The major disadvantage of reading writers in translation is that you are at the mercy of translators and publishers (and often literary fashions): a writer may get a number of books translated into English before disappearing from sight, or perhaps they will make their mark with a novel from the middle of their career, leaving earlier novels languishing untranslated. There are, however, some advantages, one of which is the continued appearance of ‘new’ works once the author is dead. Julio Cortazar is a case in point: since his death in 1984 a number of previously untranslated books have become available – often from the more esoteric aspects of his writing career – the latest of which is Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires.
A novella written in 1975, it draws on an issue of the Mexican comic Fantomas in which Cortazar appeared for its inspiration, absorbing panels from the comic into the story it tells. On his way to catch a train from Brussels to Paris (having attended the Second Russell Tribunal, an investigation into human rights abuses in Latin America, of which Cortazar was a member) the narrator (this is how he is actually referred to) decides to buy something to read on the journey. At the newspaper kiosk he can only find Mexican publications, and so picks up the Fantomas comic which, despite his initial embarrassment, he begins to read:
“But there’s something about comic books, one scoffs at them but one starts to leaf through the all the same.”
In the Fantomas episode (which is genuine), books and libraries all over the world are under attack. Coratzar intercuts panels of the story with his own summary, his reflections on the other characters in the railway carriage, and his thoughts on the Russell Tribunal’s powerlessness:
“…how difficult to escape the ache of guilt at not having done enough – eight days of work for what, a judgement on paper that no existing body would ever enforce.”
Comic strip and reality begin to merge when, back home in Paris, he receives a phone call from Susan Sontag, one of the writers who, along with Cortazar, feature in the Fantomas’ adventure. Unfortunately, the narrator has not read that far and so Sontag is reduced to telling him to, “Hang up and keep reading, stupid.” We soon discover Cortazar and Alberto Moravia, among others, have been threatened with death should they write another book; Sontag, meanwhile, has been hospitalised after ignoring similar threats and continuing to publish. In true comic book fashion, Fantomas quickly tracks down the villain, but Sontag’s contention is that the ending is a lie:
“You don’t realise…that all of this is a smokescreen. The truth is elsewhere. Fantomas has been wasting his time.”
This is the point of the novella, and of Cortazar’s use of the comic strip: in Fantomas’ world he finds the lone fanatic responsible and defeats them; in the real world no one person is to blame – which is exactly what the Russell Tribunal discovered:
“If you want a summary I can give it to you in one word: multinationals.”
As Fantomas says, “these companies are like those worms that multiply the more you cut them into little pieces.” In Fantomas’ failure we can see Cortazar’s frustration with the lack of action resulting from the Russell Tribunal’s reports.
Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires is a great discovery, a novella which is both entertaining and original, but also asks important questions about political engagement and direct action. Translator David Kurnick, who also writes an informative afterword, and publisher semiotext(e) are to be congratulated on making it available to an English-speaking audience forty years on.