It’s 1994 or 1995 and I’m a Ph.D. student and Teaching Assistant at The University of California San Diego. I’m walking across the campus to teach one of Cortázar’s stories and I have an illumination that almost stops me in my tracks: I love Cortázar and this —teaching him—is what I want for my career. It was one of those rare, profound moments of gratitude and self-awareness. Not long afterward, I cheered my mother, who had cancer and crippling pain, by retelling Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” to her as I sat on her bed during one interminable night.
Miguel Herráez’s Julio Cortázar: Una Biografía Revisada is safe and respectful, which can be a drawback. The biographer does not want to step on anybody’s toes or speculate, or novelize too much. He dutifully quotes from Cortázar’s letters here and there and from the published interviews of his friends and family. He interviews some of Cortázar’s friends and his first wife, Aurora Bernárdez, who was also Cortázar’s literary executor. He draws connections and makes deductions, but it’s all controlled and brisk, and there are gaps where some of the most interesting material should be. I imagine that all of this might be because Herráez wanted to write a relatively short biography, rather than a sprawling monster.
What kinds of things could or should Herráez have expanded? In 1968, Cortázar was involved in a sour, long distance argument with the Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas, and made comments that were at least arrogant and at most insulting and demeaning. The topic at issue was cosmopolitan Latin Americanism versus local Latin Americanism. The Peruvian anthropologist and novelist, who lived rooted to the Quechua people he wrote about, challenged the Argentinian expatriate who had made a life for himself in Paris, and who lived jetsetting around the world to speak for Latin America. Tragically, the depressive Arguedas committed suicide several months after the whole affair and Cortázar was mortified over how he had conducted himself with that gentle giant from Peru. This isn’t to say that Cortázar should be blamed for Arguedas’s suicide, but others did blame him, and Cortázar was clearly disturbed by the whole thing. Perhaps Herráez thought that this affair was just one of many “literary” anecdotes that didn’t merit special mention. I don’t think so because the affair crystallizes Cortázar’s anxieties about his geographical distance from Latin America and his passionate political advocacy. Let’s face it: Cortázar was obsessed with Paris; he didn’t want to live any place else. This contradictory situation is not ancillary to what is important about Cortázar but absolutely central.
The biography is also lacking in how it treats Cortázar’s love life. What kind of husband was he? It seems like he was happiest in his second marriage, to Carol Dunlop, but there is little detail about what that relationship was like. His first wife, Bernárdez, seems to have been aloof and disapproving but Mario Vargas Llosa described their marriage, at one point, as the most perfect imaginable. Herráez unloads against Cortázar’s partner Ugne Karvelis in no uncertain terms, characterizing her as domineering and resentful. But it was also clear that there was some kind of sexual awakening in Cortázar with Karvelis that bound them together at first. It’s in such matters that a reader expects a little bit more “literature” in a biography, in the sense of novelizing or story-telling.
In general, Miguel Dalmau’s Julio Cortázar: El Cronopio Fugitivo is much more interesting and expansive. Dalmau is fascinated by Cortázar’s relationship to his sister and mother both of whom he supported throughout his life. He explores the possibility of testosterone treatments that might explain Cortázar’s bigger libido in the late sixties, as well as that voluminous beard, which appeared at the same time, and apparently out of nowhere. Dalmau also tackles the controversy over Cortázar’s death more directly and in more detail than Herráez. Did Cortázar die of AIDS because of a blood transfusion he received in the early 80’s or did he die of leukemia? Did his second wife Carol Dunlop die of AIDS that she had contracted from him? Dalmau opts for AIDS, in support of Cristina Peri Rossi’s version, who claims that she saw a kaposi sarcoma. Should it matter if Cortázar died of AIDS? In a way it doesn’t but insofar as it reminds us of how the monumentalization of his reputation has made him untouchable maybe it does.
Wherever there is sex, family intrigue, and conflict, Dalmau goes there to dig deep and explore it in detail. He is aggressive about uncovering Cortázar. For example, he notes Cortázar’s peculiar fetishization of rape in a few stories and starts to ask questions. This is the right thing to do, however uncomfortable it might be for all of us who idolize the author. Based on these stories, Dalmau hints that Cortázar raped a woman in Kenya, but we’ll never know for sure. Is it even responsible to pose this possibility when all you have is fiction? What remains, however, are troubling traces of violence and misogyny in the words of Cortázar that merit our attention. I’m not sure Dalmau quite gets the balance right in how he addresses some of these controversial issues but he’s not afraid to look and explore, which is the right approach.
The problem I have with this book is that Dalmau’s querulous voice, and his clear and casual hostility toward women in general, is distracting. There’s a hectoring quality to the biography, as well as a leering one, that’s just not right. The tone is wrong for me, no matter how much I appreciate the biographer’s dogged insistence in getting to the bottom of his subject. Maybe Cortázar was a momma’s boy, as Dalmau insists over and over again, but the gloating and arrogant asides are infuriating. Then there’s his questionable obsession with referring to the “African” blood in that transfusion that supposedly gave Cortázar HIV. I don’t know how to put this, but Dalmau’s authorial voice is insufferable. It’s a shame because in many ways this could have been a great biography.