For this installment of The Printed Image, I’m taking a departure from book-related items in Distinctive Collections to highlight a unique set of playing cards. Titled Juego de Cartas, the cards include the typical suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades, but the back of each card also includes a note written from one character to another, related to the mysterious life and death of Máximo Ballestros.
The cards are the creation of Max Aub, a Mexican-Spanish experimental novelist, playwright, poet, and critic. Born in Paris in 1903, Aub’s family emigrated to Spain during World War I and became Spanish citizens. At the onset of World War II, Aub was forced into exile and settled in Mexico, joining other Spanish exiles, and where the majority of his professional writing took place.
As stated in the rules on the back of the card box, a set of cards are dealt to the game players, each one taking turns reading the note on their card. Players then take turns pulling and reading cards from the remaining deck until it is finished, the winner being the one who can guess the identity of Máximo Ballesteros.
The drawings on the cards are attributed to Jusep Torres Campalans, who was the subject of a fictitious biography that Aub wrote in 1958, so we may surmise that Aub himself drew the cards. The drawings veer close to abstraction, but still recall the iconic nature of playing cards as we know them today. The drawings also include other symbols and characters, such as cups and swords, which recall the iconography of tarot cards. These attributes, along with their larger size (4.25 x 6.75 inches each), help in creating a dual meaning for the cards.
Only a couple of Aub’s works have been translated into English, and Juego de Cartas still remains only available in the original Spanish and French text. But even if the language proves to be a barrier to some, the deck still stands as a remarkable object, presenting a unique example of story deconstruction, where the act of reading becomes both a game and a storytelling device itself.
Juego de Cartas is available to view in Falvey Library’s Rare Book Room by appointment only.
Mike Sgier is a Distinctive Collections Coordinator at Falvey Library.