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Hopscotching To 100: An Appreciation Of Julio Cortázar

An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.
Getty Images
An informal monument to Julio Cortázar on the streets of Buenos Aires.

First thing I noticed on the cover was his mouth, which was half open, midlaugh. Next, his teeth; not the best set I'd ever seen. After that, of course, his pronounced unibrow — thick and equally unbecoming. There was the cat, too, posted on the windowsill. Its eyes were dead set on the playful man with the camera and the mouth and the teeth and bushy eyebrow. All this and the words Save Twilight. I thumbed through the little book some and paid for it — cost me about a dollar at the used book shop. I didn't know I was about to be introduced to an author so intelligent and inventive, so able to draw me in with his words. (Or that he'd named the cat on the cover Theodor W. Adorno, after the German sociologist and philosopher.)

This week marks 100 years since the birth of Julio Cortázar, the Argentine novelist and short story writer. Although people pay less attention to his poetry, it too was exceptional, imbued with his great love for music, history and art. Cortázar remains one of the most revered writers of the past several decades, and also — naturally — among the most emulated. Through the years, his distinctive prose style has spawned scores of copycats.

Born in Belgium in 1914, Cortázar settled with his family in Argentina after World War I. There, he was educated and began taking steps toward what would become a career in literature. In 1947, he published his first story, "Casa tomada" ("House Taken Over"), in a magazine edited by Jorge Luis Borges. He moved to Paris, finding work as an interpreter and translator — and it was in Paris that he hit his stride, publishing his first novel, The Winners, in 1960.

But Cortázar's second novel, Hopscotch, is his masterpiece.It's an open-ended story made up of 155 episodic chapters, and in it, Cortázar invites the reader to participate in a game of sorts, where time is a blur and entire sections of the book are "expendable" — the reader being exhorted to skip chapters and reread others. Its peculiar nature, in essence a story of love and loss, has earned Hopscotcha reputation as one of the most innovative works to come out of any place, any time.

Along with Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortázar was a prominent figure in the Latin American boom of the '60s and '70s. It was the era that brought us some of the most influential works of the Latin American canon, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Time of the Hero. While much of that period was steeped in political turmoil, it was also a kind of renaissance — a time where many writers and critics from around Latin America were beginning to gain recognition in America and Europe.

As for short stories, Cortázar did much to raise the bar, challenging norms and breaking the rules of traditional storytelling. Many of his stories and sketches, in fact, read like hallucinations, muddying the waters between reality and fantasy; his characters often seem to straddle alternate worlds. Take "Axolotl," in which a man turns into a salamander and watches the outside world through the aquarium glass. Or "Letter to a Young Lady in Paris," one of his most striking tales. It's a suicide note of a kind: While it starts off sweetly enough — with a man agreeing to move in with his girlfriend — it takes a turn for the horrific as the man starts to vomit up rabbits, one after the other. Some of his fellow boom writers worked the realms of magical realism — but Cortázar walked in entirely different territory.

He was also an amateur jazz musician, who once said he "played the trumpet as a relief." His obvious passion for the instrument turns up in his work, in the improvisational techniques and the many references to jazz players.

I remember it so clearly, standing in that bookshop all those years ago, killing time on a lunch break. To this day, that tiny book — and Cortázar's poetry in general — just resonates. There's a subtle beauty to it that I've never been able to articulate, like the rhythm of a dream, but real and raw and chock full of fire. Of all his works, it's what I come back to the most.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter:@itsjuanlove.

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