First Edition Provenance: Cortázar, Julio. 62: A Model Kit. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
Excerpt Provenance: Cortázar, Julio. 62: A Model Kit. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
Introduction to the Selection by Aymar Marino-Maza
Julio Cortázar, the Argentinian essayist, short story writer and novelist, born in Ixelles, Belgium in 1914 and deceased in Paris in 1984, is easily Argentine’s most widely read writer within the last century. Of politically radical inclinations, Cortázar took part in protests supporting the Cuban Revolution, Allende’s Chile, and Sandinista Nicaragua, and opposing Peron (he eventually moved to Paris in opposition to Peron’s regime). His political background tied him to the surrealism movement, and he became one of the leading surrealist writers of his time. Much of his writing centers on the mystical, with stories that follow a logic of hallucination and obsession, a perfect example being 62: A Model Kit.
“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).
“The city was not explained. It was.” (19)
“The cities we lived in were always cities and the city.” (25)
Written in 1968, Julio Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit is the author’s long-winded explanation of a chapter (namely chapter 68) in another, better known work, Hopscotch. This book is a surrealist definition of the elusive city, told through the story of a group of friends who travel through Europe but manage to gather together between trips in the Cluny, a small bar in Paris. If not physically gathered as a cohesive whole (which is never experienced in the novel but alluded to as something that once happened), they are united by what the narrator defines as “the zone,” the psychic energy tying the characters together (Sage). A perfect model of the “exquisite corpse,” the novel is structured in a series of fragmented story lines that jump in space and time, without continuity of narrator, shifting from third to first person narration and, within first person, even between characters, all within a single paragraph. Scenes and conversations repeat in a dreamlike fashion, and different characters live the same impossible experiences. And of course, nothing is ever fully explained.
“No one would think of mixing up the city with dreams, which would be the same as mixing life and games and so they fall into a childishness that would be repugnant to serious people.” (40). And yet, this is exactly what Cortázar does, through persons that are in no way serious. Cortázar introduces the world to an eclectic group of émigrés: Polanco, an Argentine engineer obsessed with designing a mechanical boat; Marrast, a French sculptor mischievously contriving scandal in a museum over a painting he wants removed; Nicole, an Italian who paints gnomes all day; Telle, a Scandinavian that has a tendency to steal other people’s candies; Juan, a South American interpreter in love with Helene, a French anesthetist with a slight case of OCD; Calac, another Argentine with a foul mouth when attempting to speak English; Feuille Morte, a woman whose only lines are “bisbis bisbis”; and finally, Celia and Austin, a teenage runaway couple. These characters push the limits of the dangerously-soap-opera-esque concept: the love triangle. (Bear with me here; it gets a bit scandalous.) Marrast is with Nicole, whom Calac also loves; but Nicole, ignoring Calac’s flirtations, cheats on Marrast with Austin, because she can’t have the person she really loves, Juan, who is dating Telle, while being in love with Helene, who is, as her profession indicates, sexually disinterested, especially in him. However, she finds the sexual drive to rape the underage Celia, who falls in love with Austin and once had a crush on Polanco, who is with his “fat girlfriend,” Boniface Perteuil’s daughter.
But this novel is not a badly-plotted romance; it is a plunge into the subconscious, a voyage through the city, guided always by the trustworthy paredros, into the depths of the surrealist uncanny. The odd characters, the complicated plots, the focus on intense emotions (dramas of life) is used to make a violently disorienting definition of what the city is, not a single city, Paris for example, but all cities (Paris, Rome, London, Vienna, etc.) being part of this singular all-consuming entity. The fragments of city depicted by the various narrators does not speak to the harmless cities described in Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but is instead the cavernous, labyrinth hell of Piranese’s Carceri, the psychological disorientation of M.C. Escher’s Relativity. Reading the story from the surrealist perspective, the scenes/architectural elements described are all elements of the uncanny, constructs of the subconscious mind of the abstract persona of the narrator(s). As Victor Sage says in his article “[T]he privileged horror…of the constellation”: Cortázar’s use of the Gothic in 62: A Model Kit,
“So the occurrence of “delegation” on the individual or City level (sometimes the intersection of the two), which takes the verbal form of metonymy or synechdoche, and links the unique point with the collective system, is a source of uncanny repetition, robbed from the perpetually present void of the Unsaid. This presents itself as a purely neutral form of figuration, a kind of philosophical complex of metaphor to describe meaning. But it is not at all neutral; it is a source of nightmare that weaves darkness and fear.” (Sage)
So, Cortázar has created a nightmare of the city, and these sites of the uncanny are always dangerously at the elusive edge of the city, in tandem with that almost exhausting need to hold a sharp contrast between city and nature. And the characters walk in and out of the city limits, longing for the other, feeling that which Marrast defined so well, that tedium vitae.
Cortázar, Julio. 62: A Model Kit. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.
“Cortázar’s Biography.” Cortázar’s Biography. Ed. Fernando Contreras. UT Dallas University. Web. 19 May 2014. <https://www.utdallas.edu/~aargyros/julio_Cortázar_biography.htm>.
Sage, Victor, « “[T]he privileged horror…of the constellation”: Cortázar’s use of the Gothic in 62: A Model Kit », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 19 mai 2014. URL : http://erea.revues.org/134 ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.134
Excerpt 1 (29-33)
I enter my city at night, I go down to my city
where they wait for me or elude me, where I have to flee
from some abominable meeting, from what no longer has a name,
a meeting with fingers, with pieces of flesh in cupboard,
with a showerbath that I can’t find, there are showers in my city,
there’s a canal that cuts through the center of my city
and enormous ships without masts pass in an unbearable silence
toward a fate that I know but which I forget when I return,
toward a fate that denies my city
where no one embarks, where one is to remain
even though the ships pass and from the smooth deck someone is looking at my city.
I enter my city without knowing how, sometimes on other nights
I go out to the streets and houses and I know that it isn’t my city,
I know my city by a crouching expectation,
sometimes that isn’t yet fear but which has its shape and is dog and when it is my city
I know that first there’ll be the market place with doorways and fruit stands,
the shimmering rails of a streetcar that is lost in a direction
where I was young but not in my city, a district like El Once in Buenos Aires, a smell of school,
peaceful walls and a white cenotaph, the Calle Veinticuatro de Noviembre
perhaps, where there are no cenotaphs but which is in my city when its time is night.
I enter though the market that condenses the dew of a foreboding
that is still indifferent, a benevolent menace, there the fruit women look at me
and locate me, plant desire in me, to go where I must go and putrefaction,
rotting things are the secret key in my city, a fecal industry of wax jasmines,
the street that snakes along, that leads me to the meeting with what I don’t know,
the faces of fish women, their eyes which don’t look and its location,
and then to the hotel, the one for tonight because tomorrow or someday it will be a different one,
my city is infinite hotels and always the same hotel,
tropical verandas with bamboo blinds and vague mosquito nets and a smell of cinnamon and saffron,
rooms that follow along clear wallpaper and their wicker chairs
and the fans on a pin ceiling, with doors that don’t open onto anything,
which open onto other rooms where there are fans and more doors,
secret links in the rendezvous, and you have to enter and go through the deserted hotel
and sometimes it’s an elevator, in my city there are so many elevators, there’s almost always an elevator
where fear now starts to coagulate, but other times it will be empty,
when it’s worst they’re empty and I have to travel endlessly
until it stops going up and slides along horizontally, in my city
the elevators like glass boxes that go forward in a zigzag way
cross covered bridges between two buildings and the city opens up below and vertigo increases
because I will enter the hotel once more of the uninhabited hallways of something
that is no longer the hotel, the infinite mansion reached
by all elevators and doors, all hallways,
and you must get out of the elevator and look for a shower or a toilet
just because, without any reason, because the rendezvous
is a shower or a toiler and isn’t a rendezvous,
looking for the shower in shorts, with a cake of soap and a comb
but always without a towel, you have to find the towel and the toilet,
les in the doors
that have no locks, stinking of ammonia and the showers
are a traffic of people who have no shape but who are there
in the showers, filling the toilets where the showers are, too,
where I have to bathe but there are no towels and there
isn’t any place to but the comb and soap, to hang my clothes, because sometimes
I’m dressed in my city and after the shower I’ll go to the rendezvous,
I’ll go through my city with high sidewalks, a street that exists in my city
and which leads out to the country, taking me away from the canal and streetcars
along its clumsy worn-brick sidewalks and its hedges,
its hostile encounters, its phantom horses, and its smell of misfortune.
Then I’ll walk through my city and I’ll enter the hotel
or from the hotel I’ll go out to the zone of toilets redolent with urine and excrement,
or I’ll be with you, my love, because with you I’ve gone down to my city on occasion
and in a streetcar thick with aliens, shapeless passengers I understood
that the abomination was coming, that the Dog was going to happen and I tried
to hold you against me, protect you from the fright,
but so many bodies separated us, and when they forced you of in a confused movement
I wasn’t able to follow you, I fought against the insidious gum of lapels and faces,
with an impassive conductor and the speed and the bells,
until I broke myself off on a cornet and leaped and was alone on a sunset square
and knew that you were shouting and lost in my city, so near and impossible to find,
lost forever in my city, and that was the Dog, that was the rendezvous,
the rendezvous without appeal, separated forever in my city where
there wouldn’t be hotels for you or elevators or showers, a horror of being alone while someone
would approach without speaking to rest a pale finger on your mouth.
Excerpt 2 (57-58)
My profession condemned me to hotels, which wasn’t too pleasant when I thought about my apartment in Paris, set up over fifteen years of preference, a bachelor’s manias, tendencies of the left hand or the five senses, records and bottles in their proper, obedient places, the silent attention of Madame Germaine with a feather duster on Wednesdays and Saturdays, life without financial problems, the Luxenburg beneath the windows; but in order to defend that whole sardonic paradox, taking a plane every three weeks off to conferences where cotton, peaceful coexistence, technical assistance, and UNICEF settled their problems in different languages which enteres the interpreters’ booths electronically to be transformed, the new alchemy of the word, into sixty dollars per day. Why should I complain? Hotels attract and repel me in their own way, neutral territories from where, among other things, access to the city always seems easier, feeling its permeable antagonism at any moment. I ended up discovering that in any of the hotels where I happened to be staying, I got so that I would enter the hotel of the city more frequently, walking through its interminable rooms with light wallpaper again, looking for someone I couldn’t have named at the moment; I grew to feel that the hotels where I stayed during those years interceded in some way, and in every case all I have to do was stay at a new hotel, as at the Capricorno in Vienna now, for a feeling of physical rejection of the faucets, the light switches, the coat racks, and the cushions to draw me out of the Parisian routines and place me, in a manner of speaking, at the gates of the city, once more on the edge of what began in the covered streets, opened into the square with streetcars, and ended, as my paredros had seen, in the crystalline towers and the north canal where the barges slipped along.
Excerpt 3 (65-66)
“I walked along a street with very high sidewalks,” Tell said. “It’s hard to explain. The pavement was like the bottom of a trench; it looked like a dry stream bed, and the people were walking along two sidewalks several feet higher. Actually there weren’t any people, a dog and an old woman, and, speaking of old women, I have to tell you something very strange later, and I finally came out into the countryside, I think. There weren’t any more buildings, it was the edge of the city.”
“Oh, the edge of the city,” Juan said. “Nobody knows where it is, you know.”
“In any case, the street turned out to be familiar to me because other people had already walked along it. Didn’t you tell me about that street? Then it was Calac. Something happened to him on that street with high sidewalks. It’s a place that curls up in your soul, makes you sad for no reason, just being there and walking along those sidewalks, which aren’t really sidewalks but dirt roads with hayfields and footprints. So, if you’d rather I went back to Paris, you know there are two trains a day besides the airplanes. Caravelles are so pretty.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Juan said. “If I told you what I felt it was precisely to make you stay. You know that. Everything that divides us is basically what allows us to live together so well. If we started keeping quiet about what we felt, we’d both loose our freedom.”
“Simplicity isn’t your strong point,” Tell mocked him.
“I’m afraid not, but you understand me. Of course, if you want to leave…”
“I’m fine right where I am. I just thought that everything might change, that if we began to start thinking the way you were a while back…”
“It had nothing to do with you. I was upset that we’d both been in the city. I thought that we might meet there at some time, you understand, in one of those rooms or on the street with high sidewalks, get tangled up in one of those marches, one of those infinite cases of missing each other. You’re here, you’re so daytime. It bothers me to think that from now on, like Nicole or Helene…”
“On no,” Tell said, falling back onto be and flexing her legs on an invisible bicycle.” “No, Juan, we’ll never meet there, love, it’s unthinkable, it’s a square soap bubble.”
Excerpt 4 (73)
“It was wonderful,” Nicole said. “Don’t you wish you were at the Cluny again? I don’t know, in Paris a person feels closer to so many things.”
“Until you’re in Paris,” I told her. “In a few weeks a person starts to feel nostalgia for Rome or New York, it’s a well-known fact.”
“Don’t speak so impersonally. You’re saying it for me and, of course, for Juan and for Calac.”
“Oh Juan, with Juan it’s nothing but a professional deformation, the polyglot Bedouin, the disappearing interpreter. But with Calac and you I get the symptom of something else, a kind of tedium vitae.”
Excerpt 5 (102-104)
There is that instant when you start down the stairs of a Metro station in Paris and at the same time your look takes in the whole street with its figures and the sun and the trees, and you get the feeling that your eyes are being displaced as you go down, that at some given moment you’re seeing from waist level and then from the thighs and almost immediately from the knees, until you end up as if you’re seeing through your shoes. There’s a last second when you’re precisely at sidewalk level and the shoes of the passer-by, as if all the shoes were looking at each other, and the shiny tiles ceiling of the passageway becomes a transitional plane between the street seen at shoe level and its nocturnal adverse, which suddenly swallows up your look and sinks it into a darkness warm with stale air. Every time Helene went down into the Malesherbes station she persisted in looking at the street until the last moment, at the risk of tripping and losing her balance, prolonging an indefinite pleasure that also had something of repugnance about it in that gradual step-by-step submersion, present at the voluntary metamorphosis where daytime light and space was being wiped out until it delivered her, a daytime Iphigenia, to a realm of ridiculous little lights, a damp circulation of purses and newspapers that had been read. […]Probably that was why she went down into the Malesherbes station again, incapable of facing the sun and the foliage of the trees on the avenue, preferring the shadows, which at least placed her in a fixed itinerary, channeled her into a necessary decision: Porte del Lilas or Levallois Perret, Neuilly or Vincennes, right or left, north or south, and once within that first general decision it obliged her to choose the station where she would get off and, once in the station, forced her to choose the exit stairs that suited her best—the eve- or odd-numbered side. […] She was vaguely thinking about the city, where walking always had something passive about it, because it was inevitable and all decided, fated, if one can stoop to that fancy word. What could have happened in the city had never worried her as much as the feeling of following an itinerary where her will had little bearing, as if the topography of the city, the maze of covered streets, hotels, and streetcars would be resolved into one single, inevitable, passive course. But now that underground Paris which would also carry her for a few minutes through an unavoidable system of passages and tracks, strangely relieved her of her freedom, allowed her to remain as if within herself, distracted and at the same time concentration on those last hours in the hospital, on what had happened during those last hours. “It’s almost like being in the city,” she thought, looking at the grey curtain of cables and concrete that quivered and wavered beside the window. She was sure of only one thing now, and it was the fact that she wouldn’t go home right away…”
Excerpt 6 (117-118)
“In the under-populated café, where Curros had his back to the door like a protective bulldog, they let themselves go along in silence, protected by the smoke that drove away centipedes and good-bys. That time the arcades where the women selling fish set up their stands were empty and they seemed to have been recently washed. The only thing recognizable was the perspective of the galleries and the arcades, and also the indefinable light of the city, neuter and ubiquitous. Helene knew that if she didn’t hurry she’s be late for her appointment, but it was hard to orient herself in a district where the streets suddenly became courtyards or narrow passages between ancient houses, with vague storerooms, with no way out, where old sacks and piles of tin cans were gathered. There was nothing to do but keep on walking, keep carrying that package that was getting heavier and heavier, vaguely suggesting to herself that she ask the way of one of the passers-by who were drifting down the streets without coming close enough, who could be lost at some bend as soon as she tried to shorten the distances to ask. She would have to go along like that until the hotel appeared as it always appeared, all of a sudden, with its verandas protected by bamboo and wicker blinds, the curtains waving in a hot breeze. The street seemed to be continued in a hallway of the hotel, and with no transition one stood in front of the doors that opened into rooms with clear wallpaper that had faded pink and green stripes, ceilings with stucco and spidery moldings, and sometimes an old fan with two blades which spun slowly among flies; but every room was the antechamber of another just like it, where the only difference was in the shape or disposition of the ancient mahogany bureaus with plaster statues and empty vases, extra or missing tables, and never a bed or a washstand, rooms to cross and to go on from or sometimes to go over to a window and from a lower floor recognize the arcades that were lost in the distance and, once in a while, when one was on a higher floor, the glimmer of the distant canal or the square where the streetcars circulated silently, passing like ants coming and going in an endless walk.
Excerpt 7 (254)
Nicole was far away again, still weak and without any will to take part in the games, lost in contemplation of the street that headed north (but Calac no longer saw that), at the far end of which the water of the canal glimmered, a deceptive glow, because the parallel lines of columns met at the horizon and the glow might have come from one of the glass and aluminum towers and not the water in the canal; then there was nothing to do but start walking under the arcades, choosing one sidewalk or the other for no good reason, and going block after block in the direction of the distant glow, which almost certainly must have been that of the canal at sunset. It was no use hurrying, in any case. When I got to the bank of the canal I’d feel dirty and worn out, because a person was always tired and kind of dirty in the city, and maybe that’s why they always wasted an interminable amount of time in the corridors of the hotel that led to the baths where afterwards it was impossible to bathe, because the doors were broken or there weren’t any towels, but something told me that now there wouldn’t be any hallways or elevators or toilets anymore, that for once there wouldn’t be any delays and that the street with the arcades would finally take me to the canal in the same way that the rails (but Nicole no longer saw it) were taking the train from Arcueil to Paris, and the gaudy silver strip that Osvaldo the snail was laboriously manufacturing was taking him from one side of the back rest to the other, alongside which and in light of evermore precise calculations, sporting spirits were getting aroused.