on 13 September 2005
It has taken me years to sit down and finally make a serious commitment to read Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch/La Rayuela." I cannot think of a better companion to devote a few weeks to, maybe even longer - hey, whatever it takes! It depends on your reading speed and the time you take to truly savor the poetry of the author's language. So, be willing to make a small personal investment in this very special novel, and the reward you reap will be a worthy one. Julio Cortazar will take you to places you have never been before in literature, and may never experience again. I read "Hopscotch" over this past summer, after a thirty year delay. I can be very stubborn about putting off what is good for me!! The author's imagination is boundless, his prose rich and luminous, his wit and sophistication rare, the dialogue brilliant, the plot...I won't attempt to describe that with a few adjectives. Wander through the extraordinary labyrinthine plot on you own - the way is yours to discover. I promise, you won't get lost!
I was introduced to "La Rayuela" about thirty years ago, when a close friend, with similar reading tastes, gave me the book. Enthused after just reading the novel, he told me that I reminded him of one of the characters, La Maga. (What a compliment...I think!). I was living in Latin America at the time. With personal interests at stake and much curiosity, I bought a copy in Spanish, which I read with some fluency back then. After experimenting with which way to approach the novel, and trying both ways, I gave up...and just read the parts about La Maga. I had little patience at that point in my life, and needed to acquire some, and to read slower, with more of a sense of play and participation. Cortazar wants his readers to participate - to make reading his book an interactive experience, not a passive one. I was and still feel touched when I remember my friend's comments regarding La Maga. She is a magnificent character and Cortazer's prose, his language, (Spanish), is exquisite. So, about a year later, I thought I'd give it another try, in English, perhaps with better results. None! I just wasn't ready, I guess. That happens to me with fiction occasionally. I have to be open to the experience. Yet, after all these years, I still thought of Horacio Oliveira and La Maga from time to time. And why not? They are truly unforgettable. As I wrote above, I did make time, at last. For an adventure of a lifetime, I recommend you do the same.
When Julio Cortazar published "La Rayuela" in 1966, he turned the conventional novel upside-down and the literary world on its ear with this experiment in writing fiction. He soon became an important influence on writers everywhere. "Hopscotch" is considered to be one of the best novels written in Spanish. The work is interactive, where readers are invited to rearrange its text and read sections in different sequences. Read in a linear fashion, "Hopscotch" contains 700 pages, 155 chapters in three sections: "From the Other Side," and "From This Side" - the first two sections are sustained by relatively chronological narratives and so contrast greatly with the third section, "From Diverse Sides," (subtitled "Expendable Chapters"), which includes philosophical extrapolation, character study, allusions and quotations, and an entirely different version of the "ending."
The book has no table of contents, but rather a "Table of Instructions." There, we learn that two approved readings are possible: from Chapter 1 through 56 "in a normal fashion", or from Chapter 73 to Chapter 1 to... well, wherever the chapters lead you. The instructions are all in your book and are extremely clear. At the end of each chapter there is a numeric indicator to lead the reader to the next chapter. One never knows where one will be lead. Due to its meandering nature, "Hopscotch" has been called a "Proto-hypertext" novel. Cortázar probably had this work in mind when he stated, "If I had the technical means to print my own books, I think I would keep on producing collage-books."
Horacio Oliveira, our protagonist and sometimes narrator, is an Argentinean expatriate, an intellectual and professed writer in 1950's bohemian Paris. He and his close friends, members of "the Club," do lots of partying, drinking, and intellectualizing, discussing art, literature, music and solving the world's problems. Oliveira lives with and loves La Maga, an exotic young woman, somewhat whimsical, at times almost ephemeral, who leaves behind her, like the scent of a light perfume, a feeling of poignancy and inevitable loss. La Maga refuses to plan her encounters with Oliveira in advance, preferring instead to run into each other by chance. Then she and Oliveira celebrate the series of circumstances that reunite them. Eventually, he loses La Maga, who loses her child. With her absence, Oliveira realizes how empty and meaningless his life is and he returns to his native Buenos Aires. There he finds work first as a salesman, then a keeper of a circus cat, and an attendant in an insane asylum.
As Oliveira wends his way through France, Uruguay and Argentina looking for his lost love, "Hopscotch's" narrative takes on an emotionally intense stream of consciousness style, rich in metaphor. Back In Argentina, Oliveira shares his life with his bizarre double, Traveler, and Traveler's wife, Talita, whom Oliveira attempts to remake into a facsimile of La Maga.
The game of hopscotch is only developed as a conceit late in the narrative. It is first used to describe Oliveira's confused love for La Maga as "that crazy hopscotch." The theme develops as a metaphor for reaching Heaven from Earth. "When practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb 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." The variations on the children's game are described as "spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often." The allusions continue and include some beautiful passages.
"Hopscotch" is much more than a novel. Ultimately, it is best left for each reader to define what it is for himself/herself. Pablo Neruda in a famous quote said, "People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease." I don't know whether I would go so far. Remember, I put off the experience for many years. But this is one novel that should be read during one's lifetime. It is brilliant and it is fun!