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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


From the Observatory

Julio Cortázar

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To purchase From the Observatory

Title: From the Observatory
Author: Julio Cortázar
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 83 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: From the Observatory - US
Prosa del observatorio - US
From the Observatory - UK
From the Observatory - Canada
From the Observatory - India
Prose de l'observatoire - France
Das Observatorium - Deutschland
Prosa del observatorio - España
  • Spanish title: Prosa del observatorio
  • With thirty-six photographs by the author
  • Translated by Anne McLean

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Our Assessment:

(--) : striking, odd

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
der Freitag . 11/8/2000 Hans Martin Hennig
The Nation . 26/12/2011 Ben Ehrenreich
The National . 12/8/2011 Scott Esposito
Wall St. Journal . 30/7/2011 James Gardner

  From the Reviews:
  • "In der poetologisch-politischen Schrift Das Observatorium aus dem Jahr 1972 durchkreuzt Cortázar das ungeschiedene Terrain von Leben und Schreiben, um den Kampf für das Offene, das Unmittelbare aufzunehmen, das sich auch zeitaufwärts und gegen jede wissenschaftliche Determination momentan als Quelle der Umwandlung einstellen kann -- und sei es auch nur im Traum, der ja auch nur ein Spiel der Literatur ist." - Hans Martin Hennig, der Freitag

  • "In From the Observatory Cortázar is something more than torn. Aesthetically, at least, he is a worshiper of language, and of the maharajah’s ghostly stone grammar. (...) But to the degree that reason strives to contain chaos, to corral the eels and pin the stars to the tyranny of their orbits, it gives the writer pause" - Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

  • "Cortázar makes language a part of the world as he sees it -- a world not of separation and clear definition but of things that flow into and help define each other, a world of multiple interactions and startling convergences." - Scott Esposito, The National

  • "The volume defies easy classification, though it has something in common with the prose poems of the French Surrealists -- namely, its dreamlike juxtaposition of images. (...) There is a hypnotic, free-associative quality to the prose, which modulates with little warning from meditations on astronomy to literary theory and the life cycle of eels. For the most part, it is hardly clear where the author is going" - James Gardner, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       From the Observatory is a quite stunning book, the slim oversized paperback beautifully illustrated by thirty-six striking black-and-white photographs that Cortázar made of the Jai Singh observatories in 1968; indeed, the book is worth having simply for these illustrations (and that even if you already have some other illustrated collections of these structures). The text is also stunning, if not in quite the same way. A philosophical-historical essay (of sorts) that has, as its (main) subjects, these observatories and eels -- and weaves these closely together (or rather ties them, as Cortázar has it, into a Möbius strip's loop) -- it is ... both fascinating and very different.
       Perhaps the main theme here is the struggle against fate. Jai Singh, "little prince of a declining kingdom", was ruler of a crumbling empire, mired in decline, its glory days long past, yet rather than trying futilely to shore up what remained he looked to the stars. The elvers and eels also struggle against fate, both in nature and at the hands of the eel mongers (and the scientists ...) but remain, like the stars, fundamentally unfathomable.
       There's a fascination with science here too: Jai Singh is described as countering the prevalent horoscopic determinism of his times, "a guerilla of the absolute against the astrological fatality that guided his lineage [...]; his instruments stood up to a destiny imposed from outside". Cortázar also cites some research into the mysterious ways of eels, of scientists who try to explain these. But, of course, what it boils down to is that:

We're wondering here about humanity although we're talking about eels and stars
       Cortázar does not offer straightforward argument or description: From the Observatory is like several Möbius strips looped around each other. He admits to this -- but reminds also to: "please note how cold my delirium is although it seems anachronistically romantic because of Jai Singh, because of the mercury serpent, because of the redheaded night."
       Indeed, the text is taut, and bursting in all different directions, even as it circles back repeatedly to its main examples -- the observatories, the eels.
       Cortázar ambitiously addresses much else, too, in its arresting prose passages -- from shorter tangential riffs to grand pronouncements such as:
We still have not learned how to make love, to breathe in the pollen of life, to strip off death's mantle of guilt and debt; there are still many wars to come, Actaeon, the canines will rip your thighs again, into your genitals, your throat; we still have not found the rhythm of the black serpent, we are merely on the skin of the world and of man. There, not far, the eels beat their immense pulse, their planetary rotation, all await entry into a dance that no Isadora ever danced on this side of the world, third global world of man without shorelines, splashing around in history, on the brink of himself.
       Cortázar waxes poetic-philosophic throughout From the Observatory, playing with language (which works quite well in Anne McLean's translation of this very challenging text). It makes for an unusual but certainly striking work; despite how short it appears to be, there is, however, a very large amount of material here.
       Readers should be aware of what they're getting themselves into -- but it's a quite fascinating ride.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 June 2011

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From the Observatory: Reviews: Jai Singh's observatory: Julio Cortázar: Other books by Julio Cortázar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentinian author Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) was born in Brussels, and lived in France from 1951 onwards. He is the author of numerous acclaimed experimental works.

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© 2011-2014 the complete review

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