Julio Cortázar’s “Headache” is unsettling, unhappy, confounding, and nothing really happens.
I love it.
I first came across it a few years ago, during a time when I was suffering from weeks and weeks of relentless migraines. You might think that reading about pain and illness would have made me feel worse, but instead it made me feel better. Judging by the accuracy of even his fanciful descriptions of severe pain, Cortázar had been through it, and not just survived, but was able to create a work of art out of it. It’s somehow comforting to think that being incapacitated by pain isn’t necessarily a total waste of time.
You can read “Headache” here. To save you effort, let me anticipate your questions, none of which I am going to answer.
Your first question will be about the mancuspias, the animals the narrators are raising while suffering the loss of two farmhands and struggling with terrible headaches. We’re given a variety of details—mancuspias eat malted oats; they have a yellowish downy coat that needs shearing, yet they “bristle”; they ululate; they have beaks and hands, which is inexplicably unpleasant to imagine; and they seem to require an unreasonable amount of delicate care—but what are they?
Second, you will wonder if the narrator is insane, because the story is written in the first-person plural. Do we believe it’s really two people? On one hand, somehow the “we” perspective manages to occasionally convey an opinion of one of its members, which would suggest they really are two people:
One of us seems to decide personally that the other will take the sulky and hunt up some feed, while the morning chores are attended to.
On the other hand, the gravitational pull of the “we” is so strong that even when the two people physically divide up, both of their actions are plural. One “we” starts on the way to town while the other “we” cares for the mancuspias. That seems to suggest they are one slightly confused person. Here’s a suspicious detail, for example: sometimes, the narrators say, “we stare at ourselves in the mirror.” What if “we” is one person, divided into two selves: the one who tries to get on with life, and the one who is entirely devoted to avoiding, suffering from, and futilely treating these headaches?
The third question—what the narrators are suffering from—seems obvious given descriptions like this:
Violent pulsation in the head and carotid. Violent twinges and lancings. Headache like shaking. Pressing down with each step like a weight on the occipital. Cleavings and impalements. Exploding pain; as if it were driving into the brain; worse when bending forward, as if the brain were dribbling outward, as if it were shoving its way out the front.
It’s a migraine, cluster headache, or something of the kind. The more important question is, how are the mancuspias involved? They are certainly implicated in the causing and worsening of this condition:
Fullness and heaviness in the forehead, as if there were a weight inside that is pushing outward: as if everything were being torn out through the forehead. Aconitum is abrupt; savage; worse in cold winds; with anxiety, anguish, fear. The mancuspias surround the house, it is useless to repeat that they are in the corrals, that the locks are holding.
The mancuspias always seem to escape when the headache gets bad. One of them, a chick, dies on the porch, in spite of the narrators trying to help it with their own medications. Whatever they are, mancuspias do not respond to treatment. And if you take your eyes off them, they become noisy, threatening, powerful creatures who are always hovering with malicious intent. You can put them in their corral over and over again, but you can’t keep them there.
If you’ve interpreted the story differently, these questions that I’ve neglected to answer will be the wrong ones. But they’re central to many people’s lives: What is this thing that I’m obligated to arrange my life around? Who does it make me—a person or a patient? How can I control it? This short story fits nicely into the theory that fiction serves the function of encouraging empathy. Cortázar captures chronic pain so well—especially the exhausted frenzy of trying to prevent and treat and analyze its exact qualities, which is much like running a farm full of delicate animals—that it’s hard to read the story and not come away feeling like you’ve experienced it yourself.
Follow a different thematic thread through Cortázar’s fiction in Carolina Orloff’s The Representation of the Political in Selected Writings of Julio Cortázar.
Orloff’s book takes a revealing look at Cortázar’s all too often overlooked short fiction and is available at 40% off during the Short Story Month Sale. Use promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.