AROUND THE DAY IN EIGHTY WORLDS. By Julio Cortazar. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Christensen. North Point Press. 304 pp. $20.
CORTAZARLAND, that play-dough republic of imaginary beings, comes into being thanks to its Argentinian creator's two main gifts. He knows how to see things thoroughly and whole (like Marco Polo, his "profession is looking") and, more important, how to extend them through imagination. For him, to invent is to report, and to report is to invent, as in this account of Louis Armstrong's voice from the present collection of short pieces: "From his mouth that had been writing pennants of gold now rises the lowing of a lovesick deer, the cry of an antelope toward the stars, the buzz of honeybees in sleepy plantations." Not only can he add permanently to your stock of large-as-life beings (creative "Cronopios" and overbearing "Famas," for instance); he can also change just as permanently something you thought you were familiar with.
The technique depends on bringing things close together, then making them overlap, as if in tribute to their basic oneness. The conjuring is holistic, the attitude to life one of ebullient gratefulness. After reading Around the Day you have a fresher, more exact sense of things, from mucous membranes and tobacco to the bow wave a duck makes in the surface of a pond, from doctors' rubber mallets to Calcutta. And all of these seem closer together than they used to be: siblings of the same dimension. Look, he says to all whom habit has blinded and blunted, all this is here for us, and his delight in the perceivable mix of phenomena never fades, extending to metaphor and simile, even going so far as to imply all the things, all the stuff, that this hand, this roach, this bicycle, is not. What if the hand were made of petals? The roach of titanium? The bicycle of thorns? To read him with care is like warming up, tuning up, for some belated act of reverence to the createdness of things. Theological he never was, but his reverence for life's mystery links him to William Blake, Loren Eiseley, and the French poet Francis Ponge. Keats too, whom in this book he celebrates for having the selflessness to become the sparrow pecking outside his window. It is Keats the Proteus he portrays here, as in the 600-page treatise on him he wrote in the 1940s. Keats can be these things because Keats, qua Poet, "has no identity -- he is continually informing -- and filling some other Body." That Keats of 1818 is pure Cortazar, as Cort,azar points out.
One gets the impression that in Around the Day he isn't trying as hard as usual to invent amazing things. Nature, he finds, is full of the fantastic anyway, and so is human culture. So we advance through a rich jumble of this or that -- trumpets and trombones, shoes and cats, boxers and pianos, Mexican cobblers, and Jack the Ripper, Gander and Helsinki, jaguars and crocodiles, books and fires, paper airplanes and raspberry syrup -- waylaid also by such characteristic Cortazar entities as the man who feels he is sinking in soft cotton and the real Marcel Duchamp making an imaginary voyage to Buenos Aires. There are poems made up of complete-looking lines embodying uncompleted thoughts, and there are even anecdotes about such of his friends as Esther Calvino (Italo's widow) and Carlos Fuentes. There are also, strewn through the text, drawings and photographs, designed to give the entire book the appearance and browsable nature of an almanac-collage. They do, though I for one don't like having to play snakes and ladders with my eyes as the width of the column varies to house the image of a tricycle or a beetle. Maybe this is a slight attempt to mimic abstract expressionism's yen for what's just outside the field of vision, but plucking at it nonetheless.
Anyone dipping into these pages for the rationale of Cortazar's work will have a field day, even though it's a very scattered and fragmentary Poetics. Piece together such assertions as "extraordinary people make or show things never before imagined" and "we should never speak of our memory, for it is anything but ours" and "attention acts as lightning rod." Link them if you can to such phrases as "the sly deformation that the codified quotidian imposes on consciousness," and "the veil of the quotidian." He sounds like Shelley and Proust combined. The book also includes valuable commentaries on such of his own books as Hopscotch and 62: A Model Kit, but the long, definitive essay on the Cuban novelist Jos,e Lezama Lima is itself worth the price of admission, and there are some intriguing thoughts on Thomas de Quincey and Salvador Dali. One essay, "On The Short Story and Its Environs," is profound required reading; oh that it were longer.
NO, THERE are not 80 pieces here, but 62 (a number Cortazar was fond of and had already used twice), which come from two previous collections. Around Eighty Worlds In A Day might have done just as well for him; any revamping of that famous title is going to sound strained, and I do detect strain in his trying to make the book look jazzy or surrealist, as if to distract you from how weak some of the included stories are compared to the magisterial essays and the short-short pieces. Clearly, no devotee of Cortazar (who died in February 1984) will be able to do without this book, translated with singular finesse and loving care by Thomas Christensen. I blinked here and there, however, at such things as "particular Argentines" (fussy or specific?), "an ingenious American innocence" (ingenuous?), "Loco Solus" (Roussel's novel is called Locus Solus), "Einfulung" for Einfuhlung" and "Julien Brenda" for "Julien Benda."
Some of the titles are quite bewitching ("I Could Dance This Chair, Said Isadora," "A Country Called Alechinsky," "Toward a Spelelology of the Domicile") and much of the open-ended prose is startling, such as this, in which you hear the authentic sound of Cort,azar's mind:
"If people are astonished when they comprehend the significance of a light-year, the volume of a dwarf star, the content of a galaxy, what will they say about three brushstrokes of Masaccio that are perhaps the burning of Persepolis that is perhaps the fourth murder of Peter Kurten who is perhaps the road to Damascus which is perhaps the Lafayette Galeries which are perhaps the black cat of Hans Magnus Enzensberger who is perhaps an Avignon prostitute named Jeanne Blanc (1477-1514)?"
No one has gone so close as he did to the coy and the facetious without touching them while creating, time and again, moments of extraordinary sensuous felicity, almost as if he alone had recovered for us a lost human sense, the sixth and the 62nd one combined. He remains for us the poet of phenomenology, the Muse of the contingent, who can make a soccer team called River Plate jolt the thinking of a physicist in Rome, and that jolt in its turn do something to a cherry in Nicaragua. There is an elegiac quality to this book, of course, as if his own words had really sunk home: "We look at each other with that faint tremor of farewell that possesses us whenever a concert is about to begin." Fortunately, when a concert ends we tend not to look at each other at all, and ends resound as beginnings do not.