In 1972, Julio Cortázar published a small book called Prosa del Observatorio (Barcelona: Lumen), about his visit to the 18th century observatory built by the Indian Maharaja Jai Singh in Jaipur. Last year, the non-profit publisher Archipelago Books unearthed this little time capsule and released it in English translation for the first time as From the Observatory. Cortázar’s text is a strangely beautiful prose poem in the guise of an essay, using the fabulous architecture of the astronomical observatory as the launching point for a text that twists and flows through time and space. Accompanying his text are nearly forty of his own photographs, disorienting images in which light and shadow sculpt the monumental astronomical structures into architectural and landscape fantasies that seem to emanate from the stories of Borges or the frames of Last Year at Marienbad.
To my eye, From the Observatory bears the unmistakeable birthmark of the year in which Cortázar visited Jaipur – 1968. As student protest movements erupted in Paris and elsewhere, Cortázar wandered among the structures of an astronomical observatory built 250 years earlier, trying to imagine a new, pantheistically-infused philosophy that could derive its moral power from the same immeasurable forces that created and energize the universe. And his Möbius-like text invokes a continuum between the micro and the macro, between mortality and the infinite, between the the night sky and its twin black galaxy beneath the surface of the oceans.
To Cortázar, Jai Singh was “a guerrilla of the absolute,” more explorer than scientist. He was a small-time Maharaja who stood up to more powerful figures, a man who turned to astronomy in order to avoid the “astrological fatality that guided his lineage.” But instead of “organizing the cold chaos,” as Cortázar put it, Jai Singh engaged “in a slow, interminable copulation with a sky.”
I know Jai Singh was with us, on the side of the eel tracing his planetary ideogram in the darkness that distresses the hair-pulling science…Jai Singh knows that a thirst quenched with water will return to torment him, Jai Singh knows that only by becoming water himself will he stop feeling thirsty.