From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1983, Vol. 3.3
EPG:Let’s begin with some general questions. How would you characterize your writing within the context of a literary generation in Argentina and in Latin America?
JC: The question is somewhat ambiguous because there are many ways to belong to a generation. I suppose you are referring to a strictly literary generation. Let’s leave Latin America aside until later since the Argentine panorama is complicated enough. In order to understand generations you must have distanced yourself in time because while you are experiencing that generational context, you don’t realize it. I mean that when I began to write, or rather publish in 1950, I wasn’t aware of any generational context. I was able to discern some strengths, writers I admired in Argentina and others I detested; but now, twenty-five years later, I believe I’ll be able to say a few intelligent words about it. The first part of my work is situated along extremely intellectual lines, the short stories, Beastiary for example. It is rather logical to imagine that in the fifties I was inclined towards the most refined and cultured writers, and to some extent influenced by foreign literatures, that is European, above all English and French. It is necessary to mention Borges, at once, because fortunately for me, his was not a thematic or idiomatic influence but rather a moral one. He taught me and others to be rigorous, implacable in our writing, to publish only what was accomplished literature. It is important to point this out because, in that period, Argentina was very unkempt in literary matters. There was little rigor, little self-criticism. Someone as extra ordinary as Roberto Arlt, the opposite of Borges in every sense, was not at all self-critical. Perhaps for the best, since self-criticism might have rendered his writing sterile. His language is untidy, full of stylistic errors, weak. But it has an enormous creative force. Borges has less creative energy in that sense, but he compensates for it with an intellectual reflection of a quality and refinement that for me was unforgettable. And so I automatically leaned towards that hyper-intellectual bent in Argentina. But it is all ambivalent because at the same time I had discovered Horacio Quiroga and Roberto Arlt, populist writers. You know the division between the Florida and Boedo groups. I had also discovered those in Boedo. And what I called “force,” a moment ago, impressed me. So, for example, the whole “porteno” side of city life in the short stories of Bestiary, I owe—not as a direct influence but rather as rich themes—to Roberto Arlt. Because despite all that has been said about Borges’ Buenos Aires—a fantastic, invented Buenos Aires—that Buenos Aires does exist but it is far from being all that the city is. Arlt perceived things from below for cultural, vital and professional reasons and saw a Buenos Aires to live in and stroll through, to love in and suffer in, while Borges saw a Buenos Aires of mythic destinies, of a metaphysical mother and eternity. So you see, my place in that generation—which is not mine but the previous one—at the same time fulfills a kind of moral, ethical obedience to Borges’ great lesson, and a teluric, sensual, erotic (as you like) obedience to Roberto Arlt. There are many examples, of course, but this one should give you an idea of what I mean. Others in my generation followed similar paths at times, but I know of no one else who simultaneously encompassed those two poles. There were pseudo-Borgeseans who produced an imitative literature.
The worst one can do, as far as Borges is concerned, is try to imitate him. It would be like wanting to imitate Shakespeare. In Argentina, those who tried to copy Borges, with books full of labyrinths and mirrors and people dreaming they are dreamt by others—you know all those Borgesean themes—as far as I know, didn’t produce anything of value. On the other hand, those who tended towards a more populist approach, towards the Argentinian wan, like Arlt and Quiroga, there, many achieved extraordinary works. I would cite Juan Carlos Onetti’s case. He’s not Argentinian, but we make no distinctions between Uruguayans and Argentinians in literary matters. Quiroga was also Uruguayan. A man like Onetti, whose greatest early influence was William Faulkner, but, at the same time, the direct contact with the streets, the people, the men and women of Uruguay, had a personality that, in my opinion, made him one of the greatest novelists of Latin America. Onetti is a little older but we can be included in the same generation of those who were inclined towards realism and produced a more important work than those who sought the purely intellectual and fantastic side of Borgesean mythology. Unconsciously I ended up straddling the two sides because if you think about the short stories in Bestiary you will find what has concerned many critics and what everyone now knows, that my stories are, at once, very realistic and very fantastic. The fantastic is born of a very realistic situation, an everyday, routine episode with common people. There are no extraordinary characters like Borges’ Danes or Swedes or gauchos. No, my characters are children, youth, ordinary people; but the fantastic element suddenly appears. That was all completely subconscious for me. I’ve needed to read many critical studies to realize that. Really, I never know anything about myself; you critics are the ones who show me things, and then, I realize.
I’m going to tell you something, Evie. I don’t believe I’ve ever written anything intellectual. Some works lean in that direction; for example, Rayuela emerges from a concrete fact and the characters begin to talk, so they launch into theories. Well, you and I can also theorize now if we like. But it’s always on a secondary level. I wasn’t born for theorizing.
EPG: Before, you mentioned how to write short stories as if you exorcised them. Also you said you act almost like a medium. But many people can experience such sensations without writing short stories like “Las babas del diablo” (“Blow-Up”) or “Autopista del Sur” (“The Southern Thruway”) or “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”).
JC: That’s the great difference between the creation of fiction and the criticism of fiction. When I was young I respected the critics but I didn’t have a very good opinion of them. They seemed necessary, but to me creativity alone was of interest. I’ve changed a lot since then because, as some critics have studied my books, they’ve shown me a great deal that I’ve ignored about myself and my work. At times criticism is called a kind of secondhand creativity. That is, the short story author writes from a void while the critic begins with an already finished work. But that is also creativity because the critic has reserves, mental and intuitive powers that we authors do not possess. There is a sort of division of labor. The critic spends his time lamenting that he’s not a creator. Bruno complained he was not Johnny; but if I could speak for Johnny now, he would also complain about not being Bruno to some extent. I, myself, would like to be a kind of synthesis of the two, even for a day, for one day of my life, creator and critic. When I say creator, it is always with some embarrassment because it is a word loaded with Romantic significance from the nineteenth century; that is, the creator is a sort of minor god. I no longer believe that. The creator is a laborer like many others. There is no scale of values that places the creator above the critic. A great critic and a great author are absolutely on the same level.
EPG: With Historia de cronopios y de famas (Cronopios and Famas), and Rayuela, you begin to alter reality, to search for authenticity in life and literature, utilizing a good dose of humor and optimism.
JC: In the case of my books, altering reality is a desire, a hope. But it seems important to point out that my books are not written nor were experienced or conceived under the pretense of changing reality. There are people who write as a contribution to the modification of reality. I know that modifying reality is an infinitely slow and difficult undertaking. My books do not function in that sense. A philosopher develops a philosophical system convinced that it is the truth and will modify reality because he supposes he’s right. A sociologist establishes a theory. A politician also pretends to change the world. My case is much more modest. Let’s say Oliveira is speaking: let’s return to one of the constant themes in Rayuela. I am firmly convinced, each day more profoundly, that we are embarked on the wrong road. That is to say that humanity took the wrong path. I’m speaking, above all, of Western man because I know little about the Orient. We have taken an historically false road that is carrying us directly into a definite catastrophe, annihilation by whatever means—war, air pollution, contamination, fatigue, universal suicide, whatever you please. So in Rayuela, above all, there is that continuous feeling of existing in a world that is not what it should be. Here let me make an important parenthetical statement. There have been critics who have thought Rayuela to be a profoundly pessimistic book in the sense that it only laments the state of affairs. I believe it is a profoundly optimistic book because Oliveira, despite his quarrelsome nature, as we Argentinians say, his fits of anger, his mental mediocrity, his incapacity to reach beyond certain limits, is a man who knocks himself against the wall, the wall of love, of daily life, of philosophical systems, of politics.He hits his head against all that because he is essentially an optimist, because he believes that one day, not for him but for others, that wall will fall and on the other side will be the kibbutz of desire, the millennium, authentic man, the humanity he’s dreamt of but which had not been a reality until that moment. Rayuela was written before my political and ideological stand, before my first trip to Cuba. I realized many years later that Oliveira is a little like Lenin, and don’t take this as a pretense. It is an analogy in the sense that both are optimists, each in his own way. Lenin would not have fought so if he had not believed in man. One must believe in man. Lenin is profoundly optimistic, the same as Trotsky. Just as Stalin is a pessimist, Lenin and Trotsky are optimists. And Oliveira in his small, mediocre way is also. Because the alternative is to shoot oneself or simply keep on living and accepting all that is good in life. The Western world has many good things. So the general idea in Rayuela is the realization of failure and the hope to triumph. The book proposes no solutions; it limits itself simply to showing the possible ways of knocking down the wall to see what’s on the other side.
EPG: You’ve said that in Rayuela there is no theory or philosophy that attempts to change reality; nevertheless, one of the ways to do just that is not with philosophy but by means of the experience of an anguished man who doesn’t accept reality as it is. That serves much more as a model for youth than a textbook in philosophy.
JC: I’m going to tell you something I’ve already said to others. When I wrote Rayuela I thought I’d written a book for people my age, of my generation. When the book was published in Buenos Aires and read in Latin America, I was surprised to receive letters, hundreds of letters, and of each one hundred, ninety-eight were from very young people, even from adolescents in some cases, who didn’t understand the whole book. At any rate, they had reacted to the book in a way I’d never imagined when I wrote it. The great surprise for me was that people of my age, my generation, did not under stand anything. The first criticism of Rayuela was indignant.
EPG:They didn’t understand Historia de cronopias y de famas either.
JC: Of course, not at all. But Rayuela means more to me, in a certain sense, than the cronopios. The cronopios are a great game for me, my pleasure. Rayuela is not; it was a sort of metaphysical commitment, a kind of personal probe, besides. And then I discovered that Rayuela was destined for youth and not men of my age. I never would have imagined that when I wrote it. Why? Why was it the young who found something that impressed them, that made an impact on them? I believe it’s because there is no lesson in Rayuela. Young people don’t like to be given lessons. Adults accept certain ones; youngsters don’t. There they found their own questions, the everyday anguish of adolescence and early youth, the fact that they don’t feel comfortable in the world they live in, their parents’ world. And notice, that when Rayuela was published, there were no hippies yet, no “angry young men.” At that moment Osborne’s book appeared. But there was a generation that began to look at their parents and say to them, “You’re not right. You’re not giving us what we want. You are passing on an inheritance we don’t accept.” Rayuela only had a repertory of questions, issues, and anguish that youth felt in an amorphous fashion because it was not intellectually equipped to write about them or think of them and it found a book that contained them all. Rayuela contained that whole world of dissatisfaction, of a search for the “kibbutz of desire,” to use Oliveira’s metaphor. That explains how the book was important to the young people rather than to the old.
EPG: It is for that very reason that the book acts as a “traveling companion,” a kindred soul. That’s why it seems so optimistic to me.
JC: Of course, I also feel that way, although there are those who see only negative aspects in it. Oliveira is very negative, but he is so because deep down he’s searching for the kibbutz.
EPG: The book is not negative. There is no way that Oliveira can leap from the window onto the hopscotch board.
JC: He doesn’t leap. No, no. I’m sure he doesn’t.
JC: Of course, completely sure.
EPG: Knowing that, how can one say the book is pessimistic?
JC: But there are critics who have said that the book “ends finally with the suicide of the protagonist.” Oliveira does not commit suicide.
EPG:He is not capable of doing that, but he is capable of living.
JC: He ends up discovering to what extent Traveler and Talita love him. He cannot kill himself after that. He was waiting for Traveler because he thought Traveler was coming to kill him. But the conversation they have proves to him that it isn’t so. Besides, Talita is downstairs. The enemies are the other stupid ones like the hospital director. Oliveira doesn’t jump, he remains at the window thinking that all that’s left is to simply jump, but I know he does not do it. But I couldn’t say it, Evie.
EPG:No, to say it would destroy the book.
JC: Destroy everything. To say he doesn’t kill himself is to destroy the book. The idea is that you or any other reader must decide. So you decide, the same as I, that Oliveira does not commit suicide. But there are readers who decide he does. Well, too bad for them. The reader is the accomplice, he has to decide. Of course, it is a very optimistic book. Yes. It is as optimistic as Libro de Manuel (A Manual for Manuel) on a much more historic, limited level. Allow me a parenthetical pause. Libro de Manuel was written, as they say in English, “against time.” There was the practical problem of fighting for and collaborating in the struggle concerning political prisoners and torture in Argentina. So I had to finish that book at a certain moment. Therefore the entire second part is far from being what I could have written if I’d had two or three years longer, as with Rayuela. I had to complete it hurriedly and I know very well which parts are not well conceived. Do you understand? That may contribute to the fact that some of Andres final decisions are not clear. There I relied on the intuitive reader.
EPG: You can clearly see what you intended. It is a book with a great deal of political commitment.
JC: Of course.
EPG: One sees right away, but since I’m weighted down with your other books, I cannot see how Cortazar can move so easily from his bourgeois world to something totally different. And Andres does that. Also “you-know-who” and Marcos are one single character along with Andres in varied shapes, Lonstein also, and you too, like one of those dismembered dolls. One arm here, another there. . .
JC: Very good, exactly.
EPG: I cannot see you solely in your political dimension.
JC: No, I don’t see myself that way either.
EPG: That’s why I told you that someone could read the book and say that it is a propaganda book. But it is far from being that.
JC: Yes, I’m glad you see it. I knew you would. Listen, at the end of the book, the fact that I gathered the documents into two columns, torture in Argentina and torture in Vietnam, that’s deliberate. But not for the reasons some people think. On the one hand it is, of course, the stand of a Latin American man of the left against the North American system. No doubt about that. But, that’s not all. I did it that way because certain Latin Americans are completely wrong to think that all that’s Latin American is good from the start and all that’s North American is bad. In certain circumstances, mechanisms repeat themselves inexorably. In Latin America, the torturers are my enemies, our enemies; but they are Argentinians, Bolivians, Brazilians, the people of Latin America. Being Latin American doesn’t give you a patent on goodness, on quality. Some are good and others are bad; some here, some there. So the two columns not only show that the Latin American gorillas are the same as those in the Pentagon, but something more profound about mankind.
EPG: The last image in that novel is impressive, when Lonstein is cleaning the corpse. I ask myself how many different meanings it could have. Because you never seem to end a work with a concrete situation that the reader can easily grasp.
JC: You’re absolutely right, and I’m going to tell you something else I hope doesn’t scandalize you. I don’t know if you’re sure of who that dead person is. Me neither. The end is so open to different possibilities that he can be Marcos, probably Marcos, but also “you-know who.”
EPG: Or one of the torture victims.
JC: Also, even though from a practical point of view it’s unlikely they’d send a tortured body to the morgue.
EPG: But the scene comes after the news and leaves you with the impression of the torture victim. I thought of Marcos, “you-know-who,” the tortured bodies and symbolically the life of a bourgeois, but even Andres will never leave all that behind.
JC: All you’ve said pleases me and offers me some compensation for having left the end open. Your having found so many possible options is exactly what I want for my readers. In that corpse each one will probably see someone else as a kind of symbol or synthesis. I wrote that last page in a hurry. At the end of my books there is always an anguished pace that obliges me to finish like some enormous cataclysmic force. I wrote that page with haste. I know instinctively when I’m finished. Some hours later, when I read the part about the corpse in the morgue, there were two references that made me think of something I’d not considered when I was writing it, nor have you thought of it, either: the photograph of Che Guevara that’s been so well publicized internationally. The head is slightly elevated, the eyes are not completely shut, and there’s a glimmer of light. Lonstein tells him, look at me all you want, it doesn’t matter. There’s something in the description of that dead man that is also Che. So I am adding another option to all the others. But it wasn’t deliberate because that would have been too cheap.
EPG: Contrary to what some novelists experience, it seems the final pages of a novel are not difficult for you to write.
JC: Only the beginning is difficult for me , very difficult. Proof of the matter is that some of my books didn’t really begin where they finally do for the reader. Rayuela, for example, began in the middle. The first chapter I wrote was about Talita aloft on the boards. I hadn’t the least idea of what I’d write before or after that section. The beginning of a book is always very difficult for me. For example, I began 62: modelo para armar (62: A Model Kit) three times. It was the hardest book for me to write because the rules of the game were very tough and I wanted to respect them. I didn’t have much freedom in that book. I had another kind of liberty that appeared later on, but not at the beginning. I must have mentioned what happened with “El perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”) . It was practically a miracle that story was written. It would have been finally logical for it to have been lost forever. I’ll tell you the story. In Paris, when I read the news of Charlie Parker’s death, I discovered that he was the character I’d been looking for. I’d thought of a painter, a writer, but that wasn’t appropriate because I wanted the character of the pursuer to have a very limited intelligence, a little like Oliveira also, that is an average man, even a mediocre man, but down deep not really mediocre because he has a kind of personal grandeur or genius. An intellectual character starts at once to think brilliantly, like a Thomas Mann character. When Charlie Parker died, I realized (knowing about many aspects of his life) that he was my character, a man of limited mental capacity but with a sort of genius for something, in this case, music. I invented his metaphysical search. So I sat down at the typewriter to write and turned out the whole part that begins when Bruno goes one night to the hotel to talk with Johnny. Then I had a mental block. I didn’t know what to do. So those fifteen or twenty pages remained shoved away in a drawer for months. I went to Geneva to work for the United Nations, and those pages were among the papers I took with me. All alone in a pension one Sunday, bored, I began to look at those papers.”What the hell is this?” I said to myself. I reread those fifteen or twenty pages all at once, sat down at the typewriter, and in two days I finished the story. But I could have lost those pages. That should answer your question a little about beginnings and endings. The endings are not difficult for me; they almost write themselves. There’s a kind of pace. The whole ending of Rayuela that takes place in the insane asylum was written in forty-eight hours in an almost hallucinatory state—if I must say so myself.
EPG: During those long trips, have you had many other experiences that have been useful in your books?
JC: Less than you would imagine. For example, if you’ve just finished reading Prosa del observatorio (Prose from the Observatory) you’ve just seen one of those experiences. The two Jai Singh observatories at Jaipur and Delhi left me beguiled. Four years later that impression was converted into a book. Since the time when I saw those two observatories I felt like writing. And I believe I took some three hundred photographs of the observatories because I had the desire to write a text to accompany the photos. Finally I was able to do that.
EPG: Besides monuments, and memories of them, one can also see in 62 your adventures as an interpreter, the facility you have for combining places and periods analogically.
JC: It is the result of my trips. As you’ve noticed, I am profoundly international. I am absolutely the opposite of the writer, most of all the Latin American writer, who likes to stay in his own country, in his own corner and produce his work from those surroundings: the case of Onetti, for example, who’s never moved from Uruguay, or Rulfo from Mexico, or almost never. There’s a long list. In my case it is not so. And I believe Jules Verne is to blame. Since childhood, travel has been an objective in life. When I was ten years old I told my mother that I wanted to be a sailor. Since I was a somewhat sickly child (I had asthma), and besides it was expensive in Argentina to begin a career as a sailor (we were poor), my mother decided it would be better for me to be a teacher. And she told me that quite frankly. Well, I accepted that. I couldn’t do otherwise. Nor was I so bent upon that other career because, had it been so, I would have run away to be a sailor. No, it was just a childhood whim that came from the desire to travel. Well, later on I was able to accomplish that desire without being a sailor.
EPG: When you write, how do you choose the genre?
JC: I don’t. Before I begin, I have a general idea of what I want and I know automatically it has to be a short story. Or I know it is the first step towards a novel. But I don’t deliberate over it. The idea from which the short story is to be born already has the shape of a short story, its limits. Even long stories like “Reunion” (“Meeting”) or “Las babas del diablo.” I knew they were not novels but short stories. On the other hand, I sense at times that some elements begin to coalesce: they are much broader and more complex and require the novelistic form. 62 is a good example of that case. At first I began with a few very confused notions: the idea of that psychic vampirism that is later translated into the character of Helene. The idea of Juan as a character. Immediately, I under- stood that that was not a story, that it had to be developed as an extended novel. And that’s when I thought of chapter 62 in Rayuela and said to myself that this was the opportunity to try to apply it in practice to see if it could work. To try to write a novel in which psychological elements did not occupy center stage but rather the characters would be dominated by what I called a “figure” or a constellation. And they would react by doing things without knowing they were moved by other forces.
EPG: If you could save only five books from a fire that would consume all other books in the world, which ones would you pick?
JC: That’s the kind of question you cannot answer while the tape recorder is on.
EPG: Should we turn it off?
JC: No, because then the answer will be too pat, too well thought out. You say books, I don’t know; I think, for example, that one of the five works that I would like to save is a poem, a poem by Keats. Do you understand?
JC: One of them.
EPG: Which one?
JC: Any one of the ones I love, the great odes: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Ode to a Nightingale” or “To Autumn,” the great moments of Keats’s maturity. And while we’re talking about poetry, I’d like to save the Duino Elegies by Rilke. But five is an absurd number.
EPG: I know it’s an absurd number and it’s very difficult, but I’d like to know now, right now.
JC: OK. There’s a book of prose that I’d save, Ulysses. I think Ulysses is somehow the sum of universal literature. That would be one of the five books. I really should have punished you for this kind of question. Do you know how Oscar Wilde answered? They were more generous with him. They asked which ten books he would save. And Oscar Wilde answered, “Look, up till now I have only written six.”
EPG: You’re very humble to have not included any of your books.
JC: I don’t have to, I always carry them within me.
EPG: And what about Marx?
JC: I was thinking of literature. Of course, when you said books, I should have thought, from the historic point of view, of course, Marx and Plato’s dialogues.
EPG: You already have four of five. And now I’m almost ashamed to ask if you would have chosen the same books ten years ago when you wrote Rayuela?
JC: Yes, except perhaps for Marx. Because when I wrote Rayuela problems of an ideological or political nature didn’t interest me as they did afterwards. Perhaps the only exception would be Marx.
EPG: Nowadays which authors interest you most?
JC: It may seem strange to you but these last years, more than pure literature or fiction, I read books on anthropology, on certain kinds of contemporary psychoanalysis or psychiatry that fascinate me because I believe they are filled with possibilities as interesting as those of literature. And something I’ve done all my life and will always do is read poetry. I read vast quantities of poetry. No one asks me, no one interviews me or questions me about poetic themes, basing themselves on the principle that I’m not a poet but a prose writer. Nevertheless poetry is absolutely necessary for me and if there is some sort of nostalgia that I possess, it is that my work is not exclusively poetic.
EPG: But you include much poetry in your prose.
JC: Of course, and moreover I think part of my prose is thought out and conceived poetically, for example, Prosa del observatorio, not entirely because it is interspersed with those passages. But I believe it is a poem, above all the last part. It is very lyrical.
EPG: When you say you have to read poetry, that it is a necessity, which poets do you refer to?
JC: Since my youth I’ve leaned towards poetry in English, and now I still prefer poetry in English to any other, including French poetry that I have read with a greater sense of depth because I know French better than English. Nevertheless I have the impression that English is the language of poetry. Since my early years I felt profoundly touched by the English Romantics. Later I discovered medieval English poetry and I began to read anthologies. And later on I discovered Shakespeare, whom I’ve read more than once in English. Every once in a while I read him again, not all of him, but the works I prefer. Poetry in the English language is what really counts for me.
EPG: You like to compare the art of writing to boxing, to jazz and to photography. They’re your favorite hobbies. When did you become interested in them?
JC: What I do is pretty deliberate. For example, when I use metaphors or comparisons. In Latin America there is still the Romantic and somewhat quintessential tendency to search for metaphors and similes, the most noble comparisons possible. Now one can no longer compare someone to a swan but if one could, he would. Very early in life, I felt that one ought to approach the everyday elements in life that could be filled with beauty. A good boxing match is just as beautiful as a swan. So why not utilize it within a system of comparisons, within a scale of values. That’s why, almost from the start, there are many references of that sort in my books. It is purposely in order to desacralize, to bring literature down to earth because it should also have its feet on the ground. “High” and “low” are references in a Western scale of values, but at this moment they are changing and may already have changed for many people. When I was very young and began to work and had some money to buy a very poor camera, I began to take photos in a very systematic way, trying to perfect my technique. Later, my second camera was a little better. With it I took good pictures. I don’t know how to explain to you the reason for that interest. Down deep I think it was a literary one. Photography is sort of a literature of objects. When you take a photo, you make a decision. You frame some things and eliminate others. A good photographer is one who knows how to frame things better. And besides he knows how to choose by chance and there’s where surrealism comes into play. It has always seemed marvelous to me that someone can photograph two or three incongruous elements, for example, the standing figure of a man who, by some effect of light and shade projected onto the ground, appears to be a great black cat. On a profound level, I am producing literature, I am photographing a metaphor: a man whose shadow is a cat. I think I came to photography by way of literature.
EPG: So that for you photography holds a certain relationship to literature with regard to your approach to reality and perspective.
JC: Yes. And after, it became a way of completing certain texts of mine like Ultimo Round (The Last Round), where many photos are placed intentionally so that the reader may complete the selection with a visual image. The idea of collage—photo and text—fascinates me. If I had technical means to print my own books, I believe I would keep on making collage-books.
EPG: Can you choose one of these two sentences to describe Cortazar? “To live is to write” or “to write is to live?”
JC: “To live is to write,” of course not. As far as “to write is to live” is concerned, it is somewhat accurate. Writing is living a part of life, in my case a very, very important part, probably the most important, but not all of my life. I’m not one of those writers whose vocation takes over so that everything else lacks importance. I believe this was the case with Balzac, to some extent, and perhaps also with Vargas Llosa. He says so: to live, Vargas Llosa needs only a room, a table, a typewriter and to be left in peace with a lot of paper.
EPG: What would happen to you if you couldn’t write?
JC: I don’t know, I don’t know.
EPG: You’d be like the man in your short story who loses his head but they cannot bury him until suddenly he regains all his senses.
JC: Of course. If I were living in a country where they prohibited me from writing or if I were a prisoner and they gave me neither paper nor pencil, I don’t know. I can be very lazy about writing and spend long periods of time without writing anything, and I don’t feel worse for it. I do other things. I read, for example.
EPG: Do the nightmares and exorcisms emerge in a different form?
JC: Probably, no doubt.
EPG: In Libro de Manuel, there’s a long conversation between Marcos and Andres about women. Andres says that enthusiasm is masculine, especially for adults because “everyone knows that childhood is preserved better in men than in women.” Later Marcos says that he wants women to make him feel more himself all the time. Would you comment on this view of the woman-child, or the doll that man can play with to make himself feel happy?
JC: I don’t accept that notion of a woman-child at all, neither personally nor in my character’s name. Now I’m speaking also for Marcos. On the contrary, Marcos and I like very adult women. It is the idea of maturity, of being an adult that needs to be explored. What Marcos or Andres is saying is that man has more of a capacity than woman to be an adult and at the same time to preserve a certain childlike attitude towards life. A positive attitude, an enthusiasm, a sense of play, of what is gratuitous, of spending hours and hours trying to reassemble a small watch that broke because he feels like it, when he could bring it to the watch repairman on the corner. And that one sees very seldom in the female attitude.
EPG: Nevertheless, when you create ideal women in your novels, like the Maga, she knows how to play.
JC: And Ludmilla, also. But that’s why they’re ideal, that’s why they fascinate me and Oliveira and Marcos. Juan’s lover Tell, for example, is a character of minor significance, and yet to me she is charming and I treat her with great sympathy because she’s a kind of playful cat that makes life happy and at the same time she’s quite mature. She’s no child.
EPG: Do you realize you’ve just contradicted yourself
EPG: Yes. Really, you and Marcos are both looking for this woman-child, the woman who, like man, can preserve that childlike element, can play, like the Maga and Tell . . .
JC: Of course, women who are capable of enthusiasm the same as men. I believe that in general man is more capable of enthusiasm than woman. I’m speaking in absolutely general terms. But later figures such as Ludmilla and Maga appear who surpass men in their capacity for enthusiasm. And precisely because of that, they attract men. Marcos evidently rejects passive women and that’s why he falls in love with Ludmilla. That’s what Maga has, too, that possibility of marvelling at a dry leaf on the ground, because to her it is much more important than any other thing.
EPG: These women are not at all intellectual.
JC: Not at all.
EPG: Ludmilla is not even going to join the group for political reasons but because it is absurd and she simply wants to.
EPG: That is to say, that she doesn’t even possess the adult capacity of man to be intelligent while still preserving a childlike capacity.
JC: No, but watch out now because coincidence, or something I feel, has made those two characters lack intelligence but I don’t think that is axiomatic. I know and admire many women who are highly intelligent and fabulously enthusiastic. One of my best friends in France is the novelist Christine Rochefort. She’s a super-intellectual and at the same time has a tremendous vitality. That’s the ideal, perfection, but you don’t see it very much.
EPG: In your novels men are very often capable of the two tendencies, or they search for the two, while women never do. They are like Maga and Ludmilla, on the one hand, or the exact opposite, like Helene.
EPG: That’s very interesting that the two tendencies you allow for your male characters are not visible in the female ones: the preoccupation with a profound intellectual search in life and also an ingenuous approach to reality that is typical of a child.
JC: I suppose that’s due to the fact that I’m a man and besides Latin American. In that sense I am very self-critical. I believe that “machismo” influences all that. That my pursuers, the characters who search, are always men. They are often motivated by extraordinary women but these women are not the ones who are searching. That is true. Yes.
EPG: The characters that motivate those men are always such ideals that, in reality, few of them exist in this world.
JC: I don’t believe that, because at any rate Maga existed even though she was not exactly the way she is in the book. But she had a profound influence on my personal life during my first years in Paris. Maga was just like her; no, she was no ideal creation, not at all.
EPG: But there are not many like her.
JC: You have to be careful with such a statement. All I can say is that I haven’t found any. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Perhaps if I moved in different circles, in the theatre or the movies. I’m not so sure.
EPG: Do you believe it’s difficult to develop a character of a sex or race that differs from your own? That I would be able to write a book about a Black protagonist, that you can write one about a woman?
JC: Those are two problems, one genetic and sexual, the other cultural and racial. It seems to me that a writer who knows her profession, if she is female, can create magnificent male characters. There is proof in literature. And if he’s male, he can create unforgettable female characters. Remember the famous sentence by Flaubert, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.” It expresses conviction that being male or female doesn’t prohibit him from creating a great character. On the sexual level, I don’t think there’s any problem. I believe I’m capable of creating female characters and of being female while that character is living in my typewriter. But I wouldn’t be able to imagine a Black character because there a racial and cultural context comes into play. If he’s an African Black, one who lives there, I haven’t the slightest idea of his world view. Even less so if he is a North American Black. No, I can read James Baldwin and understand many things but not to the point where I can create a Black character or a Chinese one.
EPG: I’m going to ask you something else that has to do with what you’ve just said. I noticed that in the erotic scenes in your novels, you almost exclusively describe the women’s erotic reactions. Is that a reaction you are describing from a man’s point of view?
JC: Well, that’s my destiny.
EPG: But you almost never describe the man in this way, always the woman. Now in your poetry, once in a while you do pay attention to the man. It seems to me much more interesting to describe the man’s reaction from the man’s point of view.
JC: I don’t know. We’re getting into a very complex territory, eroticism. There the answers are very individualistic, each one in his own way. One knows that by talking to women. There are men whose erotic conduct is profoundly egoistic. They care very little about the erotic reaction of the woman. The woman is a sort of erotic object that serves for a man’s pleasure and what counts is the progress, the extent and the variants of the man’s pleasure. In my case, it’s much more complete. Of course, my own eroticism interests me because that’s how I arrive at a general idea of eroticism. But the companion in that act, the woman, is just as or more important than I am. Her reactions are fundamental to me. I sacrifice all egoism, I can even diminish my pleasure in order to multiply hers. Something other men don’t do or even think about. I suppose it’s the same with women. There must be women who are interested only in their own pleasure and so the man is the mechanical factor that sets off that pleasure. But there are women whose real pleasure is giving man pleasure at the same time they experience it. And it seems to me that is the height of eroticism because, there, invention and double fantasy are born. In my literary eroticism the sadistic element is very present. That’s evident, and one ought not be hypocritical about it. It’s well-known that since Baudelaire, there is no eroticism without sadism, present or absent, conscious or unconscious. There is a very mysterious reaction which no one has yet explained between pleasure and pain, at which moment pain is converted into pleasure, or pleasure carries a measure of pain. These are the sado-masochistic elements studied by Freud. Evidently that sadistic component of my eroticism is very strong. One notices that in many erotic scenes in my books.
EPG: You describe the man’s reaction but only by saying “I draw you, I create you.” Juan once says to Tell, “I think I made you into an object,” and another character who is really like Juan but much younger, Austin, says almost the same words to Celia. That’s really egoistic love, a very egoistic desire. So, on the one hand you say the woman’s reaction is important but on the other, you create characters that do not justify your feelings.
JC: I don’t know. That could be a defect in writing, the fact that I don’t manage to transmit all I’d like to. Don’t forget that in Libro de Manuel, one of the themes is the problem of the Spanish language in communicating the erotic experience. A great deal of taboos immediately arise, so even a writer as liberated as I am feels a bit dirty saying them, and talking about certain kinds of things. You know when I was reviewing the proofs of Libro de Manuel, I was tempted to throw out three or four of the erotic pages but later I scolded myself for being a coward and I left them in. Because when I read them, as if I were the reader, they gave me a very uneasy feeling. I’m referring concretely to the last scene between Andres and Francine. And how curious because the last scene from The Last Tango in Paris by Bertolucci, the one that’s been talked about all over the world, the last erotic scene is exactly the same as the last erotic scene in Libro de Manuel. So much so that when people began to read it in Buenos Aires, since they don’t pay attention to dates, they thought that I’d seen the movie and I’d used it. But of course the movie came out here one year after I had finished writing Libro de Manuel. I don’t even know Bertolucci nor does he know me. But in any case, it’s a curious symmetry that in a movie and a book where erotic language of a visual and a written nature is carried to its ultimate consequences, at the end there should be such an extraordinary coincidence.
EPG: One of your encounters. To what do you attribute the sadistic nature of the eroticism in your books?
JC: Not in my books, in eroticism itself. I believe that eroticism always has a more or less controlled sadistic element.
JC: You shouldn’t ask me. Ask Sigmund Freud, he’s the one who’s studied the matter the most.
EPG: You believe a lot in Freud. I don’t.
JC: I don’t believe, I verify in myself the truth of his affirmations. I feel that man, like all animals, has a certain amount of aggressiveness that he exercises not only in his fight to survive, but also sexually. I suppose that in the Dark Ages eroticism was limited to direct sexual aggression, violation which gave way to reproduction, but without tenderness, love, feelings that were to be born later on in humanity. There’s a book that was read a lot about thirty years ago written by Denis de Rougement called Love in the Western World. It is the history of how love as a feeling came into its own in the Western World. He contends that in Greco-Latin antiquity, love was unknown, but sex was known. Reread any book about Greek society and you’ll find the following. The young Greek man marries to have children; later on his wife remains in the house, in a kind of gynoecium practically without participating in political life. So they have no basis for communication or conversation and the young man habitually had homosexual passions. One need only read the chronicles of Socrates and Alcibiades. If he was capable of love, it was for the young boy, but not for a young woman. For her, he had an erotic attraction and responsibility for the reproductive function. Love as a sentiment was born with the troubadours in the Middle Ages. At that time, an already pre-Romantic idea of love began, and later on in Romanticism, love let loose as a passion, as it is for all practical purposes today. That is, a sentiment that has been added to sexuality. Be careful, it’s necessary to distinguish between eroticism and love, pure sexuality, eroticism and love. There is an eroticism without love. It’s difficult to find love without eroticism, with the exception of certain kinds of spiritual love where the word “love” is not heard. But eroticism can exist without love.
EPG: But do you think it is possible for people to reach a certain level of respect or love for one another in which the sadistic element in eroticism is suppressed because somehow or other egoism is suppressed?
JC: That’s the ideal of eroticism within the context of love. I believe that in a couple who love their erotic relationship which contains a minimum of personal egoism, that each thinks of the happiness or the pleasure of the other as much as his own. So that there the sadistic component is left somewhat behind, reduced to the minimum.
EPG: But still there.
JC: Yes, always there. Always.
EPG: I think you’re much more pessimistic in your dealings with erotic and amorous relationships than you are in your treatment of politics.
JC: Well, perhaps not pessimistic, because we give a totally negative connotation to sadism, when it is not so completely negative. Sadism exists in man’s capacity for aggression, and that aggressive nature has a positive side. It gives him a means to fight back, a strength.
EPG: At the expense of another person, man or woman?
JC: When it is pure sadism, yes, at the expense of another person, and because of that it is unacceptable to me.
EPG: I’d like to know a little about Historia de cronopios y de famas. It is possible to note a marked tendency toward a serious approach to reality after Cronopios until Libro de Manuel, despite the collage-books Vuelta al dia en ochenta mundos (Around the Day in Eighty Worlds) and Ultimo Round. Is the smiling Cortazar of Cronopios gone forever?
JC: I don’t think so. You have to distinguish between a rather ingenuous joy and humor. I believe that I will always try to preserve humor as long as I live because it is a very serious, prime ingredient in all good literature. But if what you mean is that the themes of a humoristic nature are fewer since then, perhaps that is so, but only in part.
EPG: The gratuitous joy of Cronopios is not the same as the play element in Libro de Manuel. In the latter, the game is committed politically and nowhere do I see happiness presented in such a disengaged manner as in Cronopios. Perhaps it is the sort of book that is written only once.
JC: Besides, it is a book that ought not be written again for ethical reasons. Once I had finished the whole section about the cronopios, some twenty anecdotes more or less, the episodes kept on coming to me. There are even certain ways of saying things with certain stock phrases that kept on repeating themselves in a very comic style. I refused to keep on writing because it was becoming too easy, too routine. So I decided to bring the cycle of the cronopios to a halt. I continued to use the ideas and the character of the cronopios in other texts. But I deliberately didn’t write those stories. Yes, that cycle has ended.
EPG: The other day you told me that the book gave you great pleasure as you wrote it.
JC: Yes, Cronopios is the most lucid book I have ever written, really a game, a fascinating game, very amusing, almost like a tennis match. Do you understand? There was no serious intention. Later the critics saw a division in the “cronopios,” “famas” and “esperanzas,” and an ironic intent to classify humanity. Yes, this does exist, but it was not deliberate, at any rate it was done with no malice.
EPG: Even though I know you will not like this interpretation, for me the book is very serious because it shows us that we ought to try to be less like “famas” and “esperanzas” and more like “cronopios,” who simply have more fun. We are too logical.
JC: I agree, but that seriousness that you see in the book is something the reader discovers and puts there. It was not my intention when I wrote the book.
EPG: Do the various sections of the book propose a unified whole or were they written at different times?
JC: In very different times. I wrote “Cronopios and Famas” in Paris in 1952, more or less. I had bought a used mimeograph machine about then. So I was having a good time and since I had a lot of free time (unlike now, unfortunately), I dedicated it to making small, private editions of poems and other texts. I turned out a small edition of Historias de cronopios y de famas. Later in Italy I wrote “Instruction Manual” as a separate thing. Later on in Buenos Aires I wrote “Unusual Occupations” and also in Italy, “Unstable Stuff.” They were all completely independent of one another. One day in Buenos Aires, Francisco Porrua, who is the editorial consultant for Sudamericana Publishing Company and a good friend, read “Cronopios and Famas” in that small, mimeographed form and said to me, “I’d like to publish this book but it is too short, don’t you have some other things?” So I looked among my papers and the other sections turned up. I realized that although they were different, the totality of the parts formed a unified book. A formal type of unity, in the first place, because they are all short texts. So I put them in order to make a book that would be a normal size.
EPG: Would you describe the genesis of some of the neologisms and unusual acceptations you give to certain words like “catala” and “fama” and “espera”?
JC: Yes, let’s begin with the word “cronopio,” which came to me in a visual form as I saw it at first as a kind of globe that floated in the air. Later on some critics sought a very erudite explanation for the word in the idea of time, but it has nothing at all to do with that. And “esperanzas” and “famas” occurred to me that same way. As far as dancing “tregua” and “catala” is concerned, it was a question of “swing” in the sentence, in the words. They are invented words, just like “jabberwocky.”
EPG: Many consider Rayuela to be the height of your work and that after such a book it would not be possible to achieve anything better. Now, after having written more works and after about ten years, what would you say about that comment?
JC: It’s not the kind of comment I like very much, because deep down, every thing is a question of perspective. Ten years from the time when Rayuel was published (today makes exactly ten years), it is already a big boy. I agree with the critics. If you were to ask me, ‘Which of your books has meant more to you?” I would answer Rayuela. But the world is moving along at a vertiginous pace and I would like to know if twenty years from now literature will still be written on this planet or if it will be substituted by some audio-visual system. I don’t know. I’d like to know what the perspective will be twenty years from now. I’ve read a lot of comparative literature from years ago and I’ve seen to what extent the critics have erred in their assessment of books by certain authors. Five or ten years after the publication of a book, they thought book H was a masterpiece and all the others by that author were inferior. But twenty-five years later, book H went downhill and another, by that same author, that seemed less important, suddenly took on new significance. So there is relativity and a changing perspective. But, now, ten years after, yes, I believe Rayuela is the best. If I had to take one of my books with me to the desert island, I’d take along Rayuela.
EPG: Rayuela rather than the short stories?
JC: Yes, yes. Well, if you take the short stories in their entirety as a sort of a great cycle . . . no, I’d take Rayuela!
EPG: You’re less fantastic than I had thought. Don’t comment on that!
JC: No. No comment.
EPG: What influence has Rayuela had on Latin American writers?
JC: I’m not afraid to say things that many of my fellow writers will immediately interpret as proof of my vanity because in Latin America one of the many taboos that still must be conquered is false modesty. It’s supposed to be good manners to be modest, and of course, to refrain from saying certain things clearly. I’m not modest nor am I vain. But I have a good idea of who I am and of what I’ve accomplished. So I can say that Rayuela has profoundly altered a good part of Latin American fiction in the last ten years. The impact was enormous on the young people who began to write in those years. The influence has been good and bad. The negative repercussions were like those from the Borges’ imitators. Many little “rayuelas” have been published all over the place, consciously or unconsciously, using procedures like those in Rayuela. Most of it is very mediocre. On the other hand, there was another kind of influence, a sort of liberation from prejudices, from taboos on the level of language. Adan Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal had already been a great liberator of the Argentinian language. I feel that Rayuela has also contributed a lot to that. It has made people take off their tie to write.
EPG: It has also been mentioned that the best parts of Rayuela are found in specific episodes that are almost like short stories. I call them “happenings,” in my book about you and surrealism. They are the chapters like the one about Rocamadour’s death. Do you think your long apprenticeship as a short-story writer served you well in these scenes or is there another reason for their success?
JC: Probably my profession as a short-story writer was valuable in the sense that it enabled me to narrate a long episode that had certain unity. But contrary to the many readers who have a passion for these chapters in Rayuela and who remember them most, I like them least, because Rayuela was purposely designed to destroy that notion of the hypnotic story. I wanted a reader to be free, as free as possible. Morelli says it all the time, that the reader has to be an accomplice and not a passive reader (“lector hembra”). In those chapters I allowed myself to be carried away a little by the drama, by the narration; I betrayed myself. I realized later on that the readers had become hypnotized by the intensity of those episodes. I would prefer those chapters didn’t exist in that way. My idea was to make the action progress and to stop it exactly at the moment in which the reader would be trapped, in order to then give him a kick so as to make him return objectively to view the book from the outside, from another dimension. That was the plan. Evidently I was not totally successful. But from that point of view, I like those chapters the least.
EPG: Nevertheless, you told me that the chapter about Talita balancing on the boards was the first one that you wrote.
JC: Of course, and the explanation is quite simple. It was the first one because at that moment I hadn’t the slightest idea yet of what the book would be like later on nor what my intentions would be. Morelli had not yet been born. He arrived later. Then I began to write a novel.
EPG: Now that you’ve mentioned the “lector hembra,” the passive reader, would you like to repeat what you told me last night?
JC: Yes, I ask you women to forgive me for having used such a “machista” expression so typical of Latin American underdevelopment. And you ought to put that in your interview. I did it innocently and I have no excuses; but when I began to hear opinions of my friends who are women readers, who insulted me cordially, I realized that I had done something stupid. I should have written “passive reader” and not “female reader,” because a woman doesn’t have to be continually passive; she is in certain circumstances, but not in others, the same as a “macho.”
EPG: Would you care to make a comment about the engravings and medieval designs that appear in La vuelta al dia en ochenta mundos?
JC: I don’t know if you have the same feeling. The Middle Ages possess many fascinating characteristics that are expressed very well in engravings and in illuminations and vignettes that have reached us. They reflect a way of life, of feeling, a concept of the world full of mystery, full of openings in all directions, aside from their enormous plastic value. The iconography of the Middle Ages fascinates me, the drawings on parchment, in manuscripts. So it seemed like a good idea to include them.
EPG: In “Los buenos servicios” (“At Your Service”) and other Works, you deal with homosexuality: “Las babas del diablo,” Los premios, Libro de Manuel, and 62 (in the female form). Would you comment on this interest in androgyny?
JC: That stems from something more important, my concept of the new man, the man of the future. I keep on believing something I’ve told my Cuban and Argentine friends, that in the project of a socialist society, revolution must come about not only from without but also from within on the level of the individual. Until now, the socialisms in power have not resolved the problem of one of the aspects of man’s liberation, the problem of his libido, his sexuality. On the contrary, it has been complicated more. Socialism, in general, continues to consider homosexuality as a disease, as a physical defect, a concept that psychoanalysis, medicine and psychology had dispensed with long ago. There are people who become homosexuals from being corrupted or influenced by others, but there are others who are born that way and that is as absolutely authentic and legitimate as heterosexuality. It is not a question of statistics. Luckily for the destiny of humanity, because the reproduction of the species enters into play, heterosexuals make up the vast majority. But to be honest, you know about the very important percentage of homosexuals who have always existed at any point in history, in any society. Because of hypocrisy and fear in the period when they were burned alive, as in Spain, you can imagine how that was hidden and how unfortunate they must have been. Our societies no longer burn homosexuals, but up until recently they were jailed. When you think about British law and the case against O