Friday, August 10, 2012

Today with Julio Cortazar (or, more make-up school work)

The menu
Graffiti, by Julio Cortazar

Julio Cortazar’s “Graffiti” is about two graffiti artists who develop a relationship through their art, without meeting face to face or saying a word to each other. It is told from the second-person point of view, mostly in the past tense. In the last few sentences, it shifts to the present tense. 

The two anonymous characters live under a repressive regime and a time of violent upheaval: The narrator mentions “attacks at the market”; police patrols beat and arrest graffiti artists and clean-up trucks wipe away the graffiti as soon as they are discovered. In the beginning, the male graffiti artist draws on walls for kicks, and without political intention. He takes great care to ensure that he will not be discovered as the creator of his works, and so draws in places where his works are less likely to be discovered, and locations which would allow him to make a clean escape before his work is discovered. But when he notices the graffiti of the other artist (whom he perceives as female) appearing beside his own, and then a red-and-blue sketch on a garage door “that seemed to call to him”, he attempts to discover who she is. He draws on surfaces in plain sight, hangs around his work, and waits for her to appear, to sketch him a reply. He catches sight of her being beaten and dragged from her work by the members of a police patrol. A month after her disappearance, he goes back to the garage and sketches once more, and is surprised that the sketch is not erased. The patrols had been called to the suburbs “away from their routine”. At three in the morning, he discovers that she has made a tiny sketch “above and to the left” of his, of a battered face: “a hanging eye, a mouth smashed with fists.” It is a farewell message that also asked  he man to continue drawing, as the woman artist no longer could. 

It is at this point that the narrator switches back from past to present tense, and in so doing, reveals that the narrator is the woman artist in the story (and the person she is addressing, the male artist): "I know, I know, but what else could I have sketched for you?" She says she has imagined the male artist’s life, “[imagined] that you [the male artist] were making other sketches and that you were going out at night to make other sketches,” while she, the narrator, reveals that she has been addressing the “you” (the male artist) from a hole in which she hides herself.  These last few lines suggest that the narrator is not only addressing someone who is absent and cannot talk to directly, but possibly someone she has never even met, and has only imagined. The remarkable thing, however, is that this revelation does not shatter the intimacy built by the previous sections of the narrative. 

This sense of intimacy is promoted by the use of the second-person point of view. The use of “you” works on at least three levels: (1) It addresses a character in the story; (2) it allows the reader to believe that she or he is the “you” being addressed in the story; and (3) it is the address of a lover to an absent (imaginary?) beloved. 

(1) The second-person narrative creates a relationship between the narrator and the object of her address. The relationship is perceived to be intimate, as the narrator apparently knows the mind and the most intimate feelings of the “you” being addressed. 

(2) The characters are anonymous, and although there are telling details about a repressive regime and certain incidences of unrest, these are not specifically named (we do not even know where the story is taking place, geographically). This lack of specificity, together with the second-person point of view, makes it easy for the reader to shift from the position of one overhearing an intimate conversation between the narrator to the “you”, toward the position of the “you” being addressed. In that position, the reader feels called into the relationship created by the narrator between herself and the “you”. 

(3) When the narrator reveals that she is the woman artist of the story, the narrative takes on the form of a lover’s address to an absent beloved. It is the address itself that calls the beloved into being. It is language, communication, that makes present that person who was not present until the he was addressed by the narrative. 

The story is metafiction in this sense: A second look at the narrative reveals that this movement in the narrative parallels the action that takes place within the story: A boy begins sketching figures on walls, just for fun, without political intent. But in a situation where expression of this kind is prohibited, his sketches, even if made just for fun, already communicate something subversive--they call out to a “you” to respond to the message. When passersby look at it--though they don’t draw or write something back--there is already a connection that is established, in a situation where authorities are bent on enforcing alienation. When the woman artist “draws back”, it is as though the graffiti had called her, the woman artist, into presence. And this, too, is what the woman artist’s drawings had done to the boy/male artist--they had called him to being, to action (that is, communication), to sketch more work on walls in defiance of the prohibition. 

That the narrator says this might all be imagined by her suggests that her act of imagination (which is also the author’s act of writing down the story) is itself a call to a “you” beyond the tale, to sketch, to write, to defy the unspecified repression described in the text. And because the reader identifies so closely to the “you” of the story, one can’t help but think that this story is a call to action addressed to its readers. 
p.s. I liked this story a lot. 

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