Sunday, May 29, 2005


He sits alone at the table with his notebook closed in front of him, now and then sipping the coffee from a paper cup. It's a Friday night, around ten, and the place is packed. They all seem to be the same age, more or less, fifteen to twenty, maybe a few in their early twenties, here and there a mom with a couple of daughters. This must be the one place to hang, for miles around, or how could there be so many of them?

A good two-thirds of them are girls, circled around tables in clusters of five or six, maybe with one boy among them. Sometimes a couple of guys come in by themselves and get on line, but they don't stay, they just get their coffee and drive off again. All told maybe sixty or eighty indoors, a dozen or two at tables outside, and more — he can't see how many — just milling around the parking lot, talking and laughing. The girl sitting at a table outside, for instance, the slight girl with the flip of straight brown hair nearly reaching down to one eye, whom he notices each time he lifts his eyes to the window — has she really been laughing and talking without interruption for an hour?

For their part the guys mostly don't say much, they just listen and watch, their posture a little stiff, uttering a few words now and then. He can't hear anything that's being said; all around the room the conversations are mixing together, indistinguishable, without ever a gap of silence, and over it all there's music of some sort — he can't make out the songs or doesn't know them anyway — drifting over the whole room, providing a kind of continuo.

He's a little surprised how few couples there seem to be. One or two are obvious, hugging or horsing around, and no doubt there are others who keep it to themselves, who maybe aren't quite comfortable yet with being physical around their other friends. They're young, after all, there will be time to come for all of that.

He is not always solemn, as he is now. He has his moments of joy. He thinks, I feel those moments more deeply than these kids do because I know how fugitive they are and they do not, yet. But no, the kids really do seem pretty damn happy.

These things that occur to him, at times, in the late evening hours.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire? (3)

I'm not quite halfway through re-reading Cortázar's Rayuela and my copy is now in three pieces and threatening to disintegrate entirely. It was never much of a book qua book to begin with: cheap, browning paper, flimsy paperback cover, typography with two different style “l”'s used apparently at random. I have another copy in a box somewhere (I think), but it's a bit of a chore to get to. One of these days I'll have to try to hunt up a hardcover, not that easy a task since the standard editions of most books in the Spanish-speaking world usually seem to be paperback.

I've reached the point where Oliveira has walked out on La Maga, Maga's ailing infant son Rocamadour has died, and Maga herself has vanished to Uruguay or Italy or possibly to drown in the Seine. In Chapter 34 Oliveira returns to the apartment they formerly shared, and picks up a novel (said to be Lo prohibido by Pérez Galdós though it is not named by Cortázar) that Maga had been reading. Two texts make up the chapter, alternating line by line: a portion of the hackneyed Lo prohibido, and Oliveira's reflections — pretty condescending ones — on Maga's lowbrow reading habits. Eventually, Oliveira's thoughts wander to the meaning of his terminated relationship with Maga. In the following translation I have unravelled and discarded the Pérez Galdós thread:
I'm not going to explain to you what is known as Brownian motion, obviously I'm not going to explain it and all the same the two of us, Maga, we compose a figure, you a point in one location, me a point in another, moving around, you now maybe in the rue de la Huchette, me now discovering this novel in your empty room, tomorrow you at the Gare de Lyon (if you're going to Lucca, my love) and me on the rue du Chemin Vert, where I've discovered an extraordinary little wine, and little by little, Maga, we go on composing an absurd figure, with our movements we draw a figure identical to the one flies draw when they fly around a room, here and there, suddenly making a half turn, from there to here, that's what's called Brownian motion, now do you get it?. A right angle, a line that soars, from here to there, from back to front, going up, going down, spasmodically, braking suddenly and tearing off in the same instant in another direction, and all of this weaves a drawing, a figure, something non-existent like you and I, like two points lost in Paris going from here to there, from there to here, making their drawing, dancing for nobody, not even for themselves, an interminable figure without meaning.
Similar conceits are common in Cortázar's writing (see, for example, the story “Manuscript Found in a Pocket,” in which, in a kind of obsessive game, a man and a woman subject the possibility of seeing or not seeing each other again to the whims of their separate travels through the Metro). The idea that human relationships (and possibly human existence in general) are governed by a series of random encounters and disencounters was deeply engraved in both his philosophy and his fiction. Equally central was the recognition of the human desire to preserve something against the advent of oblivion; in the very next chapter (which is 87, if you're reading “the long way”) he quotes an Ellington song, then reflects:
Why, at certain moments, is it so necessary to say “I loved that”? I loved a blues, an image in the street, a poor dry river in the north. Give testimony, fight against the nothingness that will erase us. So, still lingering in the air of the soul, are those little things, a swallow that came from Lesbia, some blues that occupied in the memory a tiny space the size of perfumes, stamps, and paperweights.
In the "next" chapter (that is, means Chapter 105), this idea is continued, but in its inverse: here the subject the things that have not been preserved from oblivion:
I think of those objects, those boxes, those utensils that appear at times in warehouses, kitchens, or hiding places, and whose function nobody is now capable of explaining. The vanity of believing that we understand the works of time: time buries its dead and holds on to its keys. Only in dreams, in poetry, in a game — lighting a candle, carrying it down a corridor — do we approach at times that which we were before being that which who knows if we are.
I don't think it's a coincidence that these expressions of what for want of a better name might be called existential pessimism come in quick succession, nor that they come at this point in the book. The desertion of Maga by Oliveira and the death of Rocamadour together are the bleakest part of the novel. And just as in Cortázar's short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”) where the death of a different child provokes in the jazz musician Johnny Carter a harrowing vision of a field of (presumably funerary) urns, the “Brown(e)” these pages bring to mind is not the discoverer of Brownian motion but the author of Hydriotaphia.

Update (6/05): I tracked down two annotated Spanish-language editions of Rayuela. The easier to locate (and more useful for most readers) is the paperback edition compiled by Andrés Amorós (Cátedra: Letras Hispánicas, Madrid 1992; ISBN: 84-376-0457-5), which contains a lengthy interpretive Introduction, extensive footnotes to the text of the novel (mostly identifying proper names or defining bits of argot), and — a nice touch — a fold-out map of Paris.

The other is the Edición Crítica prepared under the direction of Julio Ortega and Saúl Yurkievich, in the Colección Archivos series (ALLCA XXe, Nanterre, France, 1991; ISBN 84-00-07112-3). This is a doorstop-sized hardcover with several hundred pages of essays, the text of the Cuaderno de bitácora in which Cortázar planned out the book, and a complete history of the writing of the manuscript and its publication. Unfortunately, the only notes to the body of the novel itself are to textual variants. For scholars only, impressive as it is.