Julio Cortázar and Chance

In Immortality, Milan Kundera attempts a taxonomy of coincidences. There’s the mute coincidence, which has no meaning; poetic coincidence, which acts upon life as a literary device; contrapuntal coincidence — when two actions meet as two different melodies that suddenly harmonize; and finally, the story producing coincidence. The latter is, of course, the most interesting and it is also the one which led me one day to hold in my hands Julio Cortázar’s typewriter.

Coincidences are communicating vessels. How, then, should one tell a story about coincidences? Surely not in a straightforward manner — what a betrayal of the subject that would be! No. It should be a natural flow made up of fortunate deviations, following the same principle I followed during the trip our story is concerned with. I remember, for instance, my days in Florence and Venice, where I walked guided exclusively by those cities’ nods: the color of the flowers on a balcony, the play of the light in an alley, the orientation of a seagull’s beak while standing atop of a statue.

The disposition to accept chance was already mine, I believe, but it was reading Cortázar, and particularly reading Hopscotch (and rereading it, and ding-re-rea, and re-ding-rea, etc.), what elevated that wandering into a modus vivendi, a search, and almost an ethics. All this is a cliché, of course; the same type of cliché that launched a generation of American youngsters to the highway after reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Nonetheless, I’m not ashamed of this sentimental lapse because how sad, how incomplete is the life of a reader who never found the book to transform him from Alonso Quijano into Don Quixote.

So, being 23 years old and armed with notes and an openness to signs, I started my journey. I traveled to Europe and did my pilgrimage across Paris, where the characters of Hopscotch, The Pursuer, 62: A Model Kit and so many short stories used to roam. I crossed the bridges and walked the quais and rues mentioned in the pages; I dined at the restaurant Polidor and drank coffee at Deux Magots — both favored by Cortázar —; I went to the street where his apartment used to be and took pictures of the plaque attesting to it; I visited the Maison de l’Argentine where Cortázar stayed (his roam, unfortunately, had a new lodger); I traversed the gallery where time and space bend in one of his best stories, ‘The Other Sky’; and, obviously, I went to see his grave where I left a bottle of wine, a Gauloise cigarette and a subway ticket.

Some coincidences reached me there, from which I will tell about one: while strolling on the Place Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, I came upon a broken umbrella, a sight that cannot be ignored by anyone who has read Hopscotch: “An umbrella, precisely. Maybe you remember, Maga, that old umbrella we sacrificed in a gully in Montsouris Park one sunset on a cold March day. We threw it away because you had found it half-broken in the Place de la Concorde.“ March was precisely the month when I was traveling. A clear example of a poetic coincidence.

This spell wasn’t limited to Paris. In Prague I got lost and, trying to figure out where I was I found a portrait of Cortázar silk-screen printed on a café’s glass door.  In Rome, right in front of a bookstore where I found the short story collection: ‘Las armas secretas’, I saw the poster for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, a film based on a story included in that collection.

But the best coincidence and the only one that could be called a story producing coincidence, found me in Barcelona, in the Casa de las Américas’ cinema where they were screening a documentary about Cortázar. I went there with my cousin, Tania (who had found about the event), and we were joined by Tania’s friend, an old classmate from Mexico whom she hadn’t seen in years but had run into that very same evening right before the screening in a restaurant’s bathroom.

When the documentary was over, the director stood up willing to answer some questions. A bald, slender, tall, glass-wearing man raised his hand and made a private joke followed by scattered laughter from those in the know. Upon seeing the man’s face I recognized him: he was Carles Álvarez Garriga, editor of many Cortázar collections. My shyness would have prevented me from approaching him if it weren’t for Tania’s friend who practically pushed me. I told the man I was soon going to Paris and wanted to know if there were any places he would suggest for me to visit. Without looking at me he lit a cigarrette, asked for a piece of paper and a pen, and drew a map to find Cortázar’s grave. I thought that would be it, but as I started to walk away, Álvarez Garriga asked me if we had plans. “None”, I said and he suggested to grab a drink at a nearby terrace.

The editor, accompanied by a friend, sat like a monarch and his status as cultural chieftain was signaled by strangers who constantly came by our table to exchange a few comments about a new book, an exhibition, an inauguration, asking either his opinion or his assistance. We talked, as one can imagine, about our common interest: the Argentinian ghost who hovered over us. Back then I was neck-deep in Cortázar’s ouvre given I was writing my thesis on him, so I could hold my own in conversation. The fact Álvarez Garriga had the lead in drinks was helpful as well. After about an hour, our host mentioned that, thanks to his close friendship with the recently deceased Aurora Bernárdez, Cortázar’s first wife and executor of his will, he had inherited a sizeable portion of the writer’s manuscripts, first editions, personal possessions, and other memorabilia. As someone who knows himself sole guardian of a secret treasure, he smiled and asked: would you like to see the collection? Eventhough we knew following this virtual stranger to his apartment might end up in our murder or something worse, we accepted the offer.

Mathematician Joseph Mazur explains in his book Fluke that coincidences shine simply because the complex network of causes and effects they’re born out of remains hidden from us. In fact, Mazur says, given the immense number of variables in which human beings participate, coincidences are merely quotidian, normal, trivial. In other words, Mazur attempts there what Kundera thought would never exist: existential mathematics, the science that would forever explain coincidence. However, as it usually goes, metaphysics sneaks in through science’s legs because every time a person is selected by synchronicity, no matter who they are and whether they bow to scales and measures or believe in astrology, they will say with wonder: “What a coincidence!”. Not even the probabilistic sandpaper has managed to take away coincidence’s luster. Facing a coincidence (specially the story generating kind), we can’t help but to feel chosen by fate. In each coincidence there’s a ciphered message specific to us. There are those whose interest lays in cataloguing them or systematizing them; me, I want to follow them. Like narrative crumbs, coincidences work for me as a guide through the intricate bower of potentialities that is each instant. And though Kundera is who has reflected upon this the most, it is Cortázar who takes them as a compass.

I borrowed that compass from him and thanks to it I found myself there, at the apartment of the editor of all the letters and lecture transcriptions. That serendipity map led me to sit at that table, eating ice-cream from Cortázar’s plate, to read his handwritten poems on a napkin, to consult his contact book (which I happened to open on the page where the name and phone number of Italo Calvino were written), to wear his glasses and carry his mythical Olivetti, the one in which he wrote so many unforgettable pages.

In the end, the elements that make up coincidence can clearly —and to the relief of this planet’s Mazurs—, be explained with math. Nevertheless, what makes a coincidence what it is, is just that feeling that something escapes us, that there’s an unexplainable excess, a brief wavering of reason allowing fantasy to creep in; that which Cortázar sought in his texts: “what I have been able to invent in this area has always been made with a feeling of nostalgia, nostalgia of not being able to completely open those doors that on so many occasions I have seen open wide for a few, fleeting seconds.”

Those doors, I feel, are increasingly difficult to open because chance, the only soil where coincidence can grow, is besieged. Its terrain is being usurped by algorithms which, knowing us better than we know ourselves, are able to predict and give us exactly what we want to see/buy/listen to/read/consume all the time. Coincidences born out of said algorithms are of a new kind Kundera couldn’t predict: spurious coincidences. Their findings and the emotions they elicit are premeditated, meticulously calculated, produced.

Thinking about this I have come back to Cortázar (and to many of the writers his work introduced me to) and I have gone outside looking for a coincidence.

Hopscotch excerpt is taken from Gregory Rabassa’s translation.

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