Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another overlong review, which again highlights my lack of writing skills. I apologize.
A simple-minded definition of surrealism in art would emphasize the blending of reality with alternative realities, or with obvious non-realities, in such ways that the boundaries disappear between what is real and what cannot be real. Under such simplistic definition, most stories from Julio Cortazar's "Blow-Up and Other Stories" are surrealistic. In "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris", amidst the grim reality of explaining his intentions to commit suicide, the narrator keeps vomiting little rabbits. In the famous "Bestiary" a girl spends her summer in a house, where a dangerous tiger wanders freely between various rooms, and the family members need to be very careful to avoid the locations where the tiger resides at the moment. In other stories the narrator may meet himself from his youth or become the part of the story that is being told. I like the surrealistic aspect of Mr. Cortazar's collection. A disclaimer: my favorite painter is Rene Magritte, clearly a surrealist.
What I like more is exemplified by the very beginning paragraph of the title story, "Blow-Up": "It'll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing." For Mr. Cortazar the story is less important than how it is told. Also, he is fascinated by the relationship between the "I" and the "non-I", how reality changes when viewed from either point of view, and what the boundaries are between the reality and its perception.
The title story, in fact, might be categorized as hyperrealistic (here's a facile definition of hyperrealism: a situation when one cannot distinguish reality from its representation). An amateur photographer takes a picture of a puzzling scene between a man and a woman in a park, magnifies the picture in his lab, and then sort of merges with the photographically represented world.
OK, no more labels, no more sur- and hyper-. I am inclined to treat the aspects discussed above, as well as the non-linearity of the story telling, as literary gimmicks and games played with the reader. What instead I like the most about some of Mr. Cortazar's stories is the beauty and power of his writing. In my view, if I were to delete all references to the tiger in "Bestiary", the story would not lose any of its impact as a chronicle of one summer told from the point of view of a child. "End of the Game", where kids play the Statues and Attitudes game for the benefit of the passing train's passengers, is also magnificent, regardless of whether Ariel appears or not. These stories evoke childhood memories and bring back feelings I had over a half of century ago, when I was, say, 8 or 12 years old. The stories belong in such distinguished company of best writings about childhood as J. M. Coetzee's "Boyhood" or A. Nothomb's "Loving Sabotage".
"The Pursuer", the longest piece in the collection, virtually a novella, has disappointed me a little. The realistic story of Johnny Carter, the great sax player (obviously modeled on Charlie Parker) and Bruno, his biographer, reads well, except for dialogues, which do not sound natural to me. Maybe it is the translator's fault? I can't tell as sadly I do not know Spanish. This story would only get two stars from me as it is rather flat and predictable.
Three and three-quarter stars.
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