Julio Cortázar – If I have to live

CortázarKnown as one of the most accomplished prose writers of the so-called Latin American Boom in fiction, Julio Cortázar was also a consummate poet. The poem translated below is taken from the last of his works to be published during his lifetime. Born in the Argentinian embassy in Brussels in 1926, Cortázar lived for most of his adult life in Paris, though he never lost his close identification with his homeland nor with Latin America in general. Famous for his wit and humour in his novels and short stories, Cortázar’s lyrical voice is endlessly inventive.

If I have to live

If I have to live without you, let it be hard and bloody,
the soup cold, my shoes tattered, or that in the midst of opulence
let the dry branch of the cough rise up, barking out to me
your misshapen name, a foam of vowels, tearing at my sheets
with its fingers, so that nothing brings me peace.
Not even from that will I learn to love you more,
but cast out from happiness
I’ll know how much joy you once gave me just by being near.
I believe I understand this, but I’m wrong:
it will require frost on the lintel
for the person sheltering in the doorway to understand
the light in the dining room, the milk-white tablecloths and the smell
of the bread thrusting its brown hand through the slit.

So far from you now
as one eye from the other,
from this assumed adversity
the look you deserve will finally be born.

Julio Cortázar

(translation by John Lyons)


5 thoughts on “Julio Cortázar – If I have to live

  1. Excelente traducción. I remember reading work of yours on Ernesto Cardenal in the 1980s when I was teaching his poetry at Trinity & All Saints Leeds, but we never met. I wonder, did you attend St Mary’s RC Grammar School Sidcup in the 1970s? Just a hunch. Un saludo, Rob Rix.


      • We did, when I was preparing a Leeds Cultural Weekend on Nicaragua in the early 1980s; I think (I hope) I invited you to speak, but you couldn’t make it, as I remember. I didn’t realise until now that you had been at St Mary’s – I was there 1960-67, one of the first to learn Spanish (with Sidney Kenny-Levick, to whom I owe so much). Spotted your name in Matthew Eastley’s history of the school, ‘We did our homework on the bus’. Reading your blog with interest and pleasure. My Ph.D. thesis was on Cortázar (Leeds 1982). That we attended the same school just a couple of years apart seems una cosa de cronopios. Were you taught French by Spike Wilkinson? Best wishes, Rob


      • Hi Rob, Yes Spike and Sidney, but the latter only to GCE. Had Mr Juckes after that. I do remember our correspondence bu can’t plavce the exact year. If it was before 1983 you won’t know that I met Julio Cortázar in Managua at the celebrations for the 4th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. I had a nice chat with him, and later sent him some translations of poems from the Nicaraguan poetry workshops. He wrote back to me just 2 weeks before he died. One of the truly great writers of the boom!


      • Hi John, I think it was 85, but I didn’t know you had met Julio – I missed him narrowly twice, in Paris and Madrid, but I do have a brief letter from him circa 1973; also one from Cardenal granting me permission to photocopy his poems for my students, as his Antología was difficult to source. I was in Managua in 2000 but couldn’t get to see him. Curious that we both started Spanish in the same school and share an enthusiasm for both Cardenal and Cortázar – was there something in the Sidcup water? I still read them both on a regular basis. I remember when Sid left after my Lower Sixth year we had Hipólito Mendivil from the Basque country, who took us (with Spike) to Madrid at Easter 1967 – were you on that trip? My first visit to Spain! Am long retired now but still do bits of translation to keep my mind fresh, and I’m enjoying your blog. Un saludo cordial, Rob


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