Eels Über Alles: On Julio Cortázar

From-the-observatory-cortazarBen Ehrenreich in The Nation:

One evening, perhaps a decade ago, I was walking along Canal Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown when a fishmonger, rushing out of his shop carrying a tank full of eels, slipped. Before he could let out a curse, there were eels and elvers everywhere: dark and gleaming, slithering over pedestrians’ feet, wriggling off onto the asphalt, escaping through the storm drains, animating every crack in the concrete. For a minute, maybe two, the tight weave of reality tore open and boiled about our ankles.

Julio Cortázar would have been delighted. In the forty years he spent writing novels, short stories and works not so easily categorized, Cortázar reveled in the unexpected lurking within the everyday: not beneath its surface but spread right there on the skin of things. Again and again, he turned Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical principle—that each event in the universe be accepted as exceptional—into a literary mandate. A wristwatch could be “a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air” and still tell time. A short story could take the shape of an instruction manual for the most routine of tasks (crying, singing, winding said dungeon, killing ants in Rome), or a compendium of tales about fantastical but oddly familiar species. A novel didn’t have to progress from the first page to the last, hung on a rigid skeleton of plot: it could proceed in oblong leaps and great steps backward, like a game, say, of hopscotch. “Literature is a form of play,” said Cortázar. But playing, as he knew and as every child knows, can be the most serious thing in the world. So Cortázar was thorough: no expectation was so fundamental that it could not be toyed and tinkered with. All the built-in cabinetry of prose fiction—setting, character, point of view—could be rendered fluid. Eels could squirm through everything.

As might be expected, he made little attempt to resolve the contradictions that marked his life and work. Cortázar was a Latin American in Paris—and more of one there, he insisted, than he would have been had he continued living in Buenos Aires, which he had left in 1951 at age 37. He was a socialist with no patience for the stiff pieties of a “literature for the masses,” a devotee of the European avant-garde who remained faithful to Fidel Castro long after Cuba’s revolution had ceased to be fashionable. It is perhaps because he so stubbornly resists categorization, as much as for the ludic complexity of his work, that Cortázar is in these parts more admired than he is read.