It was 30 years ago that Julio Cortázar, the Argentine-turned-Parisian author of numerous essays, short stories and only two novels, undid his last tether to our corporal world. When he stepped off from our “so-called reality,” as one of his characters in “Hopscotch” (or “Rayuela,” in its original Spanish) put it, he left behind only his varied works, a few recorded interviews, and the notoriety he never desired.
This anniversary was not lost on the 40th annual International Buenos Aires Book Fair, which declared this the “Year of Cortázar,” showcased with shining posters, flat-screen TV exhibits, and musical acts clogged with sentimentality, all paying tribute to the deceased writer.
They have good intentions, I know. But if he didn’t so detest clichés, Cortázar would be rolling in his grave.
La Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires, which runs until May 12th, bills itself as “the most important meeting for the future of the book in Latin America,” clearly measuring importance numerically, as its description boasts “45, 000 square meters” of “more than a million readers” and “more than ten thousand book professionals.” While it’s an impressive feat to fit a third of the Buenos Aires population into one book fair, it somewhat detracts from the reflective literary experience. While somewhere, tucked away in the massive La Rural, the fair held various lectures with engaging players of the publishing world, it was all overwhelmed by the dizzying maze of corporate-sponsored kiosks. Any hopes of perusing a stack of books was dashed by the chaos of it all – the balloons, the photo-ops, the crowds ushering you along to the noisy next sea of kiosks.
Out of nostalgia for an old comfort-zone, I approached the United States stand in the room that separated texts by nationality. Perhaps I should be taking up this issue with my embassy, but most of the books offered were coffee table picture books of pop-culture references from decades past – the celebrated writers of the 19th and 20th century were delegated to a single shelf in the back.
There was also a line snaking out and growing dangerously close to invading the Venezuelan stand – and they weren’t waiting to buy books. These people were waiting for an opportunity to take a selfie, yes, a selfie, at the U.S. stand, hashtag suggestions included. While I can’t deny that they captured an element of American culture, I couldn’t see how the selfie was relevant to literature.
For a book fair, there seemed to be very little perusing of actual books. The event was instead marked by the din of uninterested children, the long faces of parents too exhausted to crack a binding, and young people excited to be someplace with some people, composing tweets in the hope it might get them on the book fair’s live Twitter feed. “The great illusion of the company of others,” Cortázar called it, over 50 years ago when he wrote “Rayuela,” “to the solitary man in a maze of mirrors and echoes.”
“Rayuela,” by contrast, offers a maze of the literary kind – a deconstructed novel that jumps from time and place to haphazardly weave together a story about everything and about nothing. Cortázar’s intellectual dance between stream-of-consciousness diatribes and pithy reflection are impossible to recount. Just like the elusive ‘center’ his protagonist is searching for, “Rayuela” cannot be fully described, only felt, absorbed, entwined with the reader who gives it the full attention of his or her mind. His pace and language is chaotic yet so perfectly reasonable that at times, your mind is fooled into thinking it is the one leading this dialectic tango.
With his protagonist, Horacio Oliveira, Cortázar so perfectly rides the existential line, just enough to have a suspect eye to all presupposed things, but not so much that the whole shebang of being is rejected outright. His musings on love and conversations with his mate will plunge you into the mind of the late Argentine author, and in doing so, will sink you deep within your own. Most importantly, Cortázar gave us something in “Rayuela” that the book fair cannot offer: quiet yet enraptured reflection.
While the book fair may be a good thing for those who like buying a ticket in order to spend more money, it is no way to celebrate the year of Cortázar, or the incredibly rich literary tradition of Argentina. So after you return from this year’s book fair, exhausted from all the things about it that have nothing to do with books, celebrate like Cortázar would – observe and think about the things we’re never asked to think about, reacquaint yourself with Borges’ stories, wander the pages of “Rayuela” – accompanied only by your reflection and perhaps your gourd. And you’ll have Horacio Oliveira to back you up: “He was right in rejecting the simple stupefaction of collective action and remaining alone once more next to his bitter mate.”