Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

O P I N I O N   E S S A Y
Cortázar's Reality
a n o t h e r   k i n d   o f   m a g i c


I'M A fan of the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, particularly his short stories, and especially those with a mysterious, intriguing circularity of theme and plot. I recently asked myself if the idea of "magic realism" applied to his work.

Of course, we cannot mention the term without referencing Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel from which the literary expression was coined. The quality of magic in Márquez's book stems from an effervescent reality, one in which fantastic events blossom in everyday life in ways preposterous and yet organic, even logical. In Cortázar's work this sense of logic, rooted in artistic control, also obtains these qualities, yet the magic and realism are both different. It's a question of texture and density.

Márquez's world is dense in several ways. Environmentally, the jungle that surrounds Márquez's fictional, mythic village is a blend of Spanish and South American roots, and is a strong, tight-knit community with the Buendía family among its leaders, and even death doesn't separate people from each other. The joining of all these realistic and outlandish elements creates a kind of gravity to life in Macondo, as if the village cannot escape the weight of its own place and past. Repetition is the result. The author repeats events and names, and at the end the village is reduced to its wild elements, ending as it began, the jungle and the ants swallowing Macondo while the last Aureliano reads the prophecies of Melquíades.

Cortázar inhabits a different world from Márquez. The village life that we see in Márquez's novel is now a modern cityscape in Cortázar's stories, full of cars and skyscrapers, and often times it is a European one. And in the stories I examine, I find no anchoring communal or family life to arrest the slippage of reality. (In fact, the closest thing to a true community I see in Cortázar's work is the ad hoc one that forms among people caught in a traffic jam for weeks in "The Southern Thruway" in All Fires the Fire.) The community of friends that surrounds his adult characters has a certain fragile quality, made up of shared interests, but subject to dissolution. A sense of isolation dominates. Perhaps this is in large part due to Cortázar's status an an exile from his native Argentina.

The end result of these factors is that the surreal elements are not so much added onto a denser reality, as in Márquez's novel, but arise from the collapse of that fragile entity, one so tentative that it is easily inverted. One result of this inside-out process is an alteration of identity. In his short stories, the persona of Cortázar's characters is almost invariably challenged, reflected, or changed in some fantastic way. (The idea of identity as a mirror has also been used by another Argentinean, Jorge Luis Borges.)

In Cortázar's "Continuity of Parks" (found in Blow Up and Other Stories), a landowner sits down to read a novel in which two lovers plot to murder the proprietor of a vast farm. While the woman (presumably the owner's mistress) escapes, the man creeps knife-in-hand through the house, approaches an upstairs room where he finds. . . a man sitting and reading a book. This story -- a masterpiece of economy -- shows Cortázar postulating reality as a labyrinthine (like Borges, again) game in which one is likely to confront oneself.

In other stories, this reversal takes on different forms. A man becomes the salamander he watches through aquarium glass ("Axolotl"); another man becomes the inhabitant of an island that, at the story's beginning, he watches from a plane ("The Island at Noon" in All Fires the Fire).

Art, in Cortázar's view, is a particularly treacherous undertaking. The representation of reality becomes the actuality. Consider the terrifying "Instructions for John Howell" (in All Fires the Fire), in which an audience member is impressed unto the stage, as part of experimental theater, and becomes enmeshed in the play's secondary drama, one involving the actors themselves. The result of his interaction is that by the story's end he is outside the theater, running for his life. In "Blow Up," the act of printing and enlarging a photographic negative creates, within it, a second life, in which the printed images begin to take on their own animation. Or consider "A Leg of the Journey," in Unreasonable Hours. In this story, a woman stops in an art gallery in a rural town, and she becomes subsumed into the canvases she sees, until at the end she is trapped (though pleasantly, peacefully so) in a painting's timeless world.

Always in these stories the line between subject and object, perceiver and perceived, is thin and easily broken. Reality for Cortázar is a kind of flux of interchangeable parts. Indeed, his most famous novel, Hopscotch, can be read as an assemblage where each chapter can be joined to others in non-sequential combinations to produce different results. Another novel, 62: A Model Kit, presents a layered reality of "parts" without a binding story or sense of structure.

Yet is this magic? The characters in Cortázar's short stories are not aware of being influenced by magic; they operate under no particular "enchantment." They seem to accept the most outrageous situations as commonplace.

Recall, however, that in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the characters also accept the strangest occurrences. In the book's first paragraph, a giant magnet is dragged through town, causing nails to fly from beams, etc.. All of this is accepted as either exciting or annoying, but not as fantastic.

A similar attitude is found in Cortázar's stories, though one senses that his characters do not subsume the alteration of their world, but are too lost, confused, or weak to resist it. For example, the narrator in the story "Blow Up" wonders at the story's beginning how his tale is to be told, in the third or first person, as though he is already lost in the events that he is about to relate. In "Axolotl," the narrator begins by stating that he often goes to the Paris aquarium to contemplate the Axolotl. On the story's third sentence, he declares that he is one.

Certainly, Cortázar the author practices a sort of magic in terms of producing illusions by sleight of hand. One of the pleasures in reading his short stories is to observe the gradual way, sentence by sentence, even word for word, that he twists reality into something strange, complex, even sinister.

It is this sinister quality that also distinguishes the two authors. Generally speaking, the magic part of the world that García Márquez creates in One Hundred Years of Solitude is benevolent. It is the realism of his world, one of civil war and corporate exploitation, that contributes to the downfall of Macondo. With Julio Cortázar, the reality that dissolves is likely to carry with it assurances of position and place in the world, and leads us to face something strange and terrifying.

I guess at what is behind this aspect of circularity; I'm not sure what Cortázar is trying to tell us. The answer may not be one but many things. That we become what we contemplate, in ways literal for Cortázar's characters, but figuratively for us; or in the case of the artist, we become what we create -- consider Flaubert's identification with his character Emma Bovary. Or that the distances that separate us from each other, from our past and the world that surrounds us are not as great as they might appear.

The meaning of Cortázar's stories may lie beyond the scope of this essay. I don't seek to be exhaustive about his work here. Certainly there are many of his short stories which possess a surreal quality that does not fit the aspect of circularity discussed here. My assessment of him as a magic realist, though based on perhaps incomplete evidence, is that I find more magic than realism in the work I've examined.

In my opinion, to be a true magic realist, one needs a healthy balance of both elements, otherwise we are reading the work of a quirky realism -- Robert Coover's novel John's Wife or Joyce Carol Oates' family saga, Bellefleur, might serve as good examples.

Or else we are reading surrealism. This is where I'd place Cortázar's work.

But how much does such categorization matter, ultimately? I think it mostly irrelevant, given the enjoyment I've derived from reading Julio Cortázar, who I think of as a Twentieth Century master. Magic realist or not.


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