by JDP

This genreless antinovel is a brilliant curiosity shop of form, function, and structure. Fans of Calvino and Pynchon need to cease reading the book they are currently reading and substitute in its place this one instead. I am not kidding.

Julio Cortázar / Argentinian / 1963 / 576 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

In the novel Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov first presents the reader with a poem and then follows this with several hundred pages of line-by-line editorial annotations that gradually fill in the plot behind the poem’s construction. Italo Calvino, in writing If on a winter’s night a traveler, does violence to the traditional relationship between author and reader by directly implicating the reader in the action of the novel, and by splicing, rearranging, and confusing the plot until one hardly recognizes up from down. Picking up the torch left glowing by James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon and Malcolm Lowry further refined and adapted stream-of-conscious narration in The Cry of Lot 49 and Under the Volcano — two novels where reading a single page oftentimes necessitates taking a deep breath, a swig of coffee, and a peek at the nearest encyclopedia of cultural phenomena.

Julio Cortázar seems to have amalgamated all of these styles in his masterwork Hopscotch, though to say that the novel is simply a summation is to rob its author of his otherworldly creativity. It is the most bizarrely-structured and abnormally-sequenced novel one can imagine and, in many respects, it is a genreless antinovel that employs many styles in the rejection of style, many narratives in the rejection of narration. In the course of fielding Cortázar’s many attacks on the novel as an art form, the reader begins to question the basic contours of storytelling itself. What does it say about me, as a reader, when what is perhaps the most compelling novel I’ve read this year is the one that least resembles a novel? Setting aside my minor existential crisis for the time being, I’ll attempt to continue with the review.

Hopscotch is written in three sections of which the first two together are comprised of 56 chapters and the third of 99 chapters. There are two (two!?) ways to read the book as outlined by Cortázar on the first page of the novel: the reader may either read Chapters 1 through 56 in a linear fashion and forget about what follows or, instead, adhere to his ordering of the chapters that leave the progression of 1 through 56 intact, but splice in at somewhat random intervals the other 99 chapters (if you adhere to the first reading, you are a Philistine). The first 56 chapters resemble, more or less, a watered down Pynchon novel in that there are some coherent plot details and many pages of rambling quasi-philosophical dialogues and monologues. The back 99 chapters are a shoot-from-the-hip assortment of press clippings, quotes from famous authors, quotes from fictional authors, additional plot-driven segments that fill out the backstory on some of the main characters, and other odd experiments in form. One chapter is told exclusively in a series of footnotes, for instance. Another chapter is written as a dramatic script. Another is mumbled in a bizarre transliterated language (“An onorabl soljer, he brawt onor too hiz profeshun in theeoree and in praktiss”) while a fourth is written from the perspective of a man reading a book with every other line corresponding either to his thoughts or the text he is reading.

While many of the characters in the book are expendable, some are rather compelling. Horatio Oliveira is an Argentinian writer living in Paris at the book’s opening. He is a member of The Club, or a group of Parisian bohemians who gather for the sake of drinking mate, discussing jazz, and, in general, over-intellectualizing the most mundane of things. Oliveira is dating a woman referred to as La Maga, a fellow Latin American who fits poorly into The Club’s demographic and has the additional responsibility of tending to her sickly infant son. When the baby dies unexpectedly and La Maga absconds into the Parisian countryside, Oliveira returns to Buenos Aires and rejoins his old friends Talita and Traveler. The three of them join a circus for some time before buying out an asylum where they provide (somewhat lax) security and healthcare for the inmates. The escalating tension between Traveler and Oliveira, two very similar men who both long for Talita, drives much of the second half of the plot.

The the barebones structure of the “plot” I reference here is generally less important than the ideas that flesh it out. However, some scenes are set and explored with such dramatic keenness that I would be remiss were I to leave out a few complementary words. Four passages in particular are absolutely astounding in their ability to ring with concrete clarity amidst a maelstrom of genre mash-ups. The first takes place where Oliveira sits through a horrendous classical  music performance and volunteers to walk the aging performer back to her apartment. The second covers the scene where La Maga’s baby is discovered dead in his cradle. The third involves a woman being suspended between two apartment buildings on a narrow board while she attempts to throw a package of tea through a window. The final scene takes place as an intense standoff in one of the rooms of the asylum. These four chapters (which are also much longer than the rest of the chapters in the book) could each be read as a well-crafted standalone short story. Indeed, Cortázar spent much of his career focusing on short story composition and it is obvious that we’re watching a master at work in these passages.

Typically, the book progresses with one or two plot-driven chapters, followed by a handful of extraneous chapters, followed by another plot-driven chapter, etc. After the death of La Maga’s baby, however, the concreteness of the narrative melts into oblivion as the reader is taken through a maze of 22 uninterrupted extraneous chapters before finally coming up for air at the baby’s funeral. In this way (and in many others) Cortázar uses his splicing technique purposefully. The baby’s death catalyzes an extended period of disconnected, free-thought association that closely parallels the emotional whirlwind it induces in La Maga. This splicing technique is used to great effect at the very end of the novel as well, where a clever set of staccato dialogues bounce back and forth across the final few pages, bringing the novel to an unsettling and ambiguous conclusion. Elsewhere, certain characters appear either only in the plot-driven chapters or only in the extraneous chapters, thereby creating a substantial gulf between readers who opt for the first (linear) method of reading and those who opt for the “hopscotch” method of reading. More astute literature consumers will be pleased to see many references to and quotes from other novels (both Lowry and Gombrowicz receive mention, for example) and lovers of jazz will enjoy the characters’ prolonged discussions of some of the improvisational greats. Moving beyond substance to technique, however, much of the prose itself appears in a jazz-like format where loosely correlated riffs circulate around a repeated theme.

This book was recommended to me as one of the powerhouses of Latin American literature. Along with Gacia Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar is widely held to have written one of the continent’s two most important books with Hopscotch. Obviously the former has made more substantial inroads with American audiences than the latter and, having now read Hopscotch, I can understand why that is the case. The book is a difficult one (especially in the first 50 pages while the reader is struggling to get a handle on just what in the bloody hell is happening), but a certain sort of reader will derive great enjoyment from the immense variety presented therein.

Rating: 10 / 10

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