Happy, ergo futureless…
Julio Cortazar and I travelled together through South America. “Hopscotch,” Cortazar’s masterpiece, is an account of a man’s escape (and subsequent return) from Buenos Aires to a free-wheeling, bohemian existence in Paris. How fitting that a friend of mine lent it to me as I escaped from New York to live in Buenos Aires and travel through the southern half of South America.
The romance of backpacking is the shaving off of the excess, because everything you need or will need you must literally carry with you on your person. Hostels are full of abandoned novels because books, even paperbacks, are too heavy to cart along unless they happen to be the one you are reading at the time. Because I wanted to return “Hopscotch” to my friend, I had to carry it with me everywhere. So I just kept reading it – over and over.
Cortazar provides two ways for the 131 chapters in “Hopscotch” to be read: the first is to read chapters 1 through 56 in a chronological fashion, and ignore the remainder of the book; the second is to begin at chapter 73 and follow a given sequence (73-1-2-116-3-84, etc…) I read the book both ways. Then I read it from back to front. Then I read it from front to back, and underlined my favorite passages. I used the book as a desk and a pillow. On a night bus from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, I was so cold I spread it across my lap for insulation (I woke up to find that the elderly gentleman next to me had unpacked an enormous white knit sweater and spread it across my shoulders as I slept, shivering. Ah, human kindness.) When the book eventually broke clean in three pieces, I read whatever piece happened to be in my shoulder bag at the time, and scribbled arguments with the author in the margins. I lost pages 271 through 274, and the leaf containing pages 269 and 270 turned upside down. In between the pages were ticket stubs, postcards and Chilean sand. I abandoned the plan of returning the book to my friend, and just carried it with me because Cortazar and I were now in it together.
When I was sixteen and collected “favorites,” for a while my “favorite book” was Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” And in terms of postmodern accounts of the expatriate bohemian life in 1960s Paris, if “Tropic of Cancer” speaks to my 16 year-old self, “Hopscotch” speaks to my 27 year-old self.
Miller and Cortazar declare their differences in the opening pages of their respective novels: In “Tropic of Cancer,” Miller’s narrator loves himself: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Cortazar’s narrator, on the other hand, is over himself:
I had refused to pretend like normal bohemians that the chaos of my affairs and finances was some sort of higher spiritual order or something else with an equally disgusting label…
But Cortazar is not over Miller, or else his narrator would not be in Paris. If anything, his narrator would be envious of Miller’s narrator, just as he is envious of La Maga, his mistress. He judges himself for struggling as a bohemian as much as he judges those who do not struggle. Then he becomes irritated with himself for his endless, circular judging, “because it was always easier to think than to be,” and so he is in Paris. And, for many of the same reasons, I was in Buenos Aires.
The novel is full of clever wordplay and bibliowit, but Cortazar isn’t a skate-boarder showing off his tricks; his narrator is psychically trapped by his own intellectual and metaphysical acrobatics. And perhaps it was because we spent so much time together, and perhaps it was because of what psychologists term the “misattribution of arousal,” but my first reading was overwhelmed by the empathy and concern I felt for the, in many ways, deeply unsympathetic narrator. I wasn’t sure I could trust Cortazar to get him, and thus me, out of it.
And does Cortazar get his narrator out of it? Well, yes and no. It depends on how you read “Hopscotch” (and by that I mean both how you interpret the words, and the literal order in which you read them). At some points, we land on passages containing the lucidity of a conclusion. For example, Cortazar writes:
Underneath it all we could be what we are on the surface… Maybe to live absurdly in order to do away with the absurd…
But then the next chapter might take us to an old clipping from The Observer, London, entitled “Perils of the Zipper”:
The British Medical Journal speaks of a new type of accident that can befall boys. This accident is caused by the use of a zipper in place of buttons in trouser flies (our medical correspondent informs us).
In fact, Cortazar opens his novel with two passages: One is from “Spirit of the Bible and Universal Morals, Drawn from the Old and New Testaments.” The other is from Cesar Bruto’s book “What I Would Like to Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” (Chapter: “A St. Bernard Dog”).
This isn’t nihilism – it’s a game of hopscotch.
Or maybe I need to read it again.