Here is one thing I can assure you of, if it wasn’t for the Best Translated Book Award I would have never in my lifetime have picked up this book, it is quite possible I would never have known of its existence without the award longlist announcement. An overseas publisher, sixty-nine pages of text blended with comic book and pop art is not something I would have been searching for, even if I’d read Julio Cortazar’s works beforehand.
In January 1975 the “Second Russell Tribunal” was held in Brussels. Created by British thinker Bertrand Russell, initially to investigate crimes by US troops in Vietnam a “second” tribunal was “dedicated to investigate the current situation in various Latin American countries” and investigate “multiple violations of the human rights of the people of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and other countries of the continent.” Julio Cortazar participated in the tribunal, along with eleven other panel members, a President and four Vice-Presidents, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Also in 1975 Cortazar was gifted edition 201 of the Mexican comic book series Fantomas, la amenaza elegante (‘Fantomas: The Elegant Menace’) and so our story of “Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires” was born.
The Brussels meeting of the Second Russell Tribunal had ended at noon, 1 and the narrator of our fascinating story needed to return home to Paris, where a tough job awaited him that he was not eager to get back to; hence his inclination to linger in cafes and look at the girls strolling through the city’s squares, to hover like a fly instead of making his way to the station.
1. The reader interested in learning the details of this Tribunal will find them in the Appendix, pages 71-79. A friendly piece of advice: read the appendix last, why rush things when we’ve gotten off to such a good start?
Once you read the full work, and the appendix (I chose to take Cortazar’s advice and not read it until the end), the lid is blown off the whole work. The systematic human rights abuses by Governments, the United States, the multinationals plundering the resources and peoples of Central and South America becomes the all pervading theme.
In a nut-shell our story is written by a nameless narrator (Cortazar) who buys a comic book at Brussels train station (the booth only sells Mexican language papers!!!) and as he reads the tale of all the world’s libraries losing their literature, Fantomas comes to the rescue. Our story and the comic all melds into one.
They’d threatened to kill Moravia, and the narrator too – but only the latter had they specified that they’d slit his throat. Preparing himself to read about Fantomas’s final phone call, the narrator thought with vague horror about this specification, about his country’s past and its present, about the return to a state of affairs in which the worst tortures were nothing out of the ordinary. Far back on the elongated screen of the last century, he could see Juan Manuel de Rosa’s thugs, the mazorqueros, galloping by, in the foreground they held their long knives to the throats of the liberals they’d taken prisoner, performing the slow dance of death described by Esteban Echeverria and Hilario Ascasubi, the knife’s point making its way into the flesh little by little while the executioners held the victim upright so he could witness his own horrible death, so he could hear them say, “Don’t complain, my friend, your mother suffered more giving birth to you.” Such things were now occurring daily in Buenos Aires and in the provinces, a radio turned up to cover the creams, the newspapers gagged by a fear which made them reduce everything to terms like “emergencies” and “hazing”, Mazorca himself eulogized publicly, his barbarism presented as the vindication of a homeland into which the knoves of disgrace and contempt had been sunk ever deeper. But these reflections were cut short by that technological decapitation known as the telephone – Fantomas was speaking in grave tones to someone seated at a broken glass window.
Besides our narrator and the various famous writers mentioned in the comic book (Brecht, Paz, Fuentes) we also have Susan Sontag as a central character, references to Un Chien Andalou.
Our story moves from text to the comic book, which highlights various prominent writers (including Cortazar himself), to pop art, back to text about people reading the comic, onto diagrams of seating plans. This is a menagerie of art forms. At only sixty-nine pages (not including the appendix) this is a very short work indeed when you take into account the artwork.
A reflection on crimes against humanity, a satire on art, on prominent outspoken citizens and the role of external Governments and multinationals in the politics of less economic nations, this is a worthy read. A work which brought the Second Russell Tribunal’s findings back to life after 40 years of neglect, an artistic melting-pot with a vision of an “attainable utopia”. Thanks Best Translated Book Award judges for bringing this to my attention.