La Noche Boca Arriba by Julio Cortazar: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:03 ~'La Noche Boca Arriba~'
  • 0:52 Story Summary
  • 2:32 Story Analysis
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What's the difference between reality and dreams? It's an intriguing literary question, and few tackle it in the manner of Julio Cortazar. In this lesson, we'll look at one of his short stories and see what he says about this idea.

La Noche Boca Arriba

Who out there has ever had a dream so vivid that it felt real? It's a common experience, and one that has inspired a number of authors to question: what if the dream was real? What if this is the dream, and that was reality? Talk about an idea to mess with your head…

Many people have asked this question, but none quite like Julio Cortázar, an Argentinian author of the 20th century. In 1956, he published a short story entitled ''La Noche Boca Arriba,'' which basically translates to ''The Night Face Up.'' In it, Cortázar asks like many before him: what is the dream and what is reality? His answer, however, is unique: Can both be reality, and can both be the dream?

Story Summary

''La Noche Boca Arriba'' tells the story of a man who is riding his motorcycle through a crowded urban street. It doesn't really matter which city it is; the point is that this could be anyone, anywhere. He's enjoying his ride perhaps a little too much and becomes distracted, realizing at the last minute he's about to hit a pedestrian and swerves to miss her. As a result, he crashes his motorcycle and ends up in the hospital.

In the hospital, the man is drugged before a procedure and falls into a deep dream. In it, he's no longer a denizen of the modern, urban world. Instead, he's in pre-Columbian Mexico. He belongs to the Moteca tribe (a fictional named based on the Spanish word for motorcycle, motocicleta). But this isn't a fun romp through history. He's being pursued by the Aztecs, who intend to capture him and use him as a human sacrifice.

For the rest of the story, the character passes in and out of consciousness. He is aware of waking up in the hospital, his arm in a cast, but when he's asleep, he's traversing paths that he knows by heart through the jungle. Between these two worlds, parallel stories mirror each other, and he becomes increasingly aware of the growing darkness of each. In both worlds he ends up flat on his back, face up as someone approaches him with a knife. In one he's presumably on an operation table, and the knife is a scalpel; and in the other, he's on the sacrificial altar of an Aztec temple. The Aztec priest approaches him with the stone knife, and the man realizes that he's not going to wake up this time. His life as the Moteca was the reality, and his life in the city was the dream.

Story Analysis

So, which one was actually real? Was the man hallucinating at the end and still dreaming about being a Moteca captured by Aztecs, or was he actually dreaming about being a 20th-century motorcycle rider in the hospital? Which was real? Cortázar's point was not to make us decide which is real, but surrender to the possibility that both are real, and both are dreams simultaneously.

Cortázar was known to often write in the distinctly Latin American literary genre of magical realism, in which the lines between fantasy and reality are heavily blurred, often with dramatic results. That's definitely what we see here. Cortázar does not make it clear which reality is true and which is the dream, and in fact, provides evidence to make you question each.

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