from Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Issue 84, No. 1, 2012 136-137
by Jason Weiss
Published in 1972, Prose del observatorio was unique in Cortázar’s oeuvre both for its subject and form, while remaining true to his indomitable spirit. In eighty pages, the book comprises an elusive poetic essay built from two interwoven strands, plus thirty-six photographs taken by the author a few years earlier on a trip to the maharajah Jai Singh’s observatories in Jaipur, Delhi. As a counterbalance to reflections on the starry heights, the text considers in turn the inscrutable depths where the strange life cycle of the Atlantic eel plays out. Each realm poses a challenge to science, with its need to track and define hidden patterns, and each ultimately defies the imperatives of precision instruments by asserting the integrity of all that lies beyond what can be known by the rational mind.
In fact, what attracts Cortázar to the observatories of Jaipur is less the measurement of the stars than the efforts by the eighteenth-century ruler to fathom the enigmas of astronomy. The photos depict marvelous structures, full of evocative curves and angles and openings, conceived according to some grand plan; dominating most vistas, though, are the many sets of stairs, which Jai Singh would ascend “to interrogate the sky.” The Argentine writer shows a comparably ambitious reach in weaving together the worlds of above and below, as well as laying out an imaginative space, a Möbius strip of simultaneity, where time immemorial abuts the immediate sensual present, and the fragile illusions of human certainty can be intercepted by the grace of the unforeseen. Much as he details the elaborate migration of the eel, and its widening resonance as metaphor for natural and evolutionary forces, the spark in his inquiries points always to humanity, “something that comes from music, amorous battles and seasonal rhythms…toward another understanding.”
As in most of his work through the 1960s and ‘70s, and signaling his inheritance from surrealism, Cortázar seeks “another possible profile of man.” From the outset, as rendered in Anne McLean’s elegant translation, he embraces the slipperiness of knowledge and language itself—“the sargassum of time and random semantics, a verb’s migration: discourse, this course, the Atlantic eels and the eel words.” The seemingly distinct realms of sky and sea, if not quite reciprocal mirrors, work in tandem to mark out the orbit of his thinking in this text, as they continue with their implacable and mysterious systems to penetrate not only each other but also the terrestrial life of the writer-observer who always maintained an attitude of permeability to all that surrounded him. Such was the creative principle he lived by, embodied in his notion of the fantastic: how at any moment it couldn’t enter upon daily reality. That same instinct propels him forward here, as he keeps watch for a fortuitous opening in the expected order, “touching on something that doesn’t rest on the senses, a breach in succession.” Through that opening the new man—humankind spring from its stale habits—may establish “a field of contact” which reconciles disparate modes of being. Cortázar’s book offers us a start, articulating a constellation of its own from previously unexplored connections.
Jason Weiss’s latest book is Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America.