In an attempt to revive old literary studies of mine, I’ve divided a paper I wrote comparing two of Julio Cortázar’s stories into two separate articles. You can find my companion piece on Cortázar’s “Blow-up,” (1959) here, in the Bosphorus Review’s latest issue. The interesting thing about that story, for me, is that nearly twenty years later, Julio Cortázar seemed to have recycled the premise of “Blow-up” and updated it when he wrote the story “Apocolipsis de Solentiname” (1976), which I write about here.
In “Apocalipsis” the import of historic testimony, which was absent from “Blow-up,” bridges his characters’ isolated shock in a way that asserts his real symbolic political solidarity with the Latin American revolutionary collective (in his writing, the purview of individual experience has transformed into historical testimony). “Apocalipsis” directly engages with a historic period of time leading up to the FSLN overthrow of the Nicaraguan government during the Revolution in 1979. It provides a harrowing vision that prophesies the forms of torture other horrors that the people of Nicaragua would be subjected to. In addition, it is an important example of an author responding both to public criticism and political tragedy through a work of art in an attempt to express political solidarity with the oppressed while furthering his revolutionary literary aesthetic.
In “Apocalipsis,” Julio Cortázar returns to his representation of the photographic process as a means to rupture bourgeois consciousness. In this story, Julio Cortázar (the fictional protagonist whom I will refer to as Julio) travels to a press conference in Nicaragua. The story mimics historical truth because all of the characters in the story are in fact drawn from his real-life experience of attending a similar press conference in Nicaragua. Cortázar writes about the questions that are raised at the press conference: “why don’t you live in your own country, why was the film of Blow-Up so different from your story, do you think a writer ought to be politically committed?” These questions are also questions that the story “Apocalipsis” demonstratively responds to.
For the answers to those questions, we ascertain from his depiction of violence that Cortázar did not live in his country due to fear of the military regimes that plagued Latin America for lefitsts, the film Blow-Up was different because Antonioni did not perceive (or wish to portray) the political resonance of the story, and Cortázar does indeed believe that a writer should be politically committed. While Cortázar expresses his disparagement for the repeated questions people expect him to answer, i.e., “don’t you think that down below you wrote too obscurely for the masses?” he also responds to them by sharpening his ideological message in support of revolutionary solidarity, by the end of the story.
In “Apocalipsis,” Julio visits a small town where his poet friend Ernesto Cardenal lives. He helps the locals to sell their paintings. Several instances of foreshadowing unhinge the travel-diary-like narration. While praising Enesto Cardenal, he writes, “the jackal may howl but the bus moves on,” which as Alberto Moreiras points out in his essay, “Apocalypse at Solentiname as Heterological Production,” has metaphoric significance. The passage briefly hints at one’s empathy and the ability to feel pain at a distance. Moreiras writes: “The jackal in Cortázar’s text foretells an extraordinary act of ectoplasmic translation. A jackal is the Central American animal whose howling culturally translates the howling of the wolf in other latitudes: ominous, portentous” (160). Later, in the airplane, Julio has a flash of anxiety when he jokingly comments that their Piper Aztec, “was in fact taking us straight into the sacrificial pyramid” (14). These hints of warning destabilize the naively optimistic rendering, just as the narrative destabilization in the beginning of “Las Babas” planted clues to the direction the story would take.
When Julio arrives at their destination, he snaps a photo with a Polaroid, and takes note of how strange the image appears as it develops: “one of those cameras that on the spot produce a piece of sky-blue paper which gradually and miraculously and Polaroid begins slowly to fill with images, first all disturbing ghost-shapes and then little by little a nose, a curly head of hair” (14). He de-familiarizes the photographic process by writing as if he is naïve to it:
For me to see emerging from nothing, from that little square of blue nothingness those faces and smiles of farewell filled me with amazement and I told them so. I remember asking Oscar what would happen if once after some family photo the blue scrap of paper suddenly began to fill with Napoleon on horseback, and Don Jose’s great roar of laughter . . . (14)
The surrealistic sense of imaginative horror in these initial passages casually disappears beneath the mention of friendly laughter. The momentary dream of horror is suppressed by the reality of comfort and peace among friends, a juxtaposition that again foreshadows one of the central themes of the story.
Cortázar highlights Julio’s status as a visitor in order to situate him within a different class than the others. He is intrigued and unfamiliar with the paintings he sees that are made by the people of the village: “. . . and I saw the paintings in a corner, began to look at them. I can’t remember who it was explained they’d been done by the local people, this one was by Vincente, this one’s by Ramona, some signed, others not, yet all of them incredibly beautiful, once again the primeval vision of the world…” (15). Julio sifts through them, stunned by their depiction of a world full of plants, work, religion, and natural beauty.
In following with custom, Julio attends Mass and discusses how the service portrays the instability of the lives of the people in the town:
[Mass] which that particular day was Jesus’ arrest in the garden, a theme the people of Solentiname treated as if it dealt with them personally, with the threat hanging over them at night or in broad daylight, their life of constant uncertainty not just on the islands or on the mainland and in all of Nicaragua but also in nearly the whole of Latin America, life surrounded by fear and death, life in Guatemala and life in El Salvador, life in Argentina and Bolivia, life in Chile and Santo Domingo, life in Paraguay, life in Brazil and in Colombia. (15)
Cortázar intentionally extends the solidarity of his story’s political outcry to encompass the lives of all Latin Americans. His political aim is to connect the experience of Latin Americans as a singular, inclusive experience.
Before Julio leaves the island community, he decides to take photographs of the paintings he admires in the community room. He details his efforts to photograph the paintings: “I went through photographing them one by one, positioning myself so that each canvas completely filled the viewer” (15). The photographic medium extracts the paintings from their time and place, allowing Cortázar to transport them back to Paris. When he writes: “as luck would have it, there were exactly the same number of paintings as I had shots left, so I could take them all without leaving any out, when Ernesto came to announce the launch was waiting,” he gives sense that there is some kind of divine necessity in his capturing these images (15).
Again, a minor fissure seeps into the text when Julio explains to Ernesto Cardenal that he took photographs of the paintings: “he laughed, painting-snatcher, image-smuggler. Yes, I said, I’m carting them all off, and back home I’ll show them on my screen and they’ll be far bigger and brighter than yours, tough shit to you” (15). Cortázar positions Julio in a joke about imperial theft enacting the way bourgeois tourists take photographs in order to collect memories from afar. As Walter Benjamin describes in his essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (Work of Art, 221). Julio thinks that the photos will later become a fixture of his comfortable Parisian home.
When Cortázar returns to Paris, one of the first things he decides to do is to develop the film, and once he picks up the photographs, he prepares to view them on his projector, just as he had planned. He expresses the naive excitement of a tourist about to relive the beauty of a distant place they’ve travelled to. Instead, what he sees betrays his expectations. A boy he photographed appears with a bullet in his head, shot by an officer and faced with other men with machine guns. He describes both the boy and Solentiname being “hemmed in” by “water and officialdom” (16). The boy is “hemmed in” by the photographic medium itself, locked into place in the form of a testimonial image, and Cortázar’s renewed vision of the place appears “hemmed in” in the middle of a military attack.
Julio’s emotions bubble up and he thinks that he must have mistakenly taken someone else’s photographs. Then he sees a photo taken of the Mass that confirms that the photos belong to him. He scrolls through the complete set of photographs, seeing a series of images of the torture of a naked woman, a mass grave in a mine, and a car exploding. The images encompass different Latin American sites where history plays out as a violent rupture to the bourgeois conception of the world, “I carried on pressing and pressing between flashes of bloody faces and bits of bodies and women and children racing down hill-sides in Bolivia or Guatemala, suddenly the screen flooded with mercury and with nothing and with Claudine too, coming in silently” (16). When his companion, Claudine, enters the story, he is speechless and leaves so that she can look at the photos alone. With a sense of irrational conviction, he states: “…we never know how or why we do certain things when we’ve crossed a boundary we were equally unaware of” (17). Julio goes to the bathroom and experiences a physical response to the state of shock that the photographs put him in. He vomits.
This scene recalls Roberto Michel’s scream in “Blow-up,” each instance of hallucinatory violence produces an uncontrollable bodily response. Then Julio notices that Claudine isn’t screaming. The fast juxtaposition of responses places the hellish visions like a weight upon Julio, but not on Claudine. The horror that opened itself up to him seemed to happen by way of an gap in reason that can’t be explained. He writes: “I wasn’t going to say anything to her, what was there to say now, but I remember vaguely thinking of asking her something really crazy, asking if at some point she hadn’t seen a photo of Napoleon on a horseback. I didn’t, of course” (17). When the narrator returns to his mention of a dream in which Napoleon would appear as if to justify his own unreliable, hallucinatory mind. For Napoleon to appear would no longer remain an implausible farce as it was when the motif appears in the beginning of the story. The recurring motif reminds the reader what has changed, which is to say the story produces two simultaneous frames of reality that create dissonance in their mutual independence. This mutual independence forms a strangely counter-intuitive truth because though it seems plausible that a bourgeois could comprehend violence, the bourgeois subjectivity relies on its wholly reified consciousness towards violence.
In comparison to “Las Babas del Diablo,” “Apocalipsis de Solentiname” produces a much more direct symbolic message. Cortázar does away with the narrative meditations on medium, opting instead to import a sense of historical realism. Cortázar asserts that a Latin American writer must express solidarity with the condition of the people, “He must, metaphorically or actually enter the street, and in Latin America this street becomes more cluttered with barricades, snipers and painful confrontations every day” (Politics, 539). Cortázar uses “Apocalipsis” as a means to symbolically “enter the street.” His story serves as a testimony of his empathy at a distance through a willful unveiling of clear and realistic horror as though it were an irrational dream. Cortázar uses the symbolic weight of his status as a well-known author and he uses the revolutionary struggle in Nicaragua as a backdrop to his portrayal of widespread violence throughout Latin America that produces shock, not indifference. He maintains his fantastical mode of representation by inserting irrational hallucinations as a liberating breach in logic: “the photographic medium becomes a privileged vehicle where his avant garde aesthetics coincide with the weight of visual testimony” (Russek, 2).
Photography slices reality from its context and puts separates it within a newly established frame. For Benjamin, photography “penetrates deeply into its [reality’s] web” (Work of Art, 233). In Cortázar’s use, this web is immersed in historical violence and otherwise invisible to the countenance of his bourgeois subjects. In “Apocalipsis” the violence that appears as a result of the developed photographs is explicit and the reader knows exactly what Cortázar’s insertion of violence refers to. The violence is historically specific although no actual massacre had taken place in the community of Solentiname at the time Cortázar wrote the story. Later, the Nicaraguan revolutionary movement by the Sandinistas would progress, and a similar incident of military slaughter would happen at Solentiname, which makes the story prophetic. Either way, military violence had become common in Latin America, which is why Cortázar gestures that the violence he sees is something shared across Latin America.
In both stories, Cortázar interrogates questions of asymmetrical relationships of power akin to Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of “contact zones” which are defined as the “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (qtd. Russek, 4). While “Las Babas del Diablo” remains localized in a Parisian setting, in “Apocalipsis,” the disparities of power take on global proportions. “Apocalipsis” captures a wider totality of the many different ways that people experience disparity including cultural imperialism, class differences, and technological disparity.
Cortázar’s revolutionary struggle is still at stake, and his emphasis on political commitment is relevant now just as it was when he wrote “Apocalipsis” in the 1970s. The question that remains is how one might draw from Cortázar’s strengths in forming a revolutionary literary aesthetic while endeavoring to push them further towards material praxis as opposed to residing in a merely symbolic plane.
Cortázar did incur direct political consequences by writing “Apocalipsis” because the military junta in Argentina at that time censored the publication of the story. Presumably, its visible testimony to militaristic violence struck a nerve. The potential for the testimonial use of images culminates in Benjamin’s description of the intersection of aesthetics and politics, “All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war” (Work of Art, 241). One of Cortázar’s strengths is in his discovery that representations of violence need not hinge on a rational portrayal. His inclusion of the irrational appearance of violence through photography and the utter shock it produces exposes bourgeois denial and reintroduces a phenomenon that has been de-familiarized. He recalls a time when photographs were shocking. He extends horror to the spaces where it belongs. For Moreiras:
The greatness of “Apocalipsis resides in its capacity to affirm a certain constitutive impossibility for the work of art to engage in ontological constructions while at the same time also affirming that the work of art depends, in its very constitution, on such constitutive impossibility. This has serious consequences regarding the possible effects of literature on political thinking and the social articulation of cultural work (159).
Cortázar’s effort to use literature to expose the dialectic positions his revolutionary aesthetic in a Marxist-Hegelian tradition. However, he did not wish to write what became known as “proletarian literature” because he felt that it had become too conventional. Writing itself, for Cortázar demands a revolutionary approach, which aims toward future forms by defying rational thought and endeavoring to reintroduce diminishing political praxis through an aesthetic means. Cortázar ultimately portrays self-critique as a precondition for revolution in his story “Apocalipsis.” This story stems from earlier meditations in “Las Babas” on the bourgeois subjective complicity in relation to violent circumstances. These two stories symbolize the preliminary break down of bourgeois consciousness that is required for revolutionary praxis.
To read the story in full along with Julio Cortázar’s own lecture on the story check out LitHub’s article, “Julio Cortazar Teaches a class on his own short story.”
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————-. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
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