A Demanding Novel
by Julio Cortazar.
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. Pantheon. 564 pp. $6.95.
Julio Cortazar is a lanky, blue-eyed, boyish-looking man of fifty: a sort of engaging Jimmy Stewart of Latin-American letters. When he is not translating for UNESCO in Vienna, Bombay, or Paris, he will be found writing—on a rundown farm near Aix-en-Provence where the plumbing alternately freezes and grumbles—the most exciting fiction now being produced in the Spanish language. He has been absent for the last fifteen years from his native Argentina; he is a writer of the Exodus Generation, no longer capable of working within the stifling chauvinism, the provincial options, and the literary cannibalism of the real “down under”; the metaphysical Underground that is Spanish America.
Latin America has a schizophrenic culture. Nostalgia for the noble savage and eschatological yearning for the revolutionary man: who killed the Inca Atahualpa? And here comes Godot! Provincial attachment and cosmopolitan rootlessness: tequila vs. champagne. Extreme individualism and apocalyptic collectivism: Viva Zapata, and the Aztecs will rise again. A pride in anarchy and a profound subservience before power: the gaucho, Martin Fierro, makes his own law, but only El Señor Presidente can solve our problems. Captured within these conflicting absolutes, it is a humorless culture, never detached enough to see itself from the outside, from other perspectives.
Accordingly, the moving force of contemporary art and literature in Latin America is to come up for air. Poets and essayists like Octavio Paz and Jorge Luis Borges, artists like José Luis Cuevas and Roberto Matta, novelists like Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa—all are trying to develop a new vision of life as accident and variety, outside the monolithic demands of a static history and a fixed geography. They know that an artist's physical alienation may be necessary to his spiritual rootedness. They are trying to win for Latin America the experience of perspective won for North American letters by James, Stein, Fitzgerald, and the other great exiles—the escape from false alternatives, the achievement of synthesis. Hopscotch in great measure succeeds: it is the Latin-American equivalent of books like The Wings of the Dove and Tender is the Night.
I stress these factors because Hopscotch, acclaimed by the London Times Literary Supplement as the “first great novel of Spanish America,” has also been dismissed in certain quarters in New York as a mere literary trick, empty of significance, wilfully obscure, and monumentally boring. Hopscotch, to be sure, is a demanding novel, a novel that must be re-created as it is read. It is hard to tell where the book begins and where it ends; it is hard to tell who the narrator is. Time sequence, identity, plot—all are problematic in this novel about an Argentine exile in Paris (Oliveira) and his double, an Argentine who has never left Buenos Aires (and yet is named Traveler).
Thus it is true that Cortázar is playing games, but not, as Time's anonymous reviewer suspects, gratuitous games. He is risking his all while playing: his roots, his culture, his language, even, finally, his own identity. These are the stakes of the game in which Cortázar, a free man, a writer, proclaims to Latin America: “You are as I want to see you, not as you wish to be seen.” If it is natural that Time should not perceive this, it is more surprising that John Wain, writing in the New York Review of Books, should so completely miss the point that the totally invented world of Hopscotch is, precisely, the only world that can give significance to the human void between the abstract dualisms of Argentina in particular and Latin America in general.
Wain decides that Cortázar has written an anti-novel with one eye on his true public, the French literary avant-garde (does such a thing really exist?), who would surely disapprove of any linear, plotted, conventionally characterized novel. This is patently false. Cortázar is addressing himself to the humorless, schizophrenic sense of time and culture in Latin America and, far from winking at the Left Bank intelligentsia, he is slapping Latin-American readers out of their wits—with as much force and, I believe, greater imagination than the so-called Angry Young Men used on the English in their day. The fragmented structure of the novel is anything but gratuitous; it is an aspect of Cortázar's effort to consecrate the present, the instant which Latin Americans, caught as they are in Edens past and future, refuse to recognize and in which they refuse to live. It represents, in other words, a revolt against historical abstraction—the same revolt in which Cortázar's great contemporary, Octavio Paz, is engaged. This is the meaning of the “disjointed scenes” that so irritate Wain, and it is the reason for the openness of the book, its refusal to establish its own past or future, its origin or conclusion.
Within its perpetual present, Hopscotch can only be understood at the level of the fantastic, of which genre Cortázar is a past master (witness his as yet untranslated Bestiario, Final del Juego, Las Armas Secretas, and Historias de Cronopios y de Famas). Everything in Hopscotch is a ghostly double of itself: cities, characters, cultures, even the author himself. But in Latin America, fantasy is history. History as change does not exist; there is only the compulsive repetition of ritual acts. Like Borges, Cortázar tries to set Latin-American time into motion through the fantastic. Argentina, says Cortázar, has all the future before it, and this is the poorest of affluences: Latin America in a nutshell. Continually referred to the promises of the future, we can only respond with fictions if we are to nail down the present and feel ourselves alive.
Failure and void, then, but not as “a life so emptied of significance” that it cannot “engage the interest of a reader of novels” (Wain). No: this is the failure and void of Buster Keaton comedies. Oliveira's tragedy of emptiness in Hopscotch could be that of Camus's Mersault and Sartre's Roquentin: a perpetual rupture between l'espoir and la condition humaine. But where Malraux can convert tragedy into adventure, or Camus and Sartre can face the wilful nothingness of a fallen humanism, Cortázar, the Latin American, is forced to face nothingness before being anything. This is the comedy of Latin America. We have no Fall to cry over, because we have never risen: we are, to put it mildly and with a nod at the Left Bank, le néant pur.
In short, Hopscotch, in its depth of imagination and suggestion, in its maze of black mirrors, in its ironical potentiality-through-destruction of time and words, marks the true possibility of encounter between the Latin-American imagination and the contemporary world.