Julio Cortázar Teaches a Class on His Own Short Story
A Modern Master on Realism, Fantasy, and the Violence of Latin-American Politics
The following is from Literature Class, a collection of eight lectures Julio Cortázar delivered at Berkeley in 1980. Translated by Katherine Silver.
We are all punctual to an exasperating degree; it’s exactly two o’clock. I’m not sure, but I think the custom is to start a little late in case people arrive late, so we can wait a little.
To start off I’d like to talk about something here that has delighted me. Throughout the time we’ve been in contact, besides one-on-one conversations with many of you and some casual encounters, I’ve received a number of letters, some of which contain questions; others express a point of view about something I might have said here. This is very touching, and I want to publicly express my gratitude, because it’s a sign of trust in me and above all, a sign of friendship. Every single one of those letters has a purpose, points to a path or sometimes asks questions about one. I don’t want to ignore this because it feels to me like an immediate continuation of what is happening here among us once a week that then continues on other levels. It’s very beautiful to me, and in any case very useful, because it allows me to see into some of your personal worlds and to live and feel more fully what I have come here to say.
In some of the letters there are also critiques, and perhaps those are the best. I’d like to clarify one thing that is the source of a very friendly and polite critique I received in a letter from someone. It was about something I had said about fantasy and the imagination in response to a question. It seems I didn’t respond with sufficient breadth, and probably not with sufficient clarity. The person who wrote me that letter thought that I tended to see a writer’s fantasy and imagination as somewhat secondary, an accessory. I have the impression that those of you who have listened to all my previous classes must think — as I do — that it’s exactly the contrary. I believe that a fiction writer’s most basic weapon is not his subject matter, not even how he writes about it, whether better or worse, but rather that capacity, that way of being that determines his devotion to fiction rather than, say, chemistry; this is the basic, dominant element in any literature throughout the history of humanity.
I use the word fantasy as a general term; within fantasy we can include everything that is imaginary, fantastic, and we have discussed this a lot during these talks . . . I don’t think I need to elaborate further, you all know very well how important it is, not only for what I have written but also for what I personally prefer in literature. What I wanted to say — and perhaps this is the reason for the misunderstanding — and what I will repeat now perhaps more clearly, is that at this time, above all, and very especially in Latin America considering the current circumstances, I never accept the kind of fantasy, the kind of fiction or imagination, that spins around itself and only itself, where you feel that the writer is creating a work of only fantasy and imagination, one that deliberately escapes from the reality that surrounds and confronts him and asks him to engage with it, have a dialogue with it in his books. Fantasy — the fantastic, the imagination that I love so dearly and that I’ve used to try to construct my own work — is everything that helps to expose more clearly and more powerfully the reality that surrounds us. I said so at the beginning and I repeat it now as we leave the realm of the fantastic and enter realism, or what is called realism. I’ve now clarified something that I think is important because it would never occur to me to diminish the importance of everything that is fantasy for a writer, for I still believe it is a writer’s most powerful weapon, the one that finally opens doors onto a much richer and often more beautiful reality.
I’ve written several stories in which I think this is shown and exemplified perfectly, stories like “The Southern Expressway.” There are others I could name that have unusual elements with no value in and of themselves, no independent importance, but they are signals, pointers, used to increase the sensation of the reality of the action, the plot. For this reason, I would like us to spend a little time with one of those stories, which I wrote about six years ago and is called “Apocalypse at Solentiname.” It’s one of the most realistic short stories imaginable because it’s based almost entirely on something I experienced, something that happened to me, that I tried to write about with as much fidelity and clarity as possible. At the end of that story, there appears a totally fantastic element, but it’s not an escape from reality; on the contrary, it’s a little like carrying things to their ultimate consequences so that what I want to express in a way that reaches readers more powerfully, which is a Latin American vision of our times, explodes in their faces and obliges them to feel implicated and present in the story.
Since it’s not very long, I’ve decided to read it because I think this is more valuable than any extraneous explanation I could give. I want to clarify one or two things of a technical nature before reading it, to avoid any difficulties. As you know, the people of Costa Rica are called ticos, and the people of Nicaragua are called nicas: ticos and nicas are mentioned a few times. Toward the end there’s reference to a great poet and great resistance fighter from Latin America named Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran poet who fought for many years for what a large part of the Salvadoran people are fighting for right now, and he died under dark and painful circumstances that one day will be revealed, but we still don’t have enough information about it. There’s mention of Roque Dalton, whom I loved very dearly as a writer and a comrade in many things.
The story — I’ll say this again so it’s very clear — is absolutely true to the events it recounts, except what happens at the end. I’ll also explain — I guess you all know this — that Solentiname is the name of a community that the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal ran for many years on one of the islands in Lake Nicaragua, a community I visited under the circumstances recounted here and that was then destroyed by Somoza’s National Guard before the last offensive that finished Somoza off. In that very impoverished community of fishermen and peasants, which Cardenal led spiritually, very great artistic and intellectual work was carried out among the mostly illiterate and disadvantaged. Ernesto Cardenal — by the way — told me the last time we talked that he intends to build his community again now that Nicaragua is free and there’s the possibility of doing that. I hope he goes through with it, because the work he did in that community for years — while being hounded, persecuted, and threatened all the time — is one of those efforts that gives me more and more hope and faith in our people.
Apocalypse at Solentiname
That’s just how ticos are, quiet but full of surprises, you land in San José, Costa Rica, and there waiting for you are Carmen Naranjo and Samuel Rovinski and Sergio Ramírez (who’s from Nicaragua and not a tico but what’s the real difference anyway it’s all the same, what’s the difference in me being Argentine, though out of politeness I should call myself tino and the others nicas or ticos). It was so hot and even worse, everything started right away, the usual press conference, why don’t you live in your country? Why was the movie Blow-Up so different from your story? Do you think a writer has to be politically engaged? By now I know that my last interview will take place at the gates of hell and they’ll ask the same questions, and if by some chance it’s chez Saint Peter, nothing will change, don’t you think that down there you wrote too hermetically for the common folks?
Then on to Hotel Europa and the shower that crowns a trip with a long monologue of soap and silence. Except that at seven o’clock when it was finally time to take a walk through San José and find out if it was as modest and uniform as I’d been told, a hand grabbed my coat and behind it was Ernesto Cardenal, and what a hug, poet, so glad you’re here after that conference in Rome, after so many times over the years we’ve met on paper. It always surprises me, always touches me when someone like Ernesto comes to see me, to pick me up, you might say I’m overflowing with false modesty but just come out with it, old man, the jackal howls but the bus still runs, I’ll always be an amateur, someone who looks up to certain people from way down below with so much love, and then one day it turns out those people love him back, these things are beyond me, but let’s change the subject.
The new subject was that Ernesto knew I’d arrived in Costa Rica and, what do you know, he flew from his island because the little bird who brings him news told him that the ticas had planned for me to go to Solentiname and he found the idea of coming to get me irresistible, so two days later Sergio and Oscar and Ernesto and I crammed ourselves into the much too crammable cabin of a Piper Aztec aircraft, whose name will always remain a riddle to me but that flew with ominous hiccups and burps while the blond pilot played some countervailing calypsos and seemed completely nonchalant about my idea that the Aztec was carrying us straight to a pyramid to be sacrificed. That didn’t happen, as you can see, we landed in Los Chiles and from there the equally wobbly jeep dropped us off at the country house of the poet José Coronel Urtecho, whom more people should read and in whose house we rested and talked about so many other poet friends, about Roque Dalton and about Gertrude Stein and about Carlos Martínez Rivas, until Luis Coronel arrived and we set out for Nicaragua in his jeep and in his launch that reached alarming speeds. But first there were keepsake pictures taken with one of those cameras that right then and there spits out a small piece of sky-blue paper that slowly and miraculously and polaroiderly starts filling up with gradual images, at first disturbing ectoplasms then little by little a nose, a tuft of hair, Ernesto’s smile with his Nazarene headband, Doña María and Don José outlined against the veranda. It seemed totally normal to them because they were used to using that camera, but I wasn’t, for me seeing something emerge out of nothing, out of that little sky-blue square of nothing, those goodbye faces and smiles, filled me with wonder and I told them, I remember asking Oscar what would happen if after taking a family portrait the little sky-blue piece of paper started filling up out of nowhere
with Napoleon on his horse, and a roar of laughter from Don José Coronel, who as usual had been listening to everything, the jeep, come on, let’s drive to the lake.
We reached Solentiname as night was falling, there waiting for us were Teresa and William and a gringo poet and other people from the community; we went to bed almost immediately but not before I saw the paintings in a corner, Ernesto was talking with his people and he took the supplies and gifts he’d brought from San José out of a bag, somebody was sleeping in a hammock, and I saw the paintings in a corner and started to look at them. I don’t remember who explained to me that they were painted by the peasants in that region, that one was painted by Vicente, this is Ramona’s, some were signed and others weren’t, but they were all so beautiful, once again a primal vision of the world, the clean gaze of someone who depicts their surroundings as a song of praise: dwarf cows in fields of poppies, sugar shacks people are pouring out of like ants, the green-eyed horse against a background of sugarcane, a church baptism that doesn’t believe in perspective and trips and falls over itself, the lake with little boats like shoes, and in the background an enormous laughing fish with turquoise-colored lips. Then Ernesto came and explained to me that the sale of the paintings helped them carry on, in the morning he’d show me the work the peasants do in wood and stone and also his own sculptures; we were already nodding off but I kept looking through the pictures piled up in the corner, pulling out of the jumble of canvases cows and flowers and that mother with her two children on her lap, one in white and the other in red, under a sky so full of stars that the only cloud stood as if mortified in one corner, pressing against the frame, so afraid it had already scooted off the canvas.
The next day was Sunday and eleven o’clock Mass, a Solentiname Mass where the peasants and Ernesto and visiting friends discuss a chapter of the Gospels, which on that day was the arrest of Jesus in the garden, a subject the people of Solentiname discussed as if it were about them, the threat that they would be attacked at night or in the middle of the day, lives led in permanent uncertainty on the islands and on the mainland and everywhere in Nicaragua and not only in Nicaragua but almost everywhere in Latin America, a life surrounded by fear and death, life in Guatemala and life in El Salvador, life in Argentina and in Bolivia, life in Chile and in Santo Domingo, life in Paraguay, life in Brazil and in Colombia.
Later came thoughts about leaving, and it was then that I thought again about the paintings, I went to the community room and started to look at them under the dazzling noon light, the heightened colors, the acrylics and oils facing off against one another from horses and sunflowers and fiestas in the meadows and symmetrical palm groves. I remembered I had a roll of color film in my camera and I went out onto the veranda with an armful of pictures; Sergio, who had just arrived, helped me prop them up in the light, and one by one I carefully photographed them, centering each so it would fill the entire frame. Chance is sometimes like that: I had as many shots left as there were paintings, not a single one was left out, and when Ernesto came to tell us that the launch was ready I told him what I’d done and he laughed, painting thief, image smuggler. Yes, I told him, I’m taking all of them with me, I’ll project them onto my screen and they’ll be bigger and brighter than these, tough luck for you.
I returned to San José, went to Havana and hung around and did a few things there, then back to Paris, my fatigue so full of nostalgia, Claudine quietly waiting for me at Orly, once again the life of the wristwatch and merci monsieur, bonjour madame, committee meetings, films, red wine and Claudine, Mozart quartets and Claudine. Among all the things those tell-all suitcases had spewed out onto the bed and the rug, among the magazines, clippings, scarves, and books by Central American poets, were the grey plastic film canisters, so many over a two-month period, the sequence from the Lenin School in Havana, the streets of Trinidad, the silhouette of the Irazú volcano and its crater full of boiling green water where Samuel and Sarita and I imagined already roasted ducks floating in the sulfurous fumes. Claudine took the rolls of film to get them developed; one afternoon while walking through the Latin Quarter I remembered and since I had the ticket in my pocket I picked them up and there were eight. I immediately thought about the paintings from Solentiname and when I got home I opened the boxes and looked at the first slides in each group, I remembered that before taking pictures of the paintings I had shot the Mass with Ernesto, children playing among the palm trees just like in the paintings, children and palm trees and cows against a violently blue sky and a lake just a tiny bit greener, or maybe the other way around, I wasn’t quite sure anymore. I put the slides of the children and the Mass in the tray, knowing that the paintings would come next and continue to the end of the roll.
Night was falling and I was alone, Claudine would come over after work to listen to music and spend the night; I set up the screen and poured myself a glass of rum with a lot of ice, the slide projector with its tray loaded and the button of its remote control; no reason to close the curtains, the obliging night was already there igniting the streetlamps and the perfume of the rum; it was so pleasant to think that everything would appear once again a little at a time, after the paintings from Solentiname I would show the rolls from Cuba, but why the paintings first, why that occupational hazard, art before life, and why not, that one asked this one in a continuation of their everlasting never-to-be-disassembled fraternal and spiteful dialogue, why not look at the paintings from Solentiname first, for they are also life, for it’s all the same.
First came the pictures of the Mass, pretty bad due to wrong exposures, the children, though, were playing in the bright light and such white teeth. I pushed the forward button without much enthusiasm, I could have kept looking for a long time at each slide so laden with memories, that small fragile world of Solentiname surrounded by water and henchmen, surrounded like the boy I was looking at without understanding, I’d pressed the button and the boy was there against a very clear background, his broad smooth face of surprised disbelief as his body pitched forward, the neat hole right in the middle of his forehead, the officer’s pistol still indicating the path of the bullet, the others on either side with their machine guns, a jumble of houses and trees behind.
Whatever you think, it always gets there first and leaves you so far behind; stupidly I told myself they’d made a mistake at the photo shop, they’d given me another customer’s slides; but then the Mass, the children playing in the meadow, so how? Nor did my hand obey when it pressed the button and there was an endless saltpeter field at noon with two or three lean-tos built of rusty sheet metal, a crowd of people on the left looking at the bodies lying face up, their arms spread wide against a gray and naked sky; you had to look very closely to make out the group of soldiers walking away in the background, the jeep waiting at the top of the hill.
I know I kept going; faced with this that defied all sanity the only thing possible was to keep pushing the button, seeing the corner of Corrientes and San Martín streets in Buenos Aires and the black car with the four men aiming at the sidewalk where somebody wearing a white shirt and tennis shoes was running, two women trying to take shelter behind a parked truck, someone staring straight ahead, an expression of horrified disbelief, bringing his hand to his chin as if to touch himself and feel that he is still alive, and suddenly an almost dark room, dirty light falling from the tall latticed windows, the table with the naked girl supine and her hair falling all the way to the ground, the shadow with its back to the camera sticking a wire between her open legs, two men facing the camera talking to each other, a blue tie and a green pullover. I never found out if I kept pushing the button or not, I saw a clearing in the jungle, in the foreground a hut with a thatched roof and trees, up against the trunk of the closest one a thin man looking to his left at a disorderly group of five or six people standing very close together pointing machine guns and pistols at him; the man with the thin face and a lock of hair falling over his brown forehead looked at them, one hand half raised, the other possibly in his pants pocket, it was as if he were telling them something calmly, almost offhandedly, and even though the picture was blurry I felt and I knew and I saw that he was Roque Dalton, and so I pressed the button as if by doing so I could save him from the infamy of that particular death, and then I saw a car exploding right in the middle of a city that could be Buenos Aires or São Paulo, I kept pushing and pushing past flashes of bloody faces and pieces of bodies and woman and children running down a Bolivian or a Guatemalan hillside, suddenly the screen filled with mercury and nothing and Claudine entering quietly, her shadow filling the screen as she leaned over to kiss my hair and ask me if they were lovely, if I was happy with the photographs, if I wanted to show them to her.
I pushed the tray and started it from the beginning, you can’t know how or why you do things once you’ve passed a boundary you also don’t know. Not looking at her, because she would have understood or simply been frightened by how my face must have looked; not explaining anything because everything was one big knot from my throat to my toenails, I got up and slowly sat her down in my armchair, and I must have said something about going to get her a drink and that she should have a look, she should have a look while I went to get her a drink. In the bathroom I think I vomited, or maybe I only cried and later vomited, or I didn’t do anything and just sat on the rim of the bathtub letting time pass until I could make it to the kitchen and prepare Claudine’s favorite drink, fill it with ice and then hear the silence, realize that Claudine was neither shouting nor running to question me, only the silence and for moments that saccharine bolero from the apartment next door. I don’t know how long it took me to get from the kitchen to the living room, to see the back of the screen when she reached the end and the room filled with the sudden reflection of the mercury and then the semi-darkness, Claudine turning off the projector and leaning back in her armchair and picking up her glass and smiling at me slowly, happy and sexy and so pleased.
“They turned out beautifully, that one of the smiling fish and the mother with her two children and the little cows in the field; wait, and that other one of the baptism in the church, who painted them, tell me, I couldn’t see the signatures.”
Sitting on the floor, without looking at her, I picked up my glass and drank it all down. I wasn’t going to say anything, what could I tell her now, but I remember I vaguely considered asking her a stupid question, asking her if she had at some point seen a picture of Napoleon on horseback. But I didn’t, of course.
I think that in a story of this kind the sudden appearance of an entirely uncanny element — entirely and decisively fantastic — makes reality more real and brings the reader something that, if stated explicitly or recounted in detail, would have ended up being one more report about all the many things that are going on, but within the story it is shown strongly enough, through the mechanism of the story itself.
I think that right now, before continuing, some of you might like to ask me some questions. I see one person there wants to.
Student: Would you mind talking a little about Roque Dalton? I think there are a lot of people who don’t know who he is.
Yes, of course. Roque Dalton said he was the grandson of the pirate Dalton, an Englishman or North American who ravaged the coasts of Central America and conquered land he later lost. He also conquered, for better or for worse, some Salvadoran women from whom Roque’s family descended, and they kept the name Dalton. I never knew, nor did Roque’s friends, if that was true or one of the many inventions of his extremely fertile imagination. Roque is for me the very rare example of a man whose literary ability, whose poetic ability, was there from a very early age, mixed with or alongside a profound sense of belonging to his own people, their history and destiny. Never, from the age of 18, did he make a distinction between the poet and the fighter, the novelist and the combatant, and that’s why his life was a continuous series of persecutions, prisons, exiles, escapes — in some cases, spectacular — and a final return to his country after many years spent in exile, there to join the struggle in which he would lose his life. Fortunately for us, Roque Dalton left a vast oeuvre: several volumes of poetry and a novel with a title that is both ironic and tender; it’s called The Poor Little Poet I Once Was. It’s the story of a man who at a certain point feels tempted to devote himself fully to literature and leave behind all other things that his nature demands of him. In the end, he doesn’t do that, and he continues to maintain the balance that I always admired in him. Roque Dalton was a man who at 40 gave the impression of being a 19-year-old kid. There was something very childlike about him, he’d act like a child, he was mischievous and playful. It was difficult to see, to realize, the power, the seriousness, and the effectiveness that was hidden in that man.
I remember one night in Havana, a group of foreigners and Cubans gathered to talk to Fidel Castro. It was in 1962, at the beginning of the Revolution. The meeting was supposed to start at ten at night and last an hour, and it lasted until exactly six in the morning, which almost always happens in these meetings with Fidel Castro, which go on and on endlessly because he never gets tired and neither do his interlocutors under those circumstances. I’ll never forget how, around dawn, when I was already dozing off because I couldn’t fight my fatigue and exhaustion . . . I remember Roque Dalton — very skinny and not very tall — standing with Fidel — who’s not skinny at all and is very tall — and stubbornly discussing the proper use of a certain kind of gun, I never found out which one exactly, some kind of machine gun. Each was trying to convince the other that he was right, with all kinds of arguments and even physical demonstrations: they threw themselves down on the floor, then jumped back up . . . all kinds of bellicose antics, which left us all pretty amazed.
That’s how Roque was: he could play while talking seriously. Obviously the topic interested him for reasons that had to do with El Salvador, and at the same time it was all a big game that amused him deeply. His books — the poetry as well as the prose, he also has a lot of essays, many political works . . . they cover an important period in our history, especially the decade from ’58 to ’68. His analyses are always passionate but at the same time lucid, his denunciations and arguments always have strong historical foundations. He wasn’t a propagandist; he was a thinking man and behind and in front and underneath all that was always a great poet, a man who has given us some of the most beautiful poems I’ve read in the last 20 years. That’s what I have to say about Roque, and I hope you read him and get to know him better.
Student: In the story, you mention that people are afraid — like Jesus — of being betrayed, but don’t you think this is, generally speaking, because in Latin America reality is seen in a fantastic, emotional, irrational way, and only from one point of view? Because you talk about the people who were killed by the military, but in Argentina soldiers have also been killed, for example, Aramburu. It’s always looked at from only one point of view and that’s why there are those constant struggles, instead of trying to find a rational solution.
Of course there are constant struggles; of course there have been and continue to be confrontations, as there have been constantly in Nicaragua, and as there are right now in El Salvador. Of course there is violence on both sides and in many cases the violence is unjustifiable, on both sides of the struggle. What I think we have to consider and always keep in mind when we talk about violence, confrontations, and even criminal acts between two opposing forces is why did the violence start and who started it, or rather we need to introduce a moral dimension into the discussion. The Brazilian bishop or cardinal Hélder Câmara (I think he was a bishop) and the archbishop of El Salvador, Monsignor Romero (brutally assassinated a few months ago), both men of the church, they said in their last speeches that an oppressed, subjugated, murdered, and tortured people has the moral right to take up arms against their oppressors, and I think they were putting their fingers on the very core of the problem; because it’s very easy to be against violence in general, but what is often not considered is how that violence came about, what process originally unleashed it.
To respond very concretely to your question, I am fully aware that in my country, in our country, the forces that rose up against the army and the Argentine oligarchy committed many acts that we can qualify as excessive. They have behaved in ways that I cannot personally condone, or accept, not at all, but still, within that moral condemnation, I am aware that they would never have reached that point — because they wouldn’t have needed to — if beforehand, with the previous dictatorships (I’m talking concretely about Generals Onganía, Levingston, and Lanusse), there hadn’t been a monstrous escalation of torture, violence, and oppression, which finally led to the first uprisings against them. This is not a class about politics and I will stop here, though I think that you and I could discuss this topic much more, because clearly we are very familiar with it as Argentines. But I think I’ve said enough to show my opinion on this point.
Reprinted from Literature Class with permission from New Directions.