Between parentheses | On Julio Cortázar’s “Letters from Mom”

Julio Cortázar’s story “Letters from Mom” is available in English for the first time thanks to translator Magdalena Edwards and the good folks at Sublunary Editions. First published in Cortázar’s 1959 collection Las armas secretas, “Letters from Mom” centers on Luis and his wife Laura, Argentinian expatriates living in Paris, where Luis works as a designer for an advertising agency.

The story begins with Luis receiving a letter from his mother. The event underscores one of Cortázar’s main themes: writing itself. Luis’s mother’s letters arrive from Buenos Aires as “an alteration of time, a harmless little scandal within the order of things that Luis had wanted and designed and achieved” for himself. Luis’s designed “order” is a self-exile which relies on his and Laura’s refusal to speak a certain name. His mother’s latest letter evokes the name, stirring emotions that Luis has sought to repress.

Indeed, Luis’s entire life is rooted in repression. His time in Paris is “a heap of probation, the ridicule of living like a word between parentheses, divorced from the main sentence which nevertheless always supports and explains.” The simile “like a word between parentheses” (which appears in the very first paragraph of the story) teaches us to read the tale that unfolds. It’s between parentheses that we learn the emotional and psychological truth at the root of Luis’s repression. And as the story reaches its climax, Cortázar’s free indirect style paradoxically finds its freest expression within parenthetical boundaries.

Like so many self-exiles, Luis wants to escape the past. His desires again invoke similes of writing: “If the past could be torn up and thrown away like the draft of a letter or a book. But it’s always there, staining the clean copy, and I think that’s the real future.” The stain arrives again and again through his mother’s letters, which repeatedly invoke — and look, I don’t want to spoil the story, so maybe stop reading this now, hey —

—The stain arrives again and again through his mother’s letters, which repeatedly invoke the name of Luis’s dead brother Nico. Initially, Laura was Nico’s girl, but Luis, healthier than his consumptive brother, steals Laura away. Nico dies from tuberculosis and Luis and Laura run off to Paris. They never discuss Nico, never say his name.

But the letters from mom say Nico. At first, Luis believes that his mother has simply slipped up, that she’s intended to write his cousin’s name Victor. But as more letters refer to Nico, Luis begins to think his mother has gone mad, a suspicion that he seems to confirm when she writes to him that Nico is on his way to visit Luis and Laura in Paris.

The story’s paranoid first half gives way to near-supernatural suspense as it approaches its last act. Laura experiences terrible nightmares each night, but the couple refuses to discuss (let alone process) the guilt that causes these nightmares. The newlyweds fail to communicate, and Luis wishes that “their new life would really become something other than that simulacrum of smiles and French cinema.” His relationship with Laura devolves into a silent chess match and he tries to hide under the “useless mask of both his hands.” He wants to from seeming to being.

The anxiety increases with the date of Nico’s supposed “arrival” in Paris. In a dreamlike sequence reminiscent of Hitchcock, Luis waits at the train station for his dead brother to…manifest? He does not tell Laura about his intention to see if Nico does actually arrive, lying that he won’t be home for lunch because of a work obligation. Like a spy, Luis catches Laura at the station (she does not see him seeing her), there to meet Nico as well. The episode is filled with parenthetical asides in which Luis’s truest thoughts puncture the surface of narration. Look at his mind at work:

From where he was he would see the passengers go out, he would see Laura come by again, relief on her face because Laura’s face, wouldn’t it be full of relief? (It wasn’t a question, but how to put it another way.) And then, giving himself the luxury of being the last one once the final travelers and the final porters had passed, he would then exit in turn, exit into the sunlight-filled square to drink cognac at the corner cafe. And that same afternoon he would write to Mom without the slightest reference to the ridiculous episode (but it wasn’t ridiculous), then would have the courage and talk to Laura (but he wouldn’t have the courage and he wouldn’t talk to Laura).

The story culminates in a moment not of courage but of acquiescence. Luis comes home; Laura lies about having gone to the station. And Nico has arrived—metaphorically or otherwise. “Why (it wasn’t a question, but how to put it another way) not put a third place setting at the table?” Luis (doesn’t) wonder. The story ends with Luis trying to write to his mother, but he is unable to get past the opening salutation “Mom.” Laura enters the room, and for the first time the two (perhaps) begin to have an honest conversation about Nico and their past.

So does Nico, or Nico’s spirit (or something else) actually like for really really real show up in the Argentine couple’s Paris apartment? The tale’s end is ambiguous but not inconclusive. “Letters from Mom” is a ghost story more Hawthorne than Poe, more Henry James than Edith Wharton. Ghosts are real, even if they aren’t real, because language—or the absence of language—makes them real. Cortázar’s story succeeds in capturing the thrill and paranoia we expect from a ghost story, but the true weight of the tale is in the pain of guilt that bubbles out in parentheses of truth. Recommended.

“Letters from Mom” is available now from Sublunary Editions.

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