Thursday 13 May 2010

Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar (Review)

'Quizás vivir absurdamente para acabar con el absurdo, tirarse en si mismo con tal violencia que el salto acabara en los brazos de otro.' ('Maybe the answer is to live absurdly to do away with the absurd, to leap into oneself so violently that the leap will end up in another person's arms')

It would be fair to say that the essence of 'Rayuela' ('Hopscotch') lies in the above sentence. Published in 1963, Julio Cortázar's second novel (he'd already had an earlier stab at the longer narrative with 'Los Premios', ['The Awards'], published in 1960) displays the innovative techniques that swept through the world of Hispanic literature at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the next decade. This is the time of Cabrera Infante's 'Tres Tristes Tigres' ('Three Sad Tigers') - reviewed on this blog more than a year go - and Gabo's 'Cien Años de Soledad' ('One Hundred Years of Solitude'). With its convoluted plot and avantgarde approach 'Rayuela' soon joined the ranks of the aforementioned classics.

And at the centre of its success, both critical and commercial, is the author's intent on building up on the vast Hispanoamerican cultural canon and his idea of using creative fantasy, not as a challenge to realism, but as an alternative. It is the reason why I chose that quote to open my review.

The first element that greets the reader who comes to 'Rayuela' for the first time is that it belongs to that clutch of novels that are much talked about and whose significance much highlighted, yet a full explanation of the plot is hardly ever forthcoming. In this category we find 'Ulysses' by Joyce, 'A la Recherche de Temps Perdu' by Proust and 'Paradiso' by Lezama Lima. To avoid making the same mistake, let me break down the storyline from the outset. 'Rayuela' is a love tale.

Horacio Oliveira is an Argentinian based in Paris. There he meets 'La Maga', an Uruguayan expat who has a young child, Rocamadour. They start an on-off relationship which ends with Rocamadour's death (a masterclass on writing's "show, don't tell" golden rule). 'La Maga' allegedly returns to Uruguay (we only have Gregorovius's word for it) and Horacio goes back to Argentina where an old girlfriend of his, Gekrepten, is still waiting for him. In reality he begins to hang out with his childhood friend Traveler and his wife, Talita. In the latter he sees a reincarnation of 'La Maga' and this vision triggers off an emotional crisis.

That, in a nutshell, is 'Rayuela'. But of course there's a lot more. And this is the second element that surprises the reader.

First off, there's the structure. You can digest 'Rayuela' as a normal book from Chapter 1 to Chapter 56 and then read the 'alternative' chapters - called 'prescindibles' in Spanish - (from 57 to 155). In fact my copy has the order the reader ought to follow if they choose that option. At the end of each part and in brackets there's the chapter number that should come after, for instance after the second chapter comes the one-hundred sixteenth). Or you could ignore the alternative parts and just close the book after finishing Chapter 56. In which case you will be missing out on a huge chunk of metaphysical and surrealist analysis, part of what makes 'Rayuela' a classic.

Secondly, there're the levels at which this novel works. 'Rayuela' is a reflection on the contemporary literature of its time (specifically from the 1940s to the 1960s, although it's still relevant today) and the embodiment of such analysis. To achieve this, Cortázar uses Oliveira's inner voice as well as the investigations of one Dr Morelli, a philosopher with whom Horacio and his friends are obsessed. The author is also far from interested in catering to that archetypical reader whose sole purpose is to find out what's going to happen at the end of the book. To him this type of passiveness is damaging to literature. This is the reason why many people consider 'Rayuela' a strenuous read. I found it seducing, dramatic, deep and cheeky in equal measure. At no time did I feel patronised or mocked. And humour plays a fundamental part in keeping the reader hooked.

The 'alternative' chapters, the philosophical musings (the 'ergo' from the phrase 'cogito ergo sum' has lost its meaning, Chapter 2), the 'gíglico' language (Chapter 68), the intentional misspelling of words with 'h' in Spanish (it's a mute consonant, Chapter 69) and the appearance of the same letter in words where it doesn't belong (Chapter 19) all show a writer displaying a high degree of facetiousness. Cortázar himself said once that without the humour 'this book would probably be unbearable, as it's the case with many Latin American novels that shipwreck in themselves, crushed and destroyed by earnestness. I don't even want to think of the passengers on board.'

Finally, along with the humour in the novel, there's another element that makes 'Rayuela' a compelling read: the music. And specifically jazz. Whilst in Paris, Horacio is part of a gang, broadly speaking, who call themselves The Club. They spend most of their time discussing philosophy, literature and music. Jazz becomes their elixir of life. Records are played and changed, strong opinions are voiced (Dizzy Gillespie, for instance, is rubbish, Bessie Smith is superb). At times the novel's pace feels like a piece by Dave Brubeck: meditative and with a syncopated beat. Some other times, the mood is more Ornette Colman: free, improvised and unshackled. Precisely the combination I look for in a novel that comes preceded by so much fanfare.

Must some books be written? Apparently for Julio Cortázar the answer seemed to be yes. In an old interview he said that 'if I hadn't written "Rayuela", I would have thrown myself in the Seine'. Fortunately for us, instead of jumping into the famous French river he leaped into himself and as a result we got a classic.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music', to be published on Sunday 16th May at 10am (GMT)


  1. Fascinating review - this is a writer that I certainly want to read a lot more of - as I only know some of his short stories - sounds a really interesting text in so many ways - what exactly does giglico language mean?? and does he read well enough in english translation ( although I should really tackle the work in spanish i know!!)

  2. I'm absolutely blown away by Latin American literature, particularly those earlier works. My first foray into Latin Am lit was with Gabo and Borges. It was my first experience with magical realism, and I was just stunned by the majesty of it, the brilliant originality. Cortazar definitely sounds like one of those authors I need to add to my list. Thanks for the fab review!

  3. Wow, what an intriguing review of what I suspect is an intriguing book. Thanks. Must read. I'm off to Amazon.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful review, I need to read this for I have not done so. Have you read Garcia Marquez's "Memorias de mis putas tristes?" I was about to purchase it and I thought perhaps you had read it and reviewed it.

  5. I studied this book in a grad school lit course about the novels of "The [Latin American literary] Boom." The title of my term paper, now used as a supplemental course text (hehe), came from this very book; "Negro Smell: Negative Characterizations of Blacks in the Novels of 'The Boom'." I took serious offense to the fact that La Maga's rapist (and admittedly, I took serious offense to most things at that point in my life), in a country with a scant black population (Argentina), was identified as such because of his "negro smell." Considering the author's love of jazz, I found this particular inclusion to be ignorantly gratuitous at best and blatantly racist at worst. Unfortunately, I let that small issue cloud my appreciation of the novel as a whole, so I'm open to reading it again.

    In other news, not exactly a merger, but it's a start:

    Thanks for the intellectual stimulation, Sir Cubano.

  6. Thanks for your comments.

    Fly Brother, I not only took offence at that scene but also at what Cortazar calls 'lector-hembra' (female reader). To him, this is the passive reader to which I alluded in my review.

    My reaction to the passage you mentioned was similar to yours, but then I remembered that it was La Maga speaking and also there was always the suggestion that the incident never happened and she was trying to impress Gregorovius (in fact, Oliveira mentions that at some point in the novel).

    Cortazar later explained that his definition of 'lector-hembra' should not be taken as a snipe against women but was merely a phrase he used at some point in his career and he dropped it afterwards. In terms of race, the further south you go in South America the more complex racial relationships become. The African presence in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay is not as heavily felt as in other countries of the Latin Diaspora like Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia. So, misconceptions do exist and prejudices abound.

    Thanks a lot for your comment because it highlights an aspect of the novel little explored.

    Greetings from London.

  7. I actually read this book, Cuban, and I absolutely loved it. Of course, I read its English translation, so I'm sure I missed out on quite a bit of this and that... with a translation this inevitably happens. Still, I remember being so drawn into the book, the words, the absolutely mesmerizing description... it was an amazing read. And so is your review. I've come to depend on your blog for a good movie and book review. You do have such high taste, and the eye and mind of an excellent viewer and reader. Makes for good reading for me, too! Thank you, as always, Cuban!


  8. Very intriguing review Cubano. Gabo is one of my favorite authors but I typically enjoy Latin American woman authors more for many of the issues that you and Fly Bro have addressed. Cortazar sounds complex indeed.

  9. I am rescued by you said in your superlative essay.."too much earnestness is a crusher".
    Yet I trust your review and the amazing amount of knowledge you display. Toe in the water, I wonder if I have the talent to submerge in this vast pool..brrr..I think I'll try!!

  10. I'm sorry but I can't think of any other way to put my reaction to this but Oh. My. God. For the way you write this, and for what you write of.

    At this point I think that there is so much excellence in the world, most of which I know nothing of, that it is pointless for me to try and add my tiny bit. This is not as defeatist as it sounds - just a recognition of all that is good and clever.

    You have done a masterful job of presenting this book, Cuban, and having some idea of its complexity, I am in even greater admiration of your ability to sort it out for the rest of us.

    I laughed out loud at the quote from Cortázar. Brilliant.

  11. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  12. London,
    Yo soy admiradora incondicional de Cortazar. Me parece sencillamente genial y he leido cuentos de el pero no Rayuela. En Cuba, cuando al fin pude conseguirla me encontraba ya en un estado de 'ostine' que no pude leerla y a los pocos meses me fui y tuve que dejarla, por mucho que no queria.
    Aqui la compre y me espera en el librero, junto con otros libros que compro compulsivamente y tienen que esperar porque tengo primero que leerme los que tengo en la lista de la Maestria.
    De mas esta decirte, es una maravilla leer esto, como siempre, buenisimo. Ahora voy a leer lo que escribirte de mi otro libro pendiente: Tres Tristes Tigres, ese en Cuba JAMAS lo vi, jeje.

  13. por cierto, has hecho reseña alguna de Borges? Mira que ese muerde. Ahora me estoy leyendo Ficciones. No commments, otro clasico.

  14. Thank you CiL. Another well thought and articulate review and another book for my Must Read list.

  15. I just wanted to stop and say a hello to you ....



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