“Living Like a Word Between Parentheses”: On Julio Cortázar’s “Letters from Mom”

By Brendan RileyApril 3, 2022

“Living Like a Word Between Parentheses”: On Julio Cortázar’s “Letters from Mom”

Letters from Mom by Julio Cortázar

SUBLUNARY EDITIONS’S 2022 publication of Magdalena Edwards’s debut translation of a lone story by Julio Cortázar is an event. “Letters from Mom” (“Cartas de mamá”) is the opening story in Secret Weapons (Las armas secretas), Cortázar’s seminal 1959 postmodern pentad, and until now the only one untranslated into English. Four of the five stories appeared in a collection of 15, first published in hardcover as End of the Game and Other Stories (1967; trans. by Paul Blackburn) and later republished in paperback as Blow-Up and Other Stories. But Edwards’s translation means that, for the first time, English-language readers can appreciate the context and range of the five stories comprising Secret Weapons, written before his 1963 novel Hopscotch made Cortázar famous. Through these stories, as Cortázar himself affirmed, the author discovered his métier and began to mature as a writer of fiction.

Secret Weapons is a collection of bizarre tales fraught with disjointed time and fractured perceptions. Both “Letters from Mom” and “Secret Weapons” are ghost stories, and the merits of the former are magnified when the story is considered alongside its original companions.

True to its title, “Letters from Mom” is a story about reading — how we read or fail to read the truth that lies before us. Luis and Laura are a young Argentine expatriate couple living in Paris, their desire to forget Argentina foiled by the stream of letters from Luis’s mother; each one “suddenly changed Luis’s life, returned him to the past like a ball rebounding hard.” And the past is a hard one, harboring Luis’s scandalous elopement with his tubercular brother’s ex-sweetheart:

[T]he hasty wedding without more ceremony than a taxi called by phone and three minutes in front of an official with dandruff on his lapels. Refugees in a hotel in Adrogué, far from Mom and all the unleashed relatives, Luis had thanked Laura for never referring to the rag doll who had so vaguely gone from boyfriend to brother-in-law.

But the rag doll haunts them both in Paris: “Luis felt Nico’s presence again in the garden in Flores, heard his discreet cough preparing the most perfect wedding gift imaginable, his death smack in the middle of his former girlfriend and his former brother’s honeymoon.”

The latest letter from Mom includes what Luis chooses to read as a mistake: the name of the dead Nico in place of their living cousin Victor. Luis considers altering the letter to avoid upsetting Laura:

In fact it would have been easy to replace Nico with Victor, who was the one who had undoubtedly asked about them. Cousin Victor, always so attentive. The name Victor was longer than Nico, but with a comma and skill the names could be changed. This morning Victor asked about you. So natural for Victor to visit Mom and ask her about those who weren’t there.

“Letters from Mom” is a story about silence: “A slow forbidden territory had gradually formed in their language, isolating them from Nico, wrapping his name and memory in a sticky, stained cotton.” Its essential mechanism is the interstice, the gap between what is written and what is suggested, haunted by the mind’s desire for closure. Cortázar’s parenthetical phrases indicate narrative spurs and variants; not simply subordinate clauses, they are gateposts, and the author addresses their problematic ambiguity: “Nothing remained but a heap of probation, the ridicule of living like a word between parentheses, divorced from the main sentence which nevertheless it almost always supports and explains. And unease, and a need to answer right away, like someone who closes a door again.”

Almost always but not quite: a vital exception, a fissure that lets the light seep out and the ghosts slip in. For like all the stories in Secret Weapons, “Letters from Mom” is a haunted narrative whose ending is less a period than a series of elliptical stepping-stones. Logical breakdowns inevitably result from Cortázar’s shifting temporal markers, as well as unanswerable questions about one’s fellow man, el prójimo: “It isn’t that Luis didn’t like to remember Buenos Aires. Rather, it was about avoiding names (the people, long since avoided, but the names, the true ghosts that are names, that persistent duration).”

Cortázar’s narrative legerdemain is pinned down and propelled by Magdalena Edwards’s precise and vivid translation, which carefully and finely negotiates between the story’s queasy sense of time and its concrete narration:

In those months everything had revolved around him like figures in a dance: Nico, Laura, Mom, the dogs, the garden. His oath had been the brutal gesture of the one who smashes a bottle on the dance floor, interrupts the dance with a whip of broken glass. Everything had been brutal in those days: his wedding, the departure without qualms or considerations about Mom, the forgetting of all social duties, leaving friends between surprised and disillusioned. Nothing had mattered to him, not even Laura’s hint of protest.

A story about reading and memory, “Letters from Mom” explores how communication is blurred or skewed by grief, perhaps due to senility, perhaps possession. The mother’s letters are her transcriptions, her versions of reality informed by Luis’s scandalous behavior. The story also raises the question of the letter as binding proof: should the writing be preserved and shared, or destroyed and returned to silence? This suggests both the power of the written record, of testimony, and also Luis’s fear that if Laura reads the letter, she will be haunted by the past, by her decisions, by her memory of abandoning Nico. Thus, Luis dismisses his mother’s substitution as “[h]er grotesque mistake, her foolish clumsiness of an instant — he saw her struggling with an old pen, with the slanted paper, with her insufficient eyesight — [which] would grow in Laura like an easy seed.”

Cortázar’s concern with the unreliability of names, identifications, and the hazy frontiers between daily life and memories of the past and the dead also pervades the four other stories in Las armas secretas and recalls its postwar, postmodern context. In 1980, Cortázar taught a two-month literature seminar at UC Berkeley, the audiotapes of which have been transcribed and published as Clases de literatura: Berkeley, 1980 (Alfaguara, 2013) and in an English-language translation by Katherine Silver (New Directions, 2017). During these classes, Cortázar discussed two of the other tales in Las armas secretas: “At Your Service” and “The Pursuer.”

“At Your Service” tells the story of Madame Francinet, an ignorant spinsterly maid hired twice by a wealthy family, first to mind five rambunctious dogs during an elegant party, and later to impersonate the mother of a charming young fashion designer who has died unexpectedly. The story’s realism nonetheless signifies, Cortázar explained,

a society in an advanced degree of moral decadence, deeply corrupt, a society of — to use the biblical term — whited sepulchers where people must keep up appearances, dissemble, invent a mother when the real mother is either dead or not present; a society that will never hesitate whatsoever to observe the rituals and ceremonies that preserve it, sustain it, and defend it. [1]

Duality and decadence are key issues in “The Pursuer,” a story Cortázar described as a pivotal work, one that allowed him, for the first time, to transcend fantastical mechanisms and begin to explore “ultimate” problems, the start of a “metaphysical phase, a gradual, challenging, and very basic self-inquiry about humanity, not simply about being alive and active but how to be human, how to be in the philosophical sense, in terms of destiny, and the path of a mysterious itinerary.”

The pursuer in question is doomed saxophonist Johnny Carter (inspired by Charlie Parker), who, according to Cortázar, “doesn’t understand life or death, who doesn’t understand why he’s a musician, but he’d like to know why he plays the way he plays, and why the things that happen to him happen.” He explains that Johnny is “a regular fellow who nevertheless feels that certain things in his life are out of balance, and that includes people who are much smarter than he is willing to admit, people whom he refuses to accept, and he is opposed to the reality that presents itself to him daily.” Thus, the pursuer himself is also pursued by the rather heartless narrator, Bruno — a jazz critic and Johnny’s biographer — as well as by a whole raft of fellow musicians, producers, lovers, enablers, and hangers-on, and ultimately by fame itself.

Cortázar highlighted “The Pursuer” as a decisive moment when the possibilities of writing fiction opened out for him, like Johnny Carter’s own metaphor of a bottomless suitcase that could hold a whole store’s worth of suits, or like what Cortázar calls the story within the story: Johnny’s account of how a two-minute ride on the Paris Metro allowed him to take an extended, or parenthetical, mental journey through time. As Cortázar explained,

that story was a kind of revelation […] a kind of hinge that made me change. It’s not that it changed me as a person but that what I had written is proof that I was changing, searching; a little bit what the protagonist of “The Pursuer” seeks in the story, I was also searching for in life. From there almost immediately afterward I wrote Hopscotch, in which I tried to plumb the depths of that type of searching.

“Blow-Up,” the most famous story in Las armas secretas, is informed by the “gloomy operation of comparing the memory with the gone reality.” The narrator, a translator and amateur photographer named Michel, makes a poster-sized enlargement of a photo he snapped of a chance encounter with some strangers, an enigmatic and possibly dangerous situation. Michel’s obsession with the image seems to animate the static blow-up into multiple, possibly infinite, menacing scenarios, while time, memory, desire, projection, and grammar become as fluid and insubstantial as the clouds over Paris. In Spanish, the story is titled “Las babas del diablo” — literally “the devil’s spit” or “the devil’s drool.” As Michel points out (in Paul Blackburn’s translation), “‘the devil’s drool’ is another name for ‘the Virgin’s threads,’” both metaphors for those faint, gossamer spiderwebs that float on the air and sometimes alight on us, graze our faces, startle our skin.

In the ghostly “Secret Weapons,” Pierre, intent on consummating his relationship with Michèle, seizes his opportunity when her family leaves town, but her exasperating reluctance conceals an earlier sexual trauma, which his advances inevitably stir up. Even as Michèle relives the past, Pierre becomes unwittingly haunted by it, seemingly possessed by the ghost of her Nazi tormentor. But the interval between World War II and postwar Paris prevents him from suspecting the truth of Michèle’s experience. As the collection’s titular and concluding story, “Secret Weapons” bookends naturally with “Letters from Mom”: Luis and Laura abandon a stultifying Argentina for a free but bourgeois Parisian life — careers, cocktails, the cinema — but like Michèle, they are perturbed by a past they can neither escape nor forget, and like Pierre they cannot trust their senses.

Blackburn’s great translations of “The Pursuer,” “At Your Service,” “Blow-Up,” and “Secret Weapons” have been the standard versions in English for over 50 years, though they have been separated from their original, intended companion. Hoping to see them all reunited under a single cover is, admittedly, something of a quixotic desire — one perhaps belied by Cortázar’s famous open invitation in Hopscotch to read the novel’s chapters nonsequentially, but given Edwards’s smooth, engaging, and intriguing translation of “Letters from Mom,” it would be wonderful to see her deliver a full translation of all five stories in Las armas secretas so that English-language readers might enjoy the full effect, between two covers, of Cortázar’s game-changing collection.


Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA-certified translator of Spanish to English. His published translations includeThe Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes, Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue, Caterva by Juan Filloy, and Recounting (Antagony: Book I) by Luis Goytisolo.


[1] This and the following translations from Clases de literatura: Berkeley, 1980 are my own.

LARB Contributor

Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA-certified translator of Spanish to English. His published translations include The Great Latin American Novel (2016) by Carlos Fuentes, Hypothermia (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, Caterva (2015) by Juan Filloy, and Antagony (2022) by Luis Goytisolo. Riley’s shorter translations and book reviews have appeared in ANMLY, Asymptote, The Believer, Best European Fiction, BOMBLOG, Bookslut, Drunken Boat, Little Star Journal, n+1, The New York TimesNuméro Cinq, Publishers Weekly, The Review of Contemporary FictionThree Percent, and The White Review.  


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