Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969

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Julio Cortázar was a major figure in what became known as the “boom” period in Latin American literature. A small group of writers, among them Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina, Alejo Carpentier from Cuba, Mario Vargas Llosa from Peru, José Donoso from Chile, Gabriel García Marquez from Colombia, and Carlos Fuentes from Mexico brought Latin American literature to international prominence within a span of less than thirty years in a literary flowering that had not been matched in Spanish literature since the “Siglo de Oro,” the golden seventeenth century.

Hopscotch, Cortázar’s second and most influential, best-known work, may well have had more of an impact on Latin American literary history than any other novel of the “boom” period because of its revolutionary and iconoclastic structure. It quickly became a best seller in many languages, and it received more critical attention than any of Cortázar’s other works.

Cortázar’s work is a product of the two schools of writing that dominated Buenos Aires during the period between 1920 and 1940: the Florida group, with its European type of intellectualism, polished style, and universal themes; and the Boedo group, with its realistic scenes, urban themes, and unkempt style. Cortázar’s fiction, however, remains universal, dealing with the search for self-identity, the fantastic that lurks beyond everyday reality, and the relationship between human beings and society. For Cortázar, the fantastic represents an alteration in the laws that govern an ordered reality according to the Western notion of logic and reason. Cortázar initially creates realistic settings and conventional characters in familiar situations, but he soon traps the reader by strange, even nightmarish, events that threaten the established order.

In Hopscotch, the author revolutionizes the conventional modes of novelistic expression and strives for a new mode of consciousness. That is the real subject of the book. Cortázar demonstrates that the so-called real, concrete world is only one side of a coin whose opposing side is the fantastic, the repressed, the hidden, the taboo. Like the Surrealists, Cortázar ventures to the darker, ignored, and repressed side of human nature: obsessions, desires, and states between dream and wakefulness. He did not consider those darker dimensions to be pathological or abnormal; rather, he considered them to be pathways to a dimension of existence it is necessary to confront in order to appreciate life fully and in all its complexity.

In Hopscotch, Cortázar articulates his theory of the antinovel. Morelli, an old man, is a famous author, one read by the bohemians; his manuscript notes on the antinovel are discovered while he is in the hospital recovering from a car accident. It is Morelli who proposes to make the reader an accomplice in the creative process.

Cortázar not only challenges the traditional novelistic structure but also revolutionizes language. His aim is to destroy literary rhetoric and false, hollow, and outmoded forms. His use of imagery is richly varied. His characters play with words, engage in word games, and invent languages. Cortázar also makes unusual orthographic changes based on phonetics, joining words in strings to emphasize their vulgarity.

The author used structural and stylistic playfulness in his fiction as a means of saving himself from the crushing seriousness of the world he tried to influence through his writings. What is most striking about this novel’s form are the “expendable chapters” and the “Table of Instructions,” which tell the reader in what order to integrate the “expendable chapters” between those of the first two parts. The “expendable chapters” serve various functions. They form a running commentary on the construction of the novel and on the difficulties and contradictions inherent in it. They display the raw cultural material of the novel. Sometimes they suggest the frame of mind in which the novel might be read, at other times they intentionally catch readers off guard, jolting them out of their inertia. Cortázar often suggests inserting them contrapuntally, either to subvert the causality of the main narrative or to multiply its resonances.

The several, seemingly contradictory, endings to the novel (in some, Oliveira commits suicide, in others he does not) draw the reader into a bewildered but deep and critical commitment to the reading and involvement in the novel. Cortázar stresses that the reader is the most important character in the novel because without the reader there would be no novel. Since the reader is the re-creator of the action, Cortázar’s understanding of the relationship between character and action differs from the traditional view. In Hopscotch, the parts and whole are inseparable; not only are characters agents who help build the story, that story is also a part of their identity and only in their being does it become meaningful. The readers must assimilate the text and reconstruct a story on the basis of the author’s clues and their own sensitivity and knowledge. The story becomes meaningful only when it becomes part of the reader’s experience and understanding.

The reader is assisted in interpreting the novel by the characters who discuss Morelli’s aesthetics and thereby reveal the organizational principles of the novel. The novel is a variation on a number of experiences; the characters’ world shapes the reader’s larger world through the act of reading, and the characters function as guides to the reader. Cortázar demonstrates that an objective reality can be known to people only through their experience of it. The initial step in the process of understanding is the emotional and intuitive response; the reader completes the process by intellectually understanding the emotional effect. Cortázar’s aim is not merely to create interesting characters but to design a novel in which characters and action build each other. In this process, the reader becomes the central organizing factor.