In the opening pages, Cortázar confronts us with the sad reflection of our hopes and the crystal brick in which we live. But it isn’t all bad:
Y no que esté mal si las cosas nos encuentran otra vez cada día y son las mismas. Que a nuestro lado haya la misma mujer, el mismo reloj, y que la novela abierta sobre la mesa eche a andar otra vez en la bicicleta de nuestros anteojos, ¿por qué estaría mal?The ordinary both hides and reveals struggle (as the open novel on the table remounts the bicycle of our reading glasses). And so he offers us instructions on how to cry, how to be afraid, how to understand three famous paintings (by Titan, Rafael, and Holbein, respectively), how to kill ants in Rome, how to climb stairs, and how to wind a watch (“No te regalan un reloj, tú eres el regalado, a ti te ofrecen para el cumpleaños del reloj.”).
Then there are the “strange occupations” of the extended family that build a gallows in their garden and drop strands of hair down bathroom drains in order to recover them. An aunt has an unholy fear of falling on her back, to such a degree that the father accompanies her throughout the house to examine the floor for potential trouble, the mother sweeps the patio several times a day, the sisters go around picking up stray tennis balls, and the cousins eradicate any trace left by the various dogs, cats, turtles, and chickens that wander the house. Her obsessive terror is a mystery--especially since she’s darkly hinted at never being able to get up again, even though there are 32 other people in the house to help her. That is, of course, until the night the eldest brother finds a helpless cockroach stranded on its back on the kitchen floor.
Aside from Kafka’s kitchen, there’s the room where they trap tigers (celebrating afterwards), and the strategic and carefully dramatized way in which they crash local funerals and wakes. But none of this is a big deal. As he puts it, all that matters is doing something, which is why his only motive for this telling is to prevent the rain from getting too oppressive on an empty afternoon.
Next come the discursive notes on “unstable stuff” (according to translator Paul Blackburn). We are given instructions on singing (and admonished to leave Schumann in peace), notes on office work, the nobility of bicycles, how mirrors behave on Easter Island, the possibilities of abstraction, the interchangeable lives and deaths of a newspaper, a satire on bureaucracy, the sensory experiences of a headless man, a theme for a tapestry, history as perceived by a chair, a wise man with a hole in his memory, plans for a poem, an undesirable camel, a bear’s discourse, a portrait of a cassowary, the tragedy of falling raindrops, a story without a moral, and the portentous journey of the lines of a hand. My favorite piece is “Fin del mundo del fin,” a fanciful exploration of the consequences of writers writing without end and what happens when books multiply like rabbits. The poor use books for bricks to build cabins and the books eventually create new land masses. Boats are no longer able to sail, so they’re converted into casinos and the public walks to them on foot over the bibliographic (or well-versed) sea. I also love “Qué tal, López”, which contains a line I believe to be part of Cortázar’s artistic motivation:
Pero las cosas invisibles necesitan encarnarse, las ideas caen a la tierra como palomas muertas.“But invisible things need to become incarnate, ideas fall to earth like dead doves.”
And so we find ourselves at the book’s last section, “Historias de cronopios y de famas,” which is divided into two. After a brief primer on the nature and customs of famas, cronopios, and esperanzas (where we learn of their habits, joys, and griefs), we come to the little tales of their “days and ways”--slight vignettes which whimsically capture their essence. There’s an indefinable delicacy about the way in which Cortázar recounts these stories. Dry wit mingles with compassion, leaving an indelible impression on the imagination that is stronger than mere mental pictures.
Famas conserve their memories carefully, wrapping them (from head to foot) in black sheets and placing them upright against the living room wall with small place cards attached. Cronopios are disorderly and let their memories wander about the house amid happy shouting, and when they run into one, they softly caress it and tell it to take care.
They all go on trips, wind clocks, eat lunch, own handkerchiefs, start businesses, conduct experiments, sing and dance, walk down streets, have trouble with utility companies, build houses, treat psychiatric patients, entertain academics, explore caverns (with tragic results for the intrepid cronopio who was given ham sandwiches instead of his beloved cheese), mail letters, send telegrams, and have encounters with flora and fauna. Hence:
TORTOISES AND CRONOPIOSI miss reading about them and wish it wasn’t finished.
Now tortoises are great admirers of speed, as is natural.
The esperanzas know it, and don’t give it another thought.
The famas know it, and make fun.
The cronopios know it, and every time they meet a tortoise, they take out a box of colored chalk, and on the tortoises’ round blackboard, draw a swallow.
(Image via UNESCO)