Playing "Hopscotch" with Julio Cortázar

Fifty years after it first published, Cortazar's novel is as innovative as the game from which it draws its names

Published June 29, 2013 5:30PM (EDT)

Julio Cortazar     (Wikimedia)
Julio Cortazar (Wikimedia)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of BooksI ONCE MET A MAN who claimed he always read the last paragraph of any novel before he turned to page one. “I want to make sure it has a good ending,” he explained. “Otherwise why invest the effort?”

Julio Cortázar has left even bolder suggestions for readers of his experimental novel Hopscotch, published 50 years ago today, June 28. He invites them to start the novel at chapter 73 and then proceed through the novel’s 155 sections in a prescribed order — Cortázar gives a list of the alternative sequence in his “Table of Instructions” — leaping back and forth in the book, until they finally finish, having already read 132 through 155, with chapter 131. To make matters more interesting, he asks readers to skip chapter 55 completely (I will admit I cheated and read it anyway), and to read one of the chapters twice.

Does that sound confusing? Well, Cortázar has some pity on those narrow-minded souls still caught up in the antiquated linear reading paradigm. For these stick-in-the-muds, he grants permission to read the novel in traditional sequence, from chapters 1 through 56, but he then asks them to ignore the remaining 99 chapters — more than 200 pages of text! Which raises the obvious question: can my friend learn anything from peeking at the last page, if it doesn’t really contain the end of the novel?

What do you miss if you skip the last 99 chapters of Hopscotch? Well, you won’t get to read various defenses for a fragmented, discontinuous novel, a novel that bears an uncanny resemblance to the book you have in your hands. This polemic for fractious fiction is attributed to Morelli, a minor character in the novel with unconventional ideas about writing.

For example, in some passages, Morelli tries to justify his own narrative incoherence, maintaining that a life story, such as it comes to us in so-called reality, is not a movie but still photography, that is to say, that we cannot grasp the action, only a few of its “eleatically recorded fragments.” (Yes, I checked on Google books, and can confirm that Hopscotch is the only novel in existence that uses the word eleatically.) The Eleatics, though, (like Parmenides and Zeno) rejected the idea that sensory experience told us anything about reality; instead they argued for a rationalist, timeless, unitary Being — time and matter were illusions. I hope the readers find that helpful, because it’s as close as the text gets to an explanation for its peculiar formal structure.

The novel offers puzzles within the larger puzzle, like chapter 34, with its list of seemingly unrelated sentence fragments, but it also, as Scott Esposito wrote in The Quarterly Conversation, is “a novel of traditional literary pleasures: imaginative prose, probing characterization, believable dialog, and rich metaphorical musings.” Esposito quotes this passage as an example:

“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 Argentinian iron lung, so sad and solitary. It had been some time 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.

The pleasures of this paragraph are, in a sense, the flip side of the Eleatic — they find truth in the material, sensory passage of time, even as the protagonist, Oliveira is drawn, philosophically, toward the opposite conclusion.

When Morelli elicits the help of the protagonist and his friends in putting the finishing touches on the draft of his latest book, he tells them: “It’s not as difficult as it seems. The notebooks will help you, there’s a system of colors, numbers, and letters.” Oliveira, who serves as the wayward hero of Hopscotch, asks, “But what if we should make a mistake?” Morelli replies:

Who cares? You can read my book in any way you want to. Liber Fulguralis, mantic pages, and that’s how it goes. The most I do is set it up the way I would like to reread it. And in the worst of cases, if they do make a mistake, it might just turn out perfect.

Morelli soon retreats into the background of the novel, but the discontinuous style of narrative that he champions remains. And in the long history of fragmented stories, from Gilgamesh to The Pale KingHopscotch may present the biggest jumble of them all. A half-century after its publication, it still stands out as the most brazen attempt by a major writer to undermine traditional — indeed quasi-instinctive and constitutive — reading strategies.

Cortázar gets some help from Oliveira, who leads such an aimless, unfocused life that mixing up the chronological order of his activities does little to disrupt their meaning. Provided, that is, that they do possess a meaning. Oliveira himself is unsure about that. During the course of the novel, he mulls over the elusive possibility of some anchor or purpose, which he describes under an assortment of makeshift names and phrases — the “center,” the “unity in the midst of diversity,” “the kibbutz of desire,” or simply the square known as “heaven” in the children’s game hopscotch. Yet he always steps back from any decisive moment of engagement or commitment that might allow him to find this bedrock layer of stability and purpose in his own life.

As a result, Hopscotch is a novel where the plot constantly disappears from view. Cortázar compensates by offering some of the most memorable incidents in modern fiction. Long after you have finished this novel, you will probably still remember the haunting scene (echoing Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope) in which Oliveira learns that his lover’s son is lying dead in bed. Instead of telling the mother, he keeps her partying in ignorance almost until dawn. Another searing interlude involves Oliveira engaged in a psychological game of one-upmanship with his friend-doppelganger Manolo Traveler, while Traveler’s wife Talita is poised on a dangerous, makeshift bridge, high above the city street, a bridge that connects their two apartments. Not since Dostoevsky has a novelist found such powerful ways of representing the dark night of the soul in the oblique and seemingly undecipherable moments of connection between literary characters.

In other words, Oliveira’s detached attitude toward life perfectly matches the halting and interrupted style of this novel’s narrative. Along the way, Cortázar somehow manages to find a meeting ground between two theoretical camps that many believe are incompatible, forcing a truce between structuralist fixation with isolating the tiniest islands of meaning, and the existentialist fear that no such meanings can be found. Writing in France at a time when these two schools of thought were dueling for intellectual dominance, Cortázar does justice to both. He hints at deep significations but then withholds them — a both/and strategy accentuated by the different types of closure allowed by his alternate reading strategies.

So give credit to this Argentinean author for writing one of the great existentialist novels, worthy to stand alongside the efforts of Sartre and Camus. But also acknowledge Hopscotch as one of the most innovative postmodern literary works, one that offered deconstructionist critics a text deconstructed before they laid hands on it. Which path should you choose? Which offers the most satisfying resolution? Like the pastime hopscotch itself, which this novel so artfully mimics, you may need to play the game both ways to find out.

By Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia new book, "The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire," will be published by Oxford University Press in July


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Argentina Books Julio Cortazar La Review Of Books Mysteries Novels