Updated on August 5, 2015
45. ‘Final Exam’ by Julio Cortázar
For a significant part of this book, I didn’t really know what was going on, and that’s the way I like it. I love writers who evoke rather than describe, writers who aren’t afraid to blend the real and the surreal, and writers who write what they want to without pandering to their audience. This, in essence, is ‘Final Exam’.
The story follows a group of friends in Buenos Aires, wandering around the city, the night before two of them – Clara and Juan – take their final exam at a college named ‘The House’. They visit coffee shops and walk the streets together, talking and philosophising. All the while a mysterious fog creeps around the city, thickening until it becomes almost impossible to see, and the friends are followed by a mysterious man called Abel.
Being entirely unfamiliar with Argentine history, there is certainly a vast amount of political statement in this book that I missed. In fact, I am determined to learn more about that era in Latin America and then reread this highly acclaimed work, which (according to the introduction) was almost clairvoyant in its portrayal of Argentine politics when it was written, as it seems to predict the overthrow of Perón.
But even though a massive part of this book went over my head, I still found it hugely enjoyable, in the way that I often find utter literary bewilderment enjoyable. As I read on, and got used to Cortázar’s style, I found it easier to understand. I love the subtlety of the characters’ relationships – we learn as time goes on that Andrés is in love with Clara, especially through heartbreaking sentences like this one, “As if lending her his arm was a delicate way of losing his life, he supported Clara.” There is also the pervading sense of mystery, and my favourite literary device: unanswered questions (who is Abel? what does he want? where has the fog come from? is it dangerous?).
Other things I just loved, mainly because they are both unashamedly bold and cryptic: Juan first appears holding a cauliflower, which he insists on carrying around with him everywhere; there’s a scene with a tiny religious relic in a tent; and when the exam fails to go ahead the college just give out diplomas anyway. It might seem that with other books I complain about seemingly random elements like this, but here they are carried off so masterfully that the reader can’t help but accept what is happening and (in my case) love it for how odd it is.
There are more ideas I had to take a note of as I was reading. The fog gets into books, making them rot on the shelves, representing how centuries of accumulated knowledge is disintegrating in the rotten state. There is the poignantly beautiful idea that a poet never really suffers, because there is always a part of him that remains disconnected from what he is feeling, transforming it into art. At one point we even get to read the characters’ dreams: the tone is just as dreamlike as the rest of the book, just a little less concrete so we know that they are sleeping, rather than imagining or thinking.
‘Final Exam’ is a stunningly beautiful abstract painting made of words. For God’s sake, read it.
“…to dream beautiful dreams, the early morning dreams when you squint your eyes and see that it’s six, and delight in stretching your legs as far as they can go, cuddle against a warm, heavy back, let yourself go again into the depths…”
I’d previously only read one short story by Cortázar before (‘Axolotl’), but I’m a fan of other Latin American writers (Borges, García Márquez). I found ‘Final Exam’ in a Waterstones in Nottingham several years ago, but didn’t buy it. I then NEVER FOUND IT AGAIN. No bookshop I went into had a copy of it, and I swear I couldn’t find it online anywhere. Anyway, it appeared on Amazon recently, and my boyfriend got it for me for our first anniversary. Read it instantly. Didn’t regret it.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?