Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar

Julio Cortazar, via

Reviewed by Susanna

Published: 1963 in Spanish, translated into English in 1966

It's about: Horacio Oliveira, a disaffected Argentine intellectual, wanders the streets of 1950s Paris, meeting occasionally with a group of beatniks and bohemians to sip mate, listen to jazz records, discuss modern art, and debate politics. He is accompanied by his uneducated mistress, La Maga, an aspiring singer and single mother to a baby boy she has fancifully named Rocamadour. Aside from La Maga, each member the group (which has dubbed itself the Serpentine Club) appears to exceptionally well-educated but exhibits little genuine pleasure in art and literature. The only real enjoyment they seem to derive from their meetings is in weaving intricate webs of allusions to esoteric artists and philosophers (Anacreon and Piet Mondrian among them) in which to entrap and mock the ignorant Oliveira's mistress, who has high ambitions for cultural sophistication. The group abruptly disbands when Rocamadour dies in the middle of one such gathering and La Maga, crushed by grief, disappears. Oliveira, heretofore cold and withdrawn towards his mistress, departs on a journey back to Argentina to search for her and gradually descends into madness.   

I thought: Plot summary feels almost entirely beside the point when discussing Hopscotch because the novel's "point," so to speak, is communicated more through its experimental style than its story. Some critics have classed Hopscotch as a sort of anti-novel for its flgrant abandonment of traditional structures and language. Case-in-point, Cortazar prefaces the book with this curious bit of advice on the possible sequences of chapters in which readers can approach the novel:

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 then following the sequence indicated at the end of each chapter.

Cortazar's other innovations on the traditional novel's conventions leave the reader disoriented and floating in a playfully dissonant wash of citations, dialogue, allusions, references, and sudden shifts in narrative voice. For example, Chapter 34 tells two stories, one is the personal reminiscences of a retired businessman, and the other is Oliveira's stream-of-conscience mourning for his lost mistress. The catch is that Cortazar alternates one line on the page of the first story with one line of the other until the end of the chapter. Individual chapters appear that have, superficially at least, nothing to do with the plot of the novel. Many of them, labeled Morelliana are the philosophical musings of a fictional literary critic and writer named Morelli. The ninety-nine expendable chapters at the end of the first book, skip unpredictably among the Serpentine Club's debates, Oliveira's thoughts as he settles into the mental institution, and quotations from various post-modern writers, presented without further explanation. At various points, Cortazar invents new spellings for words, invents new words entirely, or abruptly slips into a new language.

So, if this deliberately difficult style communicates the purpose of Hopscotch more than the plot, what is the purpose? Hopscotch is the sort of novel that, like Ulysses, uses the author's encyclopedic knowledge of arts and letters to evade easy summation. But one persistently recurring theme is finding authenticity in a world where passions and desires are articulated through cliche. Oliveira's suspicions of his authenticity run so deeply that at the moment he realizes Rocamadour has died, he coolly asks himself "why turn on the light and shout if it won't do any good?" and curses himself for being "an actor", rather than raising the alarm. The desire for authenticity underlines each emotionally void meeting of the Serpentine Club, just as it drives La Maga's search for intellectual fulfillment. And it is evident in Cortazar's experimental style. Every departure from traditiona is meant to expose the artificiality of the conventional novel and challenge the reader's assumptions of how a novel ought to be composed and why they read.

All that said, it's my opinion that Hopscotch is not the kind of book one reads for pleasure, at least not on the first attempt (I honestly can't say that I enjoyed it). It takes expansive knowledge of the art and literature of, and influential to the post-modern era to grasp the majority of Cortazar's references. At five hundred and sixty-four pages, the purposefully difficult style will try the patience of even the most die-hard wannabe-beatnik. For reasons I can appreciate without necessarily enjoying the book, Hopscotch has been hailed as one of the most important twentieth -century novels, and for professional students of literature, it undoubtedly is. However, there are many other brilliant and innovative books that open themselves up to readers more willingly. 

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. 

Reading Recommendations: Browse the Wikipedia entry on Hopscotch; it gives a thorough outline of the novel's themes, characters, and plot.

Warnings: Some veiled descriptions of sex and some swearing.   

Favorite excerpts:
I swallow my soup. Then, in the midest of what I am reading, I think: The soup is in me, I have it in this pouch which I will never see, my stomach." I feel with two fingers and I touch the mass, the motion of the food there inside. And I am this, a bag with food inside of it.

Then the soul is born: "No, I am not that."
No that (let's be honest for once)
yes, I am that. With a very pretty means of excape for the use of the finicky: "I am also that." Or just a step up: "I am in that."

What I'm reading next: The Last Man, by Mary Shelley.