Julio Cortázar - Rayuela [aka Hopscotch (en), Игра в классики (ru)]

2021-01-13 @Literature

I’ll comment on Julio Cortazar’s magnum opus Rayuela, which I’ve now been reading for the second time along with all those optional chapters (more below).

First off, I read it in the original - in Spanish. However fantastic you might find a translation, consider the original to augment the value by something like another 30%.

I’ll thus continue to refer to the work as Rayuela, and not Hopscotch, the English title. Consider it pedantic, but I also find ‘Hopscotch’ sounding plain ugly. And the Russian title, don’t even get me started …

To proceed … I can easily designate Rayuela as my top-ten favourite novel, if not possibly the top-ten favourite long work of fiction. It offers one of the highest reread values among any of the longest of works I’m familiar with.

Rayuela facilitates many reading approaches, surpassing the two predominant, denoted in the intro. I can imagine the following plausible ways to enjoy the work:

  1. Consecutively read through chapter 56 (the ‘formal’ chapters, about two-thirds of the bulk).
  2. All 155 (including the ‘optional’) chapters read in the non-sequential order designated by the author.
  3. Chapters read in any random order, having preferably completed order 1 or 2.
  4. Any chapter or subset read individually, having preferably completed order 1 or 2.

Actually, even if you haven’t gone through one of the official reads, any narrative obscurity or incongruity need hardly impact the value you derive regardless of what subsection you choose to explore. I’ve not read many works of such varied potential.

Such unparalleled reading flexibility stems from the heavy micro-reading coefficient. But more specifically, you can enjoy sections of the novel at the narrative level, as an ultra-quality specimen of modernist prose, as a divulgation of literature/fine art/music, or as a set of academic (or pseudo-academic) essays.

Many of the chapters can be read individually as modernist short stories with their unique characteristics. In fact, similar to my strategy with short story collections, I’ve kept comprehensive notes relating to all remarkable chapters, denoting favourites, an approach I rarely employ so rigidly with the traditional ‘cohesive’ novels.

You can appreciate the novel at the level of 1) what is written and 2) how it’s written. You’ll find mounds of literary techniques employed, some traditional, some modernist, some highly experimental, some plain extravagant:

Speaking of Jazz, the novel employs abundant allusions or references to music, fine art, literature, philosophy, cinema. It helps to be at least superficially exposed to these for increased appreciation. Alternatively, it fosters great opportunity for learning and research.

Much of the primary narrative proceeds like a Ulyssean journey of a very compact sense of space and time.

Just as the meta-chapters and the characters ponder the sense and discontinuity of reality, the events likewise tend to erupt in entirely unprecedented ways.

Characters lay around a cramped, obscure studio and ponder existentialism, nihilism, art and culture over dozens of pages, while sipping on mate, coffee, caña and vodka. One of the longest chapters presents a seemingly endless interchange from opposite windows across an alley.

The protagonist spends one section in aimless street wanderings (like Leopold Bloom). At one point he spontaneously attends an awkward, first-recital concert, and then accompanies the deranged performer in an even awkwarder aftermath. Once he spends an evening with vagrants around the bonfire.

In one of those ‘What??’ moments (which are plentiful, though you should pay them no mind), an optional chapter narrates a child’s experience with a worm and an anthill.

A substantial portion of the novel also exhibits the quotidian: the mundane repeatedly chewed, reprocessed, meditated.

I tried reading Rayuela some seven-eight years back, but found myself way out of my league. Then I quickly discovered that plenty of native speakers of Spanish find it equally inaccessible.

Now I see it not so much as a language issue, but experience (or lack thereof) with modernist prose. Having already read Joyce’s minor works, much of Cortazar’s short story material, and a bit of T S Eliot, I found myself far more equipped. It actually makes all the difference.

It’s not your 19th century Victorian novel, although something like Moby Dick of that same period, likewise transcends beyond the specs we normally expect.

In any case, this is something far beyond the ‘traditional’. It’s even been labeled an ‘antinovel’. Don’t know about that, but I’ll call it a phenomenal piece of work.

Questions, comments? Connect.