15 April 15 | Monica Carter | Comments

Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.



Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires – Julio Cortázar, translated from the Spanish by David Kurnick
Semiotext(e)

It almost feels unfair to make anyone compete with Julio Cortázar. His fantastically irreverent novel Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires was originally published in 1975, and yet it has more life in its bones (or rather, in its sixty-nine pages) than many works of our own time. Subtitled “An Attainable Utopia,” Fantomas is at once a tongue-in-cheek response to the violence of the late twentieth century and a serious critique of corporate and governmental oppression.

The book opens with “our narrator” (later revealed to be Cortázar himself) on his way to his home in Paris. On the train, he reads a comic book starring the masked hero Fantomas, whose latest mission is to stop a band of anti-culture terrorists from burning down the world’s great libraries. After our narrator’s arrival in Paris, the borders between life and comic strip rapidly collapse: Fantomas himself comes crashing in through the narrator’s window, and Cortázar must help him realize the magnitude of this global problem — at least, when he’s not lusting after the superhero’s miniskirt-clad assistants or being yelled at on the phone by a convalescent Susan Sontag.

These conversations with Sontag — all carried out over “that technological decapitation known as the telephone” — are half comedy routine and half sadly prescient analysis. At one point, the narrator presents the difficulty of their task: “Susan, the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.” She responds:

Yes, Julio, but reality makes itself known in other ways, too — it makes itself known in work or the lack of work, in the price of potatoes, in the boy shot down on the corner, in the way the filthy rich drive past the miserable slums (that’s a metaphor, because they take care never to get anywhere near the goddamn slums). It makes itself known even in the singing of birds, in children’s laughter, in the moment of making love. These things are known, Julio, a miner or a teacher or a bicyclist knows them, deep down everyone knows them, but we’re lazy or we shuffle along in bewilderment, or we’ve been brainwashed and we think that things aren’t so bad because they’re not flattening our houses or kicking us to death…

That paragraph, like most of Fantomas, has not aged a day since 1975. Cortázar’s highly original adventure story, his commentary on the power of literature to imagine alternative worlds (and, equally, the human failure to realize those worlds), bears a political message as relevant today as it was forty years ago. And the author, for all his revolutionary fervor, seems to have understood that in advance: “Look, mister,” a newspaper seller tells our narrator early on in the book, “history is like steak and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.” The same goes, apparently, for the present.

David Kurnick’s translation is nimble, confident, and pitch perfect; like Groucho Marx, he always gets the right amount of syllables for the joke. (One dialogue, between the narrator and Sontag: “‘But this isn’t going to be easy, baby.’ ‘No shit,’ said Susan.”) Fantomas isn’t just a marvelous read, though; as publisher Semiotext(e) presents it, it’s also a marvelous object. The book is nearly half images, and far from interrupting the flow of the text, they define it. Pages from the narrator’s comic books, bleary mass-reproduced photographs of urban landscapes, and a hilarious sequence of drawings by the lovechild of Goya and Gorey, whose central figures are all identified as the shapeshifting Fantomas, are indispensable to the storyline and account for a good deal of its jaunty charm.

That a “lost” work can waltz in so unexpectedly and become such a formidable contender is, I think, testament enough to its quality. For its intellectual honesty and sheer panache, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires deserves the Best Translated Book Award; moreover, I suspect it’s a title its competitors would be able to lose to with grace.

21 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Cameron Rowe on Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia, translated by David Kurnick and published by Semiotext(e).

Cameron (some of you may have met her at ALTA last fall) is a current student in the MA in Literary Translation Studies program here at the University of Rochester, and will be doing her thesis on a translation from Spanish into English. She’s also a fellow-Minnesotan, and has been known to rock out to Taylor Swift. Here’s the beginning of her review:

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.”)

For the rest of the review, go here.

21 January 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

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.

29 July 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

Kit Maude has a really nice piece on one of Chad’s favorite authors, Julio Cortázar, up on ReadySteadyBook:

The most important aspect of Cortázar’s novels, short stories, poems and eccentrica, is his sense of the game. The game he plays with the reader, the characters, himself (this last phrase is stolen from the foreword by Mario Vargas Llosa to the first volume of Cortázar’s complete short stories, a book which I seem to have misplaced so can’t quote from exactly). The rules, as in the best games, are carefully drawn. They exclude as much as they allow, as in the best stories, creating their own imaginative space. The only trouble is that the rules are often revealed at the crucial moment to be completely different from those that the player (the reader, the character) thought applied.

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