Saturday, January 25, 2014

Man of letters

Alfagura began issuing this five-volume expanded edition of Julio Cortázar's letters in February 2012, but it's taken me a bit to get around to it, starting now with the third and fourth volumes, which cover the period between 1965, when Cortázar's name was still largely unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world, to 1976, by which time his international reputation had been solidly established and he had already completed his last novel, Libro de Manuel.

We're no doubt nearing the point where collections of this nature, sadly, will no longer be produced, or needed. Cortázar, who died in 1984 and thus antedated the age of email, didn't seem to use the telephone much, but he did conduct a prodigious multicontinental (and trilingual) correspondence. I suspect that even this greatly enlarged edition of Cartas, which includes more than 1,000 previously unpublished letters, doesn't come close to collecting his entire output. Several important recipients seem to be absent or underrepresented, perhaps because their papers have not yet been made available to the public*; in a few years, if the state of the book industry permits it, we may well be looking at a seven-volume or even ten-volume third edition.

Where does one even begin to open these volumes, given the richness of the material? Is it best to strike out chronologically, or to follow the threads of literary history in the letters to individual recipients like José Lezama Lima, Paul Blackburn, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Ariel Dorfman? Pick an event in the history of modern Latin America — the death of Che Guevara, the overthrow of Allende, the assassination of the Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton — and you'll find Cortázar's reaction to it, in real time, as they say. The importance of these letters to Latin American literary history, on the other hand, is simply immense, given that Cortázar exchanged regular correspondence with not only the major writers of the continent, but the important publishers, critics, agents, and translators as well. His correspondence with translators and academics is particularly fascinating; unlike many writers, Cortázar, an experienced translator himself, was quite willing to discuss in detail and with great patience his intentions in writing particular works, even if at times he had to admit being stumped himself by stories like "Las babas del diablo" (which Antonioni transformed into Blow-Up).

Cortázar's writing, as well as his life, became increasingly political during the 1960s and the awful decade of the 1970s, which saw countries like Chile and his native Argentina fall under barbaric military regimes. His political activism may have taken its toll on some friendships, as his continuing (but not entirely uncritical) support for Cuba separated him from old friends who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Castro regime. After the publication of the very political Libro de Manuel in 1973, his commitments, as well as occasional bouts of ill health and the deaths of old friends, may have taken a toll on his literary production, but inside he remained the eternal cronopio, able to take delight in reading, of all things, The Lord of the Rings from cover to cover in August 1975.

NB: The new edition omits the useful list of biographical references from the first edition that provided brief identifications for the recipients of the letters, and has changed the index so that references to individuals are only indexed at the end of the volume in which they are mentioned. On the positive side, an index of cited works has been added, which makes it easier to find the letters in which Cortázar discusses particular stories or novels. The thoroughness and care of the editors in these volumes is admirable throughout.

*Letters to Carlos Fuentes held at Princeton University have apparently been restricted until 2014. It's possible that some of Cortázar's letters to Octavio Paz may have been destroyed in a fire in 1996.

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