Vol. XX, #2 Jean Rhys / John Hawkes / Paul Bowles / Marguerite Young
Review of Contemporary Fiction
Final Exam, by Julio Cortázar
reviewed by Gregory Howard
Trans. Alfred MacAdam. New Directions, 2000. 256 pp. $23.95.
The narrative follows the meandering path of Juan and Clara, two students preparing to take their final university exam, who decide to wander through the city instead of studying. Also along for the stroll are Andrés, an intellectual dropout and a former lover of Clara’s, his girlfriend Stella, and a newspaper man called only “the chronicler.” Shadowing the group through the city is a former friend named Abel who, it becomes clear, bears ill will and means danger to Juan and Clara. The city itself is enveloped in a mysterious fog, seemingly without origin.
For the most part nothing much happens in Final Exam, and this is part of the point. The novel is almost all atmosphere: mysterious fog, glimpses of the sinister Abel, ghostly public gatherings. The action, when there is action, occurs in fits in starts, often (like the fog) without understandable origin and with anticlimactic ending. Highly intelligent and disaffected, the traveling companions analyze events as they happen in intellectual conversation replete with citations of literature, film, and philosophy; yet they are unable to keep their weird city environment ultimately from insinuating itself into their lives.