Reading Notes for "Casa tomada" ("House Taken Over")
this isn't exactly reading notes, but rather Chapter 46 of my book ms. Living Invention, or, The Way of Julio Cortazar. But it does offer my reading of "Casa tomada"
The brother and sister live alone in an ancestral home that they like "because, apart from its being old and spacious (in a day when old houses go down for a profitable auction of their construction materials), it kept the memories of great-grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our parents and the whole of childhood." The house, in which "eight people could have lived" and "not gotten in each others' way" is packed full of the past, like the condemned door in Petrone's hotel room. These siblings, brother and sister, are "easing into our forties with the unvoiced concept that the quiet, simple marriage of brother and sister was the indispensable end to a line established in this house by our grandparents."
They've shut-in themselves in just about every sense imaginable. "Irene turned down two suitors for no particular reason, and María Esther went and died on me before we could manage to get engaged." They refuse also to open their house to the social or economic forces that would take it apart - to convert it into an apartment house for example -- believing it better and more just to "topple it ourselves before it was too late." They never alter their routines, rising at the same time every day, taking their meals punctually at the same hour, in the same place, in the same way, every day. She knits all day, he works on his stamp collection, or reads, and once a week goes out to buy yarn and browse the bookstores (which never have anything new). They are completely closed off: from others, from society, from the future in the shape of variation from routine. Are they alive or dead? In some sense they are dead. For by shutting off the flows into their home they have created a closed system and a closed system, for systems theorists, is a dead system [ Ù 2, 9]. But even if their bodies are still alive, they seem doomed by resignation to march steadily toward the horizon of death.
Then something happens. They hear an unmistakable and inexplicable noise from the larger, rear section of the house (the dining room, living room, library and three large, empty bedrooms). "I hurled myself against the door before it was too late and shut it, leaned on it with the weight of my body; luckily, the key was on our side; moreover, I ran the great bolt into place, just to be safe." Just to be safe. He informs his sister, matter-of-factly, that "I had to shut the door to the passage. They've taken over the back part." Equally matter-of-factly, Irene accepts the information and decides simply "we'll have to live on this side." After a few painful days of adjustment, they conform to the restricted quarters and resume a somewhat thinner version of the routines they always engaged in. Then, same thing: "except for the consequences, it's nearly a matter of repeating the same scene over again." They hear voices on their side of the house and, now with nowhere to hide within the house, they flee, locking the door behind them and flinging the key down a sewer grate because "It wouldn't do to have some poor devil decide to go in and rob the house, at that hour and with the house taken over."
On the one hand, in comparison with Petrone and the many other characters in Cortázar who treat the eruption of the inexplicable like a pesky fly to be shooed or swatted, this brother and sister have at least the virtue of accepting the intrusion of the extraordinary into their routine lives [ Ù 43, 44, 90]. There are no hysterics, no conventional rationalizations, no dismissive explanations, no pretending it didn't happen. But, on the other hand, they aren't heroes either, of any sort. They don't enter into this movement of the extraordinary, but rather try to shut off the flow of its effects (by walling a door) and then, when this fails, flee its effects.
I won't pretend to know what they should have done. But I can't resist suggesting that there is something like a cause and effect relation, a kind of karma, between their numbed out, incestuously inward looking, routine lives and the invasion with a vengeance of the unforeseen and inexplicable into the very temple of their insularity. That their resigned response should be met with a further incursion comes as no surprise. I'm seeing the story like an inoculation - the way "Continuity of Parks" might immunize us against the dangers of passive, escapist reading taken to the level of vice [ Ù 32, 87]. Here is another sense in which Julio is writing, as Deleuze says of great authors in general, as a physician. In this case, I think the vice is attachment. They are attached to the past, attached to their routines, and, above all, attached to their house. Is it any wonder then that the wheel should turn and deprive them of all but each other.
This is not the moral of the story because I'm not speaking in moral terms; not speaking of the taking over of the house as retribution or punishment for the violation of some abstract moral code. Their life of attachment feels more like a mad attempt to violate a physical law like gravity. Falling from a building isn't punishment for leaping from its top, nor is getting burned punishment for touching a hot stove top. They are just effects flowing from causes. So what secret web of laws of cause and effect would I have to comprehend to see that this couple loses everything precisely because of the intensity of their attachment to everything? Perhaps it would be a web in which, for example, my compulsory attachment to a lump of sugar and to the superstitious belief that if it is dropped something bad will happen so that it must be recovered will cause such an intense expenditure of energy in the quest to grasp the elusive sugar that I'll be left clutching a sweet, sweaty mess "as if it were some sort of mean and sticky vengeance." It would be the web of laws that governs Julio's universe.
Julio Cortázar, "House Taken Over," Blow-Up and Other Stories , Trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), p. 9. In Spanish: "Casa tomada," Bestiario  Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), p. 107. For an introductory account of this story see Terry Peavler, Julio Cortázar (Boston: Twayne, 1990), pp. 25-26; and for a critical summary of scholarly interpretations of the story see Jaime Alazraki, Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), p. 72. However, for a significantly original reading not included in Alazraki's summary, see Brett Levinson, "Populism, Aesthetics, and Politics for Cortázar and for Us: Houses Taken Over," Latin American Literary Review 32.63 (Jan. - June 2004), pp. 99-112.