Sunday, 12 October 2014

Julio Cortázar: Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires

So you want Argentine literature? You want literature of doom? Well, I have just the thing for you.

In 1911 Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre performed a feat of simultaneity: in one fell swoop they wrote one of the worst novels in history and created one of fiction’s most important characters. Certainly, both claims are debatable, the second one more than the first one anyway. Even for the penny dreadful standards of the time, Fantômas is a horrible work of popular fiction. Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Gaston Leroux would be ashamed of sitting in a table with those two. But Fantômas the character was born for the nascent era of bad taste: just a few years later he was being turned by film pioneer Louis Feuillade into a serial that appealed to the illiterate masses that couldn’t even read bad novels. And in the twenties the surrealists, eager to champion any crude, talentless piece of garbage just to upset the bourgeois, turned him into a sort of patron saint. Even Apollinaire and Joyce joined the fantowagon. If you ever read the novel, I recommend the Penguin Classics edition, just for the superb John Ashberry introduction: at the same time he mercilessly explains what’s wrong with it, he demonstrates the reach of the character’s influence across 20th century Modernism. 

As a comic book fan, however, I first noticed Fantômas’ importance via other comics. In 1962, Italian sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani created Diabolik, a super-villain who is one of Italy’s longest-living characters, still published today. Legend has it that Angela got the inspiration from a paperback Fantômas novel abandoned in a train. Diabolik would inspire a whole sub-genre of Italian comics, the fummetto nero, or dark comics, devoted to crime, horror, fantasy stories involving villains and anti-heroes as protagonists. But Diabolik also influenced a Mexican super-villain called Fantômas: in spite of the name, he borrowed Diabolik’s skin-tight mask and a penchant for super-scientific crimes. This Mexican Fantômas had a secret HQ, 12 female assistants named after the zodiac signs, was a millionaire, used his fortune to make the world a better place, went about the world having James Bond-like adventures and hanged around with all the cool people: once he brought Jane Fonda to his lair to watch Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. No, really:

And that’s how Fantômas crossed Julio Cortázar’s path. In February 1975 Fantômas #201 found our anti-hero investigating and neutralizing a conspiracy to burn all the libraries in the world and intimate writers into never writing again. This forced him to get in touch with some writers like Octavio Paz, Alberto Moravia, Susan Sontag and Cortázar in order to prevent literature’s doomsday. “For your love of art, do something, Fantômas!” begs a shocked Octavio Paz. “I will, you can count on me!” declares the masked anti-hero. Around this time, the real Cortázar was in Brussels, participating in the Russell Tribunal, which had convened for the second time to investigate crimes by US-backed Latin American dictatorships. Somehow he got wind of the comic book and decided to write a hybrid book mixing his text with its panels, using its plot but taking it in a decidedly more political direction.

I’m not sure when I read Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires; it must have been around 2002-2004. I think it was my first Cortázar. I’m almost certain I had read Borges and García Márquez by then, and still believed that South American writers were all geniuses. I’m relatively sure that’s why I read him, although I was also taken by the comic book pictures. It didn’t take me long to learn that most South American writers were as mediocre as most non-South American writers, but I didn’t get that conviction from reading this book. Marie-Alexandra Barataud, in an essay on it, calls it the “prototype of a new genre whose definition and nomenclature are yet to be created and determined.” In 2014 we celebrate two Julio Cortázar dates: 100 years since his birth (1914) and 30 years since his death (1984). Semiotext(e) has recently translated this curiosity into English. Thanks to internet hubbub over it, I figured it was time to re-read it. For me there are two main aspects to focus on here: there’s the meta-textual, inter-textual aspect; and there’s the political aspect. If this book will survive it’ll be because of the first one, although I suspect the innovative structure and reference games were just the means to get the second one out. In any event at the time I was too young to appreciate the importance of both.

The third-person narrative starts with “our narrator” (that’s how Cortázar is called throughout the book) coming out of the Russell Tribunal and heading to the train station. Because of the tribunal, “Brussels seemed to have been colonized by the Latin American continent, a detail which to the narrator seemed strange and beautiful at the same time.” Well, hardly beautiful: they were there to give eye-witness accounts of the atrocities carried out by the dictatorships on civilian populations. Stopping in a kiosk to buy a newspaper he’s astonished to find the stands covered only with Mexican periodicals; the newsvendor can’t explain this and he ends up buying a Fantômas comic book, which causes him embarrassment when he finds his co-travellers reading French periodicals. The comic book is of course the episode wherein Fantômas foils a plot to destroy the world’s libraries. The actual cover says, “An exceptional adventure… the world’s culture is burning… Watch Fantomas in trouble, getting in touch with the greatest contemporary writers!” “Who are they?” wonders Cortázar. As it turns out he’s one of them. In the compartment he starts talking to the other passengers, including a blonde reading a celebrity magazine and a priest, who’s horrified at the fact that all the Bibles have disappeared.

Meanwhile Fantomas is alerted to the problem and interrupts a dinner with real-life actress Ira Von Furstenberg. Before he can do anything, though, more libraries burn: in Rome, in France, in Tokyo, in Moscow, in Buenos Aires. “A good thing Borges is retired,” says the narrator. When he arrives in Paris, he gets a phone call from Sontag, giving him a “diastole of joy” since she’s not known for phoning much. Unfortunately she’s calling on serious business: she’s been hospitalized, her legs broken. “You’re up to date, of course,” she says. He’s not. “Hang up and keep reading, stupid.” She means the comic book; he hasn’t reached that part in the story yet. As he turns the page he sees Fantomas telling Libra, one of his assistants, to call a series of writers: Cortázar is on the list. The “real” amusingly remarks the irony of calling him to Barcelona, in the comic book, when he’s actually in Paris, marvelled at his newfound powers of ubiquity. After getting up to date he calls back Susan; she tells him that the comic book’s finale is a false happy ending: Fantomas thinks he’s unmasked and brought down the conspiracy, but he’s barely scratched the surface of the threat. It’s not hard to see where this is going: the book is a criticism of hero narratives about extraordinary individuals who single-handedly make the world a better place. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

All the meta-textual, genre-hybridization stuff is what makes this book so cool, but there’s no denying this was all a means for Cortázar to make a political statement. At the same time Fantomas was easily saving the world from a wacky plot against books, Cortázar was in Brussels investigating real crimes, real murders, real rapes, real tortures. And no one was paying much attention to that. The passengers he travels with are a microcosmos of that indifference. There’s the sexy but dumb blonde who’s more interested in Claudia Cardinale’s divorce, Alain Delon and Aristotle Onassis’ financial problems. There’s the priest who admonishes a child for playing with marbles, representing the societal forces that exert people not to think outside the box, to behave in public, to obey their masters, , to accept the natural order of things. The narrator himself reflects grimly on the uselessness of spending eight days in the tribunal, “tired ad nauseam of accounts of assassinations, torture, persecutions, prisons in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay (…),” a job perhaps he only took on to placate the “cramp of guilt, of not doing enough, eight days of work for what, for a paper conviction that no immediate power could put in motion (…).” And the people who should take notice of what the Russell Tribunal are doing, i.e. American citizens, probably won’t even know it because the media won’t tell them, so they don’t have to panic about their government being in the business of funding dictatorships and masterminding the overthrow of democracies. As Sontag puts it, “You’d do a lot better if you told the whole world about the tribunal’s composition, because over here, not to say in almost the entire Latin America, no one’s aware of it.” So what better vehicle than fiction to tell the truth and reach out the masses? Moving away from the popular but false lone hero narratives, Cortázar fights on three different fronts. One, he criticises the notion that one single man can solve the world’s problems; the problems are global and it takes everyone’s involvement in them to make a difference. Secondly, he criticises the idealism of defending books. “What are books compared to who reads them, Julio? What good are all those libraries if they’re only available to a few? That too is a trap for intellectuals. The loss of a single book moves us more than hunger in Ethiopia, that’s logic and understandable and monstrous at the same time,” says Sontag. It’s worth noticing that she gets all the smart lines; Julio sounds like a moron being lectured by her: this too is part of the appeal of the book, the narrator’s self-deprecating nature. And three, he ridicules the silliness of comic book plots (really, laser technology that destroys books?) that keep us entertained but oblivious to the interconnections of governments and multinationals. This book serves as an indictment of the CIA, Henry Kissinger, presidents Nixon and Ford, but also of the capitalist system that needs puppet dictators like Pinochet to boost their profits. As the book progresses, the comic book panels give way to actual documents showing the complicity of multinationals in overthrowing South American democracies. Was Cortázar successful in conveying his message? Considering the book was only published in American this year, the country that more urgently needed to read it, the answer is No; as always, he’s just preaching to the converted. But if literature has to be didactic, and I think it can be, this is the way to do it. Aesthetics and ethics all in a neat package.

One is tempted to conclude with one of those “best ever” hyperbolic statements, but I don’t really know what this is best ever of: it’s not the best novel ever written because it’s not a novel; it’s not the best novella ever written because it’s not a novella; it’s not the best comic book ever written because it’s not a comic book. There isn’t a name for what it is, and in that case it can’t be the best ever of anything because there’s nothing else quite like it. Presuming there’s ever anything like it, Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires raised the bar really high for the next writer.

The Spanish version, complete with pictures, can be read here. This book was read for Richard's Caravana de Recuerdos' 2014 Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.


  1. This is definitely going on the TBR. It sounds like fun and doom all wrapped into a nice colourful package. What more could anyone ask?

    1. "Fun and doom"? That's redundant, Séamus!

      Thanks for reviewing this, Miguel; it will go on my list, too, plus this is sure to be the book with the most colorful title read for this year's Doomathon. I think you were too hard on both the first Fantômas novel, though, which I remember as entertaining if more and more implausible trash, and Feuillade's Fantômas serial, although granted that is nowhere near as fun as his Les Vampires starring my silent movie girlfriend Musidora. The political angle to this Cortázar mishmash sounds almost as surrealistically juicy as one could imagine, though, for sure!

    2. What I want to watch is his Judex. It inspired one of the coolest black-and-white movies I've ever seen, a 1963 remake by Georges Franju.

  2. I would like to read this doom-laden comics/novel/thing! Not for the politics or for the intertextuality. I am utterly sold by Fantômas's enduring malevolence. He's almost Ubu-like in mischief.

    1. Fascinating how the character, not the book, survives. Everyone likes the character, his boundless evil and sadism; his random taste for chaos just speaks to something in all of us.