Brother, Come Back, by Ariel Dorfman (Published 2014)

Remembering the Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar a century after he was born.

“The review you are about to read is deceitful, arbitrary, subjective and useless. Julio Cortázar, whose novel, ‘Hopscotch,’ is probably the best Latin American novel of our times, would suggest that any attempt to reduce a work so complex, profound, concrete, so labyrinthine and revolutionary, so desperate and tango-like, so entertaining and contradictory, . . . that to synthesize all this in a page, is to deform the book.”

These words were written in 1964 by a 22-year-old literary critic in Ercilla, then Chile’s most important weekly. The writer flailed on as he tried to convey the significance of the Argentine novelist and concluded by asking Cortázar’s forgiveness.

The man who wrote those words 50 years ago was me. And having commemorated the centenary of Cortázar’s birth this year, I find myself revisiting that old confusion. If anything, my dilemma has been compounded: In my youth, I was afraid of betraying his fiction. Now, so much older, I dread the prospect that I could betray the life itself of someone who considered me his brother.

But every act of writing entailed, according to Julio, some inevitable exercise of infidelity and duplicity. Silence, ultimately, was an even worse sin. May he forgive me yet again, then, for this homage, a form of keeping him alive.

It was thanks to the Chilean Revolution that I met Cortázar. In November of 1970, he flew to Santiago from Paris, where he had lived for nearly two decades as an expatriate, to attend the inauguration of Salvador Allende, the first socialist president of Chile.

Cortázar’s arrival drove young Chileans wild with enthusiasm, and I was the wildest of them all, his most ardent admirer. His first three books of short stories and his novel, “The Prizes,” turned ordinary life into a mystery and left us breathless, questioning our own sanity. And all this in the everyday street language of Buenos Aires, with a sly sense of humor.

But nothing prepared anyone for “Hopscotch” (1963), which became the foundational text of a generation: an earthquake of language, an assault on reality, anticipating, with its joy and radical demands on the reader, the social liberation that the youth of Latin America dreamed for our continent. “Hopscotch” challenged us to drastically break out of the prison-house of consciousness and history in which we were ensnared. We need, Cortázar said, to throw reality out the window and then throw out the window as well.

We became friends on that first occasion. Later, after the 1973 coup of General Pinochet that ended democracy in Chile, my wife, Angélica, and I had no home and no country, and it was Julio who received us and fed us and gave us refuge. No need to thank me, he would say — that’s what an elder brother does. I couldn’t imagine our roles ever being reversed.

In August of 1980, we went swimming in the bay of Zihuatanejo in Mexico, where our families were on vacation together. Our children had clambered back on the fishing boat Julio had rented for the day, and now it was Julio’s turn to climb up the ladder. I treaded water by his side, waiting patiently.

Abruptly, Julio said: “Ayúdame, Ariel.”

It took me a few moments to understand that he was asking for help. I boosted him up the ladder. In that brief, awkward moment that I held his body in my hands and helped him mount the boat, as I felt his bones, I was confronted by the irrefutable transience of Julio Cortázar. And indeed, less than four years later, the body from which “Hopscotch” and those perfect and hallucinatory stories had emerged was dead. Leaving me to search for some consolation.

A few years ago, on a visit to Buenos Aires, I noticed some words scrawled on a dirty white wall, addressed to Julio.


Come back, Cortázar, how difficult can it be for you?

If so many of his characters could persist beyond death and the cascade of centuries, invading our everyday lives from ominous and malignant borderlands of fiction, why not Cortázar? Who is to tell us that he is not nearby, not only in his literature, not only in the memory of those who recollect him and who are also fading away into oblivion? Who can swear that Cortázar is not watching us, whispering to us from the other side of reality, and that he will continue to do so for century after century?