Saturday, September 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Gustavo Ribeiro

Dear Gustavo,

You’ve asked for a few thoughts on how Cortázar is seen in the US. I’m not an academic and I haven’t made any systematic effort to keep up with the latest scholarship in English, so what follows will be largely based on my personal perspective as a reader and as a bookseller (in one form or another) for the last thirty-five years.

I first encountered Cortázar in translation, in anthologies of Latin American literature, of which there were several good ones on the market in the 1970s. I don’t remember for sure, but the first story I read may have been “Axolotl” or “Carta a una señorita en París,” either of which would have been sufficient to hook me for life. I probably then picked up a second-hand copy of the paperback edition of Blow-Up and Other Stories, Paul Blackburn’s compilation assembled from portions of Final del juego, Bestiario, and Las armas secretas, before moving on to the novels. As my Spanish improved I was able to revisit the works in their original form and also familiarize myself with books that were as yet untranslated.

The first published book-length edition of Cortázar into English was Elaine Kerrigan’s translation of Los premios, (The Winners in English) in 1965, a translation which I don’t think the author liked particularly. Since that time he has been generally fortunate in his English-language translators; he worked closely with both Blackburn and Gregory Rabassa, and was very pleased with the results. Until the publication of Blow-Up (originally as The End of the Game and Other Stories) in 1967, Cortázar was known in the English-speaking world only as a novelist, which of course is a reversal of how his career had actually developed.

By and large, US publishers kept up with the output of Cortázar’s major works during the latter stages of his life. His books were issued in hardcover by large but prestigious houses, and several appeared in “mass-market” editions in paperback, notably in Avon’s Bard imprint. Since his death, however, the situation has been mixed. Hopscotch (Rayuela) and Blow-Up have been more or less continually available, no doubt in part due to course adoptions in universities, but Libro de Manuel (translated here as A Manual for Manual) and several other important works have been allowed to go out of print. More importantly, editions of previously untranslated or posthumous works have been slow to come. The large commercial publishers, even such respected houses as Knopf and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, seem to have no interest in Cortázar, but fortunately the slack has been taken up to some extent by smaller independent publishers like New Directions, City Lights, and Archipelago Books.

Perhaps the greatest omission in the publication of Cortázar’s work here is in the short fiction. Paul Blackburn’s selection was made in conjunction with his wife, Sara, then an editor at Pantheon, and with Cortázar himself, and presumably represented an effort at a “best selected stories” drawn from what had been published in Spanish up to that time. The selection was a good one, but ironically it has led to a situation in which many of Cortázar’s best stories from the first twenty years or so of his publishing career, ones that were not initially selected for Blow-Up, have never been translated at all and so are entirely unknown to readers who can not read him in the original. Later collections of Cortázar stories in English (for instance, All Fires the Fire) were generally organized so as to match the contents of the corresponding volumes in Spanish; whatever their merit, early stories like “Cartas de Mamá,” “Después del almuerzo,” and “Los venenos” were left to fall by the wayside. This has, I think, somewhat skewed our understanding of Cortázar’s canon, giving more emphasis to work set in Europe than to work set in Buenos Aires, and therefore giving us an image of Cortázar the writer that is less “Latin American” than it might be otherwise.

The US marketplace has long been notoriously unfriendly to translations, and in some ways we are the most provincial of countries as far as our choice of reading matter. The so-called “boom” in the Latin American novel was matched by a corresponding expansion in translations for the US market during the 1970s and early 1980s, but that era is now long past. While there are exceptions, (García Márquez, whose settings perhaps offer more of the “exoticism” that our readers expect from a Latin American writer, and Vargas Llosa, with his Nobel Prize and long relationship with a single US publisher), the overall picture remains fairly bleak. There are important book-length critical studies on Cortázar (some of them by now quite dated) and as I mentioned a trickle of new editions appear from small but valiant publishers, but no major concerted effort is being made to keep Cortázar’s works in print, in comprehensive editions, and to promote his work to a broad readership.

Having said that, it nevertheless can’t be said that Cortázar lacks a following in the US. His books are taught with regularity in university courses and are the subject of frequent scholarly articles, dissertations, and blog posts. Moreover, we have a growing Spanish-speaking population of readers who are not dependent on translations; there is even a Penguin paperback, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos, aimed at Spanish-speaking audiences. His novels and stories are well known to fellow writers, to Latin American specialists, to critics and college students of literature, and many others. Nevertheless, Cortázar, as erudite a man as he was, did not write for the benefit of academics and specialists alone, and the full disruptive effect of a book like Rayuela deserves to be felt, as I think it has been in Latin America and to some extent in Europe, by a broader audience. A comprehensive edition of the stories is overdue, as is a biography, though in the case of the latter it is probably better for the Spanish-speaking world to take the lead.

The best news, however, is that the work remains. Even those editions that have gone out of print are obtainable second-hand or in libraries for those who are willing to take the time to seek them out. The translations they will find are generally high-quality, and although there are gaps enough of Cortázar’s work remains available to demonstrate his importance and provide delight and stimulus for the reader, which I think was the author’s intent.

All the best,


Postscript: for a Portuguese-language translation of this article see Blog Morellianas.

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