Hopscotch (Pantheon Modern Writers)
by Julio Cortazar
A review by Jill Owens
"Every attempt at explanation comes to grief for reasons that anyone can understand, and the fact is that in order to define and understand something one would have to be outside of what is being defined and understood."
"'In the end, as always, an act of faith,' said Etienne, laughing. 'It's still the best definition of man. Now, getting back to the subject of the fried egg...'"
You run across books, from time to time, that, after you read them, you wonder with genuine astonishment how it was possible that you have gotten this far in life, become the particular collection of impulses and habits that you are, without yet having read those words in that order. For me, recently, one of those was Beckett's Murphy. Another was Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. But none was so generous, so precise an analysis that connects with my own listening voice, as Hopscotch.
Hopscotch is an important and an overlooked novel; it deserves our full attention. Horacio Oliviera, the primary character, and his lover, whom he calls "La Maga," refuse to plan their encounters in advance, preferring instead to run into each other by chance along an indifferent river, in a bookshop, or an untried part of town. Then they celebrate the series of circumstances that brought them together: the corner turned east, not north; the conversation with a friendly prostitute that made them linger just there. Hopscotch came into my hands like that a found object, appearing at the perfect time and, since reading it, the people I have met who have also read it seem to form a quiet circle of coincidence, a kind of Brownian motion set large. Those people are far too few in number; Hopscotch is the work of a master writer at the top of his form, written deftly and dazzlingly, about the nature of the absurd search for the meaning of life.
Quite natural, then, that Cortazar's settings would include Paris and Buenos Aires, a circus and an asylum, tenement apartments in both candlelight and the squalor of high noon. Watching smoke rise through the rain, huddled in a doorway, his characters expatriates, pseudo-writers barely supported by women or distant relatives are also what you might expect in a novel concerning itself with something so elusive. It is to Cortazar's great credit that they move as humans in their own right, with individual laughter, grief, and weakness, instead of lapsing into vehicles for the philosophies they explore.
One reason that the novel is so absorbing is its dialogue. The wanderers that populate Hopscotch are funny, vulgar, pretentious, and often ludicrous, but their level of wordplay is a uniquely intelligent delight. Minor characters ordinary folk that brush up against their boundaries come off as speaking a different, lesser language. Oliviera, through third person, is the primary narrator, but quotations from a fictional writer (who later appears in the work), occasional forays into first person, and views from the other characters' perspectives create a language precise with an analysis of thinking from all angles.
The structure is also a noteworthy innovation; as the title implies, the reader jumps through the book, side to side, forward and back. Hopscotch is divided into three sections: the first two, relatively chronological stories, contrast with the third section, "From Diverse Sides," which includes philosophical extrapolation, fill-in-the-gap character study, allusions and quotations, and an entirely different (it could be argued) version of the "ending." There are at the very least two physical ways of reading the novel: straight through the two more storied sections, or by flipping back and forth, incorporating the "expendable chapters" in the latter section of the book, following the chapter numbers Cortazar helpfully provides at the end of each chapter. (A difficult book to read while standing up on the subway.)
The effect of all these disparate parts is to profoundly affect and alter the experience of reading, which was one of metafiction's original goals (the concept had not yet been named when Hopscotch was published). And what is amazing is that neither the structural play nor the "bohemian" characters' rhetoric is a gimmick; a sense of golden risk both illuminates and abstracts the action. Reading this book is a visceral, architectural experience. Although at times Cortazar delves into irony, the questions of truth and of relevance in fiction, of how to look at the absurdity of our own lives and find both despair and enlightenment, are absolutely sincere. I am reminded both of Cervantes, a few hundred years ago, and of the book artists of the last three or four decades, who have expanded the boundaries of what it means to write, to tell a story truly and well (or whether the real story might be found in silence).
Pablo Neruda has famously said, "People who do not read Cortazar are doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease." These days, when what is good and true can be beyond our imagination, when the absurd, in Camus's sense, clutches our ankles in every broadcast, this indelible novel is more relevant than ever. Cortazar is an elixir; Hopscotch is precise and brilliant and disturbing as hell. A balance of absurdity and beauty, literally and in each ready sense, a tightrope walk between the window and the pavement this is what Hopscotch injects within the reader, what is frustrating and necessary and true. You become thirsty for it, by the end: somewhat addicted, not quite blessed.