Columns

Pistol Shots at a Concert

Alberto Manguel

Nothing we do—in words or actions—lies outside the political realm

In 1951, the thirty-seven-year-old Julio Cortázar left Argentina for Paris because, he later explained superciliously, the loudspeakers trumpeting Juan Perón’s name would not allow him to listen to Bartók in peace. The true reason was perhaps more banal. Since the nineteenth century, Paris had held a glittering attraction for middle- and upper-class Argentinians who saw in their own capital city an imperfect model of that celestial Jerusalem. Paris, they believed, was where art and literature happened, and if a young Argentinian wanted to become a writer, there was no better place to hone his skills.

In Paris, while working as a translator for UNESCO, Cortázar developed the literary voice that was to become his trademark: an unmistakably porteño vocabulary, simultaneously inventive and traditional, that stubbornly remained, even as the years passed, that of the Buenos Aires of the forties. Exiles re-imagine the country they have left with a force that overpowers any factual reality, and this imagination becomes with time a palimpsest of new imagined rememberings. The Buenos Aires of Cortázar’s stories, of The Winners, of Hopscotch, never was that of the late twentieth century. Terrible things took place in Cortázar’s fictional Buenos Aires—things that echoed the terrible things that were happening during the demagogical government of Perón in the early fifties and the military dictatorship of the seventies—but in Cortázar’s world they were enacted on a made-up stage, no less true for being imaginary. The novelist, as we know, can often better define reality than the historian.

In the past couple of years, Cortázar has suffered the fate of most dead writers: his personal diaries, his unfinished fiction, his intimate jottings, his private and open letters have all found their way into print, propelled by the good intentions of his former wife, Aurora Bernárdez (now dead) and by the academic ambitions of scholars and researchers. Cortázar’s collected correspondence (to friends, family, colleagues and politicians such as François Mitterand and Fidel Castro) proves, I think, the point about the novelist and the historian.

Twenty-five years after he had left Argentina, Cortázar returned on a short visit, and what he saw confirmed his imaginings. “A country in which corpses suffer of an ambulatory mania, come and go, are kidnapped and then brought back, buried and exhumed, as in a horrible tale of voodoo or zombies,” he wrote to his friend Félix Grande shortly before Christmas of 1974. And describing the performance of an ubuesque Perón, who had wanted to enthrone Evita shortly before her death from cancer and ended by placing the crown on the head of the ineffectual Isabel, Cortázar added: “Not to say anything of the incredible coincidence of a man who one day dreams of bestowing his power onto his lady, and is about to achieve this when an attack of leukemia puts a spanner in the works, and then more than twenty years go by, and the very same man has the very same dream once more, and this time he succeeds but at the cost of his own death.”

In spite of his continued awareness of the political reality of Argentina, Cortázar’s voluntary exile was not easily forgiven by those writers who stayed behind and who attacked him for having abandoned what they considered the only valid battleground for a responsible intellectual. This wishful identity was false on at least two counts. On the one hand, because of the censorship imposed by the military, only Cortázar’s “literary” texts were read in Argentina. Shortly after the end of the dictatorship, he wrote to the publisher Mario Muchnik: “One week in Buenos Aires was enough to confirm what I already knew, namely that in these past ten years almost no one has read the numerous texts I wrote against the Junta, on the matter of exile, etc. … They would publish only my literary texts, as you can imagine, and those with political arguments they would dump in the wastepaper basket.” On the other hand, literary jealousy being what it is, several of his stay-at-home colleagues wanted to prove him unworthy of his international fame and accused him not only of abandonment and treason, but of elitist scribblings that the common man, whom Cortázar said he was defending, would be unable to read.

Cortázar’s apologia was the only one possible. In 1974, in the middle of an argument about these matters with the then young short story writer Liliana Heker, who in an open letter in the magazine El Ornitorrinco had criticized Cortázar’s choice of Paris as home, he explained: “A writer worthy of that name doesn’t have a ‘literary side’; his entire being converges in his work, including his private and his political behaviour.”

This rings utterly true. Nothing we do—in words or actions—can be outside the political realm. We are political animals, in the sense that we all live in a polis and we necessarily interact with another, and affect our society through this interaction. Cortázar’s early story “House Taken Over,” published by Borges in Los Anales de Buenos Aires when Cortázar had not yet left Buenos Aires, was read by the sociologist Juan José Sebreli as an indictment of Perón’s regime. Sebreli might be right, but it is also a story about the Age of Anxiety (as W. H. Auden called the twentieth century) and also about the existentialist notion of hell as “other people.” If a writer’s words matter, they matter on all these levels, because our aesthetics are not severed from our ethics, public or private.

Stendhal, whose novels help us understand, among other things, the consequences of Napoleon’s insidious imperialist politics, scorned the intrusion of politics in a work of fiction. “Politics,” Julien Sorel famously said, “are a stone tied round the neck of literature, which drown it in less than six months. Politics, amidst the interests of the imagination, are like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert.”

Unless, of course, politics are an intrinsic part of the literary fabric. When I met Cortázar in Paris in 1969, he offered to take me through the city and show me what was left of some of the graffiti of May ’68: “They are some of the most beautiful poems ever written.” And then he asked me to take his picture in front of the one that read L’imagination au pouvoir.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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