Julio Cortazar and the Twilight Zone: Dimensions of Similarities
The Twilight Zone
The short fiction of Julio Cortázar has a distinctive air that impresses his stories in the reader’s psyche. His short stories are purposefully indefinite and open to various interpretations. They can be read on a multitude of levels, as allegories critiquing social ills, as case studies of the mentally ill, or they can be interpreted at face value as bizarre occurrences to be lumped into the files of unexplainable events (Gancedo 129).
Many of Cortázar’s stories can be classified as science fiction or fantasy because of the fantastical elements incorporated in the story and because they operate on many levels (Cortázar, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” 25). Fantasy and science fiction stories are often satirical or allegorical in nature. As Catherine Gimelli Martin says, science fiction works have “an allegorical ‘feel’ [because they] point consistently toward a meaning ‘other’ than the literal speech” (Martin 426). She also points out that allegory has a “tendency to disrupt our ordinary expectations that outward appearances might accurately convey meaning” (Martin 426).
Reading Cortázar’s stories, the outward appearance of the story is rarely the meaning he is trying to convey to the reader. In his essay about short stories, he remarks “that to write for a revolution, to write within a revolution, means to write in a revolutionary way; it doesn’t mean, as many believe, to be obliged to write about the revolution itself” (Cortázar, “Some Aspects of the Short Story” 35). Though one could read a Cortázar story and not look any deeper than surface, his stories indicate that what he is actually writing about is much more prosaic than it appears from first glance.
The Twilight Zone - Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Cortázar's Similarity to The Twilight Zone
It is the ease with which his short fiction can be classified in the genre of science fiction that Cortázar’s tales resemble the television series The Twilight Zone. In addition, many of his stories could themselves be easily adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone because the stories follow the same model of many of the show’s episodes. M. Keith Booker writes about how science fiction shows address contemporary societal issues in his book Strange TV Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to the X-Files . He frames the formulaic way that most of the episodes of the show were written by stating that:
each episode begins by setting up an extraordinary situation, usually involving science- fiction or supernatural motifs; the middle part of each episode dramatizes and elaborates on this situation; each episode then ends with a surprising (and, presumably, thought-provoking) twist that makes the situation even more interesting than it had originally appeared to be. Indeed, the situations and ideas explored in the series were interesting enough that the formulaic structure did very little to diminish the popular (and critical) perception of the show’s creativity and brilliance, especially because the unusual, fantastic, and far-fetched scenarios put forth in the various episodes always retained a clear sense of relevance to contemporary reality, their strangeness merely serving as a defamiliarizing device that helped to provide insights into a perspectives on a number of the concerns of the late 1950s and early 1960’s. (Booker 53)
Many of Cortázar’s stories easily fit the model of The Twilight Zone episodes laid out by Booker. Three stories in particular, “House Taken Over,” “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris,” and “Bestiary,” fit in with the feel of The Twilight Zone. These stories also seem to have a deeper symbolism indicating that Cortázar’s actual topic is something going on in the world around him.
Short Film of Casa Tomada (House Taken Over)
House Taken Over
In “House Taken Over,” the extraordinary situation that is set up for the reader is that a brother and sister live in a house that is being taken over by someone or something piece by piece (Cortázar, Blow-Up 13-4). The middle part of the story is a dramatization and elaboration of the way they are forced to live in an ever decreasing amount of space. They no longer have access to items in part of the house. The brother is the narrator of the story. He says, “It happened repeatedly…that we would close some drawer or cabinet and look at one another sadly. ‘It’s not here.’ One thing more among the many lost on the other side of the house” (Cortázar, Blow-Up 14). The reader is given details of how each day is spent in order to emphasize the plight of the two proper owners of the house (Cortázar, Blow-Up 14-5). The surprise ending is that the two are eventually forced completely out of the house by the invaders (Cortázar, Blow-Up 16).
The allegorical interpretation of the story could be any number of things in Cortázar’s society. Ilan Stavans writes about Cortazar’s political ideas which are leftist and socialistic (Stavans 288, 308-11). The meaning of the story could be socialistic and could imply the way the elite upper class was being forced out of their comfortable way of life by the lower-classes. The story could also be an illustration of the way the native peoples were forced out of their land by the Europeans. The Europeans eventually took over all of the Americas despite the natives’ efforts to keep them out of their home.
Letter to a Young Lady in Paris
“Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” also follows The Twilight Zone formula. The extraordinary situation expounded at the beginning of the story is that the main character occasionally vomits up bunnies (Cortázar, Blow-Up 41). The middle of the story elaborates on what he does with the bunnies once they have been vomited into life. The drama in the story arises because the man is staying at the house of a woman who is currently away in Paris. At home he has a place set up for the bunnies, but at a strange house he does not have a good place to keep the bunnies. The drama becomes more intense as he vomits ten bunnies over a period of a few days. This is more than he has ever had at once. He has trouble keeping them from destroying the things in the room and keeping them hidden from the maid (Cortázar, Blow-Up 42-9). The surprise twist at the end of the story is that he vomits up an eleventh bunny. This drives him over the edge because as he explains, “ten was fine, with a wardrobe, clover and hope, so many things could happen for the better. But not with eleven, because to say eleven is already to say twelve for sure, and Andrea, twelve would be thirteen” (Cortázar, Blow-Up 49). He throws the bunnies over the balcony and then jumps off himself committing suicide (Cortázar, Blow-Up 49-50).
Stavans talks about Cortázar’s experiences in Cuba and the fact that Cortázar disapproved of the lack of artistic freedom (Stavans 308). The man who vomited bunnies in the story was a writer working on translations. His inability to work in the house of the woman could stand for the inability of writers to work under the Castro regime. The story is about loss of freedom when one is placed under the rules and authority of someone else.
As with the other two stories, “Bestiary” is consistent with Booker’s model of The Twilight Zone. The unusual circumstance at the beginning of the story is that a young girl is going to go visit her aunt and uncle’s house where a tiger roams free (Cortázar, Blow-Up 77-8). In the exposition of the story, the reader is made aware of the way the inhabitants of the house must check to see where the tiger is before moving to other parts of the house. The young girl, Isabel, explains how they tracked the tiger: “It was almost always the foreman who kept them advised of the tiger’s movements; Luis had the greatest confidence in him…he neither emerged nor let those who came down from the next floor move about until don Roberto sent in his report” (Cortázar, Blow-Up 89). The drama increases as the reader comes to discover that one of the inhabitants of the house, the Kid, is tyrannical, demanding, and nasty. The relationship between the Kid and Rema (the aunt) is strained because he tries to manipulate her (Cortázar, Blow-Up 80-93). The surprise twist at the end is that Isabel lies about the tiger’s whereabouts and the Kid stumbles upon it and is killed. The reader sees Rema's gratitude to Isabel as she calmly rubs Isabel’s head as the Kid moans and screams “and Luis say[s] over and over again, ‘But if it was in his study! She said it was in his own study!’” (Cortázar, Blow-Up 95).
The story is about the overthrow of a tyrant by a child. The real meaning then, seems to be most readily associated with the deposing of dictatorial rule by those in a lower, childlike position. Latin America is rife with coups and dictators (Stavins 306-11). The story could be interpreted as the fall of a certain dictator or it could also be the revolutionary, Marxist ideal in general. The lower and oppressed masses bring down the tyrant who controls them.
Differences Between Cortázar and the Show
The main difference between the episodes of The Twilight Zone and Cortázar’s stories is that the allegorical meaning of the show’s episodes is much more lucid than is the symbolic meaning of the stories. Booker discusses the most frequent themes of the episodes of The Twilight Zone. The nuclear arms race, alienation, “routinization,” “the dehumanizing consequences of the rapid capitalist expansion,” and the “ruthless…corporate ethic of the 1950s” are among the social issues addressed by the show (Booker 53-4).
For example, in the episode “The Bewitchin’ Pool” two children dive through their swimming pool into a “pastoral fantasy world to get away from the routine of their affluent parents’ bourgeois bickering” (Booker 56). The children are tired of the repetitive, consumerist lifestyle of their parents. This feeling of alienation is manifested in the show by their trip to an idyllic, non-consumerist world.
The underlying themes of Cortázar’s stories, however, are not as clear-cut. They are open to more possible interpretations than the episodes of The Twilight Zone. Also, Cortázar is from Latin America. He addresses the social issues there, which are not the same as those of the United States, which are the subject of the show (Stavins 308-11).
Similarities Between Cortázar and the Twilight Zone
Both The Twilight Zone and Cortázar’s short stories attempt to invoke the idea of other media in their presentation. Booker explains that in writing and producing The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling “consciously strove for a literary texture” (Booker 52). This is evident in the opening narration by Serling at the beginning of each episode. The narration, along with the satirical elements of the show, give the impression that the stories depicted “[emanate] from the pen of a brilliant author” (Booker 53).
Cortázar deliberately invokes the media of photography and film in his stories. Marian Zwerling Sugano suggests that Cortázar’s stories “gradually [develop] before our eyes” in the way that movies and photographs do (Sugano 338). Cortázar himself equates writing short stories to taking pictures (Cortázar, “Some Aspects of the Short Story,” 28). Cortazar says that the “best stories are windows, openings of words” (Sugano 333). Sugano explains Cortázar’s comparison of visual media with writing short stories by saying that “In Cortázar’s own stories the fantastic is the vehicle of this opening, which in ‘On the Short Short Story and its Environs” he dramatizes as ‘the moment when the door - that before and after went to the vestibule – slowly draws open to let us see a meadow where a unicorn is whinnying.’ For Cortazar, the ‘apparent paradox’ of the photograph and the short story is precisely the conception of their space of representation at once as closed sphere and as ‘apertura’” (Sugano 333-4).
The opening narration of The Twilight Zone and some of the things that Cortázar says when he is discussing writing short stories are of a very similar vein. The opening narration of the show is: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone” (“Memorable Quotes…”). Cortázar says “The short story’s time and space must be as if condemned, subjected to a spiritual and formal pressure to achieve that ‘opening’ I spoke of” (Cortázar, “Some Aspects of the Short Story,” 28). The ideas of doors and openings and time and space is evident in both the show and Cortázar’s thoughts about the technique of writing.
The book of short stories Blow-up by Cortázar was written in the same time period that The Twilight Zone
was being produced. The show and the short stories both address social
issues by masking them behind a fantastical façade. Booker says that
this “[technique] of indirection…[disguises them] as unserious, and
thus unthreatening” (Booker 56). The formulaic way the episodes were
written matches the way that many of Cortázar’s stories are composed.
Both the show and the short stories incorporate elements of visual and
written media. The Twilight Zone and the short fiction of
Cortázar share similar motifs in their idea of presenting a story. All
these factors combined demonstrate why many of Cortázar’s stories could
easily be scripts for episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Booker, M. Keith. Strange TV Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to the X-Files. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.
Cortázar, Julio. Blow-Up and Other Stories. Trans. Paul Blackburn. New York: Pantheon, 1963.
---. “Some Aspects of the Short Story.” Trans. Naomi Lindstrom. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19.3 (Fall 1999): 25-37.
Gancedo, Daniel Mesa. “De la casa (tomada) al café (Tortoni) : historia de los dos que se entendieron : Borges y Cortázar.” Variaciones Borges 19 (Jan 2005): 125-48.
Martin, Catherine Gimelli. “Reinventing Allegory.” Modern Language Quarterly 60.3 (Sept 1999): 426.
“Memorable Quotes for The Twilight Zone.” The Internet Movie Database. November 2007. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052520/quotes>.
Stavins, Ilan. “Justice to Julio Cortázar.” Southwest Review 81.2 (Spring 1996): 288-311.
Sugano, Marian Zwerling. “Beyond What Meets the Eye: The Photographic Analogy in Cortázar’s Short Stories.” Style 27.3 (Fall 1993): 332-52.
Cortazara, el perseguidor de lo fantastico (Cortazar, pursuer of the fantastic)
Links for Further Information
- Official website of Julio Cortazar
Most of the content is in Spanish, thoush some of the pages have English translations.
- Julio Cortazar's Short Stories Course Page
This site contains summaries and analysis of some of Cortazar's short stories.
- The Twilight Zone Archives
Information about episodes and other Twilight Zone related things.