‘Hopscotch’ by Julio Cortázar (Review)

IMG_5416At the end of 2015, having realised just how weighed down by review copies I’d become, I set myself a few goals for the coming reading year.  One was to read some books originally written in English, and while that got off to a bumpy start, I have managed to squeeze a few in (albeit mostly rereads of classic novels…).  Another was to make time for reading in foreign languages, and that’s also going well, with books read in French, German and Spanish so far (and possibly more languages at some point…).  The third major decision, though, was to make sure I raided the library database from time to time to find some books I’ve meant to get around to for ages, but never quite managed to find time for.  All of which brings us to…

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (translated by Gregory Rabassa, published by Pantheon Books) takes us to Paris in the 1950s, where Argentinian flaneur Horacio Oliveira spends his days pounding the streets of the French capital and his nights either drinking and listening to jazz with his friends in the Serpent Club (a rag-tag collection of ex-pats from all over the world) or sleeping with La Maga, a Uruguyan woman the club’s men all find appealing because of her intellectual naivety.  After a collection of loosely-connected anecdotes, the text gradually coheres into a story of sorts, one following Oliveira in his quest to work out what he wants to do with his life – not that he comes to any kind of conclusion.

Eventually, something happens to shatter the feeling of inertia which has settled upon the club, and Oliveira decides that it’s time to head home, swapping the bohemian lifestyle of Paris for a grittier, more sultry existence back in Buenos Aires.  It’s the chance to start afresh, but the ghosts of the past continue to haunt him.  Hoping to escape from his memories of La Maga, and his Parisian self, he finds that what awaits him in Argentina is a reflection of all that he has just experienced, leaving him looking for a way out of a life he has no idea how to live.

Let me make it clear early on in this review – Hopscotch is an excellent novel, but one for the adventurous, and if you’re not prepared to spend hundreds of pages groping in the dark on the trail of deliberately complex, metaphysical, existential ramblings, then it’s probably not for you.  If, however, what you want from literature is an inevitably doomed struggle with the work of an author who is a few rungs above your mental level, then welcome to Cortázar’s fun house, and may your stay here be lengthy and exhilarating 😉

The plot, divided fairly neatly into a tale of two cities, is often just the background which the writer uses to toy with his creations.  However, Cortázar’s depiction of 1950s Paris, and the bunch of itinerant intellectuals who have gathered there, is everything you’d imagine.  After fifty pages or so of wandering around the streets and knocking back whisky and wine (or maté…) in smoky apartments, many readers will feel a strange urge to pack their bags and head off to the rive gauche in search of adventure.  Some of these extended scenes, juxtaposing the warm, smoky, jazz-filled attic rooms with the dark, rainy night just outside the window, evoke feelings of extreme nostalgia for younger, more carefree times (although that might just be me…).

The figure of La Maga, more than any other, is the centre of these Parisian chapters, a woman who doesn’t quite belong in the circle of the Serpent Club, unable to follow the obscure, deliberately obtuse discussions the others delight in.  Yet the shabby intellectuals are drawn to her, and it’s only Oliveira who realises why:

There are metaphysical rivers, she swims in them like that swallow swimming in the air, spinning madly around a belfry, letting herself drop so that she can rise up all the better with the swoop.  I describe and define and desire those rivers, but she swims in them.  I look for them, find them, observe them from the bridge, but she swims in them.  And she doesn’t know it, any more than the swallow.
p.96, Section 21 (Pantheon Books, 1966)

Sadly, this isn’t enough for the enigmatic Argentinian, and their love slowly begins to disintegrate.  The return to his home country is both an attempt to move on from this relationship and a hidden hope that he’ll find La Maga again, something which Cortázar plays with a little by making Oliveira fall in with an old friend, Traveler, and his wife, Talita – who seem very close to doppelgängers of La Maga and Oliveira himself…

At this point, those of you who have read Hopscotch will probably be wondering when I’m going to mention the elephant in the room (and quite a pachyderm it is, too).  In itself, Cortázar’s description of Oliveira’s travels and travails makes for an excellent novel, yet that’s barely half the story.  You see, the central premise of Hopscotch is that there are (at least) two ways to read it – you can either start at the beginning, going from section one to fifty-six in a 350-page novel, or you can (to quote a group of wise men) jump around.  There are a further 99 sections included after the end of the main story, which will make little sense if you simply read them in numerical order.  However, if you follow the order given at the start of the book, what happens is that you will read the same novel, but a hugely expanded version, with two-hundred extra pages…

You may wonder whether it’s worth it if it’s essentially the same story, and that’s certainly a valid point.  Many readers will struggle with the extra sections, particularly when they add little to the progress of the main plot.  However, the extra effort does make a difference, enhancing the level of detail of the story, as the writer (along with one of his fictional writers) explains:

The novel that interests us is not one that places characters in a situation, but rather one that puts the situation in the characters.  By means of this the latter cease to be characters and become people.  There is a kind of extrapolation through which they jump out at us, or we at them.  Kafka’s K. has the same name as his reader, or vice versa. (p.478, Section 115)

These ‘extra’ sections, then, actually turn out to be integral parts of the whole text, leaving those who decide to take the straight-and-narrow path in the dark at times.

There are several places where taking the hopscotch route through the book adds to the reading experience.  One of these is the encounter Oliveira has with an old man involved in a traffic accident.  When he decides, on a whim, to visit him in hospital (even though he’s a complete stranger), he discovers that the man lying in the bed is none other than Paul Morelli, an obscure existential writer venerated by the Serpent Club, a man whose writing is littered throughout the pages of the supplementary sections.  His reflections on the meaning of life, and the events following the hospital visit, form a major part of Oliveira’s experiences – if you only go the short way round, I’m not even sure Morelli is mentioned at all…

The second major effect of the extra chapters comes at the turning point of the novel, a time of literal and metaphorical darkness.  From chapter 28 to chapter 29 is merely the turn of a page; for those who choose to follow the suggested path, however, a much longer, more varied route awaits, one in which  Oliveira begins to go off the rails and where we see him begin a new relationship with a woman who is only mentioned in passing in the main story.  By the time we return to the main text, having taken perhaps fifty pages to make that leap from one side of the piece of paper to the other, weeks have passed, and the reader feels just as exhausted by the effort as our Argentinian friend.  It might sound like a tangent, a distraction from the real book, but in truth if you haven’t made the effort to look around, you haven’t really read Hopscotch.

And yet, there’s more…  Quite apart from the philosophical issues complicating matters, Cortázar’s novel is also a feast for readers with a love for linguistic complexity.  The writer uses a vast array of styles, partly due to his love for including texts (both real and fictional) by other writers, partly because of the large number of different points of view, both first- and third-person.  Some of the earliest sections have a dizzying, frantic style, reminding me of some of the breathless, manic speeches in Kerouac’s On the Road; others drift along, interspersed with jazz lyrics.  There’s even a section where the reader is lost within a few lines, failing to find any sense in the text – until they realise that the chapter consists of two texts on alternating lines.  The first is a trashy historical novel La Maga has been reading; the second reflects Oliveira’s thoughts as he flicks through it…

Which would all mean nothing in English without a decent translator, and decent is certainly underselling the man charged with bringing this chaos into English, a certain Gregory Rabassa.  You will probably know the name from his work on Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I would say that this is perhaps an even greater achievement.  Not only does he manage to create this vast array of different voices, he also has to deal with some rather tricky Joycean nonsense:

As soon as he began to amalate the noeme, the clemise began to smother her and they fell into hydromuries, into savage ambonies, into exasperating sustales.  Each time that he tried to relamate the harincops, he became entangled in a whining grimate and had to face up to envulsioning the novalisk, feeling how little by little the arnees would spejune, were becoming peltronated, redoblated, until they were stretched out like the ergomanine trimalciate which drops a few filures of cariaconce. (p.373, Section 68)

Rubbish?  Perhaps, but there’s a strict sense of structure underlying the nonsense words.  When I typed out those few sentences and checked for errors, something I thought would be rather tricky, it was easy for me to find them, even in the made-up words.  This is just one example of how there’s always a method to Cortázar’s madness, and how Rabassa is able to make the English version sound just as crazy, with not a drop more or less of insanity 😉

So, should you read it?  Of course, you should 🙂  But how?  My recommendation would be to approach it rather differently to how I tried it.  It would be fascinating to read the ‘normal’ story first, give yourself a few weeks to recover, and then attack the hopscotch route, as I suspect comparing the two versions would enhance your enjoyment of the novel.  Sadly, I didn’t have time to try that this time around, but that’s what I hope to do when I get to the inevitable reread.  Of course, it’s really up to you how you read it, and what you make of it, as Uncle Julio (in the guise of Morelli) explains:

“Who cares,” Morelli said.  “You can read my book any way you want to.  Liber Fulguralis, mantic pages, and that’s how it goes.  The most I do is set it up the way I would like to reread it.  And in the worst of cases, if they do make a mistake, it might just turn out perfect.” (p.556, Section 154)

If we take Morelli (or Cortázar) at his word, this throws up an intriguing notion.  Perhaps there’s an even better way to approach Hopscotch, a hidden, perfect reading, just waiting to be found by the adventurous reader.  Sadly, I’m a little too busy right now to spend time hunting for it – but if anyone does find it, please let me know 🙂

7 thoughts on “‘Hopscotch’ by Julio Cortázar (Review)

  1. Great review Tony – I have a copy that was loaned to me a couple of years back and it’s been sitting on the shelf intimidating me ever since. But you’ve given me a strong sense of what it’s about and what I’ll need to be able to read it, so when I have the time to commit I shall take the plunge! :0


  2. And was wondering when I was reading it in Spanish what all this gobbledygook meant. What was I missing to understand this intricate wordplay? Well, as Rabassa’s translation shows, it really was just skilfully crafted glossolalia. Awesome review, makes me want to reread this seminal work.


    1. The Untranslated – Reading it in Spanish must have been… an experience 😉 It’s certainly worth another try, but I’ll leave that for a few years now. Thanks for the comment 🙂


  3. Belated congrats on capturing some of the highs and lows, the successes and frustrations to be found as a Cortazarian “active reader” of this novel. I owe it a reread–perhaps in the non-hopscotch manner next time just for a change of pace–but I love the idea of it as a cerebral fun house. Spot on!


    1. Richard – Thanks 🙂 Certainly not the easiest of reads, but definitely worthwhile (something to remember as I peruse the newly released Booker International longlist with its easy reading section!).


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