Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cortazar and The Minotaur

I have wanted to translate this ever since yesterday afternoon, when my sister and I watched an old interview done to the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar. The program was in black and white and had been filmed in the sixties. This is when Cortazar was publishing his best works in Spanish such as “Bestiario” (“Bestiary”), “Todos Los Fuegos, el Fuego” (“All Fires, the Fires” 1966) and “Rayuela”( “Hopscotch” 1963). The interviewer was from Spain and asked Cortazar questions about his childhood, his first works, about other writers who influenced him, about death. Cortazar answered everything with stories, the way any writer would have answered. Most of the interview was centered on Cortazar’s amazing way to view reality through the fantastic, and the intertwining of both genres in his literature.

There was one certain observation that Cortazar made about one of his works titled “The Exam.” I wanted to transcribe it over here for Tony, who might understand:

According to Cortazar, before writing “The Exam” he began to explore Mythology, specially the story of Theseus. Theseus was a Greek hero, national hero of Athens; slayer of the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a monster, half-man, half-bull, that lived in the center of a maze called the Labyrinth. It had been born to Minos's wife Pasiphae as a punishment from the gods. The Minotaur inhabited the labyrinth but the paradox is that he was also a prisoner of this impossible maze. In the story Theseus manages to find his way through the labyrinth and he kills this monster. This is what makes him a hero of Athens.

Cortazar partially deconstructs this myth and re-narrates it from a different perspective. In his version, the Minotaur is not a monster but rather a victim of the maze, who lives a tragic and solitary life separated from human beings, trapped inside the labyrinth which is his prison. King Minos in this version comes to be some type of fascist dictator who enslaves him for being different, and so the life of this creature becomes a grave life. When Theseus arrives with his sword in hand, the Minotaur is happy at first. Longing for some type of human contact ever since he was a child, when he encounters humans lost in the labyrinth his only desire is for their company. But once he realizes what Theseus’ objective is, the Minotaur does not stand against him. The Minotaur does not fight because he realizes that he does not want his life if he will have to spend one more second inside that prison. So he lets Theseus kill him, passively and without pain, without a final battle.
In the end, when Theseus comes out of the labyrinth with the creature’s head, he is made national hero by the King and the city of Athens. But he has a confession to make, and he only whispers it to his beloved Ariadna who takes his secret to her grave: “The Minotaur seemed to want to die Ariadna! He did not fight at all!”

And so, to Cortazar, this figure of the Minotaur is also the figure of the poet, the writer who finds himself sometimes trapped inside a prison. The Minotaur is Cortazar's reflection; it is every thinker. And what is so beautiful is that the reader realizes the flaws in the first tale, told by the winners, and acquires a new understanding and a sort of compassion for the story told from the other side of the labyrinth. By giving the Minotaur a voice, Cortazar manages to bring this lost speech back into the world of mythology. In the interview, Cortazar seemed to stress the point that the labyrinth of this Greek story is a well frequented place for many humans or "half-humans" of his kind. So this secret garden of mazes and solitude, of insane and inescapable introspection and silence, becomes not only the land of the Minotaur but also the land of the writer, the reader, the thinker. Alejandra Pizarnick will write years later, how this land becomes " the place for the poetic bodies."

(Note on the side: My sister and I have a few issues regarding the story in this interview. The tale of the Minotaur as narrated by Cortazar has also been written by Borges, another Argentine writer. Borges titles his story “Theseus and the Minotaur” while Cortazar in the interview claims that his version appears on his work titled “The Exam.” We assumed both writers, equally exceptional, came up with a different version of this Greek myth at the same time. To prove my point, if both Borges and Cortazar were attracted to this tragic story it might only be that there is a Minotaur in every writer.)

( Other note on the side: Just to show off my pompous knowledge on literature. It's interesting to point that other poets and writers have also tried rescuing the voices of the ignored in the manifold of Greek Mythology. By reversing the narratives and writing through the perspective of those who failed, new terrains are revealed. The American poet H.D for example, did the same thing with the legend of Orpheus. In her version, Orpheus' wife Eurydice writes the story of her fall into the depths of hell. All thanks to the fact that her lover, who was supposed to rescue her, turned around to make sure she was behind him instead and lost the opportunity to save her from getting out of the underworld. This underworld then, becomes Eurydice's home just like the labyrinth is the Minotaur's land. So it is in these realms where more stories are created. (For a further reading of this poem go to: " H.D'S Collected Poems, 1914-1944, " The God."))

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