All Fires The Fire and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar (Suzanne Jill Levine, translator)

My interest in Julio Cortázar was piqued when I discovered his novel Hopscotch.  At the front of it is a Table of Instructions.  The reader can choose to read one of two ways:  the first by progressing in the normal, linear fashion.  The second is to follow a key of numbers, corresponding to the chapter headings, which sends the reader jumping back and forth through the book.  Fascinating, right?  I’m looking forward to tackling it, but am holding off until I have a substantial chunk of time to spend flipping pages.

Meanwhile, there are his short stories.  And I highly recommend the short stories of Julio Cortázar. They remind me of Quim Monzó, who I have to believe is familiar with Cortázar’s writings but whose own work – while it contains similar games and puzzles – doesn’t have the same goals.  The stories in All Fires The Fire are warm and the characters are treated with real tenderness.  For Cortazar, at least here, it’s not solely about the construction of a narrative.

The Southern Thruway occurs in the center of an epic traffic jam on a highway outside of Paris.  The stranded drivers and passengers form communities and pool resources as the hours become weeks.  Life, death and love continue within a microcosm.  This is a strange story, requiring the reader to withhold disbelief (seriously, why didn’t they just start walking?).  It’s also my favorite, despite (or because of?)  the absurd premise on which it is based.

In Meeting Cortázar pays tribute to his Argentine history – building a beautiful (and convincing) story.  He recounts the 1956 landing of Granma in Cuba and the arduous trek of the revolutionaries through the swamps and to the Sierra Maestra Mountain ranges.  This was Fidel Castro’s return to Cuba with his brother Raul and friend Che Guevara – and the beginnings of the Guerrilla War against Batista.  The story is narrated by Che, himself, but Cortázar doesn’t reveal this until the end.  In fact, to obscure identities, Fidel is called “…Luis (whose name wasn’t Luis, but we had sworn not to remember our names until that day arrived)…”  It’s a brilliant piece of writing.  I actually started the story before reading Guevara’s wife’s memoir, and for reasons I can’t remember put the book down.  It wasn’t until afterwards, after reading the memoir and returning to All Fires The Fire, that I connected fact and fiction.  I’ve read criticism that states this story also functions as an allegory, representing Cortázar’s faith in the Cuban revolution (Understanding Julio Cortázar by Peter Standish) – but I don’t have the background to speak to any of that.  I can only say that it’s a beautiful story about one man’s idealism and a friendship based on shared convictions.

Nurse Cora is the story that seems most reminiscent of Hopscotch.  A straightforward plot about a teenage boy in the hospital, his crush on his pretty young nurse and his dependence on an overbearing mother (who refers to her 15-year old son as “the baby”) is transformed into an extraordinary prose experiment.  Cortázar uses a series of revolving first person narrators, one picking up  mid-sentence from the other without any noticeable attempt at separation.  Yet, somehow, the reader never loses track of who is speaking.

Then I went in to keep the baby company, he was reading his magazines and already knew they were going to operate on him the next day.  As if it were the end of the world, the poor thing looks at me so.  I’m not going to die, Mama, come on, will you.  They took Cacho’s appendix out in the hospital and in six days he was ready to play soccer again.  Go home and don’t worry, I’m fine, I have everything I need.  Yes, Mama, yes, ten minutes asking me if it hurts me here or hurts me there, a good thing she has to take care of my sister at home, she finally left and I could finish the serial I’d started last night.

The afternoon nurse’s name is Nurse Cora…

All Fires The Fire contains eight stories in all.  Every one a masterpiece in my opinion.  Nothing Julio Cortázar writes could ever be described as common or colloquial.  The situations he creates border on the bizarre, yet each contains a recognizable truth, a visible link to a reality the reader can understand.  All of this makes him incredibly exciting to read.  An author whose books I guarantee you will recommend to friends, family, colleagues, unsuspecting strangers you meet on the street.  I know, I know… I probably sound a little over-zealous.  Can I offer you some Cortázar flavored Kool-Aid?

Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (1988)
ISBN:  0 394 75358 5  (This edition is no longer listed in the Pantheon Books catalog.)

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