The Tale in the Revolution

Bridget Riley, Untitled, 1968.
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By JULIO CORTAZAR*

Lecture given in Havana in the 1960s

Today, before you, I find myself in a rather paradoxical situation. An Argentine short story writer is willing to exchange ideas about the short story without his listeners and interlocutors, with some exceptions, knowing nothing about his work. The cultural isolation that continues to affect our countries, added to the unfair incommunicability to which Cuba has been subjected at the present time, have determined that my books, of which there are already a few, have not reached, except exceptionally, the hands of readers as willing and enthusiastic as the gentlemen. The bad thing about all this is not so much that you haven't had the opportunity to judge my stories, but that I feel a bit like a ghost who comes to talk to you without that relative tranquility provided by knowing yourself preceded by the work carried out over the years. .

It is said that a ghost's most ardent desire is to recover at least a semblance of corporeality, something tangible that will return him, for a moment, to his life of flesh and blood. To get a little tangibility before you, I'm going to say in a few words the direction and meaning of my stories. Since I am going to deal with some aspects of the short story as a literary genre and it is possible that some of my ideas will surprise or shock those who will hear them, it seems to me an elementary honor to define the type of narration that interests me, pointing out my special way of understand the world.

Almost all the stories I have written belong to the so-called fantastic genre, for lack of a better name, and are opposed to that false realism which consists in believing that all things can be described and explained as philosophical optimism and scientific field of the eighteenth century, that is, within a world governed more or less harmoniously by a system of laws, principles, cause and effect relationships, defined psychologies, well mapped geographies. In my case, the suspicion of another more secret and less communicable order and the fruitful discovery of Alfred Jarry, for whom the true study of reality did not reside in the laws, but in the exceptions to these laws, have been some of the guiding principles of my search of a literature far removed from all naive realism.

For this reason, if in the ideas that follow, you find a predilection for everything that is exceptional in the story, be it the themes or even the expressive forms, I believe that this presentation of my own way of understanding the world will explain my decision position and my focus on the problem. In the last extreme, it can be said that I have only been talking about the story as I practice it. However, I do not believe this to be the case. I'm sure there are certain constants, certain values ​​that apply to all stories, fantastic or realistic, dramatic or humorous.

But, in addition to this stop on the path that every writer must take at some point in their work, talking about the short story is of special interest to us, since almost all Spanish-speaking American countries are giving it an exceptional importance, which it never had. in other Latin countries like France or Spain. Among us, as is natural in young literatures, spontaneous creation almost always precedes critical examination, and it is good that this is the case. No one can claim that tales are only written after their laws are known.

First, there are no such laws; at most one can speak of points of view, of certain constants that give a structure to this genre so little classifiable. Secondly, theorists and critics do not have to be the short story writers themselves, and it is natural that they only enter the scene when there is already a collection, a volume of literature that allows questioning and clarifying its development and its qualities. In America, whether in Cuba or Mexico, Chile or Argentina, a large number of short story writers have been working since the beginning of the century without knowing each other, discovering themselves, sometimes, almost posthumously.

Faced with this panorama without sufficient coherence, in which few know the work of others in depth, I believe it is useless to talk about the short story above national and international particularities, because it is a genre that among us has an importance and vitality that grows day by day. to day. Someday definitive anthologies will be made – as the Anglo-Saxon countries do, for example – and then we will know how far we have been able to reach. At the moment it does not seem useless to me to talk about the short story in the abstract, as a literary genre. If we have a convincing idea of ​​this form of literary expression, it will be able to contribute to establishing a scale of values ​​for this ideal anthology that is about to be made. There is too much confusion, too many misunderstandings in this field. While the short story writers carry out their task, it is time to talk about that task itself, apart from people and nationalities.

To understand the peculiar character of the short story, it is customary to compare it to the novel, a much more popular genre and on which precepts abound. He points out, for example, that the novel develops on paper and, therefore, during reading time, with no other limits than the exhaustion of the novelized material; for its part, the short story starts from the notion of limit, and in the first place from the physical limit, to the point that in France, when a short story exceeds twenty pages, it is already called “news”, a genre situated between the short story and the novel itself.

An Argentine writer, very fond of boxing, told me that in this fight between an enthralling text and its reader, the novel always wins by points, while the short story must win by knockout. This is true insofar as the novel progressively accumulates its effects on the reader, whereas a good story is incisive, biting, without quarter from the first sentences. This should not be taken too literally, because the good storyteller is a very astute boxer, and many of his opening blows may seem ineffective when in reality they are already undermining the opponent's most solid stocks.

Take any tale you like and look at its first page. I would be surprised if they found free elements, merely decorative. The short story writer knows that he cannot proceed cumulatively, that he does not have time as an ally; its only recourse is to work in depth, vertically, either above or below the literary space. And this, which thus expressed seems like a metaphor, nevertheless expresses the essence of the method. The time and space of the short story have to be condemned, subject to high spiritual and formal pressure to provoke that “opening” I was referring to earlier. Just ask yourself why a particular story is bad. It is not bad because of the theme because in literature there are no good or bad themes, there is only a good or bad treatment of the theme. Nor is it bad because the characters lack interest, since even a stone is interesting when a Henry James or a Franz Kafka is concerned with it. A story is bad when it is written without this tension that must be manifested from the first words or the first scenes. And so we can already anticipate that the notions of meaning, intensity and tension will allow us, as will be seen, to get closer to the very structure of the short story.

We said that the short story writer works with material that we qualify as significant. The significant element of the tale seemed to lie chiefly in its subject, the fact that it chose a real or feigned event which has that mysterious property of radiating something more out of itself to such an extent that a common domestic episode, as occurs in so many admirable accounts of a Katherine Mansfield or a Sherwood Anderson, becomes the implacable summary of a certain human condition, or the burning symbol of a social or historical order.

A story is significant when it breaks its own limits with that explosion of spiritual energy that suddenly illuminates something that goes far beyond the small and sometimes miserable story it tells. I am thinking, for example, of the theme of most of Anton Chekhov's admirable stories. What is there that isn't sadly everyday, mediocre, often conformist or uselessly rebellious? What is told in these accounts is almost what when we were still children, in the tiresome gatherings we had to share with adults, we listened to grandparents or aunts tell, the small and insignificant family chronicle of frustrated ambitions, of modest local dramas, of anguish in the limits of a room, a piano, a tea with sweets.

However, Chekhov's Katherine Mansfield short stories are significant, something explodes in them as we read them and propose a kind of break with everyday life that goes far beyond the reviewed story. You have already realized that this mysterious meaning does not reside only in the theme of the story, because in fact most of the bad stories that we have all read contain episodes similar to those that the mentioned authors deal with. The idea of ​​meaning cannot make sense if we do not relate it to that of intensity and tension, to the technique used to develop the theme. It is here where, abruptly, the distinction between the good and the bad storyteller takes place. That is why we will have to pause as carefully as possible at this crossroads, to try to understand a little more this strange form of life that constitutes a realized story and see why it is alive while others, who are apparently similar to it, are nothing more than paint. on paper, food for oblivion.

Let's look at the thing from the point of view of the short story writer and, in this case, obligatorily, from my own version of the subject. A short story writer is a man who, immediately, surrounded by the immense gibberish of the world, committed to a greater or lesser degree with the historical reality that contains him, chooses a certain theme and makes a story out of it. This choosing a theme is not so simple. Sometimes the short-story writer chooses and at other times he feels as if the theme were irresistibly imposing on him, pushing him to write it. In my case, the vast majority of my stories were written – shall we say – outside my will, above and below my reasoning conscience, as if I were no more than a medium through which an alien force was manifesting itself. But this, which may depend on the temperament of each one, does not change the essential fact, which is that at a given moment there is a theme, whether invented or chosen voluntarily, that is, strangely imposed from a plane from which nothing is defendable. There is a theme, I repeat, and this will become a short story. Before that happens, what can we say about the theme itself? Why this topic and not another? What reasons consciously or unconsciously move the short story writer to choose a certain theme?

It seems to me that the theme from which a good story will emerge is always exceptional, but I don't mean by this that a theme should be extraordinary, out of the ordinary, mysterious or unusual. On the contrary, it could be a perfectly trivial and everyday story. What is exceptional lies in a quality similar to that of a magnet: a good theme attracts a whole system of connected relationships, coagulates in the author and later in the reader an immense quantity of notions, glimpses, feelings and even ideas that floated virtually in his memory or in your sensitivity; a good theme is like the sun, a star around which a planetary system revolves that many times one is not aware of until the short story writer, an astronomer of words, reveals its existence to us.

Or, to be both more modest and up-to-date: a good theme has something of an atomic system, of a nucleus around which electrons revolve; and isn't all of this, after all, already like a proposition of life, a dynamic that urges us to get out of ourselves and enter a more complex and more beautiful system of relationships? Many times I have asked myself what is the virtue of certain unforgettable tales. At that moment we read them along with many others, which could even be by the same authors. And behold, the years have passed and we have lived and forgotten so much, but these small and insignificant tales, these grains of sand in the immense sea of ​​literature are still there, barking at us.

Isn't it true that everyone has their collection of short stories? I have mine and I could give you some names. I have william wilson, by Edgar Poe, I have tallow ball, by Guy de Maupassant, The little planets go round and round; here it is A Christmas Remembrance, by Truman Capote; Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis, Tertius, by Jorge Luís Borges; A dream accomplished, by Juan Carlos Onetti; The death of Ivan Illich, by Tolstoy; Fifty grand, by Hemingway; The dreamers, by Izak Dinesen, and so it could go on and on... You may have already noticed that not all of these short stories are necessarily anthology.

Why do they linger in memory? Think of the tales that you could not forget and you will see that they all have the same characteristic: they bind together a reality infinitely vaster than that of their mere story, and for that reason they have influenced us like a force that would no longer make modesty suspicious. of its apparent content, the brevity of its text. And that man who at a given moment chooses a theme and writes a short story with it will be a great short story writer if his choice contains – sometimes without him consciously knowing it – that fabulous opening from the small to the big, from the individual and circumscribed to existence itself. of the human condition.

We have thus reached the end of this first stage of the birth of a short story and have reached the threshold of its creation itself. The short story writer is facing his theme, facing this embryo that is already life, but that has not yet acquired its definitive form. For him, this theme has meaning, it has significance. But if it all boiled down to that, it would be of little use. Now, as the last term in the process, as an implacable judge, the reader is waiting for the final link in the creative process, the fulfillment or failure of the cycle.

And it is then that the short story has to be born a bridge, it has to be born a passage, it has to take the leap that projects the initial meaning discovered by the author, to that more passive and less vigilant and often even indifferent extreme that we call the reader. Inexperienced short story writers tend to fall into the illusion of imagining that it will be enough for them to simply write about a topic that has moved them, to move, in turn, the readers. They fall into the naivety of that individual who thinks his son is beautiful and takes it for granted that others see him as beautiful.

None of the lords will have forgotten the vat of amontillado, by Edgar Poe. The extraordinary thing about this tale is the abrupt disregard of any description of the environment. By the third or fourth sentence we are already in the heart of the drama, witnessing the relentless fulfillment of revenge. The killers, by Hemingway, is another example of intensity achieved by eliminating everything that is not essentially dramatic. However, we are very far from knowing what will happen in the story, but nevertheless; we cannot remove ourselves from its atmosphere. In case of The Cask of Amontillado quality The killers, facts stripped of all preparation leap at us and seize us; on the other hand, in a lengthy and flowing account by Henry James – The Master's Lesson, for example – one immediately feels that the facts themselves grow in importance, that everything is in the forces that unleashed them, in the subtle mesh that preceded and accompanied them. But both the intensity of the action and the internal tension of the story are the product of what I called before: the writer's craft, and this is where we are not going at the end of this walk through the short story.

In my country, and now in Cuba, I was able to read short stories by the most varied authors: mature or young, from the city and the countryside, dedicated to literature for aesthetic reasons or for social imperatives of the moment, committed or not committed. Well then, and although I seem to be repeating the obvious, both in Argentina and here the good stories are being written by those who master the craft in the sense already indicated. An Argentine example will clarify this better. In our central and northern provinces there is a long tradition of oral tales that the gauchos tell each other at night around the campfire, that parents continue to tell their children, and that suddenly pass through the pen of a regionalist writer and, in an overwhelming majority of cases, become bad stories.

That happens? The stories themselves are delightful, they translate and summarize the experience, the sense of humor, and the fatalism of the country man, and some even rise to a tragic or poetic dimension. When we hear them from the mouth of an old man Creole, between chimarrão and chimarrão, we feel that time is annulled, and we think that the Greek aedos also told the exploits of Achilles in this way, for the admiration of shepherds and travelers.

But at that moment, when Homer should have made an Iliad or an Odyssey out of this sum of oral traditions, in my country a gentleman appears for whom the culture of cities is a sign of decadence, for whom the storytellers we all love are aesthetes, who wrote for the mere delight of liquidated social classes, and this gentleman understands, on the other hand, that in order to write a short story, the only thing that is needed is to write down a traditional story, preserving as much as possible the conversational tone, peasant fads, grammatical errors, what they call local color. I don't know if this way of writing popular stories is cultivated in Cuba; I hope not, because in my country there has been nothing but indigestible volumes that are of no interest either to country men, who prefer to continue listening to tales between two drinks, or to readers in the city, who will be corrupted, but who consider themselves to be readers of the classics of the genre.

On the other hand – and I am also referring to Argentina – we have been writers like Roberto Payró, Ricardo Güiraldes, Horácio Quiroga and Benito Lynch who, also starting from themes that are often traditional, heard from the mouths of old “criollos” like a “Don Segundo Sombra”, they knew how to enhance this material and turn it into a work of art. But Quiroga, Güiraldes and Lynch knew the writer's craft in depth, that is, they only accepted significant, enriching themes, just like Homer, many warlike and magical episodes must be ignored in order to leave only those that have come down to us thanks to their enormous mythical force. , its resonance of mental archetypes, of psychic hormones, as Ortega y Gasset called myths. Quiroga, Güiraldes and Lynch were writers of universal dimension, without localist, ethnic or populist prejudices; for this reason, in addition to carefully choosing the themes of their stories, they submitted them to a literary form, the only one capable of transmitting to the reader all their values, all their ferment, all their projection in depth and height. They wrote tensely, they showed intensely.

The example I gave may be of interest to Cuba. It is evident that the possibilities that the Revolution offers a short story writer are almost endless. The city, the countryside, struggle, work, different psychological types, conflicts of ideology and character; and all of this seems to be exacerbated by the desire that you see in you to act, to express yourself, to communicate in a way you've never been able to do before. For all this, how will it translate into great stories, stories that reach the reader with the necessary force and effectiveness? It is here where I would like to concretely apply what I said on a more abstract ground.

Enthusiasm and good will are not enough on their own, any more than the craft of a writer alone is enough to write stories that literally fix (that is, in the collective admiration, in the memory of a people) the greatness of this Revolution in progress . Here, more than anywhere else, a total fusion of these two forces is required today, that of the man fully committed to his national and world reality and that of the writer who is lucidly sure of his craft. In this sense there is no possible mistake. However veteran, however experienced a short-story writer he may be, if he lacks an ingrained motivation, if his stories are not born out of a profound experience, his work will not go beyond a mere aesthetic exercise. But the opposite will be even worse, because fervor, the will to communicate a message, is worthless if you lack the expressive, stylistic instruments that make this communication possible.

At this point, we are touching the crux of the matter. I believe, and I say this after having weighed at length all the elements that come into play, that writing for a revolution, wanting to write within a revolution, wanting to write in a revolutionary way, does not mean, as many believe, necessarily writing about the revolution itself. Playing a little with words, Emmanuel Carballo said here a few days ago that in Cuba it would be more revolutionary to write fantastic stories than stories about revolutionary themes. Naturally, the phrase is exaggerated, but it produces a very revealing impatience.

For my part, I believe that the revolutionary writer is the one in whom the awareness of his free individual and collective commitment is indissolubly fused with that other sovereign cultural freedom that confers full mastery of his craft. If this responsible and lucid writer decides to write fantastic, psychological, or backward-looking literature, his act is an act of freedom within the revolution, which is why it is also a revolutionary act, although his stories are not concerned with individual or collective actions that the revolution adopts.

Contrary to the strict criteria of many who confuse literature with pedagogy, literature with teaching, literature with ideological indoctrination, a revolutionary writer has every right to address a much more complex reader, much more demanding in spiritual matters than writers imagine. and the critics improvised by circumstance and convinced that their personal world is the only world there is, that the concerns of the moment are the only valid concerns. Let us repeat, applying to what surrounds us in Cuba, the admirable phrase of Hamlet to Horace: “There are many more things in heaven and on earth than your philosophy supposes…”.

And let us think that a writer is not judged just by the theme of his stories or novels, but by his living presence in the heart of the community, by the fact that the total commitment of his person is an irrefutable guarantee of the truth and the need to his work, however foreign it may seem to the circumstances of the moment. This work is not alien to the revolution because it is not accessible to everyone. On the contrary, it proves that there is a vast sector of potential readers who, in a certain sense, are much more separated than the writer from the final goals of the revolution, from those goals of culture, freedom, full enjoyment of the human condition that Cubans set for themselves. the admiration of all who love and understand them.

The higher the writers who were born for it aim, the higher will be the final goals of the people to which they belong.

Beware of the easy demagoguery of demanding literature accessible to everyone! Many of those who support it have no other reason to do so than their evident inability to understand a wider range of literature. They clamorously ask for popular themes, without suspecting that many times the reader, however simple it may be, will instinctively distinguish between a poorly written popular tale and a more difficult and complex tale, but which will force him to leave his small surrounding world for a moment. and it will show you something else, whatever it is, but something else, something different. It makes no sense to talk dryly about popular topics. Stories about popular themes will only be good if they adjust, like any other story, to the demanding and difficult internal mechanics that we tried to show in the first part of this lecture. Years ago, I had proof of this assertion in Argentina, in a circle of men from the countryside that we attended a few writers.

Someone read a story based on an episode of our war of independence, written with a deliberate simplicity to place it, as its author said, “on the level of the peasant”. The report was listened to politely, but it was difficult to realize that it had not struck a chord. Then one of us read monkey's paw, the justly famous short story by WW Jacobs. The interest, the emotion, the astonishment and finally the enthusiasm were extraordinary. I remember that we spent the rest of the night talking about sorcery, witches, diabolical revenge. And I am sure that Jacobs' tale lives on in the memory of these illiterate gauchos, while the supposedly popular tale, fabricated for them, with its vocabulary, its apparent intellectual possibilities and its patriotic interests, must be as forgotten as the writer who wrote it. manufactured.

I have seen the emotion that provokes a representation of Hamlet among simple people. This subtle and difficult work, if they exist, and which continues to be the subject of scholarly studies of endless controversies. It is true that these people cannot understand many things that specialists in Elizabethan theater are passionate about. But what does it matter? Only your emotion matters; his wonder and transport in the face of the tragedy of the young Danish prince. Which proves that Shakespeare truly wrote for the people, insofar as his theme was profoundly meaningful to everyone – on different planes, of course, but reaching everyone a little – and that the theatrical treatment of that theme had the intensity characteristic of great writers and thanks to which the apparently most rigid intellectual barriers are broken down and men recognize and fraternize on a level that is beyond or below culture. It would be naive, of course, to believe that every great work can be understood and admired by simple people; it is not, and cannot be. But the admiration provoked by Greek tragedies or those of Shakespeare, the passionate interest aroused by many stories and novels that are far from simple or accessible, should make supporters of the evil called “popular art” suspect that their notion of the people is partial, unfair and, ultimately dangerous.

People are not doing themselves any favors if they are offered a literature that they can assimilate effortlessly, passively, like someone who goes to the cinema to see cowboys. What you have to do is educate him and that is, in a first stage, a pedagogical and not a literary task. It has been a comforting experience for me to see how in Cuba the writers I most admire participate in the revolution giving the best of themselves, without limiting part of their possibilities in areas of supposedly popular art that will not be useful to anyone. One day Cuba will have a collection of short stories and novels that will contain, transmuted to the aesthetic level, eternalized in the extra-temporal dimension of art, its revolutionary deed of today.

But these works will not have been written out of obligation, by the writer who feels he must shape them into short stories, novels or plays or slogans of the hour. His themes will be born when the time is right, when the writer feels he must shape them into short stories, novels, plays or poems. Its themes will contain an authentic and profound message, because they will not have been chosen by a didactic or proselytizing imperative, but by an irresistible force that will impose itself on the author, and that he, appealing to all the resources of his art and his technique , without sacrificing anything or anyone, will convey to the reader how fundamental things are transmitted: from blood to blood, from hand to hand, from man to man.

* Julio Cortázar (1914-1984), journalist and writer, is the author, among other books, of The hopscotch game (Company of letters).

Translation: Zwingli Dias for the magazine Encounters with Brazilian Civilization no.12, June 1979.

 

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