In the middle of a short story entitled “Instrucciones para John Howell” (“Instructions for John Howell”), Argentine author Julio Cortázar has his protagonist, a man called Rice, complain loudly about a play that he’s watching with some frustration: “It’s a scandal! [. . .] How can anyone stand the fact that they change actors halfway through a scene?” (133). But the man sitting next to Rice in the audience responds with little more than a bored sigh: “You never know with these young authors. [. . .] It’s all symbolic, I suppose” (133). And though by the time this collection of stories, Todos los fuegos el fuego, was published in 1966, Cortázar was 52 (and so a full decade older than fellow Boom writers such as Donoso, Fuentes, or García Márquez), one could still imagine that this might be the reaction it elicited: a contradictory blend of uncomprehending shock and knowing world-weariness. For by 1966 authors continued trying to shock their audiences, and yet the shock of the new had itself become old. The risk was that that text might get lost, stranded between scandal and déjà vu.
One might imagine a reader making a complaint much like Rice’s when faced with the story “La señorita Cora” (“Miss Cora”), which constantly and abruptly shifts between narrators, often in mid-paragraph. A young boy is in hospital for a minor operation, and we switch rapidly between the perspectives of parent, nurse, and patient. Similarly, the title story “Todos los fuegos el fuego” (“All Fires the Fire”) jumps back and forth between a story of gladiators in Rome and a much more contemporary tale of a fatal love triangle in Paris. Why do this? What does it add? Is there not something almost perverse in this drive to disrupt our reading that surely puts so many off? But the more resigned response of anyone familiar with the Boom might be to observe that such narrative fragmentation and changes in point of view are par for the course in mid-century experimental fiction. From Roa Bastos to Vargas Llosa, Fuentes to Lezama Lima, Boom authors and their peers seem devoted to making life hard for the reader, and ironically it’s the fact that these gambits have become so very common that gives readers a way out. For if sheer puzzlement leads to an emotive refusal to read, perhaps with a denunciation of innovation as elitist or unnecessary, jejeune familiarity is little better in that it entails a nonchalant declaration that a detailed reading is superfluous in that there’s nothing really new under the sun. “It’s all symbolic, I suppose.“ Or, as a free translation of this book’s title might have it: if you’ve seen one fire, you’ve seen them all.
By encoding these two apparently opposed (but secretly complicit) reactions within the text itself, Cortázar is also surely trying to ward them off. As such, if we can be sure of anything, it has to be that it’s not “all symbolic.” Readings that take refuge in symbolism and allegory have missed the point and neutralized the real impact of what the writer is trying to achieve. For there surely still is something at least faintly scandalous about abrupt shifts of points of view that disrupt grammatical or syntactical propriety. As soon as we see experimentation as just another trope, then we miss something of the text’s affective reality. After all, in the case of the play that Rice is watching, it’s been whispered in his ear that someone’s life may be at stake. Perhaps still more to the point, Rice knows that the actors have been changed because at one point he was up there on the stage himself. And perhaps this is also where the scandalized and the world-weary responses to the text join forces, in that both gloss over the reader’s own affective investment in the reading. When Rice complains to his neighbour about the scandalous nature of the play they are both watching, his comment hides his own contribution to that scandal.
In the end, what outrage and (purported) ennui alike deny are the ways in which readers get caught up in the text’s machinic assemblage. Machines are everywhere to be found in this collection of stories, from the opening tale of an almost interminable traffic jam on the outskirts of Paris (“La autopista del sur”) to the aeroplane from which (in “La isla a mediodía”) a flight attendant glimpses what he imagines to be a pristine Mediterranean Island. In “Instrucciones para John Howell,” it is the reader, as he or she becomes actor and thus (to an extent, however limited) author who is depicted in mechanistic terms. In the wings, preparing to go on-stage, Rice is described as “mechanically” changing his clothes (129). When in front of the footlights, realizing he has to “submit to the madness and give himself over to the simulacrum” (125), he finds his entry into the spectacle (which, while he is within it, is no longer spectacle) to be eased by his recourse to the automatism of habit. He picks up his role through gestures that he doesn’t even need to think through: the “trivial ritual of lighting a cigarette” for instance (125). What counts now is less the big scene or the broad overview, less the scandal or the context that neutralizes it, than “the details” and the detailed reading, because it is there and only there that reader, author, and actor finds his or her “maximum freedom” (128).