Rayuela and a brandy from Albania

Half a century of an emblematic work.

The first time I heard of the existence of Julio Cortázar was in 1969. I was about to turn 11 and during a morning outing with my mother, we stopped at a bookstore. Out of the new books on display at the entrance she chose a book with a short title, Cuentos (Short Stories), and though she knew nothing about the author, she gave it to me, convinced that it was the most appropriate for my age.

The book accompanied me during a family vacation at the beach resort of Gibara in eastern Cuba. One of the most pleasant experiences I can recall in my life, associated with reading, occurred in those days, since in that place, between the sea and the mountains and the visits or conversations in the park after supper, there was little to do and I used to go to my room on the top floor of that wooden house where we were staying and devoted myself to reading that book of the Huracán collection, so poorly made that each page I read would come off immediately as if it were an almanac and, more than once, the wind coming through the window that faced the coast forced me to pick up a great many of the pages and to put them again in order.

In this way I was able to enjoy “Casa tomada,” “Final del juego,” “Circe,” “La noche boca arriba,” texts that I not only liked, but worried me, showed me a part of literature that had little to do with the authors included in the school curriculum. For the first time I came into contact with those “Historias de cronopios y famas” that were not only very read by at least two generations of intellectuals in Cuba but were also the direct reason that in our cultural circles, always avid for novelties, there emerged some specimens that were half hippies, half lunatics, that proudly carried the label of “cronopios.”

I got to Rayuela (Hopscotch) much later, because perhaps the edition printed by Casa de las Américas in 1969 was not too accessible in Camagüey. Three or four years later I was able to read that thick yellowish volume of heterodox pages in the living room of a dressmaker while I waited for one of my sisters to finish trying on her dress, a sufficiently long time for me to read the first paragraphs of Lezama’s prologue and later skip, here and there, through some passages of the book, in a way that wouldn’t have upset its author but which did not give me a clear idea of the text.

Around those years I didn’t know that the singular novel had appeared, thanks to the Sudamericana publishers, in 1963 – precisely half a century ago now, who would have thought of it? – the same year in which its author travelled to Havana invited as a jury member for the Casa de las Américas Literary Award contest, and much less that on July 2, 1965 that institution sponsored a talk about the novel in its library, with a panel formed by Ana María Simo, Eliseo Diego, José Lezama Lima and Roberto Fernández Retamar.

Years later I was able to read his presentations which were collected in a small book and it caught my attention that, while the majority of the panel members translated their perplexity and enthusiasm for the recent reading in warm and a bit hyperbolic praises, maestro Lezama, despite his old exchange of correspondence with the author and a more recent personal friendship, did not hide his reticence. His point of view was very curious, he did not deny interest and quality, but spoke sparingly about its novelty, its fertile role for the new Latin American literature:

In Cortázar, the critical part, the zenithal part is more superior to the other part, to the other tip of the scale, that is, to the inconnu, the unknown. That is why I say that he is more a man of the age of the twilights and a man of the critical age than a man that represents the new measure, the new course, the new distance.

It has taken me several decades to get close to an intuition: the poet from Trocadero Street, who still had not been able to finish writing his Paradiso, contemplated with alarm the appearance of Rayuela since he probably felt it was getting ahead of him in certain searches and especially in the desire to write a totalising book where the language and the multiplicity of cultural leads had such relevant roles.

In any case, those who heard that night the author of Dador must have been convinced that he actually admired that book to the point of greed, because otherwise he wouldn’t have been made responsible for the prologue for the first Cuban edition of the novel which appeared four years later. It was an anti-academic and sumptuous text that could hardly help to pave the way for potential readers, but which undoubtedly was a poetic and original reading that went hand in hand with the imagination unleashed in the book: since the time of the Gracian imbroglios and labyrinths, there was a grotesque and irreparable division between what was said and what was meant to be said, between the breath endowed to the word and its configuration in the visibility. The verbal Icarus ended in the melting of the wax. Exquisite and terrifying mistakes were already being made in the mannerism, a word with two meanings and meaning at dawn. They were ways of having fun, of touring the plant labyrinth, to pass Hermes’ wheels in front of the houses with grotesque faces of monsters, of Etruscan giants or the trunk of the elephant curling around a centurion. An Argentinean in Europe, in the same temporal unity, reviews the labyrinths of his children’s games, and a man from the city of Buenos Aires puts to music the labyrinths of Bomarzo, in the baroque Italy of the 17th century. In the history of the labyrinths, Rayuela and Bomarzo are the same; both take from the inexhaustible children’s paideuma.

My first reading of the novel was not the most significant. I decided to ignore the “table of instructions” and read it like any other book. It seemed to me like a chaotic text in which I missed the limpidity and intensity of the short stories I had already admired. I tried it again a few times, but something made the book drop from my hands. The enlightenment would come in 1984, when a sort of existential crisis led me to seek refuge for a few days in a hotel in the faraway and peaceful town of Guaimaro. Alone in a room in that place where the water tasted like rotten fish which is why it was preferable to have a drink of Albanian brandy called Skanderveu, I spent the time there deciphering that book for endless days.

I have never read with such intensity. I repeatedly lived that gathering of the Club de la Serpiente where everyone finds out about the death of the Rocamadour baby and waits for the moment in which the Magician discovers it; the grotesque concert of Berthe Trépat; the scene of Oliveira with the clocharde; the descent into the cold room of the morgue in the madhouse. All the excerpts that seemed dispersed were finding their place and were being enlightened in an unexpected manner. I left the place a changed man.

Rayuela did not have in Cuba the clamorous welcome of One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it wasn’t difficult to find certain individuals in the vestibule of Havana’s Cinematheque or Coppelia ice cream parlour with a copy under the arm, to show they were authentically “up to date.” On the other hand, 1971 with its “Padilla case” was a sort of turning point, and though the Argentinean writer justified his attitude before the Cuban cultural authorities, certain reservations remained in the atmosphere and several years would go by before the book was printed again and came out of the patrimony of certain intellectual chapels.

That novel was such a singular, extreme experience that I cannot believe it could have notable imitators, at least in Cuban literature, though I have been able to perceive a bit of Rayuela well dissolved in the works of many of the authors we have today, in more than half a century.

I was able to see Cortázar only once. It was in the Che Guevara Room of the Casa de las Américas, and I could affirm with some certainty that it occurred in 1983, during his last visit to Cuba to participate in the meeting of the Standing Committee of Intellectuals for the Sovereignty of the Peoples. I was witnessing a book presentation or a recital and at some point I turned around and saw him sitting in the last row. He seemed very tall and very pale, with a face that looked very much like that of a child, so much so that I asked myself if that was natural in someone who 20 years before had published such a famous book. In no way did I dare approach him. What was I going to say to him that didn’t seem ridiculous? There was no other occasion. For the one that was most real for me was that one that I saw for several days in that town hotel and gave me such advice that several decades later I continue using it happily. (2013)

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