Heartwood 1:5 – Hopscotch

by Julio Cortázar (1918 – 1984)
564 pgs. Pantheon Books, 1986
Originally published, 1963.  Trans. by Gregory Rabassa, 1966.

That this is not your typical novel is signaled by a prefatory note in a “Table of Instructions” stating that the book consists of many books and can be read in various ways.  We’ll return to this in a moment, but for now let’s explore a traditional reading.

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch begins by immersing the reader in the life of Argentinian writer Horacio Oliveira and his circle of fellow bohemians in Paris during the 1950s. This “club” of artists and intellectuals gathers in smoky rooms for lively discussions of art, literature, and philosophy while listening to jazz and drinking mate or booze. This is a book about characters and ideas much more than plot, though major events intrude in significant ways to upstage and undermine the characters’ aesthetic and cerebral preoccupations. The first section of the book ends with the group drifting apart after a tragic event and the disappearance of La Maga, the woman with whom Oliveira had been living. Oliveira decides to return home to Argentina, faintly hoping that he will find La Maga when he stops in her native Uruguay on his way home.

Upon his return to Buenos Aires, in the middle section of the book, Oliveira becomes enmeshed in the life of Traveler (his best friend of old), and his wife Talita. The renewed relationship gets off to a somewhat rocky start, and grows more contentious as Traveler gets a job for Horacio, working with him and his wife in a circus, and later at a mental hospital. This section ends in dramatic fashion as Oliveira compromises his relationship with the Travelers, becomes increasingly obsessed with the absent La Maga, and displays disconcertingly erratic behavior that leaves the reader wondering about Oliveira’s fate.

The conventional reading of the book ends here. According to Cortázar’s instructions, “the reader may ignore what follows with a clean conscience.” For those who continue, Cortázar provides a reading sequence that has the reader flipping through the book between new and previously read chapters. Many of the new chapters focus on Morelli, a character who was only mentioned in passing in the first section of the book. Morelli is an established author much esteemed by the club and this section includes discussions of literary style and aesthetics, including the idea that the writer – in an age that had recently given us the atom bomb – must destroy literature and reinvent it anew.

Though Cortázar suggests that the reader may disregard the last section of the book (or may begin first reading the book by following the sequence he provides), those who read the first two parts followed by the sequence will appreciate Cortázar’s brilliant reweaving of the previously encountered narrative with the new text.

This inventive novel’s principal interest is to trace Oliveira’s restless search for something like authenticity against a backdrop of inherited culture, the limits of reason, and seemingly unbridgeable interpersonal divides. The minimal plot only makes the book’s terrifically loaded images, metaphors and symbols all the more resonant (fine, if minor, examples include the Parisian marketplace where fishbowls hang in the sunlight, the fish “motionless birds in their round air”; and a perceptive examination of the chalk copies of museum masterpieces recreated daily by the city’s sidewalk artists). This is a book that will appeal to adventurous readers interested in an expanded storytelling palette, and it rewards both a traditional approach and that of readers who choose to hopscotch their way through it.


It is tempting to group Hopscotch with Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (or subsequent titles in his Dulouz saga), but this would tend to diminish the unique qualities of each of these interesting books. Still, if you have enjoyed any of these, you might also be interested in the others.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

2 thoughts on “Heartwood 1:5 – Hopscotch

  1. Pingback: Heartwood 2:4 – Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort | areadinglife.com

  2. Pingback: Heartwood Favorites – 14 from ’14 | areadinglife.com

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