Take for instance "Instructions on how to kill ants in Rome". If the title itself doesn't raise an eyebrow it can only be because we thought this might be a traveller's guide on how to avoid the annoyance of ants while spending a weekend in Rome.
"Ants, it is said, will eat Rome", we are told in the very first sentence. The narrator promptly exhibits a melodramatic overreaction that can only mean his statement was taken somewhat too literally: "They scurry between the flagstones: O she-wolf, what highway of precious stones slices your throat?"
The somewhat suspect deduction is then made that the hidden waterways of the city, connecting fountain to fountain, are the prime highways for the ants - a secret bit of knowledge revealed in a suitably conspiratorial tone for the benefit of the reader - and that finding the heart of all fountains should be our main goal.
The absurdities come thick and fast, all in support of an urgent need to instruct us in the mysterious ways of divining the complex myriad of "imperial vessels" :
"go by way of the Quirinal, climb to the Campidoglio, run shouting through the Pincio, land with a motionless apparition like a ball of fire on the orderly walks of the Piazza della Essedra, this is how to extract from the ground's silent metals the catalogue of subterranean rivers", (p. 19)
At last when the place where "the heart of the water hammers out its time" is found "we shall kill the ants by arriving before them at the central fountain".
Part of the comedy relies on the narrator's obsessive eccentricity. We want to say "how come you know so much about this, and haven't eradicated the ants yourself?". This is in effect a clue to the fissure at the heart of the instructions. Metaphors and expressions are, erroneously, taken for the real thing, constituting a break between language and reality.
A related theme, that of using words inappropriately, is evident in the next set of instructions: "Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase".
Based on its title we could conjecture that there are, after all, people who may not know how to climb a staircase, and therefore the instructions are not entirely redundant - just not applicable in the case of most readers. But that soon turns out to be a false supposition.
The instructions start out by describing a stair - a single stair - in the most obtuse, even confusing fashion to those already familiar with stairs.
"No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness", (p. 21)
There is something dreamlike about this description, as if the discovery of a stair is possible even after we have lived in a house for a long time ("No one will have failed to observe").
This deliberately imposed cerebral distance between the words and the reality makes us realise that words can be discovered just as reality is discovered. We are not merely discovering a stair in reality, we are discovering a stair in language. The narrator's pedantic scientia absurdum is "helping" us to discover the stair in language.
"Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and the right hand upon the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair", (p. 21)
Despite this wonderful novelty, we soon sense that it may not be such a useful discovery after all, and that words may not be the most appropriate form in which to explain these instructions. Just as we commonly say that a picture is worth a thousand words, we come to see that these words are not a very good way to explain the problem at hand. In fact, they are not even likely to succeed - indeed are more likely to confuse - someone who does not know how to climb stairs.
This point hits home with the confusing use of "foot" as a technical term in the instructions:
"(The first steps are always the most difficult, until you acquire the necessary coordination. The coincidence of names between the foot and 'the foot' makes the explanation more difficult. Be especially careful not to raise, at the same time, the foot and 'the foot')", (p. 22)
Cortazar's Instructions reward several readings. They are surprisingly dense, usually no more than two or three pages long, but full of absurdities and little surprises at the edge of language.