Hopscotch (Cortázar novel)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Hopscotch (Rayuela) is a novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Written in Paris and published in Spanish in 1963 and in English in 1966, the English translation by Gregory Rabassa won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award novel where characters fluctuate and play with the subjective mind of the reader, and it has multiple endings. This novel is often referred to as a counter-novel, as it was by Cortázar himself. Chapter 68 of the book is written in glíglico, an invented language which follows Spanish grammar but consists to a significant part of invented words.

Contents

Introduction

The book is highly influenced by Henry Miller’s reckless and relentless search for truth in post-decadent Paris and Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s modal teachings on Zen Buddhism.

Cortázar's employment of interior monologue, punning, slang, and his use of different languages is reminiscent of Modernist writers like Joyce, although his main influences were Surrealism and the French New Novel, as well as the "riffing" aesthetic of jazz and New Wave Cinema.

Since Cortázar’s death in 1984, there has been a great deal of ambiguity regarding the classification of the ‘novel without genre.’ Works such as William S. Burroughs' 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded, and Thomas Pynchon's V., published the same year as Hopscotch, have earned similar reputations.

"Table of Instructions" and Structure

Written in an episodic, snapshot manner, the novel has 155 chapters, the last 99 being designated as "expendable." These "expendable" chapters fill in some gaps in the main story, while others add information about the characters or record the aesthetic and literary speculations of a writer named Morelli who makes a brief appearance in the narrative. Some of these 'expendable chapters' at first glance seem random, but upon closer inspection fill in gaps in the novels narrative.

At the beginning of the book the author suggests the book can be read in two possible ways. First, the book can be read either in direct sequence from chapter 1 and stop at chapter 56, which, Cortázar writes, the reader can do “with a clean conscience,” or alternatively by "hopscotching" through the entire set of 155 chapters according to the "Table of Instructions" designated by the author. The author also leaves the option of having the reader choose his/her own path.

Narration is an important part of the book's structure, and several narrative techniques are used (first and third person, stream-of-consciousness, etc). For instance, the first chapter is narrated by the main character, but the second chapter is written in the third person. Other chapters are even written by other authors, and there is even a whole taken almost verbatim from another novel in a stream-of consciousness narrative.

Plot (Book I)

As the book opens, Horacio Oliveira, the narrator, is wandering the bridges of Paris alone one afternoon. He observes the various happenings around him and considers how different Paris is from his native Argentina. That evening he meets up with his lover, Lucía (most often referred to as La Maga in the book), and the two of them wander Paris together. That evening they meet up with their friends, a group affectionately referred to as ‘The Serpent Club,’ as they do almost every night. The Club passes the time drinking heavily, dissecting literature and philosophy, and listening to jazz records.

During their late-night discussions, they meander their way from subject to subject with ease. Though Horacio is the newest addition to the group, he is easily the most well-versed in literature and in philosophy, surpassing even the arrogant Gregorovius Ossip. All the members have their strengths and weaknesses, generally based on their various nationalities. However, unlike Horacio and the other members of the Club, La Maga is neither well-read nor articulate, and she often needs the others to explain concepts to her. Her insistence on staying in the realm of reality while the others deal primarily with abstracts distances her from the group and foreshadows her eventual disappearance.

After Horacio and La Maga have been living together in their Paris flat for several months, La Maga’s son, Rocamadour, is sent from the countryside in Belgium because La Maga cannot pay his bills. Though La Maga is initially interested in seeing her son again, she is reluctant to take him to the hospital, and insists on taking care of him herself, though she is both temperamentally and financially incapable of doing so. For example, only when he becomes deathly ill does she even allow him to sleep in the flat’s only bed, rather than on a cot on the floor.

Horacio does not enjoy having Rocamadour in his and La Maga’s flat, and one afternoon, he decides that because Ossip so frequently explains his philosophical quandaries to La Maga, the two of them must be having an affair. Horacio goes to see Pola, a former girlfriend of his, and comes back to find Ossip in the flat with La Maga. Though La Maga did not sleep with Ossip, she expects Horacio to be angry with her. Instead, Horacio and Ossip begin a deep discussion of Rousseau. Soon after, Ronald, Babs and Étienne arrive at the flat with news from Wong, telling them that Guy had tried to commit suicide and had to go to the hospital. Horacio greets the news with his typical stoicism and offers caña to the Club to calm down. During this discussion, Horacio idly places his hand on Rocamadour's forehead, only to discover that the child is dead. Quietly, he alerts everyone but La Maga. Eventually, La Maga realizes what has happened and becomes hysterical. Babs tries to calm her, but Horacio leaves the flat, apparently nonchalantly. Babs tells the rest of the men that they should leave as well, seeing as they will have to call the police and they are all fairly inebriated.

La Maga holds a funeral for Rocamadour, and all the members of the Club except Horacio attend. By the time Horacio stumbles back to the flat, several days have passed. La Maga is gone and Ossip has moved in. Ossip suspects that La Maga might have returned to Montevideo, but Horacio doubts that she has enough money to do so. Horacio is angry, in his disaffected literary sort of way, and tells an insipid Ossip, “I hate stupidity.”

Horacio suspects that La Maga may have killed herself, and goes to look for her. Wandering by the banks of the Seine, he finds a clocharde (a homeless woman) he had seen several times with La Maga through the streets of Paris, and has a conversation with her about "La Maga". With what little money he has Horacio buys wine and he and the clocharde take refuge beneath a bridge and drink. The woman attempts to fellate the inebriated Horacio, but while she is doing so the police swoop onto the scene and arrest them both.

Plot (Book II)

The second book opens with an introduction to the life of Manolo Traveler, a great friend of Horacio, who lives in Buenos Aires with his wife Talita, a pharmacist. Traveler is disappointed because he almost didn't travel at all in is whole life. Horacio comes back to Buenos Aires only to find that Traveler is waiting for him at the docks with his wife, and after greeting him and having lunch, he decides to settle near Traveler. Then he moves into Gekrepten's (a former lover) flat, which is across the street from Traveler's. Traveler and his wife Talita work as administrators for the circus, and when Horacio’s work as a fabric seller falls through Traveler arranges for his friend to begin work at the circus. Oliveira slowly starts to observe his friend's lifestyle, and realizes that Talita subtly reminds him of La Maga, forcing a metaphysic triangle between the three of them, where Horacio and Traveler seem to be always brawling about Talita in their complicated and poetic way. Horacio realizes he is in love with La Maga. Soon after, however, the owner of the circus understands that he is bored of the circus, sells the entire operation to a Brazilian businessman and buys a mental institution. Traveler, Talita and Horacio decide to continue to work with him.

They have to live in a mental institution for the whole week, except Saturday. There they meet Remorino, a nurse, and Dr. Ovejero. All the patients have numbers instead of names, most are calm and do not cause any trouble.

One night Horacio is smoking in his windowsill, waiting for Remorino's guarding shift to finish, when he sees Talita crossing the garden, going to sleep. She disappears, and suddenly La Maga comes out of nowhere and starts playing hopscotch in the institution's garden. He then realizes that it was not La Maga, but Talita, who saw the hopscotch court and started to play. She finishes and leaves. Later, when Horacio is guarding the second floor, he starts to get obsessed with the idea of getting killed by Traveler. Talita appears then, with a glass of lemonade to refresh the guardian, in this case Horacio. They start talking and Horacio tells her about seeing La Maga/Talita playing in the garden, and she confesses to dislike hopscotch, and admits she felt suddenly interested in playing. Then the elevator starts moving, but it turns to be a lunatic that was taking his pigeon out for a walk. So they decide to go to the basement, where the lunatic came from, to verify that everything was alright. Horacio there starts to daydream about La Maga, confusing her with Talita and he kisses his friend's wife.

Later that night, Talita tells Traveler about the kiss, but he doesn't seem to be angry. At the same time, Horacio is obsessed with the idea of Traveler killing him, so he starts building a "defense line" with water-filled basins and a huge skein of colorful threads.

When he finishes, he sits near the window and begins to smoke. Soon he sees Talita below the window, and feels the defensive line stopping Traveler. The two begin to talk about their duality and relationship, and about Horacio and the society. Traveler figures that Horacio is trying to commit suicide, but he just invents an imaginary division with the strings and proceeds with their discussion, Horacio on one side and Traveler on the other. At the same time, the others, including the director, his wife and doctor Ovejero are trying to understand what is happening with Horacio and decide that he has gone mad.

Everybody is afraid that Horacio will commit suicide and they do their best to prevent it. At last, both Traveler and Talita realize Oliveira's true intentions and start moving everyone out, to leave Horacio alone. Very soon there are only three of them: Horacio on the window, Talita, and Traveler on the street. They all feel the harmony of the moment, and Horacio thinks that, given the circumstances, it would be the best time to commit suicide. The ending is ambiguous as to whether he does or not (if one is reading the first 56 chapters). Reading the so-called expendable chapters offers further insight; Horatio is constantly drugged inside the facilities, finally being at peace.

Characters

The main character, Horacio Oliveira, is a well-read and loquacious bohemian. He is a spectator and spends most of his time philosophizing, finding metaphysics in all of his speeches. At first it seems Horacio is content merely to exist but really he is desperately searching for a life's purpose.

Horacio always is meditating about the so called 'center,' the real meaning and purpose of life. He explains it as a metaphysical center.

For lack of an alternative, La Maga becomes Horacio's life-purpose. She is a beguiling, profound, and improvisational woman. La Maga develops into a muse and a lens for Horacio—inspiring him to examine himself and Paris more thoroughly. She is a point of origin for Horacio and the novel itself.

When Horacio returns to Argentina he is greeted by his old friend Traveler who is happily married with a steady job. He has chosen to participate in society for which Horacio feels contempt. Though friends, Traveler and Horacio are also foes: Horacio even refers to Traveler as his "doppelgänger."

Other major characters include Talita, Traveler's wife; Rocamadour, La Maga's son; Pola, Horacio's lover; and the members of the Serpent Club: Ossip, Wong, Ronald, Babs, Étienne and Guy.

Main themes

  • Order vs. chaos: Horacio says of himself, "I imposed the false order that hides the chaos, pretending that I was dedicated to a profound existence while all the time it was the one that barely dipped its toe into the terrible waters" (end of Chapter 21). Horacio's life follows this description as he switches countries, jobs, and lovers. The novel also attempts to resemble order while ultimately consisting of chaos. It possesses a beginning and an end but traveling from one to the other seems to be a random process. Horacio's fate is just as vague to the reader as it is to him. The same idea is perfectly expressed in improvisational jazz. Over several measures, melodies are randomly constructed by following loose musical rules. Cortázar does the same by using a loose form of prose, rich in metaphor and slang, to describe life.
  • Horacio vs. society: Horacio drifts from city to city, job to job, love to love, life to life, yet even in his nomadic existence he tries to find a sense of order in the world’s chaos. He is always isolated: When he is with La Maga, he cannot relate to her; when he is with the Club, he is superior; when he is with Traveler and Talita, he fights their way of life. Even when with Morelli, the character he relates to most, there exists the social barriers of patient and orderly. Order versus chaos also exists in the structure of the novel, as in Morelli’s statement, "You can read my book any way you want to” (556). At the end of chapter 56, he realizes that he is neither on 'the territory' (Traveler's side, with society) nor on 'the bedroom' (what would be his side, his real place, if he had reached it).
  • Isolation and loneliness: Cortázar uses a quick, succinct, vignette-chapter style that paints brief images for the reader without relying too much on plot. At one point in the novel Horacio witnesses a car accident. It is said of the victim that "he doesn't have any family, he's a writer." Horacio is stunned by the way violence brings the community together. Medics rush to the scene in an ambulance and speak "friendly, comforting words to him." Violence and conflict continually bring characters together in Hopscotch. For instance, Talita's crossing of the bridge and Horacio's stunt at the novel's conclusion.
  • The conundrum of consciousness: One of the biggest arguments between Horacio and Ossip, one that threatens to put a rift in the club, is what Horacio deems “the conundrum of consciousness” (99). Does art prove consciousness? Or is it simply a continuation of instinctual leanings toward the collective brain? Talita argues a similar point in her seesaw-questions game with Horacio, who believes that only when one lives in the abstract and lets go of biological history can one achieve true consciousness.
  • The definition of failure. Horacio’s life seems hopeless because he has deemed himself a failure. La Maga’s life seems hopeless because she has never worked to resolve the issues of rape and abuse in her childhood. Traveler’s life seems hopeless because he has never done what he wanted to do, and even the name he’s adopted teases at this irony. But none of these people are considered by outward society to be failures. They are stuck where they are because of their own self-defeating attitudes.

Short chapters also express the idea that there is no penetrating purpose to the novel and life in general. For Horacio, life is a series of artistic flashes by which he perceives the world in profound ways but still remains unable to create anything of value. Other major themes include obsession, madness, life-as-a-circus, the nature and meaning of sex, and self-knowledge.





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