The Argentinian Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) is one of the most dazzling cult figures of Latin American literature.
When Cronopios and Famas was published, fifty years ago, Julio Cortázar was already an author admired and praised by critics thanks to his early books of short stories and also his novel “The Winners”. He had not yet published “Rayuela” or “Hopscotch”, the novel that would give him universal fame and would catapult him into the center of a formidable wave of Latin American literature that would be known later as the “Boom.”
Cortázar, an Argentine born in Brussels, had lived in Paris for many years working as a teacher, critic and translator. Before that, he was working as a journalist in Buenos Aires. As a young man, he published a book of poems (that is said to be as rare as the Guttenberg Bible) and a strange manuscript under the name of Los Reyes. Notwithstanding these early forays into literature, Cortazar can be considered a late bloomer. When Rayuela was published, a year after the publication of Cronopios, he was close to turning fifty. The literary circles in which he moved praised his Spanish translation of the works by Poe, which appears in all the anthologies as the best translation into Castilian of the American author.
It seemed, however, as if cosmopolitanism and Cortázar’s extensive literary erudition—an Argentine transplanted to the heart of European culture—that exuded from his Latin American status—threatened to alienate him from the sensibility and appreciation of his linguistic compatriots. Their word games and ideas used the Spanish language as a raw material and they drank from the same cup with Dadaists. They drew their breath from Parisian life and from a universal Borgesian legacy; lurking in the existentialist cellars of the Latin Quarter. In other words, Cortázar was anything but a literary writer, and even if he could relate to the intellectual elitism of Borges or Bioy Casares, or with surrealism or the surrealist concept of literary fiction, his origins and destiny related more to the recent Central European tradition than with the great narrators of South America.
Homage to intellectualism
Cronopios and Famas was the first book by Julio Cortázar that I read while studying Latin American literature in an undergraduate class in UP. Back then I had the observation that literary criticism in Manila was largely based on reproducing the dialogues done over bottles of beer.
I recently read through the 1999 edition published by New Directions, currently available in Manila bookstores. This edition revives the original structure of the index which is introduced with a surprising phrase, enveloping the mood and the intention of the pages ahead: ‘This book contains the following assortment …’. In editions following the original by Minotaur Books (1962), this notice disappeared. Even in the complete works released by Alfaguara that was used for later editions. I suppose this was caused not only by an oversight, but to the lack of comprehension of the importance of winks and jokes in the works of Julio Cortazar.
Once I started scanning on the advertised assortment, I stumbled upon “Instructions to climb a ladder” at the beginning of the reading and was absolutely delighted with the text. Later, the chapters “Rare Occupations” and “The Loss and Recovery of Hair” made my jaw drop. I felt so ecstatic that I began to forgive Cortázar for making me wait until the end of the volume before learning of the adventures of the Cronopios, the Famas and the Esperanzas.
These stories, of course, are the culmination of that little symphony of the pleasures for the mind which make up the book: an absolute homage to intelligence, irony and even sarcasm, a melancholic account of human existence, patterned after taxonomy; like a catalog of applied entomology.
I am probably more desperate than most readers to find a precise and concrete description of the classifications (Cronopios and Famas) that lend the title to the book, but certainly the world of definitions fits badly in the world of ghosts, revelations and daydreams which Cortázar is most capable of eliciting. In the end, no one is capable of being indifferent to the short list. As complex as the universe that he proposes, hardly anyone can resist succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be a Cronopio, even if one does not know exactly what it is.
Those who suggested in Cortazar’s time that this was a minor work of a great artist probably do not realize the immensity of the poetic and creative world of Cortázar that resides in these short stories. They are capable of mixing everyday reality with the most dreamlike of contemplations.
One ends up succumbing to the formidable impact that causes, for example, the first of the sentences of his brief instructions for winding up a clock (‘Death is deep down there, but do not be afraid’), perhaps warning us of how useless and perishable our habit of measuring the hours. Like Kafka, like Proust, like very few, Cortázar was able to create a world at once his own and universal that we discover at every step, in every line, in every literary breath granted by him. He is a writer of intimacy and restlessness, whom he himself alone can contradict based on his humor and ironic wisdom.
Life of a loner
Cortázar was born in Brussels in 1914, just as he said. At the age of four, the family returned to Buenos Aires, two years later his father left the house, Cortázar never saw him again. He grew up with his mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother. He took an early refuge in the literature by writing nine sonnets, whom he recalls as “excellent in form, but miserable.” He studied literature and worked for several years as a teacher in the province. Then he passed the examination to become a translator for French and English but more than that, it was an excuse to leave Argentina because he was averse to Peronism. In 1951 he came to Paris with a scholarship.
“I was someone who lived life as he wanted to live it, the life of a loner. Half of the day I study to provide myself the necessary knowledge to for translate at the UNESCO; the rest of the day was spent on reading and writing, ” Cortázar said in 1975.
Cortazar translated Margerite Yourcenar, Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare, and wrote essays on John Keats, the novel, the short story, or Octavio Paz, Jose Lezama Lima, Roberto Arlt, and others.
His musical skills were exceptional in classical, jazz and tango. Carlos Fuentes and García Márquez liked to talk about a journey from Paris to Prague, when Cortázar explained the history of jazz in detail, and how they had a hard time sleeping after. He admired Louis Armstrong and wrote a review about a concert in Geneva (“Louis, a tremendous Cronopio”), he lavishly portrayed “Thelonius Monk’s Journey to the Piano”, and Charlie Parker becomes the anonymous protagonist of the grandiose story “The Persecutor”. His love for the tango was reflected in the “Les trottoirs de Buenos Aires” in 1979, in which the quartet Cedrón composed his poems. His music revolved around Carlos Gardel, the Nightingale of the Pampa, Susana Rinaldi and Astor Piazzola. Cortazar notably played the trumpet, which he said was merely a “wonderful exercise”. Of course, with his tremendous skill in the instrument, that was an understatement.
During a concert in Paris the idea of “cronopios” came to him: they are bristly, untidy and casual, dreamy and intuitive, poetic nonconformists, trusting optimists, humorous life artists, best friends, philosophical nonsense dialogues can be achieved. Many see in them the vital alter ego of the author. Cronopies never use lined paper to write, do not press the toothpaste tube from the bottom up. For all fans the cronopia became the quintessence of Cortázar, his view of the world.
Cortazar himself is the greatest Cronopio. He always looked like a lanky young man, despite his height (almost two meters), and he never seemed to age. His blue eyes were wide apart, registering everything, while he listened modestly, carefully concealing his encyclopedic knowledge. He speaks with a s guttural “r”, a legacy of Brussels, he once said.
What makes the author’s “fantastic” narrations so distinctive? In an interview (1976) the author explained: “I react to the story with a feeling of fatality and inevitability, (in my case it is always a kind of being hit by lightning. Many of my stories are dreams or daydreams. They are quite common when you are stuck in a metro or streetcar, (suddenly there is a kind of atmosphere, a general situation, and I feel there is a story is there. Normally, I do not know how it ends, but very well, as it begins.”
Readers recognize themselves in many of his situations: If you are standing in front of a staircase, you may start to think of “instructions before a staircase”. They are emblematic stories that bury themselves in memory, because they describe mystery and fantasy at high noon. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortázar found “the unusual in the ordinary, the absurd in the logic, the exception in general and the wonderful in the banal.”
Many of Cortazar’s stories are classics: “House Taken Over”, “Circe”, “Torito”, “End of the Game”, “Devil’s Drool” (which became the film “Blow-up” by Michelangelo Antonioni). But Cortazar once said: “You say I’m a classic, but you’re wrong. No one is a classic, if he does not want. Teachers can stick this label to you, but he (and his books) spit on it. I am always the same scattered Cronopio, looking for the devil’s zeal, and only after 20,000 kilometers that it has not loosened the handbrake. ”
Gabriel García Márquez commented on the death of his friend: “Idols inspire respect, admiration, affection and, of course, great envy. Cortázar awakened these feelings more than any other writer, but he also aroused a feeling that is less frequent: devoted love. He was, perhaps without wanting to, the Argentinian, who managed to make everyone love him.”