Letter to a Lady in Paris – Julio Cortázar

The rabbit looks happy, it’s a perfectly normal little rabbit, only exceedingly tiny, as small as a chocolate rabbit except for the fact that it’s white and most definitely a rabbit. I place it in the palm of my hand, stroke its fur with my fingers; the rabbit seems happy to be alive and hoovers about burying its nose in my skin with that quiet, ticklish gnoshing of a rabbit’s nose on one’s hand. It looks for something to eat so I (i’m referring to when this used to happen in my house on the outskirts of the city) I take it out to the balcony and place it in the big pot with the clover i’ve planted especially. The little rabbit pricks up his ears as high as they go, grabs at a clover with a quick swirl of his snout, and I know then that I can leave him there and go off, continue with a life that’s no different to that of so many other people who purchase their rabbits from farms.

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Trans. pegamequemegusta

Andrée, I didn’t even want to come stay in your apartment on Suipacha. Not so much because of the rabbits, but because I find it extremely disconcerting to move into a place where an all-encompassing order pervades even unto the fine latticework of the air, the mesh that sustains the music of the violets, the fluttering of the powder puff, the playing of the violin and the viola in Rará’s quartet. It’s exacerbating to try to establish oneself in a place where one who lives so beautifully has arranged the elements with so much care that it seems a veritable simulacrum of their soul – here their books (on one side, in Spanish, on the other, in French and English), there the green cushions, while in precisely the right spot on the side table sits the glass ashtray like a soap bubble, and that ubiquitous, persistent perfume, the sounds, the plants growing, a photograph of some dead friend, the teatime rites with trays and sugar tongs… Ah, dear Andrée, how hard it is to resist, even given the total submission of one’s will, the meticulous order a woman establishes in her harmonious home. There’s rush of guilt even upon taking a metal cup and moving it to the other end of the table, moving it just because you have your English dictionaries and they really have to be over here, within arm’s reach, on this side. Moving that cup is the equivalent of a gratuitous red splodge in the middle of an Ozenfant, as if all the strings on all the double-basses suddenly snapped at once with the same sickening twang right at the most hushèd movement of a Mozart symphony. Just moving that one little cup would bring about a considerable change in the web of affinities stretching through the entire house, in the relation of each object to its fellow, in that of each passing moment of the house’s soul with that of its distant owner. And I can’t even graze a book cover with my fingers, reach out to a cone of light from a lamp, or open the music box, without waves of disgust and outrage flocking across my eyes like a band of sparrows.

You know why I came to your house, to your quiet quarters bright with midday sun. Everything seems so normal, as it always does when one is ignorant of the truth. You have gone to Paris, i’m staying in your apartment on Suipacha; we arranged a simple and satisfying plan of mutual convenience until your return this September when I will move once more to another house where perhaps… But that’s not why i’m writing; i’m writing this letter because of the rabbits; it’s only right that I inform you, and because I like writing letters, and perhaps because it’s raining.

I moved in last Thursday, at five in the evening, midst mist and bother. I’ve packed my bags so many times in this life, i’ve spent so many hours preparing suitcases destined for nowhere, that last Thursday was a day full of shadows and straps, for when I see the straps on the bags it’s as if I were looking at shadows, elements of an oblique lashing, most subtle and most horrible. Yet I packed my bags, let the maid know I was going to be moving in, and took the lift. Between the first and second floors I felt that I was going to vomit up a rabbit. I’ve never told you about it before, please do not put it down to a lack of trust, but naturally one is unwilling to explain to people that from time to time one vomits up a rabbit. As it had always happened when I was alone, I kept it a secret just as one keeps quiet many things that happen (or one makes happen) in utmost privacy. Do not hold it against me, Andrée, please do not hold it against me. Every now and again I vomit up a rabbit. It’s no reason not to stay in any particular house, it’s nothing to be ashamed of nor cause to remain isolated and withdrawn.

When I think i’m about to vomit a rabbit I put two fingers down my throat like an open set of tongs, and I wait until I can feel the warm hair rising like the fizz of an alka-seltzer. It’s quick and clean, it all happens in an instant. I remove my fingers from my mouth and with them a little white rabbit comes dangling by the ears. The rabbit looks happy, it’s a perfectly normal little rabbit, only exceedingly tiny, as small as a chocolate rabbit except for the fact that it’s white and most definitely a rabbit. I place it in the palm of my hand, stroke its fur with my fingers; the rabbit seems happy to be alive and hoovers about burying its nose in my skin with that quiet, ticklish gnoshing of a rabbit’s nose on one’s hand. It looks for something to eat so I (i’m referring to when this used to happen in my house on the outskirts of the city) I take it out to the balcony and place it in the big pot with the clover i’ve planted especially. The little rabbit pricks up his ears as high as they go, grabs at a clover with a quick swirl of his snout, and I know then that I can leave him there and go off, continue with a life that’s no different to that of so many other people who purchase their rabbits from farms.

I was between the first and second floors, Andrée, when, in a premonition of what my life was going to be like in your house, I realised I was going to vomit up a rabbit. Immediately I was seized by fear (or was it disquiet? No, fear of the very disquietude, perhaps) since before leaving my last house, just two days previous, I had vomited up a rabbit and so felt I was safe for at least a month, or five weeks, maybe even six with a little bit of luck. You see, I had this whole rabbit thing sorted. I planted shamrock on the balcony of my former house, i’d vomit up a rabbit, i’d set it down with the clover and by the end of the month, when I got the feeling that at any given moment I might… then I would give the now-grown rabbit to la señora Molina, who just thought it was a hobby of mine and so kept quiet about it. By this stage another plant was already growing healthily in the other pot, while I awaited in calm the inevitable morning when i’d feel the tickle of a hair rising up, obstructing my throat, after which the new rabbit would follow all the same steps as well as the habits of the previous rabbit. Habits, Andrée, are the physical manifestations of rhythm, they are the quota of rhythm that help us to live. Vomiting up a little rabbit from time to time wasn’t such a nuisance after all once you’d mastered the cycle, the method. You may wonder why go to so much trouble, why grow all that clover and make all those arrangements with Sra Molina. It would have been far easier to just do away with the rabbit immediately and… Ah, but you would only have to vomit just one little rabbit, pluck him from your throat and place him in the palm of your open hand, the most intimate bond between you, the ineffable aura of a closeness barely broken. A month means so much distance; a month means growth, long hair, hopping about, wild eyes, it’s completely different, Andrée, a month later it’s a rabbit, a month makes a rabbit; but in those first few seconds, when the warm little bustling ball of cotton conceals an inalienable presence… Like a nascent poem, fruit of an Idumenean night; flesh of your flesh… yet later so not you, so distant and foreign in its flat, white, letter-sized page.

I resolved, nonetheless, to kill the rabbit as soon as it was born. I was going to be living in your house for four months: four – maybe, with a little bit of luck, three – tablespoons of alcohol on its nose. (Did you know that one can mercifully do away with a rabbit by giving it a spoonful of alcohol? Its meat even tastes better as a result, they say, though I… Three or four spoonfuls of alcohol, then straight to the bathroom or a quick dash to the bin).

As I crossed the third floor landing, the little rabbit was stirring in my hand. Sara was waiting upstairs to help me with my bags… How could I explain to her such a whim… a pet shop? I wrapped up the rabbit in a handkerchief, put it in the pocket of my overcoat taking care not to squash it. It was barely moving. Its flickering conscience must have been making important discoveries: that life is an upward movement culminating in a final click, that it’s a low, white ceiling smelling of violets at the end of a dank tunnel.

Sara didn’t notice anything, she was too taken up with the problem of adjusting her sense of order to my bag-cum-wardrobe, my papers, as well as my indifference to her elaborate instructions peppered with the phrase for example. As soon as I could, I shut myself up in the bathroom; kill it, now. A warm pocket now surrounded the handkerchief, the rabbit was purest white, somehow even prettier than the others. He wasn’t looking at me, he was just rustling about happily in my hand, which was the most horrible way he could look at me, really. I shut him up in the empty medicine cabinet and went back to unpack, a little disoriented but not unhappy, not guilty, without having to wash my hands to cleanse them of any final convulsion.

I knew I couldn’t kill him. Yet that night I vomited up a little black rabbit. And two days later another white one. And the fourth night a little grey rabbit.

I imagine you love the beautiful wardrobe in your bedroom, with its great swinging door, and the bare shelves awaiting my clothes. They’re there now. Inside. It must seem impossible; not even Sara would believe it. Sara doesn’t suspect a thing, and the fact that she doesn’t is down to my loathsome chore, a chore that monopolises my days and nights without fail and progressively scalds and hardens my insides like that starfish you have above the bath that with every wash seems to immerse your body in salt and sunlashes and the great roaring of the deep.

By day they sleep. There are ten of them. They sleep by day. With the door closed, it’s night-time inside the wardrobe, there they sleep their night in peaceful obedience. I take the keys to the bedroom with me when I go to work. Sara must think I don’t trust her and she gives me questioning looks, every morning you can see she wants to ask me something, but in the end she doesn’t and i’m greatly relieved. (When she cleans the room, between nine and ten, I make noise in the living room, I stick on a Benny Carter record that charges the whole house, and since Sara, too, loves saetas and pasodobles, the wardrobe seems silent, and perhaps it is, as then the rabbits repose in the quiet of night).

Their day begins after dinner time, at the hour when Sara brings the tray with the light rattle of the sugar tongs, wishes me good night – yes, she wishes me a good night, Andrée, the worst thing is that she actually wishes me a good night – and shuts herself in her room and suddenly i’m alone, alone with the damned wardrobe, alone with my duty and my sadness.

I let them out, let them launch their frisky assault on the room, briskly sniffing at the clover hidden in my pockets and now dotted about the carpet, an ephemeral lace they stir and ravish in an instant. They’re not messy, they eat cleanly and quietly, so far I have no complaints, I merely watch from the sofa, some pointless book or other in my hand – I who wanted to read all your Giraudoux, Andrée, and the history of Argentina by López that you have in the bottom shelf –; while they eat up the clover.

There are ten of them. Almost all of them white. They raise their little heads towards the lights in the living room, the three fixed suns of their days, they who love the light since their night is bereft of moon, stars and streetlights. They gaze upon their triple sun and are happy. So it is that they hop about the carpet, on the chairs, three featherlight spots bucking about from one place to another like a wandering constellation, whereas i’d like them to stay still, to have them sitting at my feet – more or less the dream of any god, Andrée, the unattainable dream of the gods – instead of rooting away behind the portrait of Miguel de Unamuno, mooching about the pale-green vase, getting into the dark cavity of the writing desk, always less than ten, always either six or eight and me wondering where the other two might be, and what to do if Sara were to get up for some reason, not to mention the presidency of Rivadvia by López that I wanted to read.

I don’t know how I put up with it, Andrée. I came to this house to rest, you may recall. It’s not my fault if from time to time I vomit up a rabbit, if this latest move has somehow altered my metabolism – it’s not nominalism, it’s not magic, it’s just that things can’t change so abruptly, sometimes things veer horribly when you were expecting the blow to come from the right –. That’s how it is, Andrée, with a few minor exceptions, perhaps, but always thus.

I’m writing to you at night. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, but i’m writing during their night-time. By day they sleep. What a relief this office is, with the shouting, the orders, Royal typewriters, vicepresidents and mimeographs! What a relief, what peace, what a mess, Andrée! I just got a phone call, it was my friends concerned by the fact that I never have even one evening free anymore, Luis asking me out for a walk or Jorge with a spare concert ticket. I barely dare turn them down, I tell long, flimsy tales of poor health, translations running late, to put them off. And when I get back and take the short ride up in the lift, between the first and second floor I inevitably contrive to convince myself of the vain hope that none of this is real.

I do what I can to try to stop them from ruining your things. They’ve been gnawing away at the books on the bottom shelf, you’ll find them turned around so that Sara doesn’t notice. Were you particularly fond of your lamp with the porcelain base and the knights and butterflies? You can barely see the crack, all night I worked with a special cement I bought in an English hardware shop – you know the English have the best cement – and now I stay by its side to make sure their little feet don’t get at it again (it’s almost charming how they stand up on their hind legs, longing for yon humanity, perhaps in imitation of their shuffling god of the surly gaze; besides, you are surely aware – from your childhood, perhaps – that you can punish a rabbit by standing it up against the wall with its paws out, where it will stay still for hours and hours).

At five in the morning (I managed to sleep for a while, dozing on the green couch but waking up with every velvety scamper, every rattle) I put them back in the wardrobe and clean up. That’s why Sara finds everything in order even though a few times i’ve seen her struggle to contain her surprise or remain staring at some object, a light discoloration in the carpet, and once again she’s tempted to ask me what’s going on, but I go on whistling the variations of a Franck symphony, so she keeps schtum. Oh why bother to tell you, Andrée, of the excruciating minutiae of this dull, leaf-strewn dawn, where I stumble about in a daze picking up scattered strands of clover, stray hairs, bumping into the furniture, half mad through lack of sleep, and way behind on Gide, Troyat, who I have yet to get around to translating, and my replies to a far-off lady who must be wondering by now if… why continue with all this, why bother to go on with this letter I scribble out midst telephone calls and interviews.

Andrée, my dear Andrée, my only consolation is that there are only ten of them. Two weeks ago I held the last rabbit in the palm of my hand, then nothing, just me and the ten of them, their day-time night and their growth, their increasing ugliness and the long hair they have now that they’re frenetic, capricious adolescents hopping on the bust of Antinoo (it is Antinoo, isn’t it, that lad with the blind stare?) or roaming off into the living room where their romping makes so much noise that I have to shoo them away for fear that Sara will hear them and show up horrified, most likely in a nightshirt – yes, definitely a nightshirt for Sara – and then… Only ten, imagine what that tiny comfort is to me in the midst of all this, the growing calm with which I clear the rigid ceilings between the first and second floors.

 

I interrupted the writing of this letter as I had to attend to the business of a commission. I’m continuing it here in your house, Andrée, in the dull, grey dawn. Is it really the next day, Andrée? A white space on the page will be all that indicates the lapse for you, the slender bridge that joins yesterday’s scrawling to today’s. Though in this interval everything has fallen apart, where you see the simple bridge I hear the frenzied roaring of the water, for me this side of the paper, this side of the letter does not retain the calm with which I was writing when I left off to attend to that commission. In their cubèd night free of sadness sleep eleven rabbits; perhaps right now, but no, not now. In the lift, then, or on the way in; it doesn’t matter where anymore, whether the when is now, since it could happen at any moment of those few that still lie in store for me.

Enough already, i’ve written this as it was important to me to prove to you that I was not completely guilty of the unavoidable destruction of your home. I’ll leave this letter here for your return, it would be sordid for it to arrive in the post some fine Paris morning. Last night I turned around the books on the second-last shelf, they were now within their reach, whether by standing up or by hopping, they gnawed at the binding to sharpen their teeth – not out of hunger, they have all the clover I give them and store in the drawers of the desk. They tore up the curtains, shredded the cloth on the chairs as well as Augusto Torres’ self-portrait, they covered the floor in hair and they screamed, too, they were in a circle below the light, in a circle as if they were worshipping me, and then they began shouting, screaming in a way I don’t think rabbits often scream.

In vain have I tried to remove the hair that has ruined the carpet, straighten the edges of the gnawed cloth, lock them up again in the wardrobe. It is almost dawn, perhaps Sara will be up soon. It’s almost weird that I don’t care that they’re still hopping about in search of playthings. I wasn’t overly irresponsible, i’m sure you’ll see when you get here that i’ve repaired much of the damage with the cement I bought in the English shop, I did what I could to try and avoid upsetting you… As for me, from the tenth to the eleventh there’s an insurmountable void. You see, ten was fine, with a wardrobe, clover and hope, so many things can be put in place. Not so with eleven, for eleven inevitably mean twelve, Andrée, twelve who’ll become thirteen. So this is the dawn here now with a cold loneliness relieved only by a little joy, some memories, yourself and a good few others no doubt. This is the balcony looking out over Suipacha infused with the breaking of the day, the incipient sounds of the city. I don’t think it’ll be hard to remove the eleven rabbits splattered on the cobblestones, maybe they won’t even check, busy as they’ll be with the other body it behoves them to carry off quickly before the first schoolchildren pass.

4 thoughts on “Letter to a Lady in Paris – Julio Cortázar”

  1. One of my favorites. Sunny and hot today, no rabbits about, but a dead pigeon who mistook my window for an entrance to the same world.

    Always nice to see Cortazar in print.

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