IT WAS BANNED by the Argentine government in 1973. But it's hard to see why. For a novel about a group of expatriot Latin Americans in Paris ("The Screwery") who do little but eat, discuss metaphysics and screw, Julio Cortazar's A Manual for Manuel is far from politically threatening. Self-indulgent maybe, but not subversive.
Some say Cortazar is moving into a more socially conscious phase--in A Manual he makes a political statement in his preface and includes revolutionary characters--but his main emphasis is still on esthetics. Unlike other South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Migel Angel Asturias, Cortazar does not concern himself with the social and political ills of his country.
A Manual is an anti-novel without a definable plot. Interspersed between chapters without numbers and of varying lengths, are news-clippings about the torture of Latin American revolutionaries and their terrorist endeavors. Cortazar builds the entire book around these visually super-imposed articles, which are being compiled for a scrapbook for Manuel, the child of a Screwery member. The collection serves as a guide to the beliefs of Manuel's parents.
The structure is gimmicky, but the contrivance works. The book ensnares the reader with its disjointed collage of witty literary references and snatches of absurd conversation. The characters may be political neophytes, but they are intelligent and believable--a far cry from Cortazar's previous two-dimensional protagonists.
Cortazar has long been in the vanguard of contemporary Latin American authors who employ surrealist and experimental techniques. With his emphasis on fantasy and indigenous mythology, and his use of innovations in novelistic form, he attempts to assert his intellectual independence from Western literary traditions. Like his Argentine compatriot, Jorge Borges, Cortazar portrays a reality in which past, present and future exist simultaneously; a world where his characters are trapped in the labyrinth of modern society. Cortazar's two best-known works, the short story "Blow Up" (on which director Antonioni based his film) and the novel Hopscotch, exemplify his search for a new Latin American identity and his pet theme, alienation. Hopscotch's structure reflects its themes of circularity and fragmentation. It is two novels in one book; Cortazar suggests the reader approach the chapters both consecutively and in nonsequential order.
A Manual, like Hopscotch, is a novel of spiritual exile. In A Manual, Hopscotch's beat Left Bank "Club" graduates to the counterculture "Screwery" which is more preoccupied with politics than with Zen and jazz. Different from those of the "Club," the "Screwery's" members do not cut themselves off from mankind, but desire society's upheaval. They have found a purpose to life: "To change reality for everyone...everyone is (ought to be) what I am...to meld the real with mankind...there is only duty and that's to find the true course. Method: revolution."
DOES CORTAZAR BELIEVE in what his exiled rebels are striving towards? One thinks not. He prefaces his novel with an indictment of Argentine military rule and a call to socialism, but he is too sophisticated to believe his characters' irresponsible lifestyle can save their nation. They lack a coherent ideology or strategy, and their leisurely french fries and ontological arguments are too removed from Argentine realities; they never discuss the country's brutal regime and economic inequalities. They experience revolutionary movements solely through newspaper clippings. Like the spiritually ship-wrecked "Club," each member of the "Screwery" struggles more with his own internal problems than with society's.
When the police smash the group's kidnapping plot, the protagonist Andres worries more about his lover's recent infidelity than the failure of their "revolutionary" act. For the self-absorbed members of the "Screwery," sex is a more important aspect of their rebellion. In this new order, rape and forced sodomy are acts of creativity. These adolescent-like rebels can only confront their modern-day angst by inverting old values. They disguise their nihilism and confusion behind a mask of politicism.
Although Cortazar's characters are politically naive, he should be credited for ending his 25-year-long public neutrality. Since 1951 when his Parisian self-exile began, he has lauded Allende's and Castro's governments, but has not openly condemned his own nation's.
Why this change, then? It may be that Cortazar is bending to criticism for his lack of political commitment. Or perhaps with age he is less concerned with hermetic mind-games and more with society. It is also likely that, as his exile progresses, Cortazar realizes that the government must change hands if he hopes to return to Argentina.
Like his perplexed characters, Cortazar is not equipped to offer the solution for society's ills. He also stands quietly aside in Paris, unsure of the true path to a new reality, and advocating political revolution not for its own sake, but as a vehicle to a new state of being.
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