Friday, February 18, 2011

A Conjugation of Green Velvet - #12

STORY: "Continuidad de los parques" / "Continuity of Parks" by Julio Cortázar

FROM: INVESTIGACIÓN DE GRAMÁTICA, 2ª ed., by Patricia Vining Lunn & Janet A. DeCesaris (Heinle Cengage Learning, 2007) – yes, this is a Spanish grammar textbook, but I actually think it's really amazingly cool that, among other approaches, it uses fiction to convey an understanding of grammatical concepts / BLOW-UP AND OTHER STORIES by Julio Cortázar, trans. Paul Blackburn (Pantheon, 1967)

BASICALLY: A man is reading a novel in the green velvet chair of his mountain cabin. The characters in the novel are two lovers who must kill the woman's husband--who is found in his mountain cabin by the killer, reading a novel in a green velvet chair.

Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar is known for his bag of tricks—his ability to invoke duality and parallelism, his stories-within-stories, his erasure of time as a barrier. In "Continuidad de los parques" (translated into English as "Continuity of Parks"), he not only does all of this, but he accomplishes it in about 500 words.

Lucky me, I got to read this story in Spanish for school, and then analyze what Cortázar does grammatically. And if you think I'm being sarcastic, you have severely underestimated my level of nerdliness—I think it's one of the more thrilling things I've gotten to do in college. I was already a big admirer of Cortázar, but now I can see something that was previously invisible to me.

What you have to understand is that, unlike English, Spanish has two past tenses. (Trust me, it is one of the many royal pains in the patootie related to Spanish verbs for the native English-speaker.) I won't bore you with the details, but very basically, the imperfect deals with events without a clear beginning or end, or things that occurred habitually, while the preterit deals with actions with a clear beginning/end, things that occurred in a single discrete time. So, you would use the imperfect past tense to say "I went to the store every day," but you'd use the preterit to say "I went to the store today." Both happened in the past, but they express different perspectives on the time involved.

In "Continuidad de los parques," Cortázar does something absolutely brilliant with these two past tenses. He starts out telling the story with the normal mix between the two, setting the scene with imperfect and mentioning some of the particular actions of the protagonist with preterit, exactly as you would expect for "reality." When he shifts into talking about the characters in the novel that the protagonist is reading, he uses the imperfect. This is appropriate because, in a novel, characters are always doing what they are doing at any given point. There is no beginning or end to what happens on, say, page 37; it is endlessly occurring. (For class, we also read a scholarly paper that points out how Spanish-speaking children will use the imperfect when they're talking about what happened in their games of pretend. Neat, yes?)

And THEN. Subtly and exquisitely, after the story's only paragraph break, a change: the world of the novel begins to intersect the "real" world of the reader/protagonist, and the fictional characters begin to act with verbs expressed in the preterit.

You can totally get the coolness and circularity and chill-on-your-neck feeling of this story when reading it in English, but you can't get this beautiful thing that Cortázar does with the verbs.

It reminds me of a kerfuffle that went on last year, when Philip Pullman (author of many great books, including THE GOLDEN COMPASS, one of my all-time favs) dissed the Booker Prize committee for its love of present-tense novels. Although I definitely don't share Pullman's disgust with the "wretched fad" of writing in the present tense, I was very much struck by his commentary on verb tense: 

I can't see the appeal at all. To my mind it drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?
This, to me, is a lovely (if archly-worded) reminder to everyone who wants to manipulate the written word: we each have a set of tools available to us. Cortázar clearly understood how to make his work for him. As the example of "Continuidad de los parques" shows us, these tools go beyond just language itself; they are actually wrapped intimately into the fabric of the particular language we are using. That doesn't mean you have to go out and learn another (though, if you've got the opportunity, why not?), but I do think you should know your own inside out. Get a little grammar, check out etymology, subscribe to the A Word A Day newsletter, whatever.  All the richness and depth we can add to our understanding of words, of verbs, of forms and structures and connotations—it all becomes part of what we have the capacity to create.


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