What struck everyone who met Julio Cortazar for the first time, aside from his extraordinary height and extremely youthful appearance, was the strange, almost bovine physiognomy. Cortazar, one of the master storytellers of the 20th century, who -- together with Borges and Juan Rulfo -- set the stage for the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, had this unsettling effect on people. There was something of the lonely minotaur about him, a vaguely bull-like separation of the eyes beneath that massive forehead. Even after he had metamorphosed (there is no other word for the result of a hormonal treatment he underwent in the late 1960s) into the bearded, hirsute figure marching with thousands through the streets of Paris following the student uprising of May 1968, he still carried that dreamlike air of a mythological creature.
Cortazar himself was obsessed with the notion of the minotaur, which appears in his early dramatic poem "The Kings" (1949). He referred to his childhood self as an "animalito metafisico" -- a metaphysical little animal. His life was therefore, quite naturally, permeated by labyrinths -- and not just figuratively speaking. In 1962, on a visit to the Villa Foscari, near Padua, Italy, where the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio had set part of his novel The Flame of Life (describing his love affair with the actress Eleonora Duse), Cortazar and his first wife, Aurora Bernardez, took a walk on the villa grounds. "The garden included a very famous labyrinth," he wrote to his Argentine editor Francisco Porrua, "which we playfully traversed with shouts of enthusiasm, followed quickly thereafter by an anxious silence and, minutes later, by an unfathomable terror because we were absolutely and totally lost in a sea of greenery and, what was the real humiliation, at only five meters distance from a precious turret situated at the exact center of the labyrinth." To the end of his days, he managed to perceive the world and set it to words with the directness, purity and playfulness of a child.
Julio Cortazar was born on August 26, 1914, in Brussels, where his Argentinean father had been posted as a diplomat. His mother, also from Argentina, was of French and German stock. Julio and his sister, born in Zurich a year later, spoke French at home, learning Spanish only when their parents moved back to Argentina after World War I. His biographer, Mario Goloboff, relates that when Julio was nearly 6, his father abandoned the family, and the boy was left to the company of women: his sister, his mother, his mother's cousin and his maternal grandmother.
He spent a reserved but dreamy childhood in a suburb of Buenos Aires, obsessed with reading Verne, Poe and Dickens. Soon the family physician declared that too much reading was making the boy ill. He suffered asthma as a child and insisted that he had hair growing inside his throat. While Cortazar may not have managed to get his mother to believe him, an eventual alter-ego in one of his most celebrated stories, "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," certainly makes an uncanny case for a similarly provocative malady: vomiting up little rabbits.
After attending secondary school, Cortazar enrolled in a teachers college and, subsequently, at the University of Buenos Aires, where he developed a taste for poetry, jazz, photography and boxing. He soon quit his studies and began teaching to help support his mother and sister. His academic career was short-lived, however, for while he got along extremely well with his students, he kept aloof from faculty politics, which proved his undoing.
He began freelancing as a literary translator for Spanish publishers, creating memorable Spanish versions of various English and French classics, including the complete prose works of Poe. He was also well on his way to becoming one of the 20th-century masters of the nearly extinct art of writing letters. The earliest examples are forgivably laden with his apprentice-like musings on Mallarme and Rilke. He was also writing poems, sometimes trying the patience of his friends with sonnets and other stilted verse. Eventually, however, the gifted short story writer emerged -- in his correspondence and fiction -- with a breathtaking precociousness, superseding the poet.
"House Taken Over," for example, from his first published collection of stories, Bestiario (1951), appeared initially in 1947 in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges, with illustrations by Borges's sister Norah. At the time it was read as an allegory of Peronism, but Cortazar always denied that intention. He had a more intimate view of his short fiction. In his seminal essay "On the Short Story and Its Environs," published in the English compilation of Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (1986), he cites his Uruguayan mentor, Horacio Quiroga, on how to breathe life into a story: "Tell the story as if it were only of interest to the small circle of your characters, of which you may be one."
In 1950, Cortazar took a brief voyage to Europe, a prelude to his move to Paris the following year, when he received a 10-month academic scholarship from the French government. (Cortazar lived in Paris for the remainder of his life, dying there of leukemia in 1984, at the age of 69.) On shipboard, he became friends with a woman named Edith.
Cortazar never revealed her identity, but they remained lifelong friends. She became the model for Oliveira's girlfriend, La Maga, in the author's most famous novel, Hopscotch (1963). Like its two protagonists, Julio and Edith would play aleatory games of chance encounters in the maze of Paris streets.
Breaking the conventions of time and space as well as the Cartesian walls with which we have insulated ourselves in our daily, humdrum existence is a common feature of Cortazar's short fiction. In "The Night Face Up," a man while lying in a hospital bed dying from a motorcycle accident dreams he is being dragged up the steps of an Aztec temple to have his heart torn out in a Pre-Columbian sacrifice -- or is it the other way around? In "Axolotl," a narrator becomes so obsessed with a strange tropical fish at the Paris aquarium that he ends up on the other side of the protective glass. What is astonishing about these stories is the inconsequential ease with which a character -- and with him, the reader -- stumbles from the most pedestrian of realities into that other realm.
The quest for an absolute para-reality permeates the exploratory nature of all of Cortazar's fiction, but especially the major novels. Hopscotch is structured like a mandala, a labyrinth whose end is the center, for which there are various alternative readings to take the reader there and back. In 62: A Model Kit (1968), the novel's point of departure is both the aesthetics of the failed writer Morelli, from Hopscotch, and the image of "the city," from an obsessive, recurrent dream Cortazar once described in a letter to his publisher. And in his most overtly political novel, the somewhat hastily written A Manual For Manuel (1973), he attempted the impossible: to inject a sense of humor -- and poetry -- into the tenets of "the new man" of socialist Revolution.
Cortazar had always been, intellectually speaking, an outsider to the social and political upheavals of Latin America. Like Borges and Henry James, he had been a "devourer of libraries," not of life; Cortazar's 1963 trip to "revolutionary" Havana, however, became his "road to Damascus." Now, it seemed, he saw a way to connect with life, to return to the reality of his Latin American roots.
Like so many political dreams of the '60s, this one ended in the nightmare of the "Padilla Affair." In April, 1971 the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was arrested, imprisoned and forced to make an absurd but no less pathetic public confession (at the behest of Fidel Castro) to the crimes of subversion and counterrevolution -- all for having written a book that won a prize three years earlier, no small crime in Cuba. Cortazar was stunned and sent a series of letters and cables to his would-be Cuban minders, including Haydee Santamaria, the head of the cultural Casa de las Americas; and Roberto Fernandez Retamar, the editor of its literary review. No one answered.
Eventually, Padilla was sent into exile as a result of international protests and the direct intervention of Sen. Ted Kennedy. In the meantime, Cortazar finally got an answer. In January 1972 Haydee Santamaria wrote him: "You will have to decide once and for all if you are with God or with the Devil." (Sound familiar?) Like the Keatsian "chameleon" he so identified with in his posthumously published biography of that greatest of all Romantic figures ("What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon Poet," Keats had suggested to Richard Woodhouse in 1818), Cortazar chose neither. "Why defend myself?" he confided to his future readers. "Once again I will walk with Keats, but first we will write with chalk on the wall of the commissariat these things that someday will be understood even there." *
Thomas Colchie is a literary agent for international fiction. He has translated numerous works from Spanish and Portuguese and edited several anthologies, including "A Whistler in the Nightworld: Short Fiction from the Latin Americas."