argentina has a lot to boast about. che and borges make falling in love with the place almost an unthinking instinct, even without ever having been there. a country that can produce the two of them is more than enough for me. but now i have a new reason to love argentina, and he comes in the form of yet another man of letters: julio cortázar.
earlier this year, while being a recluse in toronto, i read hopscotch, cortazar’s monumental masterpiece. i’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for some years now, but only recently was able to commit to reading it (it’s well over 500 pages). the novel is divided into three parts that are tied together by the protagonist, horacio oliveira: part I follows his experience abroad in paris with la maga and their friends, who call themselves “the club”; part II describes oliveira’s journey back to argentina and his relationship with his old friend, traveler, and his newly-wed wife, talita; while part III consists of a seemingly random collection of quotations, newspaper excerpts, and other tidbits of information and anecdotes.
cortázar writes in an episodic fashion, and the chapters brilliantly move with the syncopated rhythms of the jazz the characters are constantly listening to. the text also exhibits many styles, from stream-of-consciousness to switches in narration to joycean experimentalism and breaks in the narrative. moreover, cortázar desired to create an anti-static modern novel, one that would involve more opportunities for dynamic reader participation and to this end, it’s a kind of choose your own adventure book. as cortázar cautions us in the beginning, the novel “consists of many books, but two books above all”: you can read the novel linearly, from chapter 1 to 55, or you can start with chapter 73 and follow the numbers at the end of each chapter and “hopscotch” your way around the entire book (skipping chapter 55), which leaves the reader in an infinite loop between the final two chapters. i chose to do the latter.
the novel’s opening is marvelous; it is the reason why i picked this book up and determined to read it:
Would I find La Maga? Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de Seine to the arch leading into the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pont des Arts, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water. […] But now she would not be on the bridge. […] Oh, Maga, whenever I saw a woman who looked like you a clear, sharp pause would close in like a deafening silence, collapsing like a wet umbrella being closed. An umbrella, precisely. (3)
the beginning from chapter 73, i consider a prelude of sorts. it’s also fabulous:
Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes… To burn like this without surcease, to bear the inner burning coming on like fruit’s quick ripening, to be the pulse of a bonfire int his thicket of endless stone, walking through the nights of our life, obedient as our blood in its blind circuit. (383)
these two differing, yet phenomenally beautiful beginnings set the stage for the remainder of the novel. after this beginning, though, with high expectations, i found myself somewhat frustrated and annoyed with the way the book continued. it took me a while to get through the beginning zig-zag, the meandering introduction to the characters and their lives. by hopscotching around the book, the beginning traces activities of “the club”: slumming in paris, consuming inordinate amounts of alcohol, listening to jazz phonographs on dirty apartments floors and talking into the wee hours of the morning about the merits of one Satchmo song versus another, or elaborating about Morelli, a mysterious writer they are all obsessed with. i was put off not so much by the text or the language as by the lazy, idealistic, impractical, ungrounded-in-reality existence this group was living, their haphazard, piecemeal lives, the irritating irresponsibility and meaninglessness of what seemed like an extended, decadent adolescence. it reminded me of my own youth, not so much in what they did as in what they thought: the extreme seriousness with which we all took our circumstances and our angst, the deathly profundity of the books we read, the discrepancy between the ideas that seemed so earth-shatteringly important and the mendacity and banality of the suburban lives we all lived. am i being unduly harsh on my young self? probably, but it was undoubtedly an extremely self-indulgent time. and it was this self-indulgence i couldn’t stand to read about in these characters.
intermingled with all this are some rather incomprehensible blatherings from one of morelli’s books or journals. take, for example, the following:
Acceptance of the pebble and of Beta Centauri, from the pure-as-anodyne to the pure-as-excess. This man moves within the lowest and the highest of frequencies, deliberately disdaining those in between, that is to say, the current band of the human spiritual mass. Incapable of liquidating circumstances, he tries to turn his back on them; too inept to join those who struggle for their liquidation, he thinks therefore that this liquidation is probably a mere substitute for something else equally partial and intolerable, he moves off shrugging his shoulders… They do not know that he is also at the other extreme, the approach towards a summa that denies itself and goes threading off and hiding, or that the hunt has no end and that it will not even end with the man’s death, because his death will not be a death as in the intermediate band, in frequencies that are picked up by ears that listen to Siegfried’s funeral march. (386)
and that, well, is fairly characteristic of morelli’s writings. interspersed with his reflections are heartbreakingly beautiful insights, some very funny wit, and lilting strings of phrases; nonetheless, it’s mostly like the above, and it gets frustrating to read, to go round and round in ones head and seemingly get nowhere.
and then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t irritating anymore. it became marvelous. it was beautiful. the beginning, an adolescence of sorts of the novel itself, only heightens the profound loneliness and rootlessness that plagues oliveira as his grip on reality gradually unravels upon his return to argentina. the bits that comprise the third part enrich the main text and make one pause, consider, slow down in the reading. the characters, despite their annoying juvenile intellectualizing, are utterly convincing, and one becomes drawn into their world, their own bit of craziness, and their compassion for each other despite all the madness. and it is mad, the world they live in and construct for themselves.
both the first and second narratives rise to a gut-tightening climax. it’s fairly incredible, what cortázar does: in spite of the fact that the climactic moments build with their own suspenseful intensity, regardless of your foresight and knowledge into what will, inevitably, invariably, unavoidably happen; when the moment comes, it knocks you out like a strong force of wind, slamming the breath out from your chest.
i realize that i haven’t really said anything about what this book is about, but i really don’t have much else to say. make no mistake: this is not a book to be rushed through nor is it very accessible; it requires patience and a level of commitment that i rarely give to anything. i find that it’s exactly those books, however – the ones i have to give everything to, that force me to fight my way and battle it out – that are the most rewarding. rayuela is a breathtakingly beautiful novel. i want to leave it with this:
Maga, I was the hollow shape, you used to tremble, pure and free as a flame, a stream of quicksilver, like the first notes of a bird when dawn in breaking, and it’s nice to tell you all this in words that used to fascinate you because you had thought they didn’t exist outside of poetry, and that we had every right to use them. Where are you now, where will we be from today on, two points in an inexplicable universe, […] and all of this is drawing a picture, a pattern, something nonexistence like you and me, like two points lost in Paris that go from here to there, from there to here, drawing their picture putting on a dance for nobody, not even for themselves, an interminable pattern without any meaning. (196-97)