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Julio Cortazar's "From The Observatory" translated by Anne McLean

Updated on June 15, 2014

Poetic Photo Journalism Meets South American Surrealism

Julio Cortazar was one of the most influential Argentine writers of the 20th century. While most of his work was primarily novels and short stories, he also composed poetry, essays, and meditative prose pieces that display many surrealist tendencies. Born in Europe in 1914 to Argentine parents, Cortazar spent most of his youth in Argentina and was a sickly youth. During most of his childhood, he read in bed, enjoying the works of Jules Verne, living in the alternate universes of his imagination. From Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Pablo Neruda, many famous writers hold him in high esteem.

One of his later works, From The Observatory, translated from the original spanish by Anne Mclean, was recently given to me as a Christmas present and has proved to be a treasure-house of poetic artistry. It is a combination of Cortazar's extended prose poetry mixed with photos he took of an observatory in Jaipur built by an Indian prince in the 1700s. It reads similarly to Neruda's poetry, but much of it is structured like paragraphed essays or run-on sentences broken up by perpetual commas. It is a meditation on time and the experience of living itself; many components revolve around eels and philosophy and the architecture of the observatory. The photos, which were originally taken on a what the Cortazar calls "poor quality film" were retouched and improved later by Antonio Galvez. The combination of writing and black and white photography is makes for a piece of high art.

Moreover, the writing itself is good enough to immediately place Cortazar in elite company --with the very best of Spanish-language poets like Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. It is also vaguely reminiscent of some of the prose poems of Rimbaud, and accordingly, Cortazar cites him as an influence. Time magazine writes, "Cortazar is a unique storyteller. He can induce the kind of chilling unease that strikes like a sound in the night." Indeed, this piece of poetic photo journalism runs like a magical current where the reader can see reflections of himself everywhere, a kind of undulating verse that weaves the imaginations of different perspectives into one. At the least is a beautiful book that serves as a good introduction to Julio Cortazar and looks classy sitting on the coffee table.


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