Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

The good news: it was a beautiful weekend to celebrate Non Stop Bhangra‘s ten year anniversary. The bad news: I danced so hard I think I broke my toe. This at least gave me an excuse to sit around all Sunday, finishing up Julio Cortázar’s Blow-Up and other stories.


I couldn’t help comparing him (well, this collection) to my recent bout of Carlos Fuentes. Fuentes (or what I’ve read of him, this time around) has a distinct set of preoccupations that permeate all his work. The primary one is the intrusion of the past into the present, or the revisiting of the past in the present. This often expresses itself in his work as reincarnation, ghosts, doubles, history repeating itself. Memory and history are recurrent themes as well, closely related to the first, and also rife with ghost story possibilities. Oh, and there’s sex and erotic longing. The second usually leads to the first, of course — but not always.

If Cortázar has an obsession, then it’s transmigration. Not just in the sense of reincarnation, but more generally in the sense of the transference of essence, of souls. It might be across species (“Axolotl”), across centuries (“The Night, Face Up”, “The Idol of the Cyclades”),  or between people (“The Distances”, “Secret Weapons”, “A Yellow Flower”). One also senses in many of these stories the fear of losing control (“House Taken Over”; the just-released “Headache“, translated into English for the first time by Michael Cisco). There’s a fair bit of longing in his stories, too – the unrequited kind. Perhaps it’s for the best friend’s wife, or even a blood relative (a commenter on The Weird Fiction Review‘s profile of Cortázar mentions the author’s “complicated feelings towards his own sister” — this is the first and only thing I’ve heard about it, but it is true that “House Taken Over” and “Bestiary” both have a weird vibe).

The Novel Reader, Vincent van Gogh, 1888. Image: WikiArt

I know, of course, that a reader should keep the writer separate from his works. If I really want to know more about Fuentes’ or Cortázar’s lives, what influenced them or made them tick, I can look it up. But right now, I’m enjoying my mental images of the authors: my “Carlos” and “Julio” — invented from their works, in my own mind.

Carlos is a glamorous, globe-trotting ladies’ man; adventurous, passionate about social issues, politics, art and art’s role in the world. Julio is quiet, introverted, intellectual, comfortable to base himself in Buenos Aires or Paris. Perhaps he’s a little stand-offish, though he wishes he were otherwise. He’s the kind of person the Carloses of the world describe as “all in their head”. Julio might not even deny it.

I loved them. I still love them, very. Only that I could never enter their simplicity, only that I saw myself forced to feed myself on the reflection of their blood. I am Doctor Hardoy, a lawyer who doesn’t fit in with Buenos Aires…. We went to the dances together, and I watched them live.

— From “The Gates of Heaven”

I realized while re-reading Blow-Up that Cortázar is kind of a magical realist M. R. James. His protagonists tend to be intellectual or artistic loners (writers, translators, photographers, jazz critics), usually bachelors (though not celibate). Or they are children — girls, surprisingly. Like James, Cortázar favors tales of the strangeness that intrudes on a quiet, ordinary, almost banal life. Contrast this with flashy Carlos, with his Buñuel-like surreality, and his characters who are often colorful or absurd from the get-go.

The difference is that James (no, I should say “Monty”) seemed perfectly content. I really believe that Monty thought he was living the ideal life. I don’t think Julio thought so. Perhaps this is one reason that James’ stories seem flat or one-dimensional to many readers: contentment comes off as less deep than angst. This isn’t always true; the Buddha was pretty deep, and I’m sure you can think of people in your own life who are emo and angsty and incredibly shallow. It is true, though, that Cortázar was more an observer of people (individuals), and James was an observer of folk (collectively, their traditions and belief systems).

Axolotl, or Mexican Salamander. Image: Orizatriz, Wikimedia

So, the stories. I’ve said many times that “The Night, Face Up” is my favorite magical realist tale; “Axolotl” is also quite good, and in a similar vein. “Letter to a Young Woman in Paris” is black humor, surprisingly light and droll (“I’ve never described this to you before…I don’t think from lack of truthfulness, as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit”). “The Idol of the Cyclades” and “Secret Weapon” are fairly classic horror stories. “End of the Game” and “At Your Service” have nothing supernatural or dark about them at all, but are both quite lovely. “Blow-up” is good, a bit dizzying, and nothing at all like the movie. “The Pursuer” is an homage to Charlie Parker, an imagining of what might make a musical prodigy tick, and how little the rest of us understand it — or want to.

Really, there wasn’t any story here that I disliked. I will say that I didn’t especially like “Headache” (the newly translated story) when I started it. I found, though, that it grew on me in the end; I still came away with some of that sense of breathlessness, that “Wow, something amazing  just happened” feeling — even when I’m not sure quite what. I get that feeling from most of Cortázar’s stories (though not “House Taken Over” or “Continuity of Parks”); I don’t get it from Fuentes.

At any rate, if “Headache” is your introduction to Cortázar, and you find you can’t get past the beginning, don’t be put off. They aren’t all like that. If you like short fiction works with a touch of the weird, you ought to try Blow-Up.


3 thoughts on “Carlos and Julio (and Monty)

  1. Interesting post. I actually picked Cortozar’s “Axolotl” to read as one of my R.I.P. short stories this year. I was already looking forward to it, but now even more so. 🙂

      1. Holy crap – that was a great story. The final lines were awesome “it consoles me to think that perhaps he will write about us…” Wow.

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