Thursday, January 17, 2019

Julio Cortazar Visits New York in the '70s.

Frank MacShane

JULIO CORTAZAR, the Argentine novelist, was in New York to consult his publisher about his forthcoming book. “It's called ‘Libro de Manuel’ in Spanish,” he explained in a conversation. “We had some trouble with the English title.

'Manuel's Book’ seemed a bit dull, so Gregory Rabassa, who is my translator and loves to play with words, suggested ‘Manuel's Manual.’ But that seemed rather a mouthful, so it's going to be called ‘A Manual for Manuel.’"

Asked whether it was in any way like his famous novel, 'Hopscotch,' he replied that it is also placed Paris and that the characters are Argentine. “But whereas in ‘Hopscotch’ I was mainly interested in the inner lives and relationships of the characters, in this new book I am concerned with the effect of public events on them. That's the difference between now and then. Inevitably we have become politicized. The novel is about a group'of young revolutionaries, and is full of kidnappings torture-- all the things we read about every day in the newspapers.

“Naturally I did not want to make it a political tract — it is, after all, a piece of fiction — so I had to try establish an equilibrium between the private lives the characters and public events. I have tried to deal with what happens in the novel with some humor and to use comedy. Also, I have actual documents — headlines and articles from French newspapers, from the Paris Herald‐Tribune, and from Argentine newspapers as well, for the book takes place in 1971, when Lanusse was President of Argentina and the use of torture for political reasons became a common practice. While I was writing the novel, I was myself reading these headlines and articles, so I had my characters read them well.”

Mr. Cortazar noted that it was important to separate political opinions and beliefs from fiction. “When I write a novel,” he said, “I am writing directly from inside, myself. I am trying to express what I see and what I feel about the world around me. That is why have tried to set up the equilibrium between humor and documentation in the new book. At the same time I am a political person. I have actively tried to carry out my belief in the future of socialism the world without belonging to a political party because I believe it is better for a writer to be independent. It is my duty as a man to be politically active, but I don't think you should allow this to influence your writing. Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean: On one of my trips to Cuba 10 years ago met some guerrieros. I didn't really meet them because the room was kept so dark I could only see their hands. But they told me that when they were in the jungles of Venezuela, when they were trying to recover from their exhaustion, they liked to read from my book, ‘Cronopios y Famas.’ They didn't read Lenin or Marx: they read these stories, which are mainly fantasies. I was very moved when they told me that it was the same with Che Guevara: he didn't carry ‘Das Kapital’ in his pocket. He had a copy of Neruda's ‘Canto General’ with him.

Mention of his short stories prompted Mr. Cortazar to comment on the difference between writing long and short fiction. “For me,” he said, “a novel is a long process or development, dealing with a number of subjects that evolve along the way. For instance, Manual for Manuel’ has a lot to do with sex in Latin America. I try to go into that subject as far as I can; machismo and with notions of male superiority. This on top of the other things the book is about. So, a novel is a rich experience, something that opens as many issues and lets them unfold. A short story is very different. I think of it as a kind of glass sphere in which you try to enclose a few perceptions, a few feelings. It must be complete within itself and brief enough to have a tight form. Sometimes when I am writing a novel I think of something that doesn't belong there but has a life of its own. So I stop and make a short story of it if I can. A short story is more like a poem than like novel.”

Speaking of the so‐called “boom”—the literary explosion from Latin America that some people contend is an artificial phenomenon created by publishers—Mr. Cortazar pointed out the irony that it should be known by an English word. “No, I don't think it's artificial at all,” he said. “Let me tell you that when my novel 'The Winners’ was first published in this country, I was accused of writing an imitation of Katherine Anne Porter's ‘Ship of Fools,’ but the reviewers didn't bother to notice that in Spanish the book came out two years before Miss Porter's novel. The point is we were thought to be imitators—either that, or we had to write books full of local color, with señoritas 
and gauchos and tangos. In Latin America it was the same. Twenty years ago, our readers were only interested in the latest Faulkner or Steinbeck or Mauriac. Latin American literature was considered to be utterly inferior.

“What happened then was that a group of writers ‐Miguel Angel Asturias, Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, myself and some others began to write novels that allowed Latin Americans to realize that within their own heritage there was material as rich as any in the world. It began to be recognized that we could write about all sorts of things without being accused of being imitators. We turned inward to try to discover the roots of our own being, and when we did that we ended literary colonialism in South America. Above all, we gained the confidence of our readers, and that is what the ‘boom’ is all about.”

On his return to Paris, Mr. Cortazar hopes to finish up a series of short pieces—some only a page long—which are about incidents, places, people. They number more than a hundred. He is also waiting for the translation into English of two books of short stories. One of these has only recently been published, but not in his native Argentina, because he refused to allow it to appear with two of the stories omitted for fear of censorship.

Asked whether he was part of the literary life of Paris, he answered: “No, I am not. Of course I know the French writers, but mainly through their books. I really don't like being with writers as much as with painters and musicians. I was a friend of Pablo Neruda's when he was ambassador to France, and I see other Latin American writers when they come through. But the intellectual life of Paris is too professional for me. There are always panel discussions and meetings, which I don't like. Anyhow, I don't think in abstract terms nor do I make generalizations: I see things and feel them. And music is very important to me.”

Credits:  This article was originally published under the title 'Visit from Julio Cortazar' in 1978 in The New York Times.  It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.

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