In his 1952 short story “Axolotl,” a reader may find the central fulcrum on which the worlds of Julio Cortázar turn. Here, in this brief story (a mere seven pages in its English translation), Cortázar relates the experiences of an unnamed narrator; one day, in a Parisian aquarium, this narrator encounters the “Aztec faces” of the axolotls, encounters the “presence of a different life, of another way of seeing.” The narrator (alternating between the “I” and the “we” throughout their exposition) sees themself in these creatures, these “witnesses of something,” these “horrible judges,” and, as a result, they become an axolotl themselves. These dialectics — these convergent borders of the “I” and the “we,” the Modern and the pre-Modern, the European and the indo-American — reverberate throughout Cortázar’s work, and they remain the beating heart of his oeuvre. In fact, it is their explication and application that make Literature Class, Berkeley 1980 (translated by Katherine Silver), New Direction’s translation of a series of lectures by Cortázar, a vital entry into his body of work.

Julio Cortázar (photo by Jerry Bauer)

Circumscribing his goals and ambitions, Cortázar says that “in the present day, what matters is not to be a writer from Latin America but to be, above all, a Latin American writer.” Here, Cortázar is saying that Latin American writers should immerse themselves in the Latin American terroir, which Mario Vargas Llosa once described as the “harsh and sometimes violent” coexistence of European, African, and indigenous societies. These writers should write of Latin American subjects and particularly Latin American paradoxes and problematics. Their undertaking should be an intervention of Latin American politics, not only of the political realities but of their readers’ very way of being. “To make a revolution … it has to be made on every level,” Cortázar says; “it also has to happen in the mental structure of people who are living that revolution and are going to reap its rewards.” But, as Cortázar himself is quick to point out, these politics of anti-colonialism are difficult to put into a writerly practice — he goes so far as to describe language as “one of the most terrible traps lying in wait.” “[I]f [the writer] uses the language that expresses the world he is attacking,” Cortázar says, “that language will betray him.” What he means is that revolutionary language must upend the inherited strictures of language that order our understanding of the world. The critic Roland Barthes touched upon this subject in his seminal study Writing Degree Zero — though his conclusion, that “revolution must of necessity borrow, from what it wants to destroy, the very image of what it wants to posses,” remains decidedly pessimistic.

Cortázar takes a different view, believing that subverting hegemonies of language are possible through questioning and distancing, through rejecting received wisdom and familiar platitudes. Language must be examined before it is used; Cortázar, in an extended paraphrase of his novel Hopscotch, says: “[K]eep in mind the possibility that [language] is deceiving us, that is, that we are convinced that we are thinking for ourselves when in reality language is thinking for us, using stereotypes and formulas that come from the depth of time and could be completely rotten …” While the efficacy of Cortázar’s approach remains to be seen, Literature Class itself functions as an interesting and, to use Cortázar’s word, ludic experience that puts some of his ideas to the test.

As a glorified transcription of recorded dialogues, some of which are missing and some of which feature obscured audio, Literature Class decenters Cortázar’s voice and rejects the idea of the text as a fully enclosed object. Reference is made to unheard conversations and events the reader cannot be a party to; questions and answers are inferred or fully elided; and the voices of students are interjected throughout. The form of the text subverts and undermines the authority of the lecture as a method of pontification, as a site of authority. Though it was published nearly thirty years after Cortázar’s death, it is fully in keeping with the spirit of the work he intended for publication, embodied in his hope for Hopscotch, to have not just a reader but a “reader accomplice,” a reader who has “engaged in a very active and important dialectic between the reader and the book.”

While he offers many insights into the writing of fiction (the enjoyably side-stepped exigence of the whole project), it’s Cortázar’s insistence on self-discovery and constant questioning that shines brightest through this posthumous work. Here he offers a post-colonial praxis — not just for writing fiction, but for reading fiction and for thinking more generally. Only time will tell how useful that praxis is, but the application of it, the experience of it, is exciting to say the least. Being made a reader accomplice, being invited to play one of Cortázar’s games, “not a trivial game that has no meaning” but rather “a dialectic, an exchange,” makes other books look pallid and rude by comparison.

Literature Class, Berkeley 1980 (2017) by Julio Cortázar is published by New Directions and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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Shea Hennum

Shea Hennum is a critic whose work has been published by Vulture, Playboy, and The AV Club. He co-hosts the monthly manga episodes of The Comics Alternative podcast.