In 1968, the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar was left astonished by Maharajah Jai Singh II’s astronomical observatories at Jaipur and New Delhi in India. While visiting them he took about 300 photographs of these mammoth structures built early in the 18th century; four years later he returned to the photographs to write the essayistic prose poem, From the Observatory. The book has now been rendered into English for the first time in a stunning translation by the talented Anne McLean, a two-time recipient of the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for Translated Literature.
From the Observatory brings to mind Friedrich Nietzsche’s declaration that the cosmos is “the primordial poem of mankind”. Nietzsche’s statement reflects the idea that culture is humanity’s “reading” of this primordial poem, as well as that the reality of the cosmos is something we must seek out. Both of these ideas are central to what Cortázar sets out to explore through his churning sentences.
His images attempt to put us in touch with a cosmos that is fundamentally a mystery, and also to show us that this cosmos very much includes humans – particularly their artefacts and their languages – as a part of this “primordial poem”. From the Observatory imagines how we can at once be part of it and respond to it.
It begins with Cortázar calling forth an hour outside of the flow of time. From here, the book abruptly swerves into a forcefully holistic image of the Earth, with the author introducing his two protagonists: on the one side is Jai’s observatory, which comes to embody the scientific world of the human, and on the other side are seafaring eels, which are agents of the natural world.
It’s not quite right to say these two exist in binary – the relationships Cortázar establishes between them are far too dense for such a simple scheme, even if he does repeatedly derive strong effects from juxtapositions of their differences. Rather, he chronicles the ways in which these two realms can go beyond the either/or, elegantly invoking hidden correspondences and alternative logics that make these fractured worlds whole.
Cortázar most frequently finds that common ground in the experience of wonder. Early on he establishes a deep correspondence between the eels and the stars by insisting that their prodigious multitudes can inspire a similar kind of wonder in the humans who see them.
Referring to the eels as a “black galaxy”, he writes: “And so the black galaxy runs in the night like the other golden one up above in the night running motionlessly.” No sooner has he paid tribute to the sensations that these phenomena can evoke in humans than he registers his mixed feelings over our drive to quantify and name them. After a vivid description of the eels spawning in the deep sea, Cortázar writes, “and they too will enter into a dead language, they’ll be called -leptocephali”.
These, perhaps, seem strange sentiments from someone who himself has chosen to embalm eels and stars in the stuff of language – and to do so from an observatory no less, a temple if ever there was one to a scientific understanding of our world. But Cortázar is not being inconsistent. Rather than accept Jai’s observatory as a citadel of science, he imagines it as a place of sensual magnificence: at one point he calls it a “seraglio on high”.
These images give some idea of how Cortázar makes both science and language something utterly sensual in From the Observatory. Surrounded by Jai’s “marble tapes and bronze compasses”, he finds in science not a cheap copy of primordial nature but rather a way in which humans might exult with the eels and the stars. Whether scientists observing, eels swimming, or stars shining, they are all alphabets writing about the same thing, reflecting “every sign of measurement on the marble ramps of Jaipur received ... the Morse signs, the sidereal alphabet that in another dimension of the sensitive turns into plankton, trade winds, shipwreck of the California oil tanker Norman ...”
For Cortázar, these “alphabets” are not simply analogues to the natural world but rather parts of that world itself. As such, they are every bit as subject to the mysterious logic that stands behind the stars and the eels. As he shows in this magnificent sentence, since language is another part of nature it is capable of reproducing its rhythms, of being just as full of wonder as a night sky:
“The silent clamour of underwater currents, their inescapable veins; the sky is like that too on clear nights when the stars amalgamate in a single pressure, conspiring and hostile, rejecting a re-encounter, the nomenclatures, putting up a velvety unreachableness to the lens that encircles and abstracts them, rushing in ten, a hundred at a time in the same field of vision, forcing Jai Singh to bathe his eyelids with the balm his doctor extracts from herbs rooted in the myths of the heavens, in the cruel, cheerful games of deities fed up with immortality.”
Note the movement here from the water to the sky to the eye, from science to myth, as well as the way in which the stars’ effect ranges from the profound to the prosaic.
Here, as throughout From the Observatory, Cortázar makes language a part of the world as he sees it – a world not of separation and clear definition but of things that flow into and help define each other, a world of multiple interactions and startling convergences. In the slippage from the eels to the stars, from Jai’s observatory to the sargassum of the deep sea, Cortázar’s book takes on the qualities that Roland Barthes described as “writerly”: a text that pulls the reader out of her role as subject and draws her into the act of creation. It was an effect that Cortázar consciously strove for in his literature, an effect that here, as elsewhere, is used to convey amazement and romantic longing.
In McLean’s translation one can feel the exploratory power of Cortázar’s sentences – they bristle with possibility, as though they might open up into any number of directions. Yet McLean’s English also maintains a clear, immaculate sense of arrangement and organisation, worthy of the author who once said approvingly of Borges: “He tightened his writing, as if with -pliers.”
The photographs that first inspired Cortázar to write From the Observatory appear throughout the book, the work of a collaboration between the author and his friend, the artist Antonio Gálvez. The black-and-white images have the rough shadings and rich tones of charcoal sketches, the variously sinuous and straight lines of the observatory blending with moody long shadows and dim skies to create abstracted, suggestive images. Like the text, they give a sense of languid heat and timeless dusk, their alternately coiling and solid forms matching the feel of Cortázar’s sentences.
Towards the end of From the Observatory, Cortázar puts it quite bluntly that “we’re wondering here about humanity, although we’re talking about eels and stars”; follows that with: “Jai Singh knows that a thirst quenched with water will return to torment him, Jai Singh knows that only by becoming water himself will he stop feeling thirsty.”
In these moments the book becomes needlessly overdetermined, the intellectual skeleton on which Cortázar hangs his images grows less elusive than in the masterful novels Hopscotch and 62: A Model Kit. Appropriate as these sentiments may be, they put too much of a slant on Cortázar’s vision, their expendability becomes a detraction from the more interesting matters he pursues.
Yet this is a minor flaw and From the Observatory should be read, if not for Cortázar’s redundant call to “finish off man’s prison”, then to see the nuance and art with which he has imagined the web of relationships between the stars and the sea. Cortázar’s eloquence makes a welcome counter to the cults of progress and science, which, as he writes, prevent “man from deforming himself through an excess of dreams”.
As he has done in so many works, Cortázar here shows himself to have been one of our most deformed, most dream-besotted writers. The results of his deformity are wonderful gifts, such as From the Observatory.
Scott Esposito is the editor of the Quarterly Conversation.