Thursday, July 14, 2005

Book: Apocalypse in Solentiname

"No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost."
Jorge Luis Borges

It’s not really a book that I'm going to talk about – well, to be exact, among various compilations of Julio Cortazar’s short stories, some have been named “Apocalypse in Solentiname”, but the story of that name deserves a text for itself.

Cortazar has been one of my favourite writers since I’ve read him first time. He is considered one third of a trio of Argentinean greatest writers of last century - others two being Jorge Luis Borges and Ernesto Sabato. It just happens that those three writers made an immeasurable impact to (post)modern literature and made Argentina one of literary giants.

However, Cortazar’s writing style seems plain, with sentences so long that sometimes drift away from initial purpose. The thing is, Cortazar often writes instrumentally, without a lot of preparation or drafting. But it just happens so that this style is able to create peculiar atmosphere, sometimes menacing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes awaiting. He throws his story out of his head at once, and the fluent style compels us to read it at once as well.

But the strongest side of Cortazar is his wild imagination and his peculiar kind of fantastic. In fact, you can say that Cortazar redefined the term of fantastic: his stories, nominally realistic, always linger on a thin edge of fantasy, and it depends solely on us, readers, whether we’re going to take events as fantastic, or just as hallucinations, strange coincidences and weird behaviors. He never gives a final answer on the real nature of those events; He never shows the real face of the beast, instead he leaves it floating in area of allegories.

No doubt I’ll talk about Cortazar again very soon. But now I want to concentrate on one peculiar story.

It all started with “'Las Babas del Diablo'”, his early story. This story follows a self-esteemed photographer wondering around in search of nice sights that he could photograph. He decides to take a picture of young man and elderly woman walking across the park. In his usual style, Cortazar gives us an entire life story scenario of these two people, as imagined by a photographer while he’s taking a picture of them. But what seemed like a naive sight might actually be a scene of the crime in preparation and the photographed woman requests to have the film from a photographer. He declines.

Instead, he goes home and develops the photos. One of the shots of the odd couple he made, pleases his eye so much that he makes a big poster out of it and puts it on his wall. In that moment, his eye starts deceiving him, and image on the poster becomes alive. He stares at the picture on the wall, sees scene of him being murdered, as seen through his own eyes. He is left with a poster showing a sky with clouds floating across it.

Not much of a story, really, “Las Babas” had an interesting idea of a photograph taking the place of the real life by force, but it hasn’t got subtlety that many other Cortasar’s stories have. However, in 66’, Michelangelo Antonioni was driven to it and made his famous film masterpiece “Blow up” loosely based on this story. Cortazar was, they say, not pleased with this film, especially with its title. No wonder, film took very little from the story: main character and the idea that he photographed something that he shouldn’t have. Everything else in this film is Antonioni’s invention (including a giant airplane propeller that I would like to have in my house as well), and the most well known scene from the film is probably the one from the beginning where main character (David Hemmings) lustfully photographs a model in the studio – although no less impressive was the one where mimes play tennis with the inexistent ball or the one where he fights with the entire mob over the neck of a broken guitar, only to throw it away moments later, after the fight is over. All in all, “Blow up” is a careful and detailed study of a character and a time, that leaves nothing of the original Cortazar’s story, or at least nothing significant.

But that’s ok because films don’t have to follow the stories they’re adapting. In fact, they usually come out better when they don’t - thus I look cross at everybody who comments that some film betrayed the idea of the original story. So what! There is no place for fandom here, and even though I’m Cortazar’s fan, I can’t care less whether Antonioni betrayed his point or not, because Cortazar’s story is fine as it is, and it definitely doesn’t need film adaptation just for the sake of being adapted into a film. You hear me, “Lord of the rings” and “Dune” fans?

Anyway, years later, Cortazar decided to – rewrite his original story. Well, not to rewrite it directly, but to use the original idea of an image taking over the role from the life, and to expand it to new metaphorical meanings. The result is "Apocalipsis en Solentiname" ("Apocalypse in Solentiname").

“Apocalypse” is a story in which the main character is him, writer Julio Cortazar. At the beginning of the story, he is on a tour in Costarica, in the middle of “Blow up” awe, asked many questions about his impressions and earlier comments on the film, things that he really doesn’t want to talk about. This beginning, mirroring real life, links with “Las Babas del Diablo”, slowly preparing us to the idea that similarity between it and this story is not unintentional.

So, writer Cortazar, after being asked many questions by reporters, gets a moment of rest in a small place called Solentinameo. There, he finds a whole connection of beautiful naive paintings, executed by a local woman, presenting sights of the idyllic village life. Children playing, old people resting, native houses and fields, still lives... These pictures flourish with beauty, so Cortazar decides to photograph them all, one by one. And he does to (which is where photo camera enters the scene yet again).

Returning home to Paris (which is where he lives), Cortazar is eager to see those photos. Almost as he enters the door, he puts the film into the slide-show projector and proceeds in watching the photographs. And this is where picture projected on the wall betrays him, Julio Cortazar, writer of, among others, story “Los Babas del Diablo”. The same thing that happened to the hero of the story, now happens to it’s writer.

Instead of photographs of those happy paintings, he sees sights of the recent revolution; He sees scenes of the massacre that hit Solentiname not long ago. Some of those images are very brutal and very bloody. Cortazar is so shocked by what he sees that he can’t even think of how the sights of the beautified everyday life were replaced by another, more exact and more brutal reality. He photographed what he thought was Solentiname, and instead got what Solentiname really is.

He is still in shock when his wife comes home, that he cannot even explain what happened. All he can do is point to a slide show projector in the darkened room. Curious, his wife turns on the slide show and sees a series of photographs of naive paintings, showing pleasant images from everyday village life.

This is pretty much in the spirit of Cortazar’s fantasy. He never explains whether the other pictures were a hallucination, a trick, a phenomenon, a miracle. He leaves us believing in whatever we want. But he passes the message that, above the pleasant surface, there is often not so pleasant truth that we decline to see because we choose to stay on prettified surface, and that this is often case in lands that we consider exotic paradises. Going for any actual explanations would just turn the attention from the message and diminish the metaphor.


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