Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar. Pantheon. 576pp, $16.95.
As literary experimentation goes, the 1960s was potent. It saw Thomas Pynchon leap on the stage with V. The Beats’s well of edgy novels and poems hadn’t yet run dry. John Barth split the metafictional gates wide open with Lost in the Funhouse, Donald Barthelme published short stories the likes of which no one had seen before.
Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch is certainly as monumental and successful a literary experiment as any of the above. Ostensibly, the book is the story of Horacio Oliveira, an Argentine bohemian clambering through Paris. He’s defined by the conviction that he has chosen the wrong path in life; a self-labeled failure, there is nothing left for him but to struggle, hopelessly, against his failings. Condemned to beat his head against a brick wall that he knows only may be toppled by future generations, Oliveira is a wandering soul, a man obsessed with memory because the only thing that keeps him going is the question of whether or not any path he could have chosen would have led him to the same place.
The same thing happens to everybody, the statue of Janus is a useless waste, the truth is that after forty years of age we have our real face on the back of our heads, looking desperately backwards. It is what in all truth is called a commonplace. You can’t do anything about it, that’s about the strength of it.
But even though Oliveira believes himself a failure, he is unable to resign himself to this fate. He is stuck in perhaps the most painful of positions, aware of the inadequacy of his world, but unable to stiffen himself to it:
No matter how it hurts me, I shall never be indifferent like Etienne,” Oliveira thought. “What it amounts to is that I insist on the unheard-of idea that man was meant for something else. Then, of course . . . What poor tools we have to find a way out of this dungeon.”
His girlfriend, La Maga, is his infuriating opposite. A dilettante who constantly, unabashedly asks Oliveira the most basic questions about art and literature, she seems to be able to live life precisely as Oliveira wishes he could. She has transcended the question of which path to follow (perhaps because she has never stopped to notice it). With her, Oliveira remains settled and stable, but after the two have been irreparably separated, Oliveira is filled with an unavoidable longing. Unable to find La Maga, he returns to Argentina where he discovers the face of La Maga in his best friend’s wife.
The most remarked-on aspect of Hopscotch is its format: the book is split into 56 regular chapters and 99 “expendable” ones. Readers may read straight through the regular chapters (ignoring the expendable ones) or follow numbers left at the end of each chapter telling the reader which one to read next (eventually taking her through all but one of the chapters). A reading of the book in that way would lead the reader thus: Chapter 73 – 1 – 2 – 116 – 3 – 84 – 4 – 71 – 5 – 81 – 74 – 6 – 7- 8, and so on.
Although Hopscotch’s format (or rather, Cortazar’s skill in using it) is worthy of the attention and praise it has received, this most noticed feature of the book is but one of its many remarkable innovations. Throughout its 500+ pages, Cortazar’s work is full of typographical, linguistic, and conceptual experiments that add to the book’s appeal while avoiding the tinge of gimmickry. Take, for instance, chapter 34, written entirely in the following manner:
In September of 1880, a few months after the demise of my
And the things she reads, a clumsy novel, in a cheap edition
father, I decided to give up my business activities, transferring
besides, but you wonder how she can get interested in things
them to another house in Jerez whose standing was as solvent
An elegant depiction of what it’s like to be reading one thing and thinking another, chapter 34 succeeds because it draws the reader in, all but requiring that she participate in the experimentation. Instead of explaining why and how Oliveira’s mind races as he reads the book, Cortazar presents a performance of what Oliveira’s mind is doing. In chapter 34 it is clear that Oliveira cannot keep his mind on his book. It is up to the reader to interpret his frenzied thoughts and place them against the arc of the novel.
As with chapter 34, so with the rest of Hopscotch: throughout, Cortazar’s language performs, embodying (sometimes physically, as with chapter 34) a feeling or idea that readers must collaborate in constructing. Cortazar chooses to perform because he does not believe his role as author is to feed information to a passive reader; rather Cortazar prefers that the reader collaborate, projecting herself into scenes that he aptly demonstrates. The matter is stated clearly in one of the expendable chapters, when Cortazar puts these words into a note by Morelli, a shadowy author whom we only see (except for once) through his writing and what others say about him:
It would seem that the usual novel misses its mark because it limits the reader to its own ambit; the better defined it is, the better the novelist is thought to be. An unavoidable detention in the varying degrees of the dramatic, the psychological, the tragic, the satirical, or the political. To attempt on the other hand a text that would not clutch the reader but which would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions.
Cortazar does not clutch. Like the best authors, he trusts his readers. He constructs a labyrinth for them and then leaves them to figure it out. Physically, Hopscotch resembles a labyrinth in that it takes readers through its pages via an intricate, twisting path. The same is true for this prose that continually puts ideas in the reader’s head, continually tries to catch her attention and pull her into a maze of interpretation, of clues, characters, words, ideas that point back at one another like, to use Anais Nin’s words (quoted by Cortazar in Hopscotch), “a tower of layers without end.”
Elsewhere we find Morelli, Cortazar’s elusive novelist, obsessively sketching a “tremulous spiral” in the margins of his manuscript. Oliveira’s life is like that spiral, an obsessively followed path that takes him tantalizingly close to something only to pull him away for another loop. Just as Oliveira is beset by an inability to stop treading his spiral of contemplation, so Hopscotch’s readers (or at least the attentive, curious ones) are beset by an inability to stop pondering the ideas that form Hopscotch’s labyrinth. Perhaps like Oliveira they are not meant to find their way out.
And yet, for all this formal experimentation Hopscotch is also a novel of traditional literary pleasures: imaginative prose, probing characterization, believable dialog, and rich metaphorical musings. The book is written in the margins of life–drunkenly listening to jazz records deep into the night, brewing up a gourd full of mate, straightening nails with a hammer–but these margins provide more than enough room for Cortazar to find humans and their all-too-human predicaments.
“If my mate runs out I’ve had it,” Oliveira thought. “my only real conversation is with this green gourd.” He studied the strange behavior of the mate, how the herb would breathe fragrantly as it came up on top of the water and how it would dive as he sucked and would cling to itself, everything fine lost and all smell except for that little bit that would come up in the water like breath and stimulate his Argentinean iron lung, so sad and solitary. It had been sometime now that Oliveira had been paying attention to unimportant things, and the little green gourd had the advantage that as he meditated upon it, it never occurred to his perfidious intelligence to endow it with such ideas as one extracts from mountains, the moon, the horizon, an adolescent girl, a bird, or a horse. “This mate might show me where the center is,” Oliveira thought . . . The problem consisted in grasping that unity without becoming a hero, without becoming a saint, or a criminal, or a boxing champ, or a statesman, or a shepherd. To grasp unity in the midst of diversity, so that that unity might be the vortex of a whirlwind and not the sediment in a clean, cold mate gourd.
One can see Oliveira’s mate swirling through the gourd, can picture the flakes interacting as they are pulled below the surface. What a delight to see the few that “come up like breath.” Oliveira’s longing for his homeland is evoked through his Argentinean iron lung that the mate (imported from across the Atlantic, because the stuff in Paris is no good) awakens. It is like he is smoking, taking a break from his stressful contemplations to pull into a familiar cubby hole where he can watch the entrancing motion of his tea and remember his home. But even here Oliveira can’t stop contemplating. Although the mate drinking is an isolating, incidental activity, Cortazar finds in it one of the book’s main themes: Oliveira’s search for a thread that unifies his life, but that does not turn it into a cliche, that leaves it lively, chaotic, unpredictable, like the sediment of a whirlwind or the motion of tea leaves in a gourd.
Hopscotch is not as widely read today as some similarly brilliant works from the ’60s, but its impact, like the now eroded, obscured craters left behind by comets that collided with the Earth millennia ago, can be easily discerned by those who know what to look for. Cortazar’s idea of including tertiary information in a novel (and sending readers to a special section in back to find it) is reflected today in the zest for footnotes and endnotes in novels. As with Cortazar’s expendable chapters, the endnotes of novels like Infinite Jest contain information that, although arguably tangential, can help unlock a novel and push readers toward finding greater mysteries within it. Although Cortazar was onto it decades ago, the idea that crucial information can be found in the extraneous, where it is just as likely to be ignored, remains potent today.
Too Cortazar’s experiments with typography and with making a page physically embody an idea or feeling are reproduced by many of today’s novelists (some of whom also show an interest in footnoting and endnoting their work). The cute typesetting and novelty pages of today (like those that are blank or filled with such dense type as to be black) harken back to Hopsctoch but, more often than not, show none of Cortazar’s skill or restraint. In this regard many may have followed in his footsteps, but few seem to be interested (as Cortazar was) in subordinating these elements to the task of revealing ideas and feelings that language alone cannot express.
Celebrating Hopscotch’s visionary innovations is one way of arguing that this book holds an unassailable place in literature, but it is better to make the same argument simply by pointing to the universal themes that Cortazar so skillfully engages. In an interview Cortazar explained that he wrote Hopscotch for people of his generation, the aging bohemians who, like Oliveira, were being forced to face difficult facts about their lives. But, he continued, he was surprised to find that the next generation of twentysomethings related to the book even better than his intended audience. Oliveira’s existential angst is something that transcends age, as well as many other categories, and it is something that Cortazar has captured in both the words and the form of his amazing book. Hopscotch is one of those experiences that no bibliophile worthy of the name should be without.
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