From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

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From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar
Translated by Anne Mclean
Archipelago Books, 2011
83 pages

Words are a blessing and a curse for Cortázar. Without explicitly saying it in From the Observatory, Cortázar argues that the strict bonds of words, definitions and scientific classification prevent us from experiencing what he calls the “pure image,” a remote state of what might be pure ecstasy. For Cortázar, to even barely evoke this image, every element of the written word must be subject to dissection.

This whole metaphysical discussion lies deep beneath a story of an astronomer, the night sky, and the sea. Cortázar acts as its extractor.

From the Observatory, a poetic essay, featured alongside photographs Cortázar took of the complex spirals of an observatory in Jaipur, Delhi, is a bombardment of page-long sentences with surreal clauses and sudden breaks in the line. His subversive writing style arouses a feeling of dreamily being carried away towards an understanding of – or rather, a spiritual connection with – the cosmos. He uses words, yet the feeling he provokes is ineffable.

This is the first English translation of the work, originally published in Spanish as Prosa del Observatorio in 1972, and translator Anne McLean wonderfully transforms Cortazar’s complex literary gravity into English. When one might expect an ending to a sentence, Cortazar carries on – he has always begged to be read quickly, like the jazz improvisers he was so influenced by in his lifetime. In his work, the urgency to move from one place to the next, to reach an understanding of the metaphysical world by overthrowing words enslaved by definitions and rules, is ubiquitous. Likewise, in From the Observatory, this urgency is strong.

At the core of the work are two proponents for a mystical movement toward his “pure image”: the stars above and the eels below.

Before the eels gain agency as literary subjects or characters, their utilization by the author as an image and a metaphor is called into question. Cortázar introduces the eels, explaining their origins as a “marble giving way, growing into a strip,” and then comments on his expected use of a common literary tool: “Of course inevitable metaphor, eel or star, of course hooks for the image, of course fiction … as you like, there is no other way here to be a sultan of Jaipur, a shoal of eels, a man who turns his face up to the open in the redheaded night.” Cortázar enters the work, as a critic of his own writing.  It seems he is lamenting the banality of metaphor (“of course… of course…”) but simultaneously this “sultan” celebrates it. A blessing, and a curse.

Nonetheless, this “sultan,” Jai Singh, the astronomer who built the observatories, sees the eels and stars not just as similar images, but as representations of each other, or perhaps as a singular entity. Cortázar throughout the work describes Jai Singh’s interaction with the observatory’s marble instruments and tools as a sexually charged ritual writhing, as a sublime act, in an attempt (both on the author and the astronomer’s part) to neutralize the divisional power of metaphor in order to mold the images into one.

A key example: Jai Singh, “with a crystal between his fingers,” casts his net into what may be interpreted as the sky or the sea, and extracts “an eel that is a star that is an eel that is a star that is an eel.” Though still a metaphor, this extended announcement begs to draw out of you your normal conceptions of comparison, to see as Cortázar does this profound unison of images.

But actually, Cortázar’s writing skips the begging and sweeps you right into the rest of the book’s coils. Cortázar vision of metaphor is unapologetic – he wants to shake you at your roots, to make you accept that one thing is another thing.

The “black galaxies” of eels and the “transmissible charts” of stars move in swirls. They act as transports, albeit swift and unpredictable ones, through Cortázar’s relentless torrent of words and ideas on metaphor. The story of the eels’ whole life cycle (from leptocephali, to elvers, to eels), their mysterious sacrificial actions during migration, and their feeling of being outside of time in their slow, invisible 14 years of maturation, is told in a gust of prose moving in and out of lucidity. And the enchanting rule of the stars in the night sky on Jai Singh’s eyes earns them the title of a “many-eyed dragon.”

In a sentence that may be the work’s manifesto, Cortázar describes Jai Singh being coaxed by the “hurricane of stars.” He is urged to “interrogate the sky like someone plunging his face into an anthill with methodical fury,” but the interrogation calls for metaphysical action: “…damned if the answer matters, 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.”

The photographs of the observatory act as another character in the book, assisting in the ascension toward the “pure image,” the ecstatic place “not tied to the brink,” the place beyond metaphor. The evocative power of Cortázar’s words is matched by the photographs: you can imagine their ramps flooded with starlight when Jai Singh measures the stars, and the curve of the ramps and staircases also mimic the eels’ unbroken and consistent movement through the ocean.

The photographs have an ominous presence; they imagine a dark and unknown place lost in time, but their twisting shapes clearly connect to the eels, the stars, and to Cortázar’s unrelenting, zigzagging pace. If they feel unknown then it must be because Cortázar needs to take us there, toward the unknown realm, as evidenced by the very first image in the book: a long, steep, but alluring staircase surrounded by darkness ascending towards a mysterious object – maybe a panel, an emblem, a statue, a door, something that must take us to the other side.

Fans of Cortázar might be familiar with his metaphysical quest. Short stories like “Axolotl,” “The Distances,” and “Continuity of Parks” (see: Blow-Up and Other Stories) all deal with arriving at some ecstatic state – leaving the body and becoming a lizard; crossing a bridge into another world; turning yourself into a character by reading. Cortázar has also experimented with photography and drawings alongside prose before, like in Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, what he calls his “collage-book.” This work contains essays and poems more freely associated with images from artists that he admires, much different than the 36 photographs he made (in collaboration with Antonio Gálvez) for From the Observatory. About Around the Day he says, “If I had the technical means to print my own books, I think I would keep on producing collage-books.” That book was originally published 5 years before From the Observatory; it is safe to say Cortázar was committed to experimenting with his writing until his death a year after this work’s original publishing.

Cortázar’s combination of stream-of-consciousness play and his grave sincerity and urgency is engrossing. While at once deeply concerned with these questions of metaphor, there is still plenty of room for fun, especially in his incessant scolding and mockery of scientists, and his calling Jai Singh’s astronomy the “real science.” There is also a wealth of associations and references to Roman mythology and philosophers, great influencers of his work. Cortázar’s web is spun for a great number of literary resources, and can easily serve as a launching point for further studies into the thinkers he mentions just so briefly. In a memorable ending to a section about the eel’s preparation to migrate, he writes, “Nietzsche, Nietzsche.” His work demonstrates an intriguing amalgamation across the fields of science, astronomy, philosophy and literature, in just under 80 pages.

Obviously, that can be intimidating, and at many times, From the Observatory is. But the key to reading From the Observatory is to throw yourself into it, like the eels cutting through the water in migration; like Jai Singh into his stone observatories as he faces the many-eyed dragon of the night sky. Maybe then we can reach the pure image.

Purchase From the Observatory from Archipelago Books


Ryan Mihaly studies music and art at Hampshire College. He can be reached at