Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin American literary figures, a comic book superhero, international conspiracies, an attack on culture, multinational vampires.

Fantomas begins with “the narrator” reading a Mexican newspaper on a Belgian train (it was the only paper available at the train station), increasingly distracted, in spite of himself, by the comic book he finds inside—an issue of Fantomas: “Inteligencia en llamas.” It becomes clear that the protagonist, referred to by the narrator as “the narrator,” is actually Cortázar himself. “The narrator’s” narrative bleeds into that of the comic book he is reading, which pulls in other figures of contemporary literary history, including Octavio Paz, Susan Sontag, and Gabriel García Marquez.

The writing is quick and snappy and very funny. It’s also very strange and a little perplexing. A woman at the train station in Brussels only has Mexican newspapers to sell, thinks Mexico is “over near Asia, everyone knows that,” and discusses the delicacies of radioactive hake, all over the course of a page and a half. Later on, the narrator tells Susan Sontag to fuck off. (Actually, not quite. He tells her he “loves her too much to tell her to fuck off.”) The text flows from this strange, funny dialogue pretty seamlessly, almost unnoticeably, into more serious, political things like excerpts of the Russell Tribunal and rhetoric like:

“They have a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand names . . . but above all they’re called ITT, they’re called Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger or CIA or DIA, they’re called Pinochet or Banzer or Lopez Rega, they’re called General or Colonel or Technocrat or Fleury or Stroessner, they have those special names where every name means thousands of names, the way the word ant means a multitude of ants even though the dictionary defines it in the singular.”

This, within the very same aforementioned conversation with Ms. Sontag.

This mixture of ridiculous, hilarious, and somber sincerity carries through in the illustrations as well. The text is interspersed not only with panels from the comic strip, but also other photographs, newspaper excerpts, drawings of Fantomas’s various disguises, and diagrams—one of the passengers in the narrator’s train compartment and another titled “The CIA organizes coups all over the world,” just for two examples.

An afterword by the translator, David Kurnick, confirmed what I had been wondering the whole time I was reading this book—_is this all real?_ And it is. In 1975 Julio Cortázar served on a tribunal in Brussels investigating war crimes in Latin America. Around the same time a comic book called _Fantomas_—originally a superlatively popular antihero in France, Fantômas, in the turn of the century—was popular in Mexico. Its writers often featured real, important, contemporary cultural figures. In one (real) issue “Inteligencia en llamas,” these were literary figures—Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, and yes, Julio Cortázar. Cortázar used all original illustrations from this issue of Fantomas in his book, writing his plot around them, weaving it into his own.

The strangest part about the experience of reading this book is that what is strange is not all of the oddities we eventually accept—the conflation of fiction, reality, and comic books, the celebrity guest appearances, the jokes about radioactive fish—but the ending. The whole final quarter of Fantomas centers around Susan Sontag’s insistence that Fantomas can’t fight this battle alone, until it crescendos into a sort of rallying cry. Fantomas and Cortázar both learn their lesson, and voices from all across South and Central America join together in a call to arms. It feels odd that we’re supposed to take this ending seriously, and yet I did. Fantomas is a very funny book; it’s a riot to read, but a riot with a purpose—the utopia is attainable, after all.

For days after I read this book all I wanted to do was tell people about it. Not recommend it to them, per se (though that was a part of it), but at least just tell them about it. There was this popular Mexican comic book in the 70s, Julio Cortázar wrote a book around it, there are vampires (?), he tells Susan Sontag to fuck off (sort of). I only wished I had known about all of this sooner, I kept feeling like I should have known about this sooner. Everyone should know about this book. It’s a real wonder that no one has translated it before now. Reading Fantomas is an amazing experience and everyone should have access to it.

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