Julio Cortázar’s “Bestiary”: An Allegory for How We All Tiptoe Around Chaos Both Personal & Global

What has always made Julio Cortázar stand out from most writers both of his time and outside of it is the manner in which he applies quotidian details to encompass a larger, more philosophical (and therefore usually more disturbing) meaning. In one of his early short stories, “Bestiary”–published in 1951–Cortázar’s knack for this manner of expression is both subtle and garish. After all, the premise of the story is based heavily around the fact that there is a tiger roaming loose on the grounds where our child protagonist, Isabel, is staying for the summer. Told faintly from her perspective as she writes abridged, incoherent letters to her mother, the reader is given an ominous sense of suppression throughout, starting with Inés, one of her caretakers, commenting to Isabel’s mother, “‘I don’t like the idea of her going, believe you me… Not so much because of the tiger, after all they’re very careful in that respect. But it’s such a depressing house and only that boy to play with her…'” The fact that the tiger is already dismissed from the outset as some sort of frivolous side note serves as an instant metaphor for how quick we all are to write off the more unpleasant and traumatizing facts of life in general and our own in particular.

Again using his distinct gift for detailed and dichotomous descriptions, Cortázar describes Isabel’s initial reaction to seeing Rema, the lady of the house she is visiting and matriarch of the Funes family, as follows: “…Rema’s hands which made you want to cry and feel them on your head forever, a caress like death almost and pastries with vanilla cream, the two best things on earth.” Here it is almost nebulous as to whether the two best things on earth are death and pastries with vanilla or pastries with vanilla. The open to interpretation structure of this sentence is how Cortázar forces his reader to realize something about herself. Is she dark-hearted or light-hearted? Hopeful or devoid of all belief in any fool’s paradise? Isabel, at first, goes with the strange flow of how things operate in the Funes home. For instance, “The bathroom was two doors away (but inside doors through the rooms so that you could go without checking beforehand where the tiger was…)” or “…the second morning she found a waterbug taking a walk in the washbasin. She barely touched it, it rolled itself into a timid ball and disappeared down the gurgling drain.” That timid ball disappearing down into the gurgling drain is representative both of Rema herself, and the way she handles her interactions with the Kid, the other child in the home besides Isabel and Nino, as well as the way we allow that which is repugnant and unpleasant to get sucked into the drain called our denial on a regular basis.

As the unspoken protector of the house and the children in it, “Almost always it was Rema who went to see if they could go into the dining room with the crystal chandelier. The second day she came to the big living room and said they would have to wait. It was a long time before a farmhand came to tell them that the tiger was in the clover garden, then Rema took the children’s hands and everyone went in to eat.” The manner in which everyone so stoically and acceptingly tiptoes around the issue that is, in this case, the tiger in the room, is, in so many regards, an allegory for the chaos we as humans must choose to avert our eyes from in order to get through, to quote Prince, “this thing called life.”

What’s more, many people would much prefer to keep things as they are in terms of this blatant ignoring of that which is so overtly wrong with our day to day living, like Rema, who “seemed to hold off all questions with her terse sweetness.” That Rema is able to use her influence of calm immunity to sway the children to believe that the tiger’s presence is perfectly normal as well ends up working its magic on Isabel, who easily kowtows to the protocol of the household because the never known for sure location of the tiger is dismissed so readily with the logic, “It was an absolutely enormous house, and at worst, there was only one room they couldn’t go into; never more than one, so it didn’t matter. Isabel was as used to it as Nino, after a couple of days.”

The narrator, objective to a fault, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to paint the portrait bluntly with the assessment, “After all’s said, it was a sad life.” And it is a sad life when we’re all forever doomed to feign oblivion toward that which is ailing us. At the same time, the presence of any sort of “ordinariness” suddenly seems anathema to Isabel, who upon collecting leaves for the herbarium her and Nino have started to assemble, finds “it annoyed her a little that almost all the leaves were green, nearly all smooth, and nearly all lanceolate.” In essence: Where are the complications? The controversy? Can any accoutrements of existence really be flawless? After all, it isn’t just Isabel who has been conditioned to believe that it’s only natural for life to feel untenable and oppressive. We, the readers, have also accepted this as “how it is” and “let’s just gloss over it.”

That other bully and antagonistic presence of “Bestiary,” the Kid, is like an added layer to what the tiger signifies: an eerie and malignant presence to be both evaded and catered to at all costs. One night when Isabel asks, “‘Is the Kid mad at you, Rema?”‘ The hand moved across the glass like a bird through a window. It looked to Isabel as though the ants were really scared this time, that they ran from the reflection. You couldn’t see anything now, Rema had left, she went down the hall as if she were escaping something.” What she’s escaping from is having to address just how much the Kid terrifies her, and rightly so, for he isn’t afraid to inflict physical violence when he’s angered or doesn’t get his way. As is the case when “they didn’t see the Kid coming, when he got up to them he grabbed Nino, jerked at him, said something about the ball breaking the window in his room and started to hit him, he looked at Rema while he hit him, he seemed furious with Rema and she defied him with her eyes for a moment.” Rather than Rema taking punitive action against the Kid as most adults would, she chooses to, like everything else, sweep it under the rug in keeping with the suppressive atmosphere of the house. After the incident, Isabel becomes bothered by the fact that “the whole evening meal was a deceit, a lie, Luis thought that Nino was crying from having taken a tumble, the Kid looked at Rema as if to order her to shut up…” But everything in life, it so often appears, is a deceit and a lie upheld solely to cope with the very unjust and mentally scarring nature of it all. What’s worse, when tackling matters head-on, we only end up crashing into the wall called emotional detriment.

The conclusion of the story, however, leads one to believe that maybe, just maybe, if we ignore our tensions and problems for long enough, the universe will simply decide to expunge them for us. Though, of course, who knows what fresh ills it might choose to bestow upon us afterward that we must, in turn, vehemently ignore to survive?

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