Real and Otherwise

by The New Republic | July 15, 1967

End of the Game

by Julio Cortazar

(Pantheon, $5.95)

 

This collection of Julio Cortazar's stories is the first book of his that I have read, but I think I am not out of chronological order. His two novels, The Winners and Hopscotch, translated and published here in 1965 and 1966, were, I infer from book jackets, written after he wrote three volumes of stories. This latest book to be translated here is drawn from those three earliest books.

Some of these fifteen stories justify some of the high praise I have read of Cortazar. They are quickly and credibly complex, mysterious, sad, and bizarre. A few of the stories, like the title piece, seem to me to go through a mimesis of significance without really signifying much. And, unfortunately, the longest piece in the book--a novella called "The Pursuer"--is outstandingly the worst: a juvenile and crude story about a jazz critic in Paris and an American jazz musician. Overtones are attempted about the relation between creator and commentator, but it comes out a thin imitation of that spate of fiction in the last thirty years about jazzmen who have to blow it true or die, and who almost always do both.

Cortazar is an Argentinean, born in 1914, who has lived in Paris since 1952, and his work reflects both his origin and domicile. He writes in Spanish and therefore, as far as we are concerned, is at the mercy of his translators; so before discussing other aspects of the stories, let us look at the medium through which they reach us: Paul Blackburn's translation. The curious fact is that Blackburn's work is sensitive when the stories are good and jarringly clumsy when they are bad. Here is Blackburn at his cursive best:

     As I had nothing else to do, I had more than enough
     time to wonder why the boy was so nervous, like a
     young colt or a hare, sticking his hands into his pockets,
     taking them out immediately, one after the other, running
     his fingers through his hair, changing his stance, and
     especially why was he afraid, well, you could guess that
     from every gesture, a fear suffocated by shyness, an
     impulse to step backwards which he telegraphed, his body
     standing as if it were on the edge of flight, holding itself back
     in a final, pitiful decorum.

Yet this is the same translator who writes: "I'm sensitive enough a jazz' critic when it comes to understanding my limitations" and who has done little to improve his author's second-hand knowledge of American slang or his incongruous diction. It is as if the inferior stories had sapped Blackburn's interest.

But the good stories, which are also the well-rendered ones, comprise more than half the book. Cortazar's obsessions are the intangibly oppressive, the inexplicably compelling, the imaginary, the contradictions between the imagination and the seeming world, as well as the contradictions within the imagination itself-in short, the subject of conflicting realities. The good stories 1 are steeped in a melancholy which, so to speak, Cortazar earns. That is, he does not assume that he has a citizen's right to malaise as an inhabitant of the mid-20th century, along with the right to free speech and due process of law. The melancholic atmosphere: is legitimate; it seems to have existed before the story begins. These, stories would be different if there had never been a Svevo or Kafka or Machado de Assis, but Cortazar is more than a synthesizer: he has a concern and a voice of his own.

Two of the stories deal with identities that are exchanged through intensity of imagination. A man goes to the aquarium so often to watch a strange fish that he finally becomes (or imagines he is) the fish watching the man. A woman dreams of a beggar woman on a bridge in Budapest where she has never been. When she arrives in Budapest, she meets the beggar woman, they embrace, then she remains on the bridge and watches herself walk away. In a variation of this theme, a man sees a boy on a Paris bus who looks like him and figuratively adopts him as his son; the boy becomes his immortality. When the boy dies, the persistence of nature, as represented by a yellow flower--the immortality of nature as against the mortality of any one man--drives the man to become a drunkard.

Not all the good stories are touched with fantasy, but whether or not the story is realistic, the response to detail is remarkable. In a dance hall: "They use peroxide, too, dark girls raising a rigid ear of corn over the heavy earth of their faces; they even practice blond expressions, wear green dresses, convince themselves that they are authentic, manage even to condescend and scorn the girls who keep their natural color."

This collection contains the story, of the same name, on which Michelangelo Antonioni based his latest film Blow-Up. Comparison is fascinating. The only resemblance between the story and the film is the fundamental idea--a photograph taken in relative innocence later reveals to the photographer a non-innocent fact. Cortazar's hero, unlike Antonioni's, is only an amateur photographer. On a Paris quay one day he takes a picture of a woman and a boy. (Antonioni reversed the age relationship.) In the background is a parked car with a man at the wheel. The narrator photographs what he thinks is the beginning of a seduction; he thinks the woman is taking the boy home with her. When she sees the camera, she protests to the narrator.

The boy flees, the man gets out of the car and joins the woman's protest. The narrator slips away. Later, studying the photograph, he becomes convinced that the woman was seducing the boy for the man in the car, not for herself, and that the very taking of the photograph provided an escape hatch for the young victim who was about to be despoiled. Cortazar has written a near-horror story from a moral point of view. Antonioni's hero is not an unconscious agent of good; he is an epitome of the modern human being enlarging his factual knowledge--more than he is aware of at the time--by means of glib technology, yet not enlarging his capacity to deal with that knowledge. Both authors are interested in the nature of reality, but in his story Cortazar has reached an ironic answer and in his film Antonioni has amplified the questions.

But if Cortazar did not do as much with his initial idea as Antonioni has done, still it is a neat bitter frightened little story. It is one of the best in the book, and all of the best are intelligent somber entertainments.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann

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