‘The Island at Noon’ by Julio Cortázar, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

As a teenager, I had the good fortune to spend many of my summer holidays in the library of an uncle who owned a substantial collection of Latin American literature in translation. While I greatly enjoyed the colorful company of Amado, Asturias, Lispector, García Márquez, and many others, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar was unknown to me until a decade later, when I read his story ‘The Southern Thruway’ in a class taught by his close friend, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. Cortázar, who seemed like a cosmopolitan kindred spirit, wowed me with the way he spun a story around a traffic jam, creating a stylish and surreal, time-stretching tale of how a sense of community can arise spontaneously and then briefly flourish before being swallowed up by humdrum reality. 

Since then, one story of his that has become something of an obsession for me is ‘The Island at Noon’. It is the tale of Marini, an airline steward on the Rome-Tehran run who becomes obsessed with a Greek island called Xiros that they fly over every other day at noon. Seen from the plane window,the island was small and solitary, and the Aegean Sea surrounded it with an intense blue that exalted the curl of a dazzling and kind of petrified white, which down below would be foam breaking against the reefs and coves.Marini eventually escapes his relentless schedule (of travel and brief trysts with stewardesses) and gets down to Xiros, where after a swim, he climbs up a hill and gazes up into the sky, wondering if he will be able to completely obliterate his past self. It happens to be noon, and flying overhead is his plane, which is now doomed. By the end of the story, a circuit is completed; past and present, death above and life below are finally re-connected. Entranced by this story, I wrote a sequel ‘The Island Hereafter’, published in 2016.

First published in Spanish in Todos los fuegos el fuego, Sudamericana, 1966. First translation in All Fires The Fire, Pantheon, 1973. Available online here. A video, in Spanish and French, of the writer talking about his night walks around Paris is here

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