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“There were new permissions in the air, and old hierarchies had softened, had become ripe for toppling,” wrote Susan Sontag in her 1996 piece “Thirty Years Later,” looking back on the cultural landscape mapped out in her first essay collection. It was, she concluded, a “mythical era.”
The elegiac tone of Sontag’s retrospective is characteristic of most modern reflections on the 60s. By now, the decade has become the locus of an intense cultural nostalgia, a yearning to recapture the youthful enthusiasm that inspired such diverse movements as Beat and Psychedelic “Happenings,” New Wave cinema, and the political dissidence that exploded in May 1968. Part of this longing has to do with the sense of a missed moment: failing to generate a coherent intellectual program, the spontaneous activism of the American Left eventually dissolved into stagflation and Vietnam. In Latin America, a similar trajectory was under way, as the 70s transformed student-movements’ revolutionary energies into Pinochet’s military rule and Castro’s communism. The question for many artists at the time thus became how to probe the breach between the rich creative promise of the period and what it had actually become.
This unspoken tension lies at the heart of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar’s novel “Hopscotch,” one of the most beautiful, complex portraits we have of the idealism and subsequent disillusionment of that decade. Cortázar—a literary heavyweight in Latin America, associated with the prolific Boom period of the 60s and 70s—wrote “Hopscotch” in 1963, after his move to France to escape dictator Juan Domingo Perón, and its Left Bank influences are clear. In stunningly tactile prose, the novel follows pseudo-autobiographical protagonist Horacio Oliveira, also an Argentinean expatriate, through his nights of jazz, cigarette smoke, and intellectual conversation in Paris with a group of friends dubbed the “Serpent Club.”
What makes “Hopscotch” worth returning to, more than anything else, is simply the language itself. The words, rich with sensuous description, overflow their narrative bounds; winding sentences, propelled by commas, curl into perfect metaphors. The reader experiences the glow of a cigarette “slowly sketching out the shapes of his insomnia,” a passing moment as “putting down an empty glass on the table,” light as a “dove in the hands of a madman.” (For the sleek rendering of Cortázar’s surrealistic, reference-laden brand of introspection, the English reader is indebted to translator Gregory Rabassa.)
It’s a curious bit of authorial self-sabotage though, for as he witnessed the paralyzing effects of theory over action, Cortázar grew deeply suspicious of such a passive appreciation of words. In one of his early short stories, a character in a detective novel murders his reader as he sits quietly in a green velvet armchair flipping the pages. In “Hopscotch,” the pleasures of a linear plot are mocked in a substantial third section subtitled “Expendable Chapters,” the literary equivalent of a DVD bonus disc. This segment features additional scenes, stream-of-consciousness monologues, an eclectic collection of quotations, a list of acknowledgements (including everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to Gilgamesh), and something called “Morelliana”—dense metaphysical excerpts from the Serpent Club’s favorite philosopher, Morelli, whose authorial pronouncements often make him a stand-in for Cortázar himself.
Cortázar’s demands on the reader’s engagement are perhaps most obvious, however, in the novel’s structure. “Hopscotch” can be read either linearly, from Chapter 1 through Chapter 155, or it can be tackled in the order suggested by the fanciful “Table of Instructions” provided at the beginning of the book, which sends the reader “hopscotching” from one chapter to another based on the loosest of associations. Such “make your own adventure”-style plotting can come off as familiar—even gimmicky—now that the approach has been co-opted by a subset of experiment-driven postmodern writers. Yet it speaks to Cortázar’s larger ambition to introduce a little anarchy into our reverence to literary tradition and to words, “those made-up pimps.”
Happily, these narrative games don’t slide into mere linguistic exercises. The thanks for this is due largely to the playfulness of the characters, who speak in slangy “Gliglish” and meet in the self-proclaimed “cemetery of language.” Oliveira’s lover La Maga enters like a light breeze: her intuitive connections to the things around her serve as a foil for the often laughably cerebral shoptalk of the others. “She picked up a leaf from the edge of the sidewalk and spoke to it for a while, moved it along the palm of her hand, put it rightside up and upside down, stroked it, and finally she took off the leafy part and left the veins exposed, a delicate green ghost was reflected against her skin,” writes Cortázar. When La Maga disappears, a despairing Oliveira returns to Buenos Aires to track her down.
Though Cortázar’s story “The Devil’s Drool” famously inspired Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 “Blowup,” it’s another Antonioni film—“L’avventura”—that best mirrors the enigmatic circles in which Oliveira moves. In that movie, the presumable storyline of a woman going missing seems to be forgotten by everyone in the scenes that follow; similarly, La Maga’s absence doesn’t give rise to the conventional narrative arc. Oliveira half-heartedly looks for her, but his restlessness has much deeper roots. Like so much literature of the 60s, “Hopscotch” is—at its core—about a more metaphysical search. “It was about that time I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses,” Cortázar writes.
Indeed, in Cortázar’s hands, all the possible consolations to which his characters turn—“vodka and Kantian categories,” love or political action—inevitably become only “tranquilizers against any too sharp coagulation of reality.” All individual choices are colored with the pigments of despair; all action comes to seem only a futile bulwark against ultimate insanity, or suicide, or conformity. Reading the book Cortázar’s way traps one in a final loop between two random chapters. “Sometimes I am convinced that the triangle is another name for stupidity, that eight times eight is madness or a dog,” utters one of Oliveira’s friends, regressing into nonsensical nihilism.
But there’s a reason why even the gentleman-poet Pablo Neruda was moved to remark, quite seriously, that “anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed.” Cortázar’s hope, given us via Morelli, was to “attempt a work which may seem alien or antagonistic to the time and history surrounding it, and which nonetheless includes it, explains it, and in the last analysis orients it towards a transcendence within whose limits man is waiting.” No light task. The ultimate success of “Hopscotch” lies in the cock-eyed bravery of its attempt.
—Staff writer Jessica A. Sequeira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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