The last time I went to Prague was fifteen years ago with Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar. We were travelling by train from Paris–because of our common fear of airplanes–and had talked about everything as-we traversed the divided night of the two Germanys, past oceans of beetfields, factories of all kinds, the ravages of horrific wars and violent loves.
Just when we were considering sleep, it occurred to Carlos Fuentes to ask Cortázar how, when and on whose initiative the piano was introduced into the jazz band. It was a casual question, intended to elicit at most a date and a name, but the answer was a brilliant performance, a lecture which, between hotdogs and crisps and enormous glasses of beer, lasted until dawn. Cortázar, who knew how to weigh his words, gave us, fluently and simply, an aesthetic and historical reconstruction of jazz that culminated, as the sun rose, in an Homeric apologia for Thelonious Monk. He spoke not only with his deep voice resonating with rolling r’s but also with his large-boned hands, more expressive than any I can remember. Neither Carlos Fuentes nor I will ever forget the surprises of that unrepeatable night.
Twelve years later, I saw Julio Cortázar before a crowd in a park in Managua armed only with his beautiful voice and one of his most difficult stories: ‘The Night of Mantequilla Nápoles’. It is about a boxer down on his luck who tells his own story in lunfardo, the dialect of the Buenos Aires underworld, which would have been completely incomprehensible to the rest of us mortals if we had not already had a taste of it listening to so many low-life tangos. Nevertheless, it was this story that Cortázar chose to read from a platform set in a vast illuminated garden, before a crowd made up of all sorts: celebrated poets, out-of-work bricklayers, commanders of the revolution and their adversaries. It was another brilliant performance. Although, strictly speaking, it was not easy to follow the meaning of the story, even for those well-versed in the jargon of lunfardo, one suffered with Mantequilla Nápoles and felt the blows he received in the solitude of the ring and wanted to weep for the false hopes and squalor of his life, because Cortázar had succeeded in communicating with his audience on such an intimate level that it no longer mattered to anyone what the words meant or did not mean, and the crowd seated on the grass seemed to float in a state of grace bewitched by a voice which did not seem to be of this world.