Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Julio Cortázar and Rayuela

Cortázar's iconic image
If asked to name a famous Argentine writer, nine times out of ten Jorge Luis Borges is the first to spring to mind. But this week marks the 26th anniversary of the death of one of the country’s other true greats in the literary world, Julio Cortázar.

It is fair to say that in English speaking nations Cortázar has not achieved the level of fame that Borges has. In the Hispanic world however, he is rightly considered a maestro of the written word, and his most famous work, Rayuela (Hopscotch) a masterpiece of ingenuity and originality.

Julio Cortázar was born in Brussels, Belgium on 26th August 1914 while his father, an Argentine diplomat, was stationed there. The family returned to Argentina after the First World War where abandoned by his father, the young Julio was raised by his mother and her family in Banfield, a suburb to the south of Buenos Aires. It was a humble neighbourhood where milk was delivered on horseback, and Julio spent his childhood there reading and reading and reading, as well as writing poetry and short stories.

He went on to study languages and philosophy at university in Buenos Aires, and it was during a career as a secondary school teacher and then professor of French literature at Cuyo University in Mendoza, that he began to successfully turn his hand to writing, publishing a book of poems and various articles under the pseudonym Julio Denis.

His writing career was subsidised by his translations of the complete works of Edgar Alan Poe, as well as works by André Gide, G.K. Chesterton and Daniel Defoe. And then in 1949 his own dramatic poem, Los Reyes (The Kings) became the first original work to appear under his real name.

In 1951, aged 36, his collection of short stories, Bestiario was published and it was in this same year that Cortázar, opposed to the government of Juan Perón, emigrated to Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Established in the bohemian French capital, Cortázar, who became good friends with fellow Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, divided his time between working as a translator for UNESCO and writing.

The short story collections Final del Juego and Las Armas Secretas appeared in 1956 and 1959 respectively and the novel Los Premios was published in 1960. But it was with the publication of Rayuela in 1963 that Cortázar achieved massive accolade.

Speaking in an interview with A Fondo in 1977 Cortázar says that it was while writing a short story called Casa Tomada that the idea of multiple readers of a text who are reading what is written from a totally different perspective to that which he himself had when he wrote it, first occurred to him.

It is this idea that forms the basis of Rayuela.

'The book', said Cortázar 'was an attempt to see the relationship between a novel and its reader in a different way. Though a reader's attitude is in general a passive one in which he reads a novel from page 1 to page 300; with Rayuela I took on the task of writing a book in which the reader has different options, giving him an equality with the writer. The reader can leave parts out that he doesn't like, read the book in a different order if he wants, and basically create a world in which he plays an active role and not a passive one. A reader who is an accomplice to the story.'

The book can be read in a number of ways. The first part is formed of chapters 1-56 and the reader can finish here with a ‘clean conscience’ as the story ends. Or he can continue with the remaining 99 chapters which are referred to as expendable. Here the reader can follow the author’s instructions which after each new chapter send him backwards and forwards through the first 56 chapters in a changed order, 'hopscotching' to experience a completely different story. The whole novel can even be read by only reading odd or even pages, and is often referred to as a counter-novel or anti-novel for its multiple endings. 

In the narrative Cortázar employs Joyce like use of interior monologue in which characters play with the reader’s mind to take them on a journey in which they themselves can control the outcome. It is a stream of consciousness which, influenced by the author’s interest in Zen Buddhism, 'tries to negate daily reality by proceeding with incongruous and absurd episodes in which the serious events are treated with humour and the humorous ones with earnestness'. 

At work in his Paris flat
Despite his long exile in Paris, a city which the Argentine loved from the bottom of his heart, Cortázar remained actively involved in campaigning against human rights abuses in Latin America and leant support to several, mainly socialist states, including Castro's Cuba, Allende's Chile and the Sandinista ruled Nicaragua, places he visited frequently during the seventies. Towards the end of his life he attended a meeting of 'The Permanent Committee of Intellectuals for the Sovereignty of Our America' in Cuba before visiting Buenos Aires after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina.

Julio Cortázar was married three times but never had children. He died on 12th February 1984 of Leukaemia, continuing to write until almost his last day, and is buried in the Cimitière de Montparnasse in Paris.

‘No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost.’ (Jorge Luis Borges).

Cortázar talking about Rayuela (Spanish only)

'Much of what I have written falls into the category of eccentricity because I have never admitted a clear distinction between living and writing. (From Cortázar's biographical note to Around the Day in Eighty Worlds).


  1. I'm catching up with you posts!.
    Cortazar's approach to writing is very different to any other writter, his works are exciting to read. I've read several short stories but never Rayuela, i gotta say that his books are not easy to read mainly because he focus on representations of a surreal and metaphysical world. I'll give Rayuela a try and let you know. Bye!

  2. Florencia, I agree with you that Cortazar can sometimes be a tough read, and Rayuela is no exception; I think it's worth the effort though.