Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)


…man only feels secure when he is on grounds that do not touch his deepest part: when he plays, when he conquers, when he puts on his various suits of armor that are products of an ethos, when he hands over the central mystery to some revelation. (p166)

Continuing the theme of novels with an unusual structure, or in some cases written with constraints. Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, another work with a playful theme.

For the uninitiated Julio Cortázar’s novel consists of one hundred and fifty-five chapters and comes with a “Table of Instructions”;

In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all.
The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56, at the close of which there are three garish little stars which stand for the words The End. Consequently, the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.
The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73 and the following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

A few months ago I mapped the second reading chart on a simple grid;


As you can see pure chaos, none of the sequential harmony seen in Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’.

Narratively ‘Hopscotch’ “recounts the adventures of an Argentine intellectual living in Paris with his lover and bohemian friends, and follows him back to Buenos Aires, where he works in a circus and a mental asylum.” However, it is not this narrative where the riches of this work are at play.

Hopscotch itself is a game, tossing a small object or a stone, and jumping through space(s), numbered, to reach the goal, in Cortázar’s version the ultimate square is heaven.

Hopscotch is played with a pebble that you move with the tip of your toe. The things you need: a sidewalk, a pebble, a toe, and a pretty chalk drawing, preferably in colors. On top is Heaven, on the bottom is Earth, it’s very hard to get the pebble up to Heaven, you almost always miscalculate and the stone goes off the drawing. But little by little you start to get the knack of how to jump over the different squares (spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often) and then one day you learn how to leave Earth and make the pebble climb up to Heaven…the worst part of it is that precisely at that moment, when practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb up into Heaven, childhood is over all of a sudden and you’re into novels, into the anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into the speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too. And since you have come out of childhood… you forget that in order to get to Heaven you have to have a pebble and a toe. (pgs 221-222)

And not unlike Georges Perec’s ‘Life A User’s Manual’ this work contains a number of other play or games references;

…the bishop moves, rooks move, the knight jumps, pawns fall away, and in the center of the board, big as anthracite lions the kings remain flanked by the cleanest and last and purest of their armies, at dawn the deciding lances will be crossed, fate will be served, peace will reign. (p80)

Given the bohemian lifestyle in Paris, the book is filled with philosophical discussions and digressions, from straightforward intellectual arguments through to jazz style blabbering, accompanied by references to the records being played at the time. There are quotable quotes galore, a Twitter feed’s paradise, however these insights are also peppered with acerbic literary commentary;

…the only way to get a hold on Argentina was to come up on it from the shameful side, find the blush hidden under a century of usurpations of all kinds, as writers had pointed out so well, and therefore the best way was to show it in some way in which it didn’t have to take itself so seriously. (pgs 241-242)

In the expendable chapters the character “Morelli”, and his writings, frequently pops up, he’s a character hinting at the construction and writing of ‘Hopscotch’ (or a similarly structured novel) itself, Cortázar’s alter-ego (ignore the male/female reader in the following quote, it is explained in the work, although it is sexist).

It would seem that the usual novel misses in 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 would oblige him to become an accomplice as it whispers to him underneath the conventional exposition other more esoteric directions. Demonic writing for the female-reader (who otherwise will not get beyond the first few pages, rudely lost and scandalized, cursing at what he paid for the book), with a vague reverse side of hieratic writing.
“To provoke, assume a text that is out of line, untied, incongruous, minutely antinovelistic (although not antinovelish). Without prohibiting the genre’s great effects if the situation should require it, but keeping in mind the Gidean advice,
ne jamais profiter de l’élan acquis. Like all creatures of choice in the Western world, the novel is content in a closed order. Resolutely opposed to this, we should search for an opening and therefore cut the roots of all systematic construction of characters and situations. Method: irony, ceaseless self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in the service of no one. (p404)

One final interesting section of the book, and there are so many, a chapter that completely shook my reading style and forced me to slow down and absorb, Chapter 34. It is written in alternate lines, the opening line coming from a book that our protagonist’s lover is reading, the second line is his thoughts about the book he is reading, the third the book again and so forth;

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
like this. To think that she’s spent hours on end reading tasteless (p198)

A systematic breakdown of the structures we are used to.

No need to add more accolades to the innumerable that exist out there, if you haven’t read this book yet, take the time to do so. Just like my chart of the chapter sequence, there is no order to the chaos, immerse yourself, enjoy.

The page numbers in the quotes above are taken from the Everyman’s Library edition, which also includes Julio Cortázar’s short story collections ‘Blow-Up’ (translated by Paul Blackburn) and ‘We Love Glenda So Much’ (translated by Gregory Rabassa)

2 thoughts on “Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar (tr. Gregory Rabassa)

    • This time around was a re-read for myself. There are so many riches in there that it was still so fresh. Next time I’ll follow the alternate reading instead. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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