Hopscotch Julio Cortázar
The following entry presents criticism on Cortázar's novel Rayuela (1963; Hopscotch). For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 3, 5, 10, 13, 15, 33, and 34.
The publication of Hopscotch in 1963—and its English translation three years later—confirmed Cortázar's reputation as a major figure in the Latin American literary "Boom" of the 1950s and 1960s and established him as a writer of international stature. Noted for its experimental structure, the novel contains three parts: two traditional narratives—the first set in Paris, the second in Buenos Aires—and a collection of fragments which can, if the reader so wishes, be incorporated into a second, more complex reading. Hopscotch explores traditional novelistic problems of love and death; casts an ironic eye on the existential anxieties of Horacio Oliveira, its alienated, postwar protagonist; and questions the rational foundation of the realist novel and Western civilization. However, Cortázar complicates and enriches these themes through metafictional play, exposing the process of story-telling, and inviting reader participation both in a postmodern literary game and in the fate of his characters.
Plot and Major Characters
The first two sections of Hopscotch, "From the Other Side," and "From This Side," form a complex but otherwise traditional narrative that can be read by a "passive" reader as the story of an Argentinean intellectual expatriate in Paris who returns disillusioned to Argentina. The third section, however, titled "From Diverse Sides," comprises seventy-five optional "Expendable Chapters." These segments, which often contradict the preceding chapter as they offer new perspectives and disturb the reader with abrupt changes in tone and content, encourage readers to critically examine their reactions to the text and thus pursue a more "active" and participatory reading. Oliveira, the narrator-protagonist, is a self-absorbed, aimless bohemian who belongs to the Serpent Club, a group of friends who spend long hours in the Latin Quarter of Paris listening to jazz records and discussing art, philosophy, and such literary hypotheses as Gregorovius' dictum "Paris is one big metaphor." The club members—Babs, Ronald, Etienne, Gregorovius, Ossip, Guy Monod, Perico, Pola, and La Maga—represent numerous countries and share Oliveira's rootless and fanciful attachment to the city. In the narrative of the first 56 chapters, Hopscotch chronicles Oliveira's intellectual quest for a vaguely defined Absolute, the "kibbutz of desire"—an idealistic combination of individuality and community. In contrast to Oliveira's unhappy longing is La Maga, a mysterious and haunting character who heightens Oliveira's sense of the absurd and suggests a more authentic means of interacting with reality. Scattered among the many chapters of discussion are a number of crucial events that determine Oliveira's destiny. His experiences in Paris, partly chosen, partly governed by chance, are described obliquely, often either implied or requiring reader inference. Oliveira meets Berthe Trépat, a concert pianist whose repertoire is obscure and whose small audience shrinks until only Oliveira is left. During another evening, Oliveira discovers the death of La Maga's child Rocamadour but says nothing to comfort La Maga, who later disappears. The ambiguity of her fate—did she leave Paris or drown herself in the Seine—plays an important role in the second part of the novel, for it questions whether La Maga's appearance in Buenos Aires is some sort of fantastic event or a symptom of Oliveira's insanity. In chapter 36 Oliveira has a sexual encounter on the banks of the Seine with an indigent woman, an event which precipitates his departure from Paris. In the second section of Hopscotch, Oliveira returns to Buenos Aires, where he rejoins his friends the Travelers, Manuel and Talita, and an old girlfriend, Gekrepten. In a long chapter reminiscent of Absurdist theater, Oliveira persuades Talita to cross a precarious hand-made bridge high above the street, simply to bring him some mate. Oliveira joins Manuel and Talita in a circus, but when the circus is sold so that its owner can purchase a psychiatric clinic, all three make abrupt career changes to become warders in the asylum, and Oliveira's own faint grasp on sanity is weakened. At the close of chapter 56, Oliveira is left debating whether or not to commit suicide by jumping from a window onto the grid of a hopscotch game below. In the alternative, second reading suggested by Cortázar's "Table of Instructions," the reader begins at chapter 73, then follows the traditional chapter sequence while "hopping" back and forth to the "expendable chapters" which form the third section of the novel. It is here, in chapter 60, that the "Morelliana" (the words of the fictional author Morelli) first appear, along with further disjointed fragments of narrative; newspaper and magazine cuttings from such diverse sources as Levi Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, L'Express, and the London Observer; and quotations from such writers as Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alban Berg, Octavio Paz. Morelli, a writer often read as Cortázar's double within the novel, is knocked down by a motor car; Oliveira subsequently gains access to the writer's papers, which then become the focus of much discussion in the Serpent Club. The presence of Morelli's writing in the second reading also complicates the reader's previously comfortable relationship with the narrative; Morelli blurs the line between writer and story, and his ideas become a commentary on Hopscotch itself. The "active" reading of Hopscotch leaves the novel unresolved, with the reader instructed to shuttle back and forth between chapter 58 and 131 indefinitely.
The controlling image in Hopscotch of a children's game, in which the goal is to move from Earth to Heaven, is an embodiment of Oliveira's quest for an accessible Absolute. The key theme and impetus of the traditional narrative in the first 56 chapters is Oliveira's sense of exclusion from an imagined state of grace and his attempts to find, as he calls it, a "kibbutz of desire," an idealized place of community and self-sufficiency. For Oliveira, La Maga represents such a state, and Oliveira tries to create his own version through encounters with strangers such as the pianist Berthe Trépat. Oliveira's sexual transgression with the clocharde Emmanuèle—a character whose indigence essentially excludes her from the nexus of Oliveira's desire—enables him to close his quest for the mythic "kibbutz," as he finds acceptance at society's lowest depth. Manuel, Oliveira's counterpart in Buenos Aires, shares with La Maga the status of Oliveira's "double" by which he can be defined, just as Buenos Aires will be determined by its semblance to Paris. Related to this is the theme of Argentinean national identity, Latin America's ambivalent attitude toward European culture, and especially toward literary culture. Allied to his critique of the Argentinean's cultural indebtedness to Europe is Cortázar's commentary on the failings of Western rationalism, including the traditionally lucid literary narrative that Hopscotch seeks to disrupt. The "second" and optional reading introduces problems of literary and linguistic theory, making Oliveira's quest part and parcel of a writing and reading strategy. Hopscotch thus becomes for the "active" reader a self-reflexive novel which problematizes its own authorship and raises the theme of the double or multiple articulation, for in this sense the "writing" is shown to be shared between Cortázar, Morelli, and the participant reader. Another major theme is madness and the individual's relation to society. Towards the conclusion of the second narrative, Oliveira kisses Talita, believing her to be La Maga. One of Manuel's options in response to Oliveira's act is to declare him insane; and Oliveira's sanity, as he is contemplating suicide at the novel's end, is questionable. As Steven Boldy has stated: madness assumes "several connotations in the novel, where Oliveira muses on the possibility of 'joining the world, the Great Madness.' In a mad world, to go mad is to be reconciled to reality and society, to be at one with its absurd or conventional laws. It is this acceptance, of which Oliveira has always before been incapable, that his long path has prepared him to embrace."
Many critics have praised Hopscotch's literary experimentalism and compared the novel to James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). While acknowledging Cortázar's debt to a more original work, commentators have found something new and more "decadent" in Cortázar's vision. Hopscotch has frequently been construed as a critique of Western rationalism, with scholars suggesting that the novel's passages of absurd humor and aimless philosophizing form a continuity with the Surrealist movement. Although some critics have been impressed by Cortázar's erudite display in Hopscotch—his knowledge of jazz, art, literature, and philosophy, as well as what they consider his conceptual tours de force—others have noted the danger of intimidating the reader. For example, the "philosophizing" in the Serpent Club has struck some critics as "tedious and verbose;" others have noted Cortázar's sensitive ear for the literary qualities of Argentinean common speech. The theme of trans-Atlantic cultural influence has been widely noted, and certain Latin American critics have focused on Cortázar's concern in Hopscotch with Argentinean national and cultural identity and the problem of exile and expatriation. For others, Oliveira's bohemian disaffiliation in Paris is a counterpart of his psychic alienation. Another set of scholars consider Hopscotch a major example of the postmodern novel, arguing that its metatextuality, its foregrounding of problems of reading and authorship, its discursive play, and its disruption of traditional narrative, all signal an important advance on the modernism of Joyce.