By Geoff Wisner
Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, appeared in its first version in Spanish in 1967. This “collage book” was followed two years later by another, entitled Last Round.
Eleven years later, in 1980, the author chose 62 selections from the two volumes for a new edition of Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, to be published in French. (Sixty-two was a significant number for the author of 62: A Model Kit.)
The English-language version did not appear until two years after the author’s death. Translated from the original Spanish texts by Thomas Christensen, it was published by North Point Press in 1986.
To call this a collage book doesn’t get us very far. Around the Day in Eighty Worlds includes book reviews, travel pieces, short stories, poetry, and appreciations of jazz artists like Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong. There is also quite a lot about Cortázar’s cat, whose name was Theodor W. Adorno.
The pieces combine Latin American playfulness with French abstract speculation, so that the ostensible subject of a piece often turns out to be a platform for ideas about creativity, mortality, or language. But just when you have concluded that these are 62 exercises in intellectual gamesmanship, you run up against a piece like “Advice for Tourists,” a direct and devastating picture of the misery of those who live in and around Howrah Station in Calcutta.
The short stories in Around the Day are among my favorites. Many of them, for some reason, concern animals. In “The Witnesses,” a man becomes obsessed with a fly in his room that flies upside down. “Regarding the Eradication of Crocodiles from Auvergne” concerns the difficulty faced by the authorities in coping with dangerous creatures when the local people refuse to admit they exist. “How the Jaguars Sap Our Strength” is about the debilitating effects of finding jaguars in the butter, the lampstand, and the vacuum cleaner.
“With Justifiable Pride” describes the local custom of visiting the cemeteries on November 2 each year and sweeping away the dead leaves that obscure the graves. The deadpan tone never varies as the story gradually and delightfully runs off its rails.
Each of us has a specific task to be done in this campaign.... The children enjoy themselves the most because they are given very large cards that they love to show their mothers, cards that assign them to various light tasks, especially observing the behavior of the mongooses. We adults have the hardest job, since in addition to directing the mongooses we have to fill the bags with the leaves that the mongooses collect, and then carry them on our shoulders to the municipal trucks. To the elders are assigned the compressed air pistols used to cover the leaves with powdered snake essence.
This bizarrely varied collection of short prose pieces is accompanied by dozens of black and white photos, drawings, and engravings. They include photos of some of the writers and musicians discussed, stills from Louis Malle’s film Calcutta, photos of adolescent girls by Lewis Carroll (which accompany the haunting story “Silvia”), and a series of snapshots by Cortázar himself. These show a baby doll placed in poses so suggestive that I got strange looks while reading this book on the 7 train. The reason for some of the illustrations seems clear, but the meaning of others is so cryptic that their presence simply adds to the perplexing, dreamlike impression of the book as a whole.
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