Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

9 thoughts on “Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar”

    1. It’s really special. I too have a story collection of his that I’ve had for some time. I have some fairly heavy reading on the go right now geared toward writing projects, so I am selecting short pieces to break it up. This fit the bill beautifully!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I recently finished Blow-Up and Other Stories (a collection of short fiction which has been published under at least one other title) and was so pleasantly disturbed throughout the reading. It sounds like this slim volume would have a similar effect, although it’s evidently rather striking in appearance (more so than my by-now-dingy Vintage paperback from the ’80s – yes, it had been quite the shelf-sitter, regretably). I’ll have a look for this one (and, hopefully, read it in a more timely fashion)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book was a recent find and, since publishing this review, rather rare since it seems to be out of print. I hope Archipelago considers a second run because it’s really special. I’ve had a collection called Cronopios and Famas by Cortazar for some time and now I’m really looking forward to it. I’d also like to try his experimental novel Hopscotch.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Since leaving my first comment, I’ve had time to check the library and they have a copy, so I will be able to pursue after all, with little trouble. Hopscotch is on my list for this year as well, although I think the timing will be crucial (of course, I’ve been saying that for about twenty years and had used the same excuse for postponing Blow-Up, so perhaps I should simply take the plunge)!

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  2. This sounds wonderful. I have only encountered Hopscotch by Cortazar, a book which I have attempted and set aside for the days when I am a more patient and adept reader (I’m getting there), but this sounds like a lovely meditative and, perhaps, slightly hypnotic read which might well be a better introduction. Conventional definitely not a word to describe Cortazar! Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered if you had seen this. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled across this book. An Australian friend who saw my review on Twitter shared an image from a recent trip to the observatory in Dehli (some of the images in this book are from that one). It was odd to see a brightly coloured structure deep in the city!


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