July-December 1973).
    • Joaquin Roy, Julio Cortázar ante su sociedad (Barcelona: Península, 1974).
    • Saúl Sosnowski, Julio Cortázar: una búsqueda mítica (Buenos Aires: Noé, 1973).
    • David Viñas, De Sarmiento a Cortázar: Literatura argentina y realidad política (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veinte, 1971).
    • Saúl Yurkievich, Julio Cortázar: al calor de tu sombra (Buenos Aires: Legasa, 1987).