Analysis of Julio Cortázar’s A Manual for Manuel

A Manual for Manuel has the distinction of being the most overtly political novel by Argentine author Julio Cortázar (1914–84); it would also be his last novel published in his lifetime. The book is Cortázar’s attempt, as he explains in an introduction, not simply to answer those critics who accused him, despite his activism, of having turned a blind eye to social and political issues in his fiction but to merge the worlds of the political and the aesthetic into a unified form—one that, he is aware, may seem too realistic to fans of his fantastic tales and too experimental for those seeking a work of social realism. Regardless, Cortázar claims to have no regrets in the difficult experiment, which by his own admission had “not been easy in the least.” For better or worse, and on this issue the critics are somewhat divided, A Manual for Manuel sees Cortázar’s artistic sensibilities and political consciousness “at this time and place . . . merged.”

Julio Cortázar/ Prensa Latina, via Associated Press

The novel records the activities of a group of revolutionaries known as the Screwery who engage in strange social and political subversions bordering on performance art: detaining a public bus by offering gratuitous, schedule-delaying thanks to its driver; eating standingup at an exquisite restaurant; and interrupting the flow of commerce by loudly debating the price of potatoes in a local market. Chief in the planning and execution of these unusual forms of protest are Marcos, the charismatic leader of the Screwery; the foot soldiers Roland, Gómez, and Verneuil; and the couple Patricio and Susana, whose infant son is the Manuel of the title. On the periphery of the group is Andrés, an Argentinean expatriate living in Paris (as are the majority of the Screwery) who becomes involved with the group through his lover, Ludmilla, who exhibits a growing interest not only in Marcos’s schemes but in Marcos himself. Further on the periphery, in many ways, is the eccentric Lonstein, an Argentinean Jew whose frequent digressions on humanism and narcissism border on the rabbinical and whose skepticism of the group’s brand of political activism, a skepticism initially shared by Andrés, turns later to harsh criticism.

Andrés is a quintessential Cortázarian protagonist: a man adrift, unsure of his place in the world, and yet engaged in a constant search to find himself. Interestingly, Andrés’s struggle, in its specifics, turns out to be both at the heart of the book and the heart of the book, representative of its author’s aim: to reconcile the artistic and the political into a new form, one capable of intelligent, humanistic, and individualistic revolution in an increasingly incomprehensible and propagandistic age. Thus, while Ludmilla becomes more immersed in the dealings of the Screwery, her journey leading her toward other revolutionaries, Andrés’s journey is intensely personal, philosophical, and psychological, leading him inward, toward private suffering and contemplation. It also leads him on a downward spiral as his psychology becomes more desperate, culminating in the book’s most shocking episode: an act of sexual violence and violation toward another lover, Francine, on a hotel balcony. Having failed to remove the “black stain” from his heart and mind with the intentional, and disturbing, transgression of social mores, Andrés leaves Francine to reunite with Ludmilla and the Screwery, who have graduated from their former acts of guerrilla theater toward an imminently more dangerous plot: the kidnapping of a Latin American official for the ransom of political prisoners.

After learning the revolutionaries’ location from Lonstein, Andrés races toward them renewed in his sense of purpose, having finally remembered—or, more to the point, understood—a simple directive from a recurring dream: Wake up. His return, however, proves an almost fatal mistake, as he leads the “ants,” an international police force bent on violence, to their door. Ironically, it is the arrival of the French police that staves off the imminent confrontation with the ants; therefore, the majority of the Screwery, including Andrés, live to complete the chronicle of the movement: the book the reader holds in her or his hands.

A frequent criticism of A Manual for Manuel is that, in attempting to succeed both as a work of art and as a novel of political ideas, it actually achieves neither, a criticism that Cortázar himself acknowledged might have a measure of validity. But such a criticism—as well as any attempt at “summarizing” the book—overlooks its artistry in both its richness of prose and complex, ambitious structure. The narrative is rendered primarily through a mysterious surrogate, a chronicler identified only as “the one you know,” who has compiled, presents, and comments on the information regarding the Screwery and their exploits. Furthermore, the narrative offered by “the one you know” is a pastiche of styles, genres, and forms, one of the most notable being the incorporation into the text of actual newspaper reports detailing political oppression, human rights violations, and covert machinations by Latin American and world governments, including the United States. But in employing such structural strategies, Cortázar reminds the reader of the book’s true, hopeful purpose, as given in the title: it is a scrapbook intended not only for the infant Manuel but for succeeding generations, an account of a revolution offered with both feats and flaws revealed in the hope that the future might learn from the struggles, and from the sins, of the past.

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Alonso, Carlos J. Julio Cortázar: New Readings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Peavler, Terry J. Julio Cortázar. Twayne’s World Author Series 816. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Standish, Peter. Understanding Julio Cortázar. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Yovanovich, Gordana. Julio Cortázar’s Character Mosaic: Reading the Longer Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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