Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch (1963)

This was definitely the biggest lacuna on my reading list in Latin American literature, and very possibly my biggest one period. I obtained a copy of it ages ago, but never got around to reading it. Probably a good thing; it might've been a bit much for me at the time. These days I'm better able to handle things like this. I feel like Garcia-Marquez-style magical realism dominates our anglophone perspective on the Latin American novel these days, but this--which is very definitely not that--is still hella important. Also, for whatever it's worth, it's Gregory Rabassa's first literary translation. Anyway, I read it. Boom.

"So what's it about, you damn creep?" Well, our protagonist is Horacio Oliveira, an Argentine bohemian-intellectual-type living in Paris. He basically listens to jazz and has bull sessions with his fellow intellectuals and a girlfriend (mistress? friend with benefits?) known as La Maga, and boy does THAT name call up unfortunate associations in our current political moment. Oog. A lot of this plays out in a way that's very reminiscent of scenes from a Godard movie like Breathless or Masculine Feminine.

This goes on for a while--a good while--until La Maga disappears and Oliveira has a crisis and moves back to Argentina where he takes up with an old girlfriend and spends time with his friend Traveler and Traveler's wife Talita. They all get jobs in a circus which then turn into jobs in a mental asylum and well that's about it, plotwise, in broad strokes.

If you know one thing about Hopscotch, it's probably that it's designed to be read non-linearly. There are 155 chapters, and Cortázar explains in a little prefatory note that you should either read it straight from one through fifty-six (which is more than half of the total; the later chapters are on the whole shorter, some very short) and stop there or jump around according to a prescribed order, ultimately encompassing the whole text. Naturally, that latter is what I did.

Now, this isn't actually as radical as it might seem. Those first fifty-six chapters really do comprise most of the story, and if you're reading the "complete" version, you're still reading them all in order; it's just that they're interleaved with the later ones. These includes quotes (real and fictive), philosophical musings, background on characters, and the odd plot strand that isn't fully explicated in the main body of text. I am vaguely reminded--in this way and no other--of Infinite Jest, in which the footnotes played a similar role.

So the question you might well ask: is there any actual purpose to structuring things like this? If I were to put the entire thing in a text file and cut and paste it in such a way that it followed the prescribed order, thus allowing one to read straight through like a regular book--would it actually make any difference to the reading experience? Well...as you know, I generally read books in ebook format, and Hopscotch is indeed thus available. I presume that the reader is presented with a hyperlink at the end of each section to the prescribed next one, for a smooth reading experience. But I went with the physical version, both because I still had it lying around and because I had the idea that the physical flipping action might be an integral part of the text. And, I think, this is basically right. I'm not saying you wouldn't get anything out of it reading it in e format, and neither am I saying that the act of flipping around is exactly mind-blowing, but in addition to being what the title derives from, it does provide a kind of syncopated jazzy feel which clearly is no accident--Cortázar was a big jazz enthusiast, is my understanding. If you're going to read an important, long-ish book like this in the first place, you might as well do it right.

Well, but what did I think of it? Boy, there's the question. There's no question, even in translation, that Cortázar was a virtuoso, and I do enjoy the avant-garde stylings on display here. It's true that I found it a little bit cold--Oliveira isn't exactly a likable character--but that's not a deal-breaker.  You can see a glimpse of what the author is up to in the sections about a fictional author named Morelli, who is concerned with pushing against the novel form and, as it were, out the other side, and on that level, it's undeniable that Cortázar succeeds.  But did I love it...?  Honestly, it's one of those books that I wouldn't feel comfortable giving less than five stars to, and it's certainly one I'll spend some time thinking about it. I wouldn't say it exactly resonates in my soul, but it would obviously reward deeper study, and I'll probably read more Cortázar sooner or later.


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