Influences: Cronopios and Famas

Books have accompanied me for all my life, or at least for as long as I can remember. However, my reading habits have changed many times, from reading simple books, to reading very complex books, to reading anything, to reading if I squeeze a few minutes here and there, to… you get the idea. ‘Habits’ is a funny word, an oxymoron, to refer to constant change.

Today I was thinking of influential books. No ‘good’ books or books that have received many awards or that have guided generations or catalyzed social change. I mean only books that have been important for me at a given point in time. If I had read them before or after that time they may have passed unnoticed. But I read them then, at the right time… for me.

As an adult I have moved houses several times, and every time I have lost books. There are also books that have been with me all this time. One of them is ‘Cronopios and Famas’ a collection of very short stories by Julio Cortázar§, one of the big voices of Argentinian literature. My first encounter with ‘Historias de Cronopios y Famas’–the original Spanish title–was in my maternal grandparents’ apartment. I was living with them and I was looking for something to read. Anything. I opened a drawer and found some interesting books, including Cortazar’s. It was one of the first editions, which I think belonged to one of my uncles, the one in exile.

Why was this an important book? Language, raw language. I am completely at lost when trying to explain Cortázar to someone who has not read his books. As Borges said:

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

In ‘Progreso y retroceso’ (progress and regress) the whole story fits in only two paragraphs. The story is about a crystal that lets flies through but that does not let them come back because ‘no one knows what stuff in the flexibility of the fibers of this crystal, which was too fibrous’ or something like that:

Inventaron un cristal que dejaba pasar las moscas. La mosca venía empujaba un poco con la cabeza y, pop, ya estaba del otro lado. Alegría enormísima de la mosca.

Todo lo arruinó un sabio húngaro al descubrir que la mosca podía entrar pero no salir, o viceversa a causa de no se sabe que macana en la flexibilidad de las fibras de este cristal, que era muy fibroso. En seguida inventaron el cazamoscas con un terrón de azúcar dentro, y muchas moscas morían desesperadas. Así acabó toda posible confraternidad con estos animales dignos de mejor suerte.

The story is straightforward, with simple, almost pedestrian words. But those words have been extremely carefully selected, crafted in a particular order. I imagine Cortázar spending countless hours, agonizing on a myriad small decisions until reaching a point of perfect simplicity.

There was a clear before and after reading this book in 1981: language was not the same ever again. I learned to find the fantastic side of the quotidian. I grew to appreciate risk when building sentences, when pushing meanings and readings. My whole way to look at the world was influenced by a small book of ridiculous short stories.

P.S. I published this post in my old, extinct blog on 2009-02-02

This time is Calvino

This happens relatively frequently: I am talking with someone else that doesn’t know me well and, at some point of the conversation I have mentioned that I am a forester. Then we move into books and I mention someone like Borges or Calvino and they look at me with this puzzled face as in ‘I didn’t know that foresters could read’. I know, it happens to other professions as well; just for the record not all of us are semi-literate apes, working with a chainsaw.

I was sorting out my bookshelves at work when I found a copy of The literature machine, a collection of essays by Italo Calvino. It had my name and signature, together with 2002, Melbourne, Australia. (Digression: besides my name and signature I always put the city where I bought a book). I had vague memories of walking around in Melbourne’s CBD and finding an underground bookshop. At the time I was not looking for anything in particular, just browsing titles.

Why did I buy the book and never read it? I do remember browsing it and getting distracted by something more urgent, albeit clearly unimportant, because I cannot remember what was it. Probably I was not ready either; it has happened to me before. From ‘Uncle Tom’s cabin’ when I was nine, to ‘The Fountainhead’ when I was a teenager, to ‘The literature machine’ seven years ago. Most likely there is an issue of maturity, of being ready to read a particular story, philosophy or approach to the world.

Many years ago I read some of Calvino’s books, like Cosmicomics (brilliantly funny) and ‘The cloven viscount’ (very enjoyable reading). But I particularly struggle with two literary forms: essays and plays. I sometimes can get into the former, but the latter has proven–until today–insurmountable.

However, today is the time for Calvino and essays. There is something deeply stimulating in these essays, together with a quaintness created by forty years gone since they were written. The feeling of freshness, possibility and hope from 1968 reads strange in 2017. At the same time, there is a bit of breaking with the system, since the implosion of the international economy. Maybe it is an excellent time to resonate with Calvino, as in the old days.