Beneath the apparent, calm calmness that the world presents us with, beneath the general air of restrained music, before sunrise and after sunset, even beneath the music of jazz, between the lines on a sheet of paper, there is violence. We do not know the hidden dangers lurking in each shadow, behind each smile. Storms are easy to behold, sometimes run away from. Thunder, lightning, the brazen act of treachery, the unrequited passion, the false love, the useless poem, the boring novel, the hidden malignancy and disappointing jobs and smokeless days, with all these one can live with and later die of; but it is the false veneer of civilized serenity, the lack of control over external shadows, the lurking danger at each step in this fading world that is grotesque.
Macabre and bizarre, well this is a way of describing this collection of short stories, improvisations and at best prose fragments by Julio Cortazar that defy description, that baffle imagination for they are really what I have seen no writer attempt before. Published as Historias de cronopios y de famas, I came across this 2 years ago in Borges' the library of Babel list. I have read it intermittently, when I want to remind myself of how poetry can still break and create melancholy, how imagination and creativity can save a dull and boring hour, of how bereft of everything life would be without literature, of how well Cortazar wrote. And it is this similar sense of dread and foreboding that I experienced while reading these stories or fragments that I mentioned in the beginning, that grotesque sense of humour, a black art.
Divided into 4 sections, the book starts with the Instruction manual, followed by unusual occupations, unstable stuff and ending in Cronopios and Famas. The instruction manual instructs on how to cry, how to sing, how to be afraid, how to comb the hair, how to kill a witch and wind a watch amongst others. Unusual occupations are short prose pieces including a hilarious piece called the loss and recovery of the hair. Unstable stuff has some fantastic passages and literary rarities like the the behaviour of mirrors on Easter island and this fantastically named story On tending to illustrate the uncertainty of the stability within which we like to believe we exist, or laws could give ground to the exceptions, unforeseen disasters, or improbabilities, and i still want to see you there. The book ends with Cronopios and famas, what a name, what writing, what imagination!
Cortazar claimed to have written this book for fun, and it is considered less important than his other works. However, I think these short and occasionally longer prose writings allow the uninitiated reader into this amazingly rich and imaginary world of Cortazar. There is humour, often dry and black, reflecting in an unglorified way the absurdities of everyday life but with such a heightened sense of invention and literary charm that one finds the game worth more than fun prose. I sense that the other way of describing this work is bizarre, out of ordinary, incomparably rich in a fantastic imagination that this very exaggerated dreamy imagination lifts this work into the heights of sublime literature. This is not just surrealistic prose but also a way, a pose, a smile, a cry and poetic license turned upside down.
The book begins thus, giving a taste of what to expect.......
The job of having to soften up the brick everyday, the job of cleaving a passage through the glutinous mass that declares itself to be the world, to collide every morning with the same narrow rectangular space, the same taste of the same toothpaste, the same sad houses across the street...............
tighten your fingers around a teaspoon, feel its metal pulse, its mistrustful warning. how it hurts to refuse a spoon, to say no to a door, to deny everything that habit has licked to a suitable smoothness. how much simpler to accept the easy request of the spoon, to use it, to stir the coffee.
In his on how to be afraid, Cortazar writes......
opening the door of the wardrobe to take out a shirt, an old almanac falls out which comes apart immediately, pages falling out and crumbling, and covers the white linen with millions of dirty paper butterflies.
Cronopios and famas ( a good link here) are imaginary creations of Cortazar, along with Esperanzas, first used in this book. he avoids giving them definite characteristics apart from describing them as indolent, naive, sensitive and idealistic in contrast to fa mas who are opposite and Esperanzas who are dull. In fact, the great novel 62: A Model Kit is dedicated to Cronopio Paul Blackburn, translator of Cortazar's few works. It is an amazing feat of imagination, for this is literary daring at its best. It also suggests something bizarre, outre, fantastical, out of the ordinary. Herein are described the behaviour of these fantastic creatures, their habits, dances, moods. how they travel, how they preserve memory ( here) and their songs.
One should never commit this sin of asking the point of these stories. That is a facile, puerile task. This book or collection showcases the talents of a literary giant, a bohemian poet, an artist, a great humorist, a lover of music, a tragedian and a master of sad music. The unimportant or academic question is....Is he Latin America's greatest writer?