Thursday, 12 February 2009

Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch is a lot of fun to read. Originally published, in Spanish as Rayuela, in 1963, it appeared in Great Britain in 1967. It's part of that period of experimentation that saw Gabriel Garcia Marquez bring out his early tours-de-force but it's a very different kind of novel from One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It's an experimental novel. There are two ways to read it. Either go straight through to page 349 or read in a prescribed order the chapters that include the 'expendable chapters' that continue to page 564. I chose the first. One chapter even has lines from two separate narratives interspersed with one another, an impossible situation that made me skip forward a chapter.

Most of the novel is straightforward in its delivery but the characters are not and the essence of the story is to do with Horatio Oliveira's search for a holistic way of life. In Paris, in the first half of the book, he is involved with a fey Paraguayan named La Maga. He is then forced - we believe - to leave France, whereupon he returns to Buenos Aires.

Here he hitches up with an old friend, Traveler, and his wife, Talita. He also seems to get back into synch with an old girlfriend, Gekrepten. Everything shifts back, in Argentina, from a bohemian Paris lifestyle to the cruder, more mundane realities of day-to-day existence. He's got to make a living, for a start, whereas in Paris he seemed to move from one airy contemplation to the next, not worrying about where the money for his next packet of Gauloises would come from.

It was not always smooth sailing, to be sure. But Oliveira (it's a Portuguese name) is driven by alternative views and expends his energies in ways that are overtly unconventional. The world view of the protagonist synchs nicely with the book's alternative bent so that we are saturated by a feeling of lightness that derives its value from seeing the world through different eyes.

Oliveira's unconventional ways mean that, once back home, he will come up against the realities of others. At 40-plus, he's no longer a young man. But the age is relevant too because it means that he has already developed decided attitudes. In fact he dosen't really care if he is in conflict with others. Indeed, he seems to welcome if not precipitate conflict.

There's a lot of scope for comedy in this recipe, and Cortazar, who wrote the story 'Blow-Up' which was the basis for Michaelangelo Antonioni's famous film, revels in comedic action. Unfortunately, you won't easily find any other books by this author in book shops, and will need to rely on alternative sources, such as online secondhand agglomerators.

When Oliveira's attempt to achieve a holistic experience of life fail hilariously in the final chapters, we're launched into a kind of Gonzo world where the main character sits in the most uneasy possible attitude in relation to those who surround him. It's refreshing to meet another exponent - independently developed - of Gonzo.

Julio Cortazar, the first Gonzo novelist? Perhaps. But Henry Miller is surely an inspiration.

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