31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 3: “Blow-Up” by Julio Cortázar

May 3, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Blow-Up and Other Stories

A photograph never lies, or so the saying goes. That, of course, is bollocks. Nothing lies more than a photograph. An image captured in time provides a static moment, but the moment is decontextualized: the viewer has no idea what happened before the photo was shot, nor what transpires after. An artfully constructed photograph is just that: a construction, a creation of the photographer, the imposition of order within a carefully delineated frame. How much of a photograph’s narrative is imposed upon the image by the photographer, and how much of that narrative is available to the photographer in the first place?

These are the questions that preoccupy Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar in “Blow-Up,” the story that inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film. But Cortázar realizes that it is not only photography, but also fiction that is an artistic construction; his entire story can be summed up as an extended inquiry into the ability of art – any art – to convey unalloyed truth.

On its surface, the events of the story are simple enough. Roberto Michel, a Franco-Chilean translator and amateur photographer, goes out to the park with his Contax 1.1.2 camera on the morning of Sunday, November 7. There, he spots a woman and an adolescent boy and snaps a photo of them. He takes the film home to be developed and while looking at the blow-up of his photograph, he imagines a narrative for the two figures.

This, in any event, is the way a strict naturalistic summary of the story would unfold. Cortázar, however, is a defiant anti-naturalist (he referred to his masterpiece, Hopscotch, as an “anti-novel”), and his approach in the story actively resists an attempt to locate stable truth or certainty. The reader is on guard from the opening sentence: “It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing.” Right from the first words of the story, the narrative perspective is shown to be slippery, the possibility of alternate versions multitudinous. Indeed, the first-person narrator bleeds into an unidentified third-person narrator at several points in the story, and Michel asserts in the outset that his narration is both contingent and compulsory: “I have the dumb luck to know that if I go this Remington will sit turned to stone on top of the table with the air of being twice as quiet that mobile things have when they are not moving. So I have to write. One of us all has to write, if this is going to get told.”

Michel’s approach to narration, like his approach to photography, is hyper-self-conscious; in the same way that “the photographer always worked as a permutation of his personal way of seeing the world as other than the camera insidiously imposed upon it,” Michel avows that in telling the current story, “I’m telling a truth which is only my truth, and then is the truth only for my stomach …” But Michel can’t reach the truth through the prism of art; his narration is frequently contradictory. The blonde woman’s face is “white” and “bleak,” two descriptors that Michel immediately admits are “unfair.” Her eyes are compared to “eagles,” “leaps into nothingness,” and, most alarmingly, “two puffs of green slime.” Nothing is certain, nothing is absolute: “[N]ow a pigeon’s flying by,” Michel writes, “and it seems to me a sparrow.”

When Michel first sees the woman and the boy, he imagines the latter “illuminated by a total love,” wracked by “an uneasiness beginning to tinge the edge of desire,” which might lead him “to put his arm around her waist and kiss her.” And yet even in this idyllic fantasy, Michel is troubled by “a disquieting aura”: “I thought I was imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.” The photo, however, takes on malevolent overtones. There is a black car in the background with a man in a grey hat perched at the wheel; although Michel attempts to crop the car and its occupant out of the photo, when he blows up the print the car appears in the frame. Michel begins to imagine the boy, like “a Fra Filippo angel,” not as a breathless romantic but rather as a victim of the older woman and the shadowy man in the grey hat, “a flour-powdered clown or bloodless man, dull dry skin, eyes deepset, the nostrils black and prominently visible,” an evil couple determined to embroil the boy in an “abusive act.”

The climactic sequence in the story is expressionistic and indistinct, but conveys a tone of indefinable dread that would not be out of place in Kafka. “Everything was going to resolve itself right there,” we are told, but in the end, nothing is resolved and the truth remains withheld from us.

“Blow-Up” is not the original title of Cortázar’s story. The original title was “Las Babas del Diablo,” literally, “The Devil’s Spit.” The unnamed third-person narrator acknowledges at one point that “filaments of angel-spittle are also called devil-spit,” once again underscoring the shifting nature of reality within the context of the narrative. Cortázar has created a literary hall of mirrors, where everything is its opposite, where love and death mirror each other inextricably, and inevitably.

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