The Electronic Labyrinth


Read in a linear fashion, Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch (1966) is a novel of 155 chapters in three sections: "From the Other Side," "From This Side," and "From Diverse Sides" (subtitled "Expendable Chapters"). It has no table of contents, but rather a "Table of Instructions." There, we learn that two approved readings of the book are possible: from Chapter 1 through 56 "in a normal fashion" (i), or from Chapter 73 to Chapter 1 to... well, wherever the chapters lead. Each has a numeric indicator of the subsequent chapter following its terminal sentence. In this way, we do not know which chapter to expect next until it is time to actually read it.

The "normal" reading path encompasses the first two sections (349 of the 564 pages). It ends with "three garish little stars" which, the instructions tell us, "stand for the words The End" (i). In case the adjective "garish" and the slightly pejorative use of "normal" to describe the reading have not already put us off, we are subsequently told that we "may ignore what follows with a clear conscience" (i). Since "what follows" is an entire section (consisting of one-third of the book) we are unlikely to enthusiastically accept this reading.

It would appear, then, that the second reading is favoured. This is the path which creates a hypertext of Hopscotch, and which gives the book a structure worthy of its name. Starting somewhere in the middle of the text, the reading path returns immediately to chapter one, then to two, then jumps dramatically to 116, before returning to safe haven at three. Chapters from the "normal" linear order alternate fairly regularly with those from the third section for the first third of the path. Then, there is an extended sequence of later chapters (22 in a row) before the pendulum motion is resumed. By this time, we have read the chapter bound last between the covers (155) and so must fully realize that this reading will not cater to any of our expectations.

It is a commonplace that readers often cheat the plot of a book by jumping to the final pages to see "how things turn out." Nothing is gained by such a stratagem here. Yet Cortázar has provided us with a "cheat." The instruction page lists the sections in order of occurrence, supposedly "in case of confusion or forgetfulness" (i), though one wonders. This seems a sop to simple-minded readers without bookmarks, or perhaps indicates a lack of nerve on the part of the author himself. Or is it something more? Perhaps Cortázar is daring us to peek at the end of the list, to see how things turn out, structurally speaking. I will not reveal the author's secret here, though readers who still wish to "cheat" may turn to a related node.

Cortázar's structural conceit might have seemed preposterous to readers of 1963, expecting a linear narrative. However, it eminently suits the subject matter of the novel. The protagonist, Horacio Oliveira, is a self-styled writer in the bohemian Paris of the 1950s, stumbling from party to party, wrapped in a cocoon of clever talk and alcohol. He loses a lover, La Maga, and, appreciating her more now that she is absent, returns to his native Buenos Aires to continue his picaresque adventures. The emotionally charged, jazz-infused language whirls about the narrative centre of each chapter in a manner which is only enhanced by the pendulum swing of the chapters themselves. This drunkard's walk also accurately reflects Oliveira's pursuits--both romantic and intellectual. The protagonist realizes quite early in the path that "this whole ABC of my life was a painful bit of stupidity" (12). This realization is linked with La Maga. He soon explicitly states that a linear reading would not suit his own life with the remark that "pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75 and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed" (379). This immediately leads us (as readers) to consider which chapters of Hopscotch might be required for a "complete" reading, an accurate and full portrait of Oliveira.

The richness of allusions to the novel's structure contribute to the power of the book. A brief mention of the "labyrinth of streets" where Oliveira and La Maga first met reminds us that we first met them in a labyrinth of another kind (32). The multi-valued nature of the character Ossip Gregorovius is reflected in his biography, reproduced as Chapter 65. It mentions his multiple mothers; he "has three, depending on type of drunkenness" (368). Or, perhaps, depending on which chapters are read.

The game of hopscotch is developed as a conceit, but only late in the novel. We first encounter the word in a potent scene; it is used to describe the protagonist's confused love for La Maga as "that crazy hopscotch" (95). The theme develops as a metaphor for reaching Heaven from Earth. The variations on the children's game are described as "spiral hopscotch, rectangular hopscotch, fantasy hopscotch, not played very often" (214). We might imagine ourselves in the last variety while working through Cortázar's novel. On the same page is a beautiful passage which makes this connection clear:

[W]hen practically no one has learned how to make the pebble climb into Heaven, childhood is over all of a sudden and you're into novels, into the anguish of the senseless divine trajectory, into the speculation about another Heaven that you have to learn to reach too.

After returning to Argentina, Oliveira shares lives with his doppelganger Traveler and Traveler's wife Talita, whom Oliveira attempts to remake in La Maga's image. This connection is made tangible by associating first Traveler (on page 305) and then Talita (314) with hopscotch. Chapters 54 and 56 are a dizzying panoply of action and words revolving about the hopscotch image. Oliveira attempts to attain "the last square, the centre of the mandala" and is successful, if only for a fleeting moment (321).

Hopscotch might be seen as Oliveira's own loose-leaf notebook. Although we know him to be a writer, we are never given any indication of what he writes. The text we hold in our hands would fill that gap. However, there are many indications in the book that its true author may be Morelli, a writer idolized by Oliveira's bohemian circle of friends. Several chapters are titled "Morelliana" (71, 82, 94, 105, 112, 115, 137, 145, 151); these are practically the only chapters with titles. They are short, first-person accounts, presumably in Morelli's hand. Chapter 107, more explicitly titled "Written by Morelli in the hospital" (461), attests to this.

But even here there is a contradiction. Chapter 115, though titled "Morelliana," looks at Morelli in the third person. The appearance of Morelli as a character in Hopscotch is problematic. "You can read my book any way you want to," Morelli says (556).

In the final analysis, then, it is not so important which (fictional) author we ascribe Hopscotch to, but rather that all possible combinations of writing and reading and the attribution thereof are open for discussion.

For more, see Hopscotch as a Hyperbook and Structural Experiments in Hopscotch.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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