Hardbound Vaudeville

CRONOPIOS AND FAMAS by Julio Cortázar translated by Paul Blackburn Pantheon, $4.95
We are beginning to recognize the existence of Latin-American novelists, but that is about all. They are the latest blips on our cultural radar screen. It is their honor to have succeeded the French antinovelists at the top of that duty-reading list, fiction department, which we never quite get around to. We used not to read Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute; now we don’t read Carlos Fuentes and Miguel Angel Asturias.
Reputations circulate instead of the books themselves. Often poorly translated—the Constance Garnetts of the world seem to have switched from Russian to Spanish—LatinAmerican novelists inhabit their nonreaders’ minds as I.D. cards with space only for name, nationality, and one or two irrelevant facts: Carlos Fuentes, Mexican. Friend of Norman Mailer’s. Visa problems.
Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan. Nobel Prize. Mates United Fruit.
Julio Cortázar, Argentine. Lives in Paris. Author of the short story from which Blow-Up was derived.
Actually, although Michelangelo Antonioni ‘s film took all the usual liberties, the Cortazar-goes-withlilow-Up association is a useful place to start. For one thing, Cortazar has more in common with film-makers than he does with most novelists. He is bored with hardedged “reality.” In his fiction “real “ events get blurred into a kind of Rashomon multiple choice. “Real” places become confused with the landscape of dreams. “Real" time loses c hronology as plots jump back and forth and sideways without signaling, and memories pass themselves off in the present tense. “Real" people wander away into a sort of trackless inner waste: Antonioni characters seldom truly look at one another; Cortazar characters seldom truly talk to one another.
Above all, both Antonioni and Cortázar see life as a game. Antonioni’s image is chess. The title of Cortázar’s most famous novel is Hopscotch (1963). Hopscotch, it may Ire remembered, moved ahead in a more or less straight line for fifty-six chapters, then performed a leapfrog to Chapter 73 before hopscotching all around. Cortazar might well paste above his writing table the dictum of Nietzsche: “To become mature is ter recover that sense of seriousness which one had as a child at play.” It sums up exactly his sense of vocation.
Cronopios and Famas, published in Spanish in 1962, served rather as an exercise book for Hopscotch. It is one of those minor impromptu works that, like first drafts, can lay an author and his intentions bare, as more ambitious works rarely do. This miscellaneous collection of fairies, fantasia, and general whimsy spells out Cortazar’s credo of absurdity, his theology of the metaphysical jerke. In his celebrated essay, The Dehumanization of Art, Ortega v Gasset wrote: “Art itself is jesting. . . . The new art ridicules art itself.” Cronopios and Famas could not ask for a better description.
In Leslie Fiedler’s phrase, Cronopios and Famas is “hardbound vaudeville”—a variety show of monologues. literary blackouts, and putons. The material cannot be described, it must Ire sampled, and if nothing is quite representative, that, Cortazar doubtless would say, is the idea. We can take for one brief instance a three-paragraph fragment called “Instructions on How to Cry.” After giving a physiological description of crying (“a general contraction of the face and a spasmodic sound accompanied by tears and mucus”) , Cortazar gets to the wouldbe tender heart of the matter: “In order to cry, steer the imagination toward yourself, and if this proves impossible . . . think of . . . those gulfs in the Straits of Magellan into which no one sails ever.”
A nice flight of fancy, perhaps a bit overmanaged. Note: while Cortazar makes his little joke about pedantry, he too is a bit anxious to get his point across—modern man is out of touch with his feelings, and so forth. One notices early on about Cortazar and other artists-as-playboys that they are not quite the highkickers that the high-unseriousness manifestos of Susan Son tag, for example, may suggest, drillers they may be, but they want you to know that they know it. They are less likely to put that Nietzschean paradox above their writing tables than on their flyleaf’s. One does not find on their dust jackets, “I laughed till I thought I’d die,” but compliments like: “A new vision of life as accident and variety” (one critic’s comment on Hopscotch).
If Cortazar, then, is occasionally a piccolo player with the soul of a bassoonist, he suffers also from another sin of self-consciousness not known to Nietzsche’s “child at play.” He can fall into a disastrous coyness, which nothing brings out so much as bestiary-writing: “The cassowary is unlikable in the extreme and repulsive. Imagine an ostrich with a tea cosy of horn on his head, a bicycle smashed between two automobiles ... a decal which has taken poorly in which a dirty violet and a sort of crackling predominate.”
Even worse, Cortazar finger-exercises at black humor. As a translator for UNESCO, he is said to have spent two years on Edgar Allan Poe. Whenever the atmosphere in Cronopios and Famas takes on a certain glib lugubriousness, there croaks the raven. Readers are nothing Lliese days if not connoisseurs til despair, and Cortazar simply is short of the real thing: “What a wonderful pursuit: cut the leg off a spider, put it in an envelope, write on it Minister of Foreign Affairs, add the address, run downstairs, and drop the letter into the mailbox aL the corner.” One hears nasty schoolboy giggles in the background.
These last two samplings show Cortazar at his poorest—the uptight fun guy. Cortazar at his best—and Iiis best is brilliant—can be found in the section which supplies the book with its title. He has invented three legendary species. The “famas" are respectable, successful, square (“the heads of philanthropic societies are all famas”). The “esperanzas” are those who would like to be famas but are found lacking (“esperanzas are blockheads”). Also cranky.
“Cronopios" are an indefinable elite. Naturally they like to play (“When the cronopios sing their favorite songs, they get so excited, and in such a way, that with frequency they get run over by trucks and cyclists . . . and lose what they’re carrying in their pockets”). Not surprisingly the games the cronopios play resemble Cortazar’s game: scramble the patterns: long live the non sequitur!
When a cronopio builds a house, he cements tiles in sequence on his porch. The first says:
WELCOME AL!.
WHO ENTER THIS HOME
The second reads:
THE HOUSE IS SMALL BUT THE HEART IS IMMENSE
The third announces:
THE PRESENCE OF A GUEST IS AS SOFT AS REST
The fourth advises:
WE ARE POOR BUT STILL WE HAVE GOOD WILL
The fifth and last concludes:
THIS ORDINANCE CANCELS ALL PREVIOUS ANNOUNCEMENTS BEAT IT!
Cortázar has been an admirer of Cocteau. Like the surrealists, he makes use of everything: Zen, jazz, Cocteau himself. He plays with culture as if it were a borrowed toy— “plays with” serving as antithesis to “becomes involved in.” For with Cortazar play is a calculated act of substitution: games instead of life.
Is Cronopios and Famas, then, just a clever but prec ious revenge on actuality? At times, yes. But Cortazar can do better than that. Art-as-play has one “mission” (Ortega again) : “to conjure up imaginary worlds.” Cortazar comes close.
This, of course, is Don Quixote’s game. How the Hispanic writers finally come back to Cervantes, that tragicomic grand master of play. In a superb sketch, “Travel,”it becomes clear that the cronopio is Cortázar’s version of Don Quixote— the absurd failure who succeeds by not recognizing his failure: When famas go on a trip, when they pass the night in a city, their procedure is (he following: one fama goes to the hotel and prudently checks the prices, the quality of the sheets, and the color of the carpets. The second repairs to the commissariat of police and there fills out a record of the real and transferable property of till three of them, as well as ail inventory of the contents of their valises. The third fama goes to the hospital and copies the lists of the doctors on emergency and their specialties. . . .
When cronopios go on a trip, they find that the hotels are all filled up, the trains have already left, it is raining buckets and taxis don’t want to pick them up. . . . The cronopios are not disheartened because they believe firmly that these things happen to everyone. When they manage, finally, to find a bed and are ready to go to sleep, they say to one another, “What a beautiful city, what a very beautiful city!” And all night long they dream that huge parties are being given in the city and that they are invited. The next day they arise very contented, and that’s how cronopios travel.
Don Quixotes too. The last of the knights took life as he found it and made it what lie wanted it to be— his creative plaything. In this respect Cortazar, the new-style tilter against reality, is lus own Don Quixote. “In Latin America, fantasy is history,” Fuentes has written in a defense of Cortazar, implying that only a Quixotic art can do justice to the madness of life itself. Cortazar’s game, Fuentes submits, is an act of valor: “He is risking his all while playing: his roots, his culture, his language, even, finally, his own identity.”
Fuentes has overstated bis case. Cortazar is certainly a dazzling illusionist, all mirrors and no objects, but lie lacks the authentic obsession of Don Quixote, or even Nietzsche’s “child at play.” With Cortazar the game too is an illusion, and that damaging loss is what makes him our contemporary.
We end as wTe began—with Antonioni and the final scene of BlowUp, the mimed tennis game. For it also happens to be the final impression left by Cronopios and Famas: a game of mind-blowing ingenuity played without net, without boundaries, reduced in the end to the plop of unseen tennis balls.