Julio Cortázar’s All Fires the Fire

By Rob Packer

Cortázar's "Todos los fuegos el fuego"

Julio Cortázar’s reputation precedes him and the blurb for his collected short stories says no less than: “You must read Cortázar. Always. (Hay que leer Cortázar. Siempre.)” Now, this is the kind of praise you end up reading a lot of on book covers, but it’s hard not to agree with this hyperbole after reading any one of the stories in All Fires the Fire (Todos los fuegos el fuego). Each of these eight stories is pretty much perfect.

The premises of these stories sometimes seem so familiar; after all, who hasn’t been transfixed by a particularly beautiful island seen from a plane (‘La isla a mediodía’), or thought of hiding some shocking piece of news from a sick relative (‘La salud de los enfermos’)? What Cortázar does is to take the situation to its logical conclusion and beyond, as the family ties itself up in increasingly horrific and grotesque lies to hide the original untruth. It’s this combination of familiarity and the uncanny that makes these stories genuinely affecting.

My two favourite stories, though, are the two that bookend the collection: ‘Autopista del sur’ and ‘El otro cielo’. In the first, Cortázar describes a traffic jam on the autoroute into Paris that climaxes at almost apocalyptic proportions, while a recognizable society forms itself and the drivers’ identities are completely subsumed into their vehicles. In the last, ‘El otro cielo’ (reminiscent of Hopscotch (Rayuela), Cortázar’s most famous novel), the narrator mixes flâneur-like walks through a snowy Paris with escapism, nostalgia and Buenos Aires (no spoilers).

In English, Cortázar is often thought of as the writer of the story that inspired Antonioni’s 1966 film of Swinging London, Blow-Up—check the meagre selection of works available in English translation if you don’t believe me. For an author as complex, influential and enjoyable as Cortázar, this doesn’t even begin to do him justice and I’d recommend looking up anything of his you can find.

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