A testing text

Final Exam was Julio Cortázar’s first novel but the last published – fitting, perhaps, for a plot that purposefully lacks direction


Final Exam
Julio Cortázar, translated by Alfred MacAdam
2000, New Directions
237 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

“THE NIGHTMARE from which it was born,” wrote Julio Cortázar of Final Exam in an author’s note published posthumously with the book when it finally went into print in 1986 a generation after being written, “is still awake and prowling the streets.”

The great Argentine writer had believed it impossible in 1950 to publish the book – more avant-garde experiment in admixing surrealism and symbolism than oblique social commentary – and it remained as obscured by the Argentine fog as the characters in the novel itself when he subsequently emigrated to France.

While what is often referred to as a self-exile would last the rest of his life, it opened up new perspectives for a novelist who would influence a generation of Latin American writers. Paris gave Cortázar the detached, almost lofty perspective on the region that he simply could not affect in his homeland – a clear, unobstructed new horizon from which to cast aspersions. His most celebrated novel, Hopscotch, examines the experience of an Argentinean living in the French capital.

Thus, although Cortázar’s departure from Argentina in 1951 at the age of 37 was related to his opposition to the government of Juan Domingo Perón, this was so only partially. His own Belgian antecedents and his familiarity with French literature and culture – he had formerly been professor of French literature at the National University of Cuyo – also made this a lifestyle choice, and Cortázar had long been magnetically attracted to Paris. Well-versed in the writings of Balzac, Mallarmé and Baudelaire, his French exile was a formative development in his literary career, allowing him to develop his oft-stated connection with surrealism and existentialism.

Nor had Cortázar been a political dissident or even persecuted – indeed, the younger Cortázar had been among the most apolitical writers of the Boom generation – although he had been openly hostile to Perón’s rise to power and government, mainly for its climate of intolerance. Cortázar later stated that he had left his homeland because he felt that to live under the populist leader had been like losing his freedom. This was a time in Argentina in which over-zealous Peronist activists, reacting to the opposition of upper-class students, would scrawl the slogans “Haga patria, mate un estudiante” and “Alpargatas sí, libros no” on the walls of Buenos Aires, and over-zealous Peronist bureaucrats would intervene heavily in some universities and close down others.

Freedom of speech

The “nightmare” alluded to by the author was aesthetic and related to freedom of speech, a reference perhaps to the suffocating provincial chauvinism of the Perón regime. Cortázar felt suffocated in Buenos Aires and would prosper in Paris, which breathed fresh air into his literary lungs.

It was only after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that the author began to include political themes in his work. He was a staunch defender of the revolution, became active in Latin American human rights campaigns and expressed support for Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution. Nonetheless, he maintained a Chinese Wall between politics and his work, distinguishing between the vocation of writing and his political commitments – much to the irritation of the Left. Even his attitude to Cuba’s revolution probably speaks as much as anything of underlying aesthetic concerns.

In a fascinating paper, Eugenia Demuro of the University of Sydney has written; “For Cortázar revolution signified a break with the rational, realist consciousness, and its corresponding literary tradition. In his writing, best exemplified by his most renowned work Rayuela (1963), Cortázar defied realist literary conventions – such as a chronological representation of time, linear narrative structures, and the realist claim to a ‘transparent’ language. For him, thematic exploration, stylistic experimentation and an innovative use of the Spanish language are based upon an analogy between the literary work and ‘reality’: the writer’s rebellion on the face of those realist conventions is simultaneously a critique of the rationalist discourse of ‘reality’ that they represent. Thus, the challenge to the literary achieves a revolutionary break in reality. The ideological exists in Cortázar’s work as an attitude toward reality, and not an explicit proposing of a political position.”*

In Final Exam, Cortázar appears to have adopted the position of prophet more than social commentator. The novel tells a loose story about students killing time in a ramshackle, Buenos Aires submerged in a mysterious fog the night before taking their final university exam. It is pregnant with an unfulfilled and confused apprehension in which there is much intellectualising, dialogue and allusion – but little overall progress towards a conclusion, a metaphor for a disintegrating country caught in a time warp. The literary and philosophical reflection of the characters contrasts with their inane, almost aimless drift lacking both direction and apparent substance. It is fittingly ironic then, that this, the first book he wrote, should be his last published.

Among the disconnected and highly symbolic set-pieces, rendered skilfully by translator MacAdam, the characters stumble upon a bizarre spectacle in the Plaza de Mayo, where crowds are paying homage to a relic – a small bone. This was seen by colleagues of Cortázar as presaging the later display in public and morbid veneration of the corpse of Eva Perón – who died of uterine cancer in 1952 aged 33.

Stylistically, there are only a few glimpses of the later Cortázar in Final Exam, which, although at times youthfully exuberant, remains dense, melancholy and even incoherent. The name-dropping and use of poems and quotations alongside what are clearly autobiographical references all reveal a writer embarking on his career and searching for his own vocabulary. As in so many other cases, he would only find it in exile.

*Eugenia Demuro, Eugenia. 2007. “National and Literary Perspectives: Cortázar and the Ideology of Form and Politics of Identity.” Paper presented at the 2007 ACLA Annual meeting in Puebla, Mexico. Later reproduced as “Julio Cortázar: the Poetics of Exile” in Vitalpoetics, Vol.1 No.1 (January 2008).

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books