The Year of Reading Dangerously: Julio Cortazar

I have long admired Julio Cortazar as a short story writer, and have read a couple of his shorter novels (The Winners and Final Exam), as well as the non-fiction Autonauts of the Cosmoroute which was finally translated into English a few years ago. Hopscotch, however, though widely regarded as his masterpiece, was the one that I never got around to, even when I eventually acquired a copy two years ago. Of course, it is almost six hundred pages long and possesses a rather intimidating structure that immediately presents the reader with a choice. We can either read linearly from chapter one to 56, ignoring the remaining “expendable” chapters “with a clean conscience”, or we can ‘hopscotch’ around the novel following Cortazar’s instructions, beginning at chapter 73 then moving on to 1,2 116,3,84…and so on. Obviously, having set out to challenge my reading habits, I opted for the latter approach.

Then novel is traditional enough to have a central character, Horacio Oliveira, an Argentinian writer who we first meet living in Paris with his lover La Maga and socialising with a group of self-consciously intellectual bohemians. La Maga’s young child dies and La Maga disappears; Horacio returns to Buenos Aires where he is met by an old friend known as Traveler and his wife Talita. He works with them at a circus and then an asylum, gradually seeming to lose his mind before finally threatening suicide. The “expendable chapters” sometimes add to this story or provide background (for example Horacio’s relationship with a previous lover, Pola), but often contain seemingly unrelated stories, quotations, extracts from a book a character is reading, and statements attributed to a writer, Morelli, who features briefly in the main narrative.

The first effect I found this had on my reading was that I never knew where I was in the novel: that is, measured from beginning to end (a journey which still exists, though not represented by the novel’s pagination) I had no idea how far I had come or how far I had to go. Also, the physical act of moving back and forward through the book was so counter-intuitive that it did go some way to convey the directionless meanderings of Horacio’s life. The novel also moves freely between first and third person. The first two chapters are written, in modernist tradition, from the consciousness of the struggling artist, but chapter 3 begins: “Horacio Oliveira was sitting on the bed smoking his third insomniac cigarette.” This means that when we return to the first person we cannot be certain that it is Horacio’s voice we hear – chapter 7 is a good example, where one lover addresses another. Perhaps the tour de force in terms of narrative style is chapter 34 where a line from a novel Horacio is reading alternates with a line of his thoughts.

These ‘extra’ chapters work well at points in the novel, for example when, after the death of La Maga’s child, we leave the main narrative for twenty two chapters. This both emphasises the narrative importance of the death and Horacio’s desire to avoid thinking of it (also shown in his non-appearance at the funeral, and representative of his general withdrawal from reality). However, the more esoteric interruptions can be off-putting as a reader: you either feel under pressure to connect them to the main narrative or frustrated by their apparent lack of connection, and the sense of preening cleverness that occasionally rises from the pages. Of course, this ties in neatly with the self-absorbed intellectualism of Horacio and most of the other male characters. Horacio believes La Maga is sleeping with Gregorovious because he attempts to explain some of the ideas they are discussing to her. In offering to move out immediately draws on what he knows in their discussion:

“Lying to yourself…You sound like a best-selling novel from Rio de la Plata.”

La Maga (and later Talita) are perhaps the most sympathetic characters in the novel. La Maga is frequently excluded from the group because of her lack of education:

“She was terribly in awe of Oliveira and Etienne, who could keep an argument going for three hours without a stop. There was something like a circle of chalk around Etienne and Oliveira and she wanted to get inside…”

However, it is her focus on Oliveira and the group that leads her to ignore the health of her son who, for me, lay at the centre of the novel, ignored and neglected, a reminder that intellectual pursuit alone is not enough. Whether Cortazar shared this view I could not be sure. Is his intention to satirise Horacio? Is the novel’s structure actually an attack on his purposeless life, ending in a loop to show that he is heading nowhere? Hopscotch certainly convinces as a novel that would reward a second reading but, personally, I would rather return to Cortazar’s stories

Danger rating: I would liken this to climbing a mountain, but that would only be accurate if the route was the most circuitous, involving frequent descents, and never quite reaching the peak. Hopscotch doesn’t seem to be currently in print. I read the award-winning translation by Gregory Rabassa in an American edition. An excellent selection of Cortazar’s stories, Bestiary, was published by Harvill in 1998 but is also out of print. Individual collections are, however, available.

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