Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some Thoughts on Cortazar's "House Taken Over"

Cortazar’s tale tells the story of a brother and sister living in a house in Buenos Aires that has been in their family at least since their great-grandparents’ time, and in which they have lived all their lives. Both are in their forties and live a quiet life alone, the sister having never married and the brother’s fianceé having died before a marriage could be consummated. They subsist financially off of income from their farms, and the main activity of their day is dusting and cleaning the house, a task which is usually finished by eleven a.m. Irene (the sister) spends the remainder of the day knitting, while her unnamed brother (also the narrator) either watches her with adamant appreciation, or re-reads an old French novel from his library. Bland, aristocratic domesticity seems their unending lot, and while the text falls short of significantly implying any undue relationship beyond the filial (though I imagine this could be extruded with a certain amount of rigor and open-reading), they are content with one another’s dry companionship and unaspiring of any enlivening change. That is, until the first ‘take over’ takes place.

The house is rather evenly divided into two living segments. Upon entering, one moves through a vestibule and passes through a “wrought-iron gated door” to enter the atrium of the house, which consists of a living room, a bedroom on either side and, just before the second threshold, a corridor leading off to the left in which are found a kitchen and a bath. The space beyond the atrium, which contains the brother’s library, a dining room, and three additional bedrooms, is entered through an oak door, the massiveness of which the narrator doubly reminds us. The siblings do not venture beyond this door except in order to clean and for the brother to occasionally retrieve a volume from his library.

It is this second part of the house that is first ‘lost’ to the pair when the brother, having ventured to the kitchen to put a kettle on, hears a “muted and indistinct” sound behind the oaken door, that of “a chair being knocked over on to the carpet or the muffled buzzing of a conversation.” This description is curious, because the two varieties of sound are quite dissimilar, and unlikely to be alternative explanations for the same thing. Hearing another sounding considerably closer to the threshold, the brother quickly shuts and bolts the massive door, obviously in order to keep whatever is there from coming through. What is striking about this circumstance is that it is rather unremarkable to the man; he follows through with heating the kettle and bringing the mate out to his sister, at which point he gravely but unexcitedly tells her that “‘They’ve taken over the back part.’” From the sister’s reaction it is clear that “They” are known to her, and it is from her that we learn that Their sudden inhabitation means the back part of the house is no longer suitable for living in or venturing into.

Here ends the brief first part of the story, and here begins the time for a bit of exploration. We are told at the very beginning of the tale the sentimental value this house has for the siblings, being a place dear to ancestral and personal memory, but not much else is made of this fact. The narrator speculates, with some sense of fact, that he and his sister have not been able to consummate any marriage because of their duty to the place, to maintain it and ensure it is not unduly torn down and sold piecemeal by some undeserving inheritor, and he further suggests that they plan either to die there, or, “better yet…topple it” themselves. Due to the failure of the pair to provide a direct descendent who might trustworthily inherit the house, one of these outcomes is likely to occur; this gives us a possible origin of the invading Them: time’s relentless progression, death’s shuffling approach. This attribution is not entirely satisfying, however, as both brother and sister are said to be in their forties, which is rather young for us to assume the calculated hovering of some unsightly maleficence.

Cortazar inflicts the reader with a sort of Maeterlinckean blindness, leaving him to fill in the blankness of the intruder with whatever dread spectres his epistemological nerve can supply. This, despite the ostensibly non-supernatural bent of the tale. Brother and sister know and, without fear, comply with the implied demand that they must exit the house. They do not protest, or suggest a resistance; they do not even lament the sudden overtaking, instead abiding it and, once the rest of the house is just as subtly taken over in the second part, departing in resignation.

In the first take-over, the brother is separated from his books, which appear to be his only form of private entertainment, aside from watching Irene knit. Her knitting is likewise her primary occupation, and she seems to do it for its own sake. It is thus noteworthy that with the take-over of the main part of the house, she is unable to bring her yarn with her and is thereby divested of her knitting. When the brother points this out to her as they crowd in the entryway of the house, she lets what she is working on fall from her hands almost carelessly, without glancing at it.

It seems we can postulate no definite identity for the narrative force that drives the story to its own self-termination. Primary themes here are the impermanence of possession of property and self, the correlated necessity of loss, and the inevitability of one’s spatial and chronological excision. The story is concerned with limitation as it pertains both to agency and sovereignty; it is the strange force, the mutually exclusive Otherness, whose presence is for the most part only negatively manifest in the forcing-out of the characters, that takes over through a sort of stripping, an ousting by suggestion and mere entrance, rather than by force. The true subject of the story, if we may rely on the choice of title to point us to it, is the taken-over house; that is, the emptied, de-inhabited house, presenced-over by a non-humanness in an anti-habitation that enters, intrudes, from the back of the house and gradually insinuates its way forward. The story is weird, certainly, because of the indefiniteness of the intrusion, the agency-without-agent, but it is neither tragic nor horrifying because of the pathetic resignation of the siblings. There is something disturbing in this very disattachment, though, that lends a more subtly unsettling quality to the tale—a nihilism borne out of the siblings’ blasé response to their irrational displacement. Cortazar implies no bright future for the pair; instead, the final image we get is that of the silent, forbidding house, unknown occupants biding, as the brother locks it up and tosses the key in the sewer so that no hapless fellow might come upon to rob the place thus “taken over.” I’m tempted to say as a final word that I think this tale withholds too much that might help to give the plot a more compelling substance; but another part of me enjoys the true abyssal or radically negated quality of this subtly-crafted dispresence.

What exactly I was afraid to say I cannot tell, but I understood that once I began to talk about it to him it would become more definite and more horrible. Instinct told me that the less shape I gave that shadow the better for both of us. Sloane, To Walk the Night, 14.

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