Analysis of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch

Hopscotch is not only Julio Cortázar’s most celebrated literary achievement, it stands alongside Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as one of the most important and influential novels of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s. Referring to it as a single novel, however, is misleading, as Cortázar (1914–84) himself explains via an audacious “Table of Instructions” that precedes the opening chapter: “In its own way, this book consists of many books, but two books above all. The first can be read in a normal fashion and it ends with Chapter 56. The second should be read by beginning with Chapter 73.”

Hopscotch is thus two novels—and perhaps many more—in one, the first to be read straight through, in the traditional, linear fashion and the second emerging by reading the chapters out of sequence, according to the author’s instruction. Though this type of structural, and thus narrative, conceit is perhaps more readily digested by 21st-century readers, having been familiarized with the postmodern literary experiments of the 1960s and beyond, to the public that initially received Hopscotch it was an outrageous risk that earned both the book and its author immediate international fame and infamy.

In the first reading, the book is divided into two main sections, “From the Other Side” and “From This Side,” with a third, “From Diverse Sides,” that the author claims the reader “may ignore . . . with a clean conscience.” The protagonist of Hopscotch is the bohemian Horacio Oliveira, a writer and Argentinean expatriate living in Paris, heartsick over the dissolution of his relationship with his estranged lover, the beautiful La Maga. As the novel opens, Oliveira is shown for the lost soul he has become: drifting through the streets of Paris, searching in vain for a sight of La Maga, tortured by his memory of her. He spends much of his time with his circle of friends, known as the Snake Club— intellectuals, failed artists, and discontents like himself, with strong appetites for jazz, art, metaphysics, and self-indulgence—though his engagement with them offers him little clarity or peace. Haunted by time and memory, and by his own failings, Oliveira is unable to reconcile the pieces of his past and present into a unified whole.

In the second section, “From This Side,” Oliveira has returned to Buenos Aires, by way of deportation, and has taken up residence with a former girlfriend, Gekrepten, though he is no closer to resolving his grief over the loss of La Maga. Indeed, his obsessions begin to have dire psychological and real-life consequences: He falls in with an old friend, Traveler, and his wife, Talita, in whom he comes to see first remembrances and, then, the reincarnation of his lost love. In the resulting and escalating tension—which sees the three working together at a local circus and, later, living under the same roof, that of an insane asylum purchased by the Travelers’ employer—Oliveira’s fixation takes him, literally, to the edge of suicide: perched on a windowsill, contemplating jumping, while Traveler and Talita look on from the street below, standing on the chalk outline of a hopscotch board. Thus ends the first reading of the text.

However, although the method of reading this first novel is indeed linear, the narrative itself is far from straightforward, alternating between first-person and third-person chapters—the first person, Oliveira’s, in the present tense, the third person in the past. Consequently Cortázar develops character through a process both of aggregation and juxtaposition, the chapters not always directly prefiguring or responding to one another and shifting in time, space, and voice. This technique is significant in developing the dominant themes of the book: Oliveira is a man fragmented, a modern figuration of the mythological Janus, the twofaced Roman god of gateways, of beginnings and endings. Oliveira likewise has a face in the uncertain future and a face in the disorienting past, and as a result he finds no unifying sense of the present or the self. In this regard, the first reading of the book perhaps prepares the reader, both structurally and thematically, for the supposed disjunction of the second.

Interestingly, though, the second reading, despite its seemingly disparate structure, proves in fact a far richer, more personal and introspective text than the first. The Oliveira of the second reading, before the discordant Janus, has become a Hamlet figure whose contemplations of being and not being seem more philosophical than psychological. This change is due, in part, to an important situational difference: As the second reading opens, Oliveira is recuperating—from his strained mental state, or perhaps from a failed suicide attempt, or from both—under the care of Gekrepten, Traveler, and Talita. This Oliveira, in contrast to the first, reflects on not only suffering but on the ability of art and, in particular, of language to heal. In other words, the Oliveira of the second reading is revealed as a man searching for, and perhaps even hopeful for, the possibility of recovery.

The metaphysical focus of the second reading is furthered by the recurrent referencing of another character: the enigmatic Morelli, a writer and intellectual whose philosophies, particularly of narrative, seem to resemble both those of Oliveira, if he is the author of these pages, and of Cortázar himself. The Morelli passages— many of them, apparently, taken directly from his works—link fundamental questions of time, memory, and consciousness—questions that plague Oliveira in the first reading and which he intellectually and aggressively pursues in the second—with theories of narrative. Indeed, Morelli argues for a new kind of literary art, a “narrative that will act as a coagulant of experiences,” which will create, in turn, a new kind of man by creating a new kind of reader, making him “an accomplice, a traveling companion.” Thus the meta-physical becomes the metafictional, and the kind of novel argued for becomes the one in the reader’s hands.

But Cortázar is an artist who prefers provocation to pronouncement, and Oliveira’s search in the second reading remains ultimately, and fittingly, unresolved: The concluding two chapters of the reading refer back to each other ad infinitum, effectively leaving the reader inside the labyrinth. In the final analysis, Hopscotch, in true Cortázar fashion, offers no definitive or delineating solutions or conclusions, only possibility.

Alonso, Carlos J. Julio Cortázar: New Readings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Peavler, Terry J. Julio Cortázar. Twayne’s World Author Series 816. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Standish, Peter. Understanding Julio Cortázar. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Yovanovich, Gordana. Julio Cortázar’s Character Mosaic: Reading the Longer Fiction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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