Cortazar’s Hopscotch

“Hopscotch” asserts its eccentricity straightaway: it begins with a “Table of Instructions.” Here, Cortazar tells readers of the two available routes they can take when reading his novel. The first is to read it in a “normal fashion.” Readers begin at chapter 1 and continue straight through to chapter 56, the end, at which point they can – “with a clean conscience” – ignore the next section containing the “Expendable Chapters” (chapters 57 through 155, a total of 211 pages). The route for the second book is less normal. Readers are instructed to begin at chapter 73 and then to hopscotch around according to a list provided in the “Table of Instructions” (so readers don’t have to constantly flip back to the list, each chapter ends with a signpost indicating the next one in sequence). So it is that readers are presented with two books, each with its own route, one normal and the other not. I took the first one. If I re-read it, as I feel I’ll need to do if I want to acquire a satisfactory understanding of the book’s characters, themes and references, I’ll try the second.

The first book is divided into two sections, one set in Paris and the other in Buenos Aires. The protagonist of both is Horacio Oliveira, a harsh, intractable, painfully analytical man in his early forties. His Paris friends are a collection of expatriate intellectuals and artists who call themselves “the Serpent Club.” “The Serpent Club” gather in cramped squalid apartments to chain smoke Gauloises and drink mate or coffee, the former being Horacio’s stimulant of choice (he’s Argentinian after all). They have long, tedious discussions about art and philosophies both popular and esoteric while listening to – and sometimes deconstructing – be-bop music (they seem disinterested in politics). Horacio has a lover, La Maga, also a member of the club, though she has difficulty following their discussions and Horacio often laments having to stop and explain complex concepts to her.

Early in the novel, through Horacio’s interior monologue, we’re exposed to his paralytic way of thinking: “But behind all action there was a protest, because all doing meant leaving from in order to arrive at, or moving something so that it would be here and not there, or going into a house instead of not going in or instead of going into the one next door; in other words, every act entailed the admission of a lack, of something not yet done and which could have been done, the tacit protest in the face of continuous evidence of a lack, of a reduction, of the inadequacy of the present moment.” It’s important to note that what causes Horacio to come up with this opaque theorem on action vs. inaction is a trifling morning appointment he’s reminded of in bed. The passage is significant in that it foreshadows and colours a later event where Horacio chooses not to console La Maga after she suffers a tragedy. She disappears shortly thereafter. Horacio leaves Paris to search for her in her native Montevideo before returning to Buenos Aires, where he reunites with a childhood friend nicknamed Traveler whose wife, Talita, he confuses for his disappeared lover.

Why is Horacio obsessed by the inadequacy of the present moment? One explanation may be found near the end of the Paris section. Horacio is wandering around the rainy Paris night in search of the missing La Maga when his interior monologue gets stuck on the phrase kibbutz of desire: “Kibbutz; colony, settlement, taking root, the chosen place in which to raise the final tent, where you can walk out into the night and have your face washed by time, and join up with the world, with the Great Madness, with the Grand Stupidity, lay yourself bare to the crystallization of desire.” And later in the same chapter is a passage where Horacio explains one possible meaning of the book’s titular symbol. To paraphrase the first part: in the game of hopscotch, the goal of reaching the furthermost Heaven spot is clearly understood if not initially challenging for children to accomplish. Horacio continues: “[A]nd then one day you learn how to leave Earth and make the pebble climb up into Heaven […] the worst part of it is that precisely at that moment […] childhood is over all of a sudden and you’re into novels, into anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too.” If the kibbutz of desire is Horatio’s other Heaven, it remains elusive.

There are brilliant, heartbreaking scenes throughout. Through rambling interior monologue, or stream-of-consciousness, Cortazar has the amazing ability to stretch time, make it elastic. A single evening can drag on for pages and hold a treasure chest of revelations. The book is full of incessant wordplay and other narrative tricks – one chapter contains two concurrent narratives unfolding on odd numbered lines and even numbered lines respectively (it takes a moment to figure out there’s no continuity from line to line). As a character, Horacio is rather unsympathetic, but that doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to understand him.