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.

Walser’s Jakob von Gunten

I first read about Robert Walser in a collection of literary criticism by J.M. Coetzee called “Inner Workings” (you can find the piece online here). Coetzee’s favourable appraisal of two Walser novels – “Jakob von Gunten” and “The Robber” – compelled me to seek out the former, since according to Coetzee it was the more major of the two. I was also intrigued by its premise: an enigmatic adolescent’s experience at a school for servants, captured in journal entries. I couldn’t find the book in any Toronto bookstores, the library had Reference Only copies, and for reasons entirely without principle I’ve never ordered a book online. While visiting New York last February over Reading Week, I walked into an excellent bookstore in Soho called McNally Jackson where I found the translation of “Jakob von Gunten” on which Coetzee based his review, along with several other Walser titles. After finishing the book, I re-read Coetzee’s review as well as the introduction by the translator, Christopher Middleton. Both men offer illuminating interpretations and explications.

The book begins with the title character’s arrival to the Benjementa institute, a school for servants in an unnamed city that, according to Coetzee, bears obvious resemblances to Berlin (Walser himself attended such a school after moving to Berlin from Switzerland). The novel has no plot in the conventional sense. It consists, instead, of Jakob’s impressions of the school, the city outside its walls, his schoolmates, and the Principle and Principleless, Herr Benjementa and his sister, Fraulein Benjementa. From the outset, Jakob is convinced that the school is a swindle: the classrooms are “sparsely equipped” and the teachers don’t teach but lie asleep “in a room specially arranged for their repose.” There’s just one textbook that the students read from titled “What Is The Aim Of Benjementa’s Boys’ School?” Whatever prosperity and notoriety the institute once enjoyed is traceable only in the portraits of “a great number of boys who attended the school during a previous year.” Jakob still believes there’s something special and marvelous in store for him inside the impenetrable “inner chambers” of the Benjementa institute, where the principle and his sister retire at night (what he inevitably finds there is not as marvelous or grandiose as he expected, but no less absurd).

Jakob focuses much of his descriptive energies on his schoolmate Kraus. Unlike Jakob, who frequently taunts the principle and his peers, sleeps in, smokes cigarettes, breaks the rules, and wanders around the city in search of experiences (in one scene that possesses a vague eroticism reminiscent of Kafka, he flirts with a Polish hostess in a depraved establishment), Kraus is a paragon of servitude and obedience. Jakob pays him the underhanded compliments of being prideful and self-righteous as well. Jakob constantly extols Kraus’ virtues, but there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of derision to it – it’s pseudo-esteem. Like many of the characters in the book, Kraus is a target of ridicule. When it comes to self-analysis, Jakob is just as ruthless as he is with others. He doesn’t try to disguise his fickleness or some of his more cruel impulses. As Coetzee incisively puts it, he is “confident that candour will disarm all criticism, but [does] not really [care] if it does not.”

Apparently Kafka was a fan of Walser’s fictions and Coetzee goes further to suggest that Walser’s influence can be detected in Kafka’s work. Both writers delight in revealing vestiges of the bestial beneath the civilized veneer of human beings (a flash of teeth, for instance, or a sudden violent glare). As the book reaches its climax, the traditional power roles of instructor-pupil are reversed, and Jakob holds the fates of the Benjementas in his hands – or at least they think he does. The pleasures of the book, for me, are in the aimless and playful quality of Jakob’s journal entries. Both can be attributed to the book’s conceit – that it’s an adolescent’s journal – which creates the illusion of extemporization and liberates Walser from the chores of plot. Jakob’s playfulness is tinged with malice, however, and for that reason all the more complicated.