Hopscotching Through the Giants of Latin American Literature: Julio Cortázar’s ‘Rayuela’
We’ve been recently ‘travelling’ through some areas of Latin America during our literary journey, thanks to the three book-club sessions held by Ciriaco Offeddu in March. The experience took us first to Argentina with Cortázar (‘Rayuela’/Hopscotch, 1963), then Peru with Vargas Llosa (‘La casa verde’/ The Green House, 1966) and Colombia with Márquez (‘Cien Años de Soledad’/ One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967).
The different Latin American literatures (we should use the plural, as there is not only one) saw a flourishing period in the Sixties: the authors experimented in terms of genres, language and form, also influenced by great writers like Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf. Regarding the themes – despite the economic expansion – injustice, political turmoil, dictatorships, poverty, disillusion towards the ruling class and the subsequent alienation were often and unavoidably part of these writers’ works. Thanks to the richness of these new and powerful literary expressions, Latin-American literature crossed its boundaries and became well-known worldwide.
Our first encounter during this recent book-club journey – as I like to call it, being an exploration into quite unknown territory that left us richer and wiser, as any journey should be – started with probably the most complex novel of the three: ‘Rayuela’ (1963), known in English as ‘Hoptscotch’, and written by the Argentinian author Julio Cortázar.
‘Hopscotch’ is a demanding and technically refined work, written with a great care for language and without an apparent regular structure. It can be read in different ways, either progressively or ‘hopscotching’ through the 56 chapters and the following third section, according to the instructions given by the author who, in any case, lets the reader decide and therefore ‘react’ to it. Cortazar believes, in the words of Morelli (an important character in the novel, a writer and literary critic that can be seen as the author’s alter ego), that the reader could become an ‘accomplice’ and a ‘travel companion, ‘…able to become a co-participant and co-sufferer of the experience through which the novelist is passing, at the same moment and in the same form.’
Regardless of the way one decides to approach the novel, the plot in itself is not complicated and the episodes are ultimately intertwined and connected. But this experimental work breaks any rules and provokes our thought, leaving us often perplexed while facing not only the lack of a set structure, but also the numerous academic quotations and references, the protagonist’s philosophical reflections, and his convoluted reasoning.
The novel revolves around the life experiences of Horacio Olivera, an Argentinian intellectual. We follow him to Paris in the 1950s, where he is an active member of a group of Bohemian intellectuals, ‘The Serpent Club’, and has a love story with La Maga. Once the couple split, he goes back to Buenos Aires, where he meets his old friend Traveler and Talita, Traveler’s wife. With them, he works first at a circus and then at a mental asylum. In this period of his life in Buenos Aires, during some moments of confusion, Horacio mistakes Talita for La Maga, the woman he would like to find again. The relationship between the three becomes tense due to Horacio’s sentimental confusion and mental instability. Horacio, conscious of his failures, threatens to kill himself.
We can read many themes in this novel that in itself can be seen as a great metaphor of life: chaos and order, the social role of art, human dissatisfaction and failure, individual versus society, and ultimately, solitude. In Horacio’s life, intellectual ruminations are more important than real actions: he is nostalgic of something that he cannot define. He would like to see a kind of unifying concept of life, but he knows that it is not possible and he himself is not able to create anything of real value. He also struggles to build relationships, feels isolated and cannot relate with people around him.
‘How we hate each other, without being aware that endearment is the current form of that hatred, and how the reason behind profound hatred is this excentration, the unbridgeable space between me and you, between this and that. All endearment is ontological clawing, yes, an attempt to seize the unseizable…’.
Like in the hopscotch game, Horacio moves from one square to another, alone, in search for the unattainable ‘Centre’.
This novel, in all its complexity, leaves us with some striking memories of its most beautiful passages. The ‘snapshot’ depicting the way in which la Maga finds out that her young child, Rocamadour, has passed away in his sleep has the stillness of a painting from Mannerism. It made me think of Pontormo’s ‘Deposition from the Cross’. The lack of perspective in this work makes the scene look unreal; desperation can be read in the faces of people surrounding Christ’s dead body and yet there is stillness, and the unnatural colours transport us in a dimension that is outside time and space, suspended, exactly like in this chapter. Horacio is the first one to discover the child’s death, and yet he cannot react or communicate with his lover. Instead, in the house that is slowly filling up with the friends of the Serpent Club, distracted in their inconsistent talking and heavy drinking Horacio, in turn, whispers to each of them what has happened. The conversation goes on while everyone, besides La Maga, is aware of the tragedy until – in a quiet dance of melancholy and silent mourning – we reach the climax when La Maga finally discovers the child’s motionless body in the bed. This chapter is so intense to make tragedy, paradoxically, almost look normal.
There are other passages of high lyricism and beautiful descriptions, especially when Horacio analyses the meaning of love. Here we find Cortázar’s romanticism, often enriched with words of sensuous imagery that are yet infused with irony:
‘I do not love you for you or for me or for the two of us together, I do not love you because my blood tells me to love you, I love you because you are not mine, because you are from the other side, from there where you invite me to jump and I cannot make the jump… So sad to listen to Horacio the cynic who wants a passport-love, a mountain pass-love, a key-love, a revolver-love, a love that will give him the thousand eyes of Argos, ubiquity, the silence out of which music is possible, the root of which a language can be woven… All you would have to do is submerge yourself in a glass of water like a Japanese flower and little by little coloured petals would begin to bloom, the bent forms would puff up, beauty would grow. Infinite giver, I do not know how to take, forgive me. You’re offering me an apple and I’ve left my teeth on the night-table.’
What also stroke me were the bizarre, unreal situations the protagonist find himself entangled in. Cortázar manages to push them to the extreme, so that the resulting image becomes surreal. There are cameos that are brief but strong presences in Horacio’s life, like the clocharde Emmanuèle, with whom – reaching the bottom of his desperation – he has a brief sexual experience; or Berthe Trépat and her disastrous piano concert after which, moved by a strange sense of human compassion, Horacio offers to take her home having to bear with her manic desperation.
In all these elaborate sketches of Horacio’s life, Cortázar never doubts his reader’s power of imagination, never says more than what it’s needed. Through his writing, he leaves behind signs that help us decode the underlying reality of events. Writing has a healing effect and the reader, together with the writer, uses its charms to interpret its spiritual power, like a shaman.
‘Writing is my mandala and at the same time going through it, inventing purification by purifying one’s self; the task of a poor white shaman in nylon socks.’