When one hears the name Julio Cortázar, it is most likely in praise of his mastery of short fiction. Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes Macías, Cortázar is often cited as one of the key figures in the 1960’s ‘boom’ of Latin American Literature. Roberto Bolaño considered Cortázar a major influence on his widely acclaimed novel The Savage Detectives, as Cortázar was working nearly fifty years earlier in a style heavily influenced by French Symbolism and Surrealism. Pablo Neruda once said, “Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed.”
One of his most famous works, Hopscotch (Spanish: Rayuela) has been called an ‘open-ended anti-novel’, and allows readers the choice to approach the novel as a non-linear narrative. He spoke in depth with Jason Weiss of the Paris Review in a wonderfully intimate interview, sharing details of his process, influence, and political interests. You can read about his approach to the fantastic in relation to reality in his own words – a theme found throughout his work.
Cortázar worked as a teacher and translator in several schools outside of Buenos Aires, and it was there that one of his first pieces of fiction was published in a magazine edited by Borges. Unlike his stylistic contemporaries, Cortázar was a radical activist. He was briefly imprisoned after joining a protest in opposition of the Argentinian military dictator Juan Perón, encouraging his self-imposed exile to France where most of his works would go on to be published. Though living in Paris, he was deeply connected to the Latin American Liberation front, and as mentioned in the Paris Review interview, found it difficult to separate politics from his work. The royalties of his last books were donated directly to the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua–a country he would remain involved with for the remainder of his life. He has also cited the Cuban Revolution as the spark that ignited his interest in human rights issues facing Latin America, and was equally active in the political environs of Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina.
And throughout all of these happenings, Cortázar was also continuously writing poetry, which he chose to assemble for publication in 1984, the year of his death. Save Twilight: Selected Poems, number fifty-three in the City Lights Pocket Poet Series was translated by Stephen Kessler, and features a warm introduction to the author as not only a revolutionary (literary and political), but as an incredibly versatile poet. Cortázar’s poetry spans from love/hate nostalgia for his homeland to odes for lovers, composed in various structural forms. Rarely do we find an author whose contribution to literature matches his or her political accomplishments.
The one who leaves his country because he’s afraid,
he isn’t sure of what – the mouse inside the cheese,
the rope amid the mad, the scum on the soup.
Then he tries to swap himself like a trading card,
the hair he used to plaster in place with pomade in front of
he lets fall over his forehead, he unbuttons his shirt, switches
customs, wines and language.
He realizes, the wretch, that he’s doing okay, and sleeps
like a pussycat. He even changes his style, and he makes
who know nothing of his ridiculously domestic provincial
Every so often he asks himself how he could have waited
to leave the shoreless river, the strangling collars,
the Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and
A clean slate, sure, but careful:
one mirror is every mirror,
and the passport says you were born and you are
and white skin, straight-backed nose,
Buenos Aires, September.
He brushes off the fact that he can’t forget,
because that’s an art few master, what he wanted:
that alphabet soup with stars
which he’ll tirelessly sip
at countless tables in various hotels,
the very same soup, poor kid,
till the little fish in his ribcage takes a stand and says
I miss the Southern Cross
when thirst makes me raise my head
to drink your black wine midnight.
And I miss the streetcorners with their sleepy stores
where the air’s skin trembles with the smell of yerba.
To understand that it’s always there
like a pocket where every so often
my hand feels for change my penknife my comb
the tireless hand of some dark memory
counting its dead.
Southern Cross bitter mate.
And the voices of friends
getting used to others.
You see the Southern Cross
you breathe the summer with its smell of peaches,
and you walk at night
my little silent ghost
through that Buenos Aires,
always through that same Buenos Aires.