How Julio Cortázar Crafted “The Night Face Up”
Nadine Gordimer wrote, “Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of — the present moment.” In Julio Cortázar’s “The Night Face Up,” readers ride along with a protagonist whose life appears to be two parallel sequences of flashes. The opening “present moment” for the protagonist is an exhilarating motorcycle ride, with a hint of danger, that turns into a crash. In the aftermath of the trauma, the protagonist is sedated and readers follow him into a dream of a jungle world. Again, he begins the journey in motion, fleeing an Aztec manhunt, and danger is looming at every turn. The protagonist continues to flash in and out of his parallel worlds, until the climactic realization that the dream is the protagonist’s reality.
Cortázar’s story is an interesting demonstration of Gordimer’s concept of “the flash of fireflies” especially because it exemplifies the similarity between the nature of dreams and the nature of short stories. (It is probably not a coincidence that many short stories deal with dreams.) As dreams often leave out large chunks of information, such as how we arrived at our starting point, in “The Night Face Up” we meet a protagonist who could be almost anyone living anywhere. Gordimer describes this trend in short stories as being “without explanation of what went before, and what happens beyond this point.” At the same time, the idea of the dream serves a crucial role. It is the bridge that gives the story coherence between the flashes of the protagonist’s parallel experiences.
Like a photographer’s flashbulb, the vivid imagery of Cortázar’s story lights up each event even brighter than the details of real life. The motorcycle crash is described as though it were occurring in slow motion and the protagonist tells of fine sensations, such as the taste of salt and blood. And the jungle sequences are even more vivid, perhaps subtly prodding the reader to question where reality lies for the protagonist well before the final realization. The sense of smell gives readers and the protagonist pause about the jungle dream, as Cortázar writes, “It was unusual as a dream because it was full of smells.” Compared to sight, smell is not commonly highlighted in recollections of dreams and it is strange that the protagonist can place the smells in context, assuming he is only visiting the jungle for the first time in his dream. Similar to a highly trained sommelier who can name the origin of a fine wine, a person must develop a mental network of reference before he can pinpoint the scent of a marsh, a bog, or, more ominous, the smell of war. And, like the eerie feeling of deja vu, recognizing a strong smell invites readers to consider that there is a story behind the sensation.
Since “The Night Face Up” is told in third person, readers gain access to the world of this story independent of the identity of the central character. This distance from the protagonist allows the reader’s relationship to the protagonist to change with each new revelation. First, we read that he is a man on a motorcycle, but over time he develops into something else. Still, this does not leave the reader feeling cheated. Instead, it leaves room to ponder the questions of reality and identity. (It is probably not a coincidence that many short stories deal with identity too.)
Reading Cortázar’s essay, “Some Aspects of the Short Story”, it stands out that “The Night Face Up,” is partially the story of a manhunt. Stories in this theme often emphasize an alertness to the possible tricks of a game of cat and mouse and reversals where the hunter becomes the hunted. As a writer can work with chronology, the hunted man can weave a set of clues that prompt the hunter to develop a false narrative and eventually be surprised by the true timeline of events. Cortázar may have been aware of the relationship between a riveting hunt and a gripping story, as in “Some Aspects of the Short Story” he cites José Ortega y Gasset (author of Meditations on Hunting) and on the same page he uses a shooting metaphor, “hit the bull’s eye of the reader and stick in his memory.” In her own essay, Nadine Gordimer also makes use of a shooting image, “Short story is a fragmented and restless form, a matter of hit or miss.” And like the prey in the popular manhunt short story, “The Most Dangerous Game,” the short story writer can double back on his tracks and confuse followers. This use of separate details to create a track for a reader is a demonstration of Gordimer’s idea that “contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness.” Cortázar appears to leave this sort of trail as he opens with the present day motorcycle crash to ground the reader in modern times, only to cross back and forth leaving the reader uncertain of which direction the protagonist has taken. Do the tracks move from present day to past? Or is the protagonist in history and dreaming his way into a future world?
One of the main points of “The Flash of Fireflies” is the observation that the short story is “remarkably independent, gloriously eccentric, adventurous, and free.” In Cortázar’s story, he takes advantage of the freedom of this form to create something that leaves the reader with questions. It is a glance at the differences and similarities between reality and illusion. It is plausible that this is also a prompt to readers to consider whether the world around them is really as good and true as it seems. This strategy would be consistent with Cortázar’s declaration that “to write for a revolution does not mean, as many think, that we must write about the revolution itself.”
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