Julio Cortazar

Julio Cortazar was an Argentine writer who was born in Belgium, grew up in Argentina and later spent most of his life in France.

Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) was an Argentine writer who was born in Belgium, grew up in Argentina and later spent most of his life in France. His literary work focuses on poetry and short stories that often treat elements of fantasy. Cortázar was also very vocal about his political opinions. He fiercely opposed the government of Juan Peron, for which he served a short time in prison. His anti-peronist views prompted him to move to Paris in 1951. He later acquired French citizenship in 1981. The writer also worked extensively as a translator, working for UNESCO and also translating into Spanish classic works of fiction such as Robinson Crusoe and many of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Julio Cortázar is often compared with fellow Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who both praised and criticized his work. Borges featured Cortázar’s early short story Casa Tomada (1951, A House Taken Over) in one of his literary magazines, a story that contains many of the elements that would later define Cortázar’s dream-like narrative style. The story opens in the very normal, everyday setting of a home, where we find a woman knitting who is accompanied by her brother. Soon, however, the pair rather indifferently discovers that unknown invaders are slowly taking over their house room by room. In this and in many of his later works, a seemingly realistic story opening slowly unravels into a bizarre world of fantasy with non-linear timelines and curious plot twists. Readers often get the sense that Cortázar enjoys using fiction writing to escape reality himself and explore impossible realms that bend physical laws and play with emotional effects such as surprise and discovery. Sometimes, however, we also see a writer focusing purely on the aesthetics of language. His The Instruction manual, included in the collection of his short stories Historias de Cronopios y de Famas (1962), opens much in instruction manual form describing in lyrical detail how to carry out such straightforward tasks and acts as crying, being afraid, and winding a watch. In 1966, his story Las Babas del Diablo (The devil’s drooling) was made into a film entitled Blow Up.

Besides his countless short stories, Cortázar also wrote four novels. He first received attention as a novelist at the age of 46 with Los Premios (The Winners, 1960), in which an unlikely group of lottery winners wins a cruise together bound for no one knows where. The group embarks on an adventure full of struggles, and new and old relationships on a boat that sails toward disaster. His novel Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1966), one of his best-known pieces of literature, recounts the strange tale of Horacio Oliveira, a man whose life will change when his mistress disappears. After the disappearance, Oliveira will hold a bizarre variety of odd jobs, and finally end up helping to run an insane asylum, where his own sanity begins slowly slipping away. The novel experiments even more with timelines, offering readers the opportunity to follow an optional order of chapters that bounce back and force through the narrative and notes, an option that turns reading into something of a game and reminds us of the story’s title. The novels make heavy use of humor and symbolism; the cruise ship seems to represent a small version of the world, or at least a country, where passengers who are guided through troubled waters by the whims of an indifferent crew and captain recall the citizens of a nation under a corrupt government.

Today, Julio Cortázar is still celebrated as one of the world’s great writers and an important member of the Latin boom of the 1950s and 60s. His work offers readers the exciting chance to experience different worlds and to get to know unusual characters that may help us understand our own world and ourselves.