Author Archives: Stephen Luttrell

House Taken Over

In which a brother and sister find themselves in conflict with…something.

Originally titled “Casa Tomada”

By Julio Cortazar

Translated by Paul Blackburn

First published in 1951 (some sources give the initial publication date as 1946)

Anthologized in Blow-Up and Other Stories

This is a hard one to write about.

Here’s why: “House Taken Over” is a mood piece that’s only four pages long. Its plot is slight. It would be easy for me to ruin it by revealing too much, and “too much” in this case would be anything beyond the “In which…” statement above.  As a result, I’m forced to take a roundabout approach: I’m going to deal as much as possible with topics related to this story, but not the story itself.

We’ll begin with a picture. There’s a standard photo of Julio Cortazar that seems to accompany everything ever written about him. It’s the first image you’ll see in his Wikipedia entry, and a large version of it can be found here. It was taken in 1967, when Cortazar was 53.

In this shot, he radiates a kind of mildly-rumpled, middle-aged cool that has nothing to do with the world-wide wave of youth culture then engulfing the developed world. He has a private-eye air about him;  all he lacks is a fedora and a trenchcoat, and I get the impression that he’s holding those just outside of camera range.

Of course, Cortazar would’ve cautioned us about mistaking appearances for facts.  Certainly his stories are full of such warnings. He describes a world in which consensus reality is deceptive and identities are fluid. A man can visit the city aquarium, and remain there as an amphibian (“Axolotl”); a girl can exchange bodies with her double (“The Distances”); a person reading a murder mystery can become part of the novel’s plot (“Continuity of Parks”); and an accident victim can draw the attention of vengeful Aztec gods — perhaps (“The Night Face Up”).

Cortazar often comes across as a Argentinian combination of Rod Serling and Philip K. Dick. The barrier separating Cortazar’s stories from genre fiction is thin. One could say that the difference between popular fantasy stories and Cortazar’s work is the highly-polished writing of the latter; however, that would mean arguing that well-wrought prose can’t exist outside of so-called mainstream literature. The literary tastemakers who finally admitted Hammett, Chandler, HPL, and Dick to the canon would disagree, firmly.

In the end, Cortazar remains an exemplary storyteller, one who embeds philosophy in his work but doesn’t let it hijack his stories. He writes to entertain, and, despite what certain literary snobs have said about entertainers, they produced most of what we call Western literature from its beginnings up until about the last century or so.

After all, Homer‘s work has lasted to the present day not only for its high literary qualities, but also because people like stories about war and strange creatures.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are about heroes, gods, and monsters, not the ancient Greek equivalent of (say) Raymond Carver‘s overly-introspective and miserable characters.  After nearly 3000 years, the public’s taste for fantasy surely hasn’t changed in the slightest.

The topic of literary fantasy provides a natural segue to magic realism.  Simply put, a magic realist story is one in which fantastic elements are integrated into an otherwise realistic setting.  The movement became strongly associated with Latin American writers during the 20th century, and Cortazar, along with Borges, Bioy Casares, Marquez, Fuentes, and others, is lumped into the category of “magic realist authors.”

Interestingly, the most prominent magic realist, Borges, saw it as a capital mistake to confine magic realism to the Spanish-speaking world.  He insisted that it was far older than most critics recognized, and that the work of many English-language authors — such as ShakespeareColeridge, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville — would qualify for admission.

In addition to supposedly being a regional trend, magic realism has also been used as a way of designating stories as fantastic in a way that makes them acceptable to critics.  This is analogous to Kingsley Amis‘s famous rhymed complaint about the treatment of science fiction by the literary establishment:

SF’s no good!
They bellow ’til we’re deaf.
But this is good.
Well, then, it’s not SF!

Or, as Terry Pratchett once put it, magic realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.”

Again, however, we’re talking about the collective opinion of the critics. In contrast, the authors tended to be nowhere near as snobby.  For example, Borges and Bioy Casares loved detective stories, Poe, and HPL; Cortazar called himself a cinema-loving petit bourgeois.  Were I to meet any of them, I suspect they would seem more commonplace than they actually were.

In any case, Cortazar’s work is a perfect crash course in magic realism. The magic described in his works is so much of piece with the realism that their integration is seamless. For example, in “House Taken Over,” we get descriptions of how the dust settles on furniture in Buenos Aires, the constant clicking of knitting needles, and the enameled tiles in a vestibule. The details are all concrete and specific — cinematic, actually, a description that makes sense for a writer as movie-mad as Cortazar.  When the odd element finally arrives, its vagueness is striking in contrast to all of this specificity.  This makes the disturbance it causes all the greater.

I realize, however, that I’m verging on what I said I wouldn’t do: go into detail about this story. I suggest that you arrive at your own conclusions by getting a copy of Blow-Up and Other Stories and reading its contents slowly; actually, you should probably only read one story a day.  Cortazar’s work is rich, the literary equivalent of pate or caviar, and you wouldn’t want to wolf it down.