Blow-Up (Las Babas del Diablo) by Julio Cortázar, 1959

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BLOW-UP (Las babas del diablo)
by Julio Cortázar, 1959

The Julio Cortázar story "Las babas del diablo" ("Blow-Up") received exceptional popular acclaim, thanks in part to Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni's film version in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, little of Cortázar's story remains in the motion picture, so that the moviegoer misses much of the original text. The English translation likewise fails to convey an adequate impression of the original, particularly its symbolism. Whether the translator missed the symbolic nature of certain passages or opted for certain reasons to minimize these aspects, the fact remains that the symbolism is considerably less perceptible in the English version. An especially significant instance involves the title, which literally means "the devil's drooling," alluding to a term used in French. It refers to the early morning fog that resembles gossamer filaments and that also is called "threads of the virgin."

In the story, first collected in Las armas secretos (1959), Cortázar explores the artist's relationship to his art and to the reader and examines the narrator's role in this relationship. The ostensible narrator, an authorial construct, is both a persona of Cortázar and an embodiment of the narrative consciousness and perspective. Initially, he exists outside the incident to be narrated, that is, the story qua story (his existence being prior to the events), but he will have a role in the incidents.

The protagonist-narrator is Roberto Michel, a French-Chilean translator whose consuming passion is photography, to which he devotes much of his spare time. His life is external to the occur-rence narrated, but tangential thereto. In the telling of the incident, however, he is not only the narrator but also a participant. Cortázar questions the relationships of fact to fiction and literature to reality: the persona retells an incident experienced as real, and he himself is presented as real, in the world external to the event. But where is reality? Is it relative? Is his interpretation of reality false? Does objective reality correspond to his perception or interpretation? Are the characters as he has judged them? Ultimately, the reader must inquire how reliable Michel is in his role as narrator.

Michel, bored with a translating job from which he is repeatedly distracted, first recalls and then determines to narrate an event that he had photographed. (An enlargement displayed on the study wall across from his worktable provides the English title for the story.) While sitting in a small park a month earlier, Michel had been intrigued by his observation of an encounter between a mature, fortyish woman and a boy of perhaps 15 years. From attitudes and gestures (for he is unable to hear the conversation), he makes certain inferences and decides to take a picture of the two. From the boy's nervousness Michel postulates an attempt on the woman's part at seduction. Upon noticing the photographer, the boy runs away, "like a gossamer filament of angel-spit in the morning air." But, the reader is informed almost immediately that "filaments of angel-spittle are also called devil-spit," a reference to the original Spanish title. The relativity of literary interpretation (linked to the reader's response, the narrative voice, or both) begins with language itself, as exemplified in the two almost diametrically opposed terms referring to one and the same phenomenon. The reader realizes that the latter phrase is equally relevant when Michel discovers yet another actor in the momentary street drama, a man resembling "a flour-powdered clown" watching from a parked car, apparently waiting for the woman to procure the boy for him. Stereotypical suggestions of homosexuality or effeminate mannerisms appear in Cortázar's description of the man: "walking cautiously as if the pavement hurt his feet…." The woman's anger at Michel's interference and the man's demand for the film give Michel satisfaction at having intervened. When he develops the film, the event is recalled so forcefully that he enlarges the photograph. Becoming obsessed by the comparison between memory and what the photograph has retained, he enlarges it again.

The contrast between the two time planes becomes part of the self-consciousness of the text, developed as two interwoven narratives, the second presented in parentheses that separate it visually as well as temporally from the primary one. In the secondary narrative Michel as author/narrator includes his impressions and perceptions of the present, experienced during the course of the narrative act (retelling the event in which he is both narrative perspective and minor character). The decision to undertake the narration (an integral portion of Cortázar's meditation upon the relationship between the artist and his art) results from a conflict between Michel's role as a translator (external to the fiction) and his role as a minor character or marginal participant in the event within the fiction. The conflict occurs as the translator is unable to do his job because the character/observer is obsessed with the incident, requiring his assumption of yet another role as author/narrator. Thus, the artist is not free but is compelled by his art. The photograph symbolizes the compulsion or fixation.

Sometimes, particularly late in the narration, when the shifting time planes are further blurred and almost fused, Michel feels that the incident is repeating itself and will have a different, negative outcome because he will be unable to intervene. He therefore screams to break the narrative distance and thus save the child and prevent evil's triumph.

—Genaro J. Pérez