This seminal figure of Argentine and world literature was born in Brussels, Belgium, to Argentine parents. Throughout his prolific career, he wrote novels, short stories, literary and critical essays, and theatrical pieces, and translated authors like John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe. Cortázar studied at the University of Buenos Aires and taught French literature at the University of Cuyo. In 1951, with a scholarship from the French government, he left Argentina, intending to never return due to his hatred of President Juan Domingo Perón and his regime. In France, Cortázar worked as a translator with UNESCO, and in 1981, the French government awarded him citizenship.
Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, he traveled to Cuba in 1961. Cortázar became actively involved in world politics and his writing was often politically charged. As an intellectual, writer, and politician, he visited Nicaragua, Chile, Mexico, and the United States, lecturing at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1967, Cuban journal Casa de las Américas published Cortázar's essay Acerca de la situación del intelectual latinoamericano (Regarding the Situation of the Latin American Intellectual). In it he confesses that, for the first time since leaving Argentina, he feels proud to be a Latin American author because the Cuban Revolutions placed the continent in the forefront of modern politics.
Cortázar's physical return to South America coincided with his ideological journey as a politically committed writer. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1981, Cortázar returned to Argentina to visit his mother a year before dying. Ignored by the Argentine government, his compatriots greeted him warmly. After his burial in Montparnasse, Alfaguara Press published his complete works, including previously unpublished writings.
Cortázar started writing as a young boy and continued throughout his life. One of his most famous works, the novel Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch, 1966) exhibits a noteworthy experimental structure. The author proposes that some chapters may be read or disregarded by readers, and that the suggested sequence of chapters can also be altered arbitrarily by readers. This reading as if one were playing hopscotch, jumping from chapter to chapter, marks two major characteristics of Cortázar's writing: its spontaneously playful nature and the writer's insistence on educating an active reader who participates in the creation of the literary work instead of passively enjoying it.
Cortázar is considered a master of the short story. Written in surrealistic style, his short fiction presents intriguing examples of the thin line that separates reality from fiction, and the real world from the fantastic one. He often surprises readers at the very end of a story that had started with the realistic depiction of characters and environment, and then discreetly introduced fantastic elements into the plot. Continuidad de los parques (1956; Continuity of Parks, 1967), one of his best-known tales, features a protagonist who returns home, sits in an armchair and starts reading a novel in which two characters plot to kill a man; at the novel's end, their victim appears to be the very protagonist who is reading the novel. Another example of Cortázar's technique that conflates reality with fantasy is his well-known story “Casa tomada” (“The House Taken Over”), included in Bestiario (1951; Bestiary). In it unidentifiable creatures invade the house of a brother and sister. The seemingly realistic world of the family is completely overtaken by the fantastic.
In “Las babas del diablo” (“Blow Up,” 1967), from the collection Las armas secretas (1959; The Secret Weapons), Cortázar reflects upon the (un)reliability of narrative experience. The author switches narrative voices in the text, making it impossible for readers to determine the truth, and by doing so, gives readers the power to become creators of the story.
See also Novel in Spanish America: Boom Literature: 1950–1975.
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