Bestiary: Selected Short Stories, by Julio Cortázar — Fernando Sdrigotti

When is a book a book of short stories and when is it a collection? The difference might seem niggling but with the help of Julio Cortázar’s Bestiary: Selected Short Stories (Vintage Classics, 2020) it might be possible to see why the distinction matters.

But first a detour via the wavy roads of solipsism.

I got into Julio Cortázar, in my late teens, through his 1951 book of short stories, Bestiario. If any public display of the first person is an unforgivable sin when writing about someone else’s book, may I be exonerated by declaring that this phenomenon — getting into Cortázar’s in one’s teens, through Bestiario — is a very common occurrence among Argentine readers. You get into Julio in adolescence, generally through a boyfriend or girlfriend, read part of his vast oeuvre all the way into the late thirties, and when life starts to give you lemons you drop him, protesting his cheesiness, his propensity for corny language experiments, denouncing his oversize and whimsical novel 62: Modelo para armar, and to a lesser extent Rayuela, both books that suffer from the cliché of bohemian Paris, and more precisely the cliché of the Argentine self-exile bohemian in Paris. And this process is even more pronounced when you dedicate to writing more or less seriously: you have to defenestrate Cortázar and get on with your life and your more serious reading.

Many of the above are fair accusations, which ones are a matter of debate. That said, I have never defenestrated Cortázar, as it is customary among my Argentine literary peers. And because prolificness is unavoidably a hit and miss affair, I have no qualms in declaring him one of the best short story writers of the 20th Century, even considering his duds. Yes, he could have killed more of his darlings, but his darlings are great darlings overall — anyone pushing Cortázar off a window would be a very unwise person.

For these reasons I was very excited to learn of Vintage’s release of Bestiary: The Selected Stories of Julio Cortázar. Excited with the first part of the title; the second one confused me a bit at first, to then shoot my excitement down, because clearly this is a different book to the one I thought it was. For what we have here is not Bestiario but a collection of thirty five of Cortázar’s stories, written and published from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and stretching over three hundred sixty eight pages. Also, basically, a re-edition of a previous version by Harvill Press (from the late 90s, out of print) plus a new introduction by Irish short-story writer Kevin Barry.

So why re-print a collection of short stories riffing the name of a Cortázar’s most renowned work in his original language? If this renown translated into English the answer to my question would be “in order to sell more books”. But as this renown exists pretty much in Spanish only, and no English-speaking monolingual reader would have heard of Bestiario, the only possible answer I can think of is ill-judgement, another collateral damage of the Anglo-American (more recently mainly British) tradition of turning books of short stories into collections.

What we have here is not Bestiario but a collection of thirty five of Cortázar’s stories, written and published from the 1950s to the early 1980s, and stretching over three hundred sixty eight pages.

What do I mean?

Well, Bestiario — the one and only of my teenage years — is composed of eight short pieces. “Casa tomada”, “Carta a una señorita en París”, “Lejana”, “Ómnibus”, “Cefalea”, “Circe”, “Las puertas del cielo”, and “Bestiario”. This is a conceptually tight book, in which the stories — even if dealing with different plots, with different characters — work along the same ontological lines. I have always understood Bestiario as a series of philosophical problems posed by Cortázar in literary form. The characters are thrown into certain problems that they have to solve. The problems are sometimes incomprehensible, or at least illogical to the reader, but they are certainly coherent to the characters in the book, or at least that’s how Cortázar makes them act, for let’s not forget, they are imaginary people.

Take “Casa tomada”. In this piece two ageing siblings — a brother and sister — who still live in their huge family home battle against some sinister force that keeps squatting certain parts of the house. The logical answer they find to this problem is to keep retreating into different rooms, locking the doors behind them, trying ineffectually to neutralise or at least avoid this force. I won’t spoil the ending for you but it is as incoherent as the rest of the story. Incoherent, once more, for the reader, but apparently not for the characters.

Or take “Carta a una señorita en París”. In this piece a man who’s swapped flats with the aforementioned lady, pukes a bunny. Yes, you’ve read that correctly, and I don’t mean he pukes on a bunny; he throws up a bunny — living, by the way — and then another bunny, and then another bunny, and so on. This is experienced by our hero like a hassle, but also like a completely normal occurrence — say that you stay at a friend’s house and you get sick on the carpet, that kind of thing. His problem then is how to stay at his friend’s flat without the cute little bunnies destroying the flat. What does he do? He hides them in a closet, in the flower pots, behind curtains, and so on. Until the dark ending of the story, a finale that can be anticipated from the get go, so I have spoiled nothing for you here.

Or take “Bestiario”, the closing story that names the book. This one deals with the misadventures of a sick child called Isabel, who is sent to the countryside to recover, only to end up living with a dysfunctional family. Dysfunctional in the sense that there is a patina of domestic violence (and possibly sexual abuse) running below the surface of their interactions. And not dysfunctional due to the fact that this family keeps a living tiger in the house as pet, that this tiger moves freely around the property, and that the family have to scan the rooms when moving around the house, in order to avoid getting eaten or killed by the tiger, as everyone knows that’s what tigers do. Once more, the problem is how to move around the house, and how to move inside this family.

I won’t bore you dissecting Bestiario around problems for you, but this is something that to some extent can be said about all its stories. That is why this book is a conceptual unit. It was clearly conceived as such by its writer; this is not a collection of things Cortázar published here and there.

Now, had all the stories in the original been in so-called Bestiary that pertains us, the conceptual unity would have been lost in the excess of material, but it could have still been recovered by referring only to the eight original pieces. Who would reject abundance in the name of conceptual coherence? The problem is that there are two of those original stories absent in this re-edition: “Cefalea” and “Lejana”. And these are two of the most important stories in Bestiario, particularly “Lejana”, as it displays an early occurrence of one of Cortázar’s recurring themes, that of the double.

So, riffing Bestiario for the title of this collection makes as much sense as grabbing Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (to name a strongly conceptual album), removing “The Great Gig in Sky” and “Breathe” (to name two songs) and releasing an album called: Dark Side of the Moon: Selected Songs, in which you include music all the way up to the band’s recent soporific songs for divorced Home Counties dads. Does it make any sense? No, it doesn’t. But lot of even more non-sensical things are done in publishing, and especially in publishing in translation, and even more so when it comes to short stories.

All the above might seem like pedantry, and it might be. And anyone familiar enough with the history of Cortázar’s translations into English will be aware that this is not the first time several of his books are lumped together in one volume, riffing a pre-existing title — take End of the Game and Other Stories (later speculatively, via Antonioni’s film, called Blow Up and Other Stories), in which three of his books — Bestiario, Las armas secretas and Final del fuego — are interred in the mass grave of a collection. But I would argue that this pretty common erasure of the conceptual coherence of many a book of short stories in translation, for whatever the reason (commercial, or through ill-judgment), has done a lot of harm to the short story form, contributing to the perceived second place it has against the novel, particularly in the world of British letters, and I don’t mean only the short story in translation but the form as a whole.

For these reasons, I will call this book The Selected Stories of Julio Cortázar. A mistake — Harvill Press’s — could have been redressed here by Vintage but it hasn’t. This is not Bestiario; this is a collection — to slightly misquote its author’s words: these are butterflies pinned on a board.1 There is here more and there is here less than in Bestiario. Whatever there is, it is different, and as such it should be considered.

This pretty common erasure of the conceptual coherence of many a book of short stories in translation, for whatever the reason (commercial, or through ill-judgment), has done a lot of harm to the short story form, contributing to the perceived second place it has against the novel.

Once the misleading “Bestiary” is dropped from the title, once the frustration of seeing more of the same lazy editorial practices by Anglo-American publishers subdues, there are reasons to celebrate this collection, to rejoice in what it might mean for a potential reader — who may have never read any Cortázar — to encounter all of this writing in the same place.

Reviewing thirty-five stories would test the patience of any reader even more that all the words above, so allow me to highlight what I think are the best stories in the collection.

Aside from six of the pieces in Bestiario there’s the brilliant “Continuity of Parks” — a story that unfolds in its final independent clause, taking the reader to an unexpected resolution. There’s the now mythical “Blow Up”,2 the short story that inspired Antonioni’s film of the same name, and that in its Parisian setting isn’t any less remarkable than in Antonioni’s version of London’s Swinging 60s. Both “Axolotl” and “The Night Face Up” jam in different ways around Cortázar’s obsession with the figure of the double — the stories hold well together, although the missing “Lejana” would have provided a missing link, as already argued above. There’s the nightmarish “The Southern Thruway”, which narrates a Kafkean attempt to return to Paris by car — a short story that inspired the equally manic “Weekend”, by Jean-Luc Godard. And from his later period there’s the hallucinatory “The School at Night”, both a funny and astute criticism of institutional power and the difficulty of evading its grip.3 And there’s much more.

There are reasons to celebrate this collection, to rejoice in what it might mean for a potential reader — who may have never read any Cortázar — to encounter all of this writing in the same place.

If there’s something this book can’t be accused of is of being stingy. But — ironically and unsurprisingly — this unhinged generosity can also be added to the list of its weaknesses.

Firstly, there is a matter of digestion: there might more here than what anyone can eat all in one sitting, delivered via a tiny — cost-cutting — font and uninspiring typesetting, to make matters worse.

Secondly, if the point of this book is to present the work of Cortázar to a new audience, then what is the leading principle for compiling these stories and not others? There are pieces from all his short story books bar the posthumous La otra orilla, the first book he wrote — this is a coherent decision, as most criticism agrees these stories are well below in quality to Bestiario, the first book he published. But — without going again on a rant about what’s missing from Bestiario — why drop a story like “El perseguidor”, perhaps the most representative of Cortázar’s interest in jazz, both as music and cultural reference? Is there an aesthetic principle guiding the choices? An attempt to provide a sweeping historical approach to his writing that sends aesthetic or thematic considerations to a second place? Matters of publishing rights? Neither of the introductions do anything to explain the reader any of this. They do a great work in presenting Cortázar the myth to the unconverted, but they belong more in a hagiography than in a collection. And they still manage to rehash quite a few Cortázar clichés — for example regarding the debatable quality of his more political work (Manguel),4 or pertaining him as a jazz musician (Barry)5 — while also managing to amputate Cortázar from the geographies in which his writing is anchored, for example by suggesting that the origins of his work can be traced back to Tristram Shandy (Barry), without stopping for a minute to think how his work is also inscribed within a tradition of storytelling in the region — a tradition that can be traced back well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Finally, there is the problem of the plurality of voices that inhabit this book. There is one writer but there are five different translators here — Alberto Manguel (who also writes an introduction, as mentioned above), Patrick Blackburn, Suzanne Jill Levine, Clementine Rabassa, and Gregory Rabassa. From a literary and linguistic point of view, the quality of the translations is overall very good — this is not the problem here. The problem is the lack of coherence between the voices of these translators, something impossible to miss when those voices are lumped together in the same volume. This plurality is made worse by the fact that some of the earlier translations come across as a bit dated, particularly when compared with the later ones, the newest one being by Manguel, from 1982. And this datedness is something unfortunate, as one of Cortázar’s most remarkable USPs as a writer — as rightly pointed out by Barry in his introduction — is his capacity to keep sounding fresh, almost forty years after his death and seventy after his publishing debut, some gimmicky attempts at experimental uses of language notwithstanding.

The ideal way to approach Cortázar’s short stories would be to approach them in the way Cortázar intended it: through the books in which he put them. And to approach them in new translations.

There are always risks in removing things from the place where they live and tossing them around, especially when those things form a system that works like clockwork. What happens when those risks fulfil their potential for becoming problems is patent in this book. The ideal way to approach Cortázar’s short stories would be to approach them in the way Cortázar intended it: through the books in which he put them, those tight conceptual units (well, most of them). And to approach them in new translations, by any of the many translators of Latin American literature able to do an amazing work these days, as anyone in touch with the work of presses like An Other Stories, Dalkey Press Archive, Charco Press, Fitzcarraldo, Open Letter, or Structo, will be able to agree. But in a a world in which commercial needs, the pecuniary concerns of literary estate executors, and the fetishisation of quantity over quality, keep shaping the afterlives of most writers, this is just wishful thinking.

For the time being the Selected Short Stories of Julio Cortázar will have to do. Just leave Bestiary for another time. And be open for a bit of indigestion.

Bestiary: Selected Short Stories, by Julio Cortázar is published by Vintage Classics.

NOTES

  1. My thanks to Tobias Ryan for pointing me towards this. 

2.  Known in Spanish by the better “Las babas del diablo”, or devil’s slime, a reference to spider webs that can be seen floating in the air, at least in Argentina. 

3.  The stories sourced from Bestiario have been translated by Patrick Blackburn and Alberto Manguel. “Blow Up”, “Axolotl” and “The Night Face Up” have been translated by Blackburn. “The Southern Thruway has been translated by Suzanne Jill Levine. Manguel is also the translator of “The School at Night”. 

4. This is a favourite punchline of Mario Vargas Llosa too, who in his introduction to Cortázar’s Cuentos Completos (Spanish edition) dedicates a few paragraphs to Cortázar’s supposed political ingenuity and how this might have affected his writing.

5. In fairness to Kevin Barry, his is just a passing reference. And there is no doubt that jazz played an important part in Cortázar’s work — I have already discussed above his “El perseguidor”; but it is important to reframe jazz around Cortázar’s writing, and not around the myth. The following exchange in an interview with Jason Weiss for the Paris Review in 1984 might be relevant:

INTERVIEWER
In the biographical notes in your books, it says you are also an amateur trumpet plater. Have you ever played with any groups?

CORTÁZAR
No. That’s a bit of a legend that was invented by my very dear friend Paul Blackburn… He knew that I played the trumpet a little, mainly for myself at home… I would put on a Jelly Roll Morton record, or Armstrong, or early Ellington… And I would have fun hearing them play and adding my trumpet… I never dared approach musicians; now my trumpet is lost somewhere in the other room there. Blackburn put that in one of the blurbs. And because there is a photo of me playing the trumpet, people thought I really could play well.


Fernando Sdrigotti is a London-based Argentine writer and cultural critic. He is the founding editor of the journal Minor Literature[s] and teaches Latin American literature and film at Birkbeck, University of London. His latest book is Jolts, published by Influx Press.

Featured image: Cortázar en Imán, Marysol*, Creative Commons.