Julio Cortazar - Interview

Julio Cortazar
hen Julio Cortázar died of cancer in February 1984 at the age of sixty-nine, the Madrid newspaper El Pais hailed him as one of Latin America’s greatest writers and over two days carried eleven full pages of tributes, reminiscences, and farewells. Though Cortázar had lived in Paris since 1951, he visited his native Argentina regularly until he was officially exiled in the early 1970s by the Argentine junta, who had taken exception to several of his short stories. With the victory, last fall, of the democratically elected Alfonsín government, Cortázar was able to make one last visit to his home country. Alfonsín’s cultural minister chose to give him no official welcome, afraid that his political views were too far to the left, but the writer was nonetheless greeted as a returning hero. One night in Buenos Aires, coming out of a cinema after seeing the new film based on Osvaldo Soriano’s novel, No habra ni mas pena ni olvido, Cortázar and his friends ran into a student demonstration coming towards them, which instantly broke file on glimpsing the writer and crowded around him. The bookstores on the boulevards still being open, the students hurriedly bought up copies of Cortázar’s books so that he could sign them. A kiosk salesman, apologizing that he had no more of Cortázar’s books, held out a Carlos Fuentes novel for him to sign. Cortázar was born in Brussels in 1914. When his family returned to Argentina after the war, he grew up in Banfield, not far from Buenos Aires. He took a degree as a schoolteacher and went to work in a town in the province of Buenos Aires until the early 1940s, writing for himself on the side. One of his first published stories, “House Taken Over,” which came to him in a dream, appeared in 1946 in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. It wasn’t until after Cortázar moved to Paris in 1951, however, that he began publishing in earnest. In Paris, he worked as a translator and interpreter for UNESCO and other organizations. Writers he translated included Poe, Defoe, and Marguerite Yourcenar. In 1963, his second novel Hopscotch—about an Argentine’s existential and metaphysical searches through the nightlife of Paris and Buenos Aires—really established Cortázar’s name. Though he is known above all as a modern master of the short story, Cortázar’s four novels have demonstrated a ready innovation of form while, at the same time, exploring basic questions about man in society. These include The Winners (1960), 62: A Model Kit (1968), based in part on his experience as an interpreter, and A Manual for Manuel (1973), about the kidnapping of a Latin American diplomat. But it was Cortázar’s stories that most directly claimed his fascination with the fantastic. His most well-known story was the basis of Antonioni’s film by the same name, Blow-Up. Five collections of his stories have appeared in English to date, the most recent being We Love Glenda So Much. Just before he died, a travel journal was published, Los autonautas de la cosmopista, on which he collaborated with his wife, Carol Dunlop, during a voyage from Paris to Marseilles in a camping van. Published simultaneously in Spanish and French, Cortázar signed all author’s rights and royalties over to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua; the book has since become a best-seller. Two posthumous collections of his political articles on Nicaragua and on Argentina have also been published. Throughout his expatriate years in Paris, Cortázar had lived in various neighborhoods. In the last decade, royalties from his books enabled him to buy his own apartment. The apartment, atop a building in a district of wholesalers and chinaware shops, might have been the setting for one of his stories: spacious, though crowded with books, its walls lined with paintings by friends. Cortázar was a tall man, 6'4", though thinner than his photographs revealed. The last months before this interview had been particularly difficult for him, since his last wife, Carol, thirty years his junior, had recently died of cancer. In addition, his extensive travels, especially to Latin America, had obviously exhausted him. He had been home barely a week and was finally relaxing in his favorite chair, smoking a pipe as we talked.  

INTERVIEWER

 In some of the stories in your most recent book, Deshoras, the fantastic seems to encroach on the real world more than ever. Have you yourself felt as if the fantastic and the commonplace are becoming one? 

JULIO CORTÁZAR

 Yes, in these recent stories I have the feeling that there is less distance between what we call the fantastic and what we call the real. In my older stories, the distance was greater because the fantastic really was fantastic, and sometimes it touched on the supernatural. Of course, the fantastic takes on metamorphoses; it changes. The notion of the fantastic we had in the epoch of the gothic novels in England, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with our concept of it today. Now we laugh when we read Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto—the ghosts dressed in white, the skeletons that walk around making noises with their chains. These days, my notion of the fantastic is closer to what we call reality. Perhaps because reality approaches the fantastic more and more. ...

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