Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cortázar: Los relatos

I revisit many of the stories in these three volumes quite regularly, particularly the first, but lately I've been realizing that I haven't read some of the individual tales in maybe, well, thirty years or so, so I've decided to start with the first volume and read through the whole set, although given my unpredictable reading habits it may be months or even years before I actually complete the project.

Alianza Editorial in Madrid first published these paperbacks in the series "El libro de bolsillo" in 1976. The contents, representing more or less all of Cortázar's published short fiction up to that time (not counting the special case of Cronopios and Famas), were arranged not in chronological order but on the basis of affinities detected by the author, who sorted the stories into categories denominated "rites, games, and passages." The disadvantage of this arrangement, of course, is that it obscured the temporal sequence of their publication and their arrangement as they had originally appeared in volumes like Bestiario, Las armas secretas, and Final del juego, but the author's wishes in this sort of thing ought not to be lightly dismissed. A fourth volume containing later stories and subtitled Ahí y ahora ("There and Now") was published several years after these three, perhaps posthumously, but I've never owned a copy.

The first volume, which I've just finished re-reading in its entirety, has always been my sentimental favorite, in part because I bought it several years before the others (which it why the cover is a bit different), and in part simply because the stories it gathers are so extraordinary. It contains several pieces that have long been well known to English-language readers of Cortázar, including "La noche boca arriba ("The Night Face Up"), "Bestiario" ("Bestiary"), "Carta a una señorita in París" ("Letter to a Young Lady in Paris"), "El ídolo de las Cícladas" ("The Idol of the Cyclades"), and "Final del juego" ("End of the Game"), a few that have appeared in volumes of translations that have since gone out-of-print, and at least a handful of important stories that as far as I can tell have never been translated into English, including "Omnibus," "Los venenos" ("The Poisons"), and "Relato con un fondo de agua" ("Story with a Background of Water"). Reading them together, one detects common themes: childhood, family, illness and death, the mysterious interchangeability of individual identities, the ways in which we offer ourselves and others explanations that seem plausible on their face but mask deeper passions we can't afford to reveal. With the sole exception of the forgettable "El viaje" ("The Trip"), the level of artistry is high but at the same time apparently effortless, whether in the hilarious "Cartas de una señorita en París," the poignant but venomous "Los venenos," the droll social comedy of "Los buenos servicios" ("At Your Service"), or the nouveau roman in miniature of "Manuscrito hallado en un bolsillo" ("Manuscript Found in a Pocket").

My copy of the first volume is approaching the end of its run. The pages have darkened a bit but more ominously the binding, which I've already reinforced once with tape, is starting to go. There were always a distressing number of typos in any case (whether these were carried over from earlier collections I don't know). Not surprisingly, Cortázar's stories have been collected and re-collected several times; there's an old one-volume hardcover edition comprising his early stories that I have my eye out for, and a more recent multi-volume Cuentos completos from Punto de lectura. Still, I imagine I'll be picking this one up now and then for years to come, spending a few moments with a favorite story from the hand of the master.

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