Part comic book, part novella, part epistolary literature, and replete with footnotes, Julio Cortázar’s fantastically experimental Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampire: An Attainable Utopia (translated by David Kurnick) is a majestic wonder in its sheer, resplendent weirdness. There’s even an appendix delightfully entitled, ‘A friendly piece of advice: read the appendix last, why rush things when we’ve gotten off to such a good start?’ And the first two chapters are prefaced, á la early modern literature, with proleptic summaries such as ‘Concerning how the narrator caught his train in extremis (and from here on we dispense with chapter headings, as there will be numerous beautiful pictures to punctuate and enliven the reading of this fascinating story).’ The mass destruction of all the world’s literature as a part of a vast conspiracy, famous authors threatened with death if they deign to write again, Susan Sontag amongst the cast, a hero who makes references to the surrealist film Un chien andalou and the revolutionary utopian Second Russell Tribunal all come together in a book that satirises the superhero genre so much better than the better known Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchman ever manages. The author stand-in Julio, opines on things such as that ‘the people are alienated, badly informed, deceptively informed, mutilated by a reality that very few understand.’ Or even that ‘history is like stake and potatoes, you can order it everywhere and it always tastes the same.’
There is a curious mix of fact and fiction. The Fantomas comic book and the tribunal are real, the conclusions of the latter encompassed in the aforementioned appendix. The comic book itself and the bibliophobic plot are pure fiction and become a part of the parody. The enemies of the tribunal are just as evidently grounded in the real concerns of the mid-70s radicals: ‘They’re called ITT, they’re called Nixon and Ford, Henry Kissinger or CIA or DIA, they’re called Pinochet or Banzer or López Rega, they’re called General or Colonel or Technocrat or Fleury or Stroessner, they have those special names where every name means thousands of names, the way the word ant means a multitude of ants even though the dictionary defines it in the singular.’ The message of radical impotence before structural evils, none of which can be reduced to the corny superhero narratives of comics is also redolent of the times and remains pertinent to a culture inundated by Marvel films as political upheaval and economic calamity is ignored. It is clear that Cortázar is criticising the spectacle, the role of the media and the ascendancy of simulacra just as he is looking back to nineteenth and eighteenth-century dreams about the socially transformative powers of art. It is a book that is playful about its uncertainties and invites the readers to participate in its thought.