Few writers of difficult texts have ever engendered the kind of fellowship that Julio Cortázar did. His knotty, labyrinthine works always felt almost chummy in that here was a writer lighting out, Magellan-style, but tipping his readers off on his various gambits and whimsies along the way.
So with the end of this summer marking the centennial of the late writer’s birth, we have this formidable set cresting over the horizon, probably the finest single-book option you’ll ever have for the Spanish master.
The volume features, of course, “Hopscotch,” Cortázar’s famously nonlinear 1963 book that upended the concept of what a novel might be. Those were heady times, and fun times, too, and Cortázar powered headlong into both attitudes with his most famous creation.
To read it now is to be nearly dazed that someone could do what Cortázar does here. If you’re not familiar with the book, you ought to know its big hook: You don’t have to read it in order, and you can jump around. One need never read it the same way twice, and it’s a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books mashing up with a Miró print in prose form.
More important than the novel’s plot — which focuses on one Horacio Oliveira and his “Tristram Shandy”-style misadventures as a middle-age intellectual — is its sense of play. No writer did play better than Cortázar. Some poets — like Cummings — tried, but this is grown-up literature written to rekindle the capacity for wonder many of us lost when childhood ended.
It takes a lot of energy to impel a reader backward and forward — further into adulthood, that is — but this was part of Cortázar’s gift. The surprises here, for some, will be the short stories in the two collections gathered here. The lesser gems, if you will, or the B-sides packing mighty content.
“Axolotl” features a first-person narrator who visits an aquarium every day to stare at the titular creatures — larval stage salamanders. There is a guard, and nothing else, just a guy staring into a tank. And from this Cortázar fashions something that combines Kafka with a travelogue with an ecological treatise with something straight out of an American horror film like “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
“I was afraid of them,” Cortázar writes. The guard chimes in: “You eat them alive with your eyes, hey,” and what ought to be raillery becomes a ghastly foretelling.
“House Taken Over” is a rare kind of ghost story, one to call into question just where the edges of the form are. A brother and sister inhabit a commodious living space, existing as quasi-man and wife. But then some entity begins closing off portions of the home. The siblings attempt to solve this problem by ignoring it. “We were fine, and little by little we stopped thinking. You can live without thinking.”
Of course, you can’t. You can survive, but as Cortázar is attesting here, surviving is not living, and the world — that strange, gossamer drawn world of this queasily quasi-couple — comes apart with a natural order restoring finality that is provided, one assumes, by a haint.
The better known “Blow-Up, which inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film of the same name, is one of Cortázar’s most plot-driven works, and when he gives more story rather than less — save in notable exceptions like “Hopscotch” — the endeavor seems to fare better in terms of re-readability. That is, you can come back again and again and partake, and it’s not solely, or primarily, about “the trick,” as it can be in this kind of meta-writing.
In “Blow-Up” a man believes he unwittingly captured evidence of a murder with a photograph he took in a park. We are entering the world of ratiocination, but with Cortázar fusing the traditional Sherlockian plot with Cubist angles. Again, heady, but — and this is the testament to Cortázar’s ability — no harder to read than something you might find on the shelf at CVS.
And then there is the uber-odd in the form of “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” an epistle story about a man staying in someone else’s apartment, vomiting up rabbits.
This proves to be not so difficult or unpleasant — he feeds them with clover — until one rabbit too many results in a bad end for all. “Vomiting bunnies wasn’t so terrible once one had gotten into the unvarying cycle, into the method.”
And it is that method that this story is really about, the ennui of survival rather than life, a man feeding on his own soul, in torpor, as the rabbits feed on clover in their own torpor. So they’re not really rabbits at all, but legerdemain stand-ins for something else, something more human. Something more Cortázar-esque, you might say.
Colin Fleming is the author of the forthcoming “The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss.”