Sunday, April 24, 2022

House Taken Over (1946).

It's kind of amazing to realize just how many things we use without a proper understanding of them.  Take the case of Magical Realism, for example.  What on earth am I even talking about when I use that phrase in a sentence?  The plain fact is I'm not sure how many of us have even so much as a first clue.  It's got to be a genre of some kind, that much is clear.  If it weren't, then odds are even no one would even bother to use the term at all.  Some of the more adventurous sorts might venture as how they heard it came from somewhere in Latin America, wherever that is.  Whether or not such a statement is at all "fair", what can't be denied is the sentiment is bound to come from someone being no more than as honest as they know how.  Come to think of it, though, isn't it supposed to be like just some form of fantasy writing?  And didn't Disney try their hand at it with movies like Encanto?  The best reply I can think of for all of the hypothetical questions given above is that they each represent a given amount the truth, while still not ever managing to get as clear an outline of a vaster, more expansive countryside.

If you can bear to hang on for an annoying, abbreviated history lesson, the whole thing started as an out growth of several influences converging into something old that was new again (accent on the "was").  Magical Realism is best described as what happens when works of European Surrealism in general, and German Romanticism in particular is able make its way into the environs of Mexico and South America.  Where it was able to leave a considerable impact on a goodish number of impressionable, young, Latino minds.  Fellows like Jorge Luis Borges were able to find a moment to pick up translations of writers like Edgar Alan Poe and E.T.A. Hoffman in their spare time, and as they made their way through pages of the accumulated phantasmagoria of Europe and America, the gears of their imaginations just began to turn is all.  It's the same kind of phenomenon that happens in musical genres, such as Metal and Grunge, except this time there's no music to speak of, just words.  That and maybe a bit of painting here and there.  It's no lie to claim that Surrealism helped play a part in jump-starting the Latin American fantasist craze.  Painters like Dali and Magritte, in particular, were able to find a very receptive audience waiting for them in the hills of Columbia and the city streets of Brazil.  

What happened next is a process that has continued to play itself out across all cultures and nationalities.  It's more or less the exact same process that appears to happen every time an accumulative number of readers out there are to able pick up any quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, and find themselves converted into book nerds for life.  The specific details of how this plays out in real life is pretty simple.  You open the text in front of you, and then start to read.  If you're lucky, the text you've chosen to parse through is one of those genuine winners.  Something from the likes of Bradbury, Conan-Doyle, or Richard Matheson.  Any story that is told so well, in other words, that it is able to "set up shop" in your mind, and then you're hooked on storytelling for life.  It's one of those cases of a perfectly normal enough phenomena that is still nonetheless looked at somewhat askance.  It also never really stops such fandoms from gathering together over time, and that's what happened in city, suburban, and even country households all across South America.  The net result was a young population that grew up influenced by the best that European Romanticism had to offer.  Some of these fans, in turn, would grow up to be writers themselves one day, their imaginations have been kindled and nurtured by the collective legacy of popular Fantastic fiction and painting.

It's what allowed these later writers to give birth to what is now known as the Latin American Boom.  There seem to be at least five big names associated with this movement in Latino Letters.  We've already brought up Borges in this regard.  Others who followed in his wake include Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and then of course, there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Put them all together and we've got an assembled list of all the guys who used to scare the crap out of you during English 101 from high school to college.  All of which is to say that, yeah, maybe the Magical Realists are the type of author best encountered outside of the classroom.  That way there's no intimidation factor involved.  There's no greater kiss of death for a school of writing than having your class teacher spout off and on about how important Magical Realism is.  Instead, experience has taught me that the best way to get acquainted with all of this stuff is to have heard next to little of anything about it, and then just stumble across a good specimen of the genre while going about your normal routine.

The best sort of way to get acquainted with the work of the Magic Realists that I'm aware of is to be working your way through any half-way decent anthology of Fantastic fiction, and then stumble upon a story with curious, enticing titles, such "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings".  If just the marquee description is enough to get you interested, then trust me when I say the story that follows will be enough to set off a bomb in your mind, in the best way possible, of course.  Part of what makes this approach such a good icebreaker for the sub-genre is that it goes a lot farther towards helping the reader get a sense of just what type of story they're dealing with here.  A lot of the assistance comes down to the good instincts of helpful editors who somehow manage to have a knack for giving these stories their proper context.  It makes sense that you would place a story such as "The Library of Babel" somewhere within in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, because such an editorial choice just seems to show a proper awareness of what type of writing Magical Realism amounts to.

Another reason for championing such an approach is because that's kind of the way it happened for me.  It's been a while now, however.  So that means I can't recall with entire clarity just where I learned how to appreciate the work of Julio Cortazar.  I want to say it was a chance encounter on a website somewhere.  I think what happened is I was reading through a review of Antonioni's Blow-Up and the reviewer happened to mention that it was based off of an actual written short story.  So that was what got my interest, and how I found out about Cortazar.  If I had to detail what that was like, then the all I can say for the moment is that it was akin to stumbling upon a rich, yet overlooked country.  Like a cul-de-sac of vibrant wilderness hidden away by an otherwise blank mass of rock and mountainous terrain.  In other words, as some of you are no doubt thinking, it means I must have stumbled upon the literary equivalent of the Madrigal Stronghold.  To which I say, close, yet no dice.  Try going someplace weirder and far out there.  Let me put it you this way.  It was an interesting discovery, yet also no real surprise to find out Stephen King included Cortazar's Blow-Up: And Other Stories (the volume which incidentally contains the story we're about to examine here today) on his list of influential novels or anthology collections that have made a substantial contribution to the field of the Horror genre.  

It's a rather strong claim to make, and from a pretty heady source, when you stop and think about it.  King's endorsement almost manages to cast Cortazar in a whole, other, Latin American Gothic light.  The more you explore the work of this writer in particular, the easier it becomes to understand why King would find himself making such a judgement call.  At the same time, there is enough diversity in his output to make me think he's best described as a Magical Realist proper.  One who is capable of making a side contribution here and there to the Horror genre, in an occasional, off-handed, not really trying but succeeding anyhow sort of way.  It might be that there's this kind of borderland status to his work that makes it accessible to both kinds of writing at once.  In order to explain what I'm talking about, however, perhaps its best if we stop wasting time, and get to the main attraction.  The way to do that is to take a sample from Cortazar's work.  A short story known simply as, "House Taken Over".

 The Story.

There is a discovery to be made, if one is willing to take a chance.  The first part is knowing how to get there.  This beginning phase is relatively simple.  All the inquiring mind has to do is to decide whether or not it is willing to take some time out of a busy schedule, and escape from the regular phenomenon of streets, alleys, byways, and buildings that currently chooses to know itself by the name of Buenos Aires.  The city has stood as it is for some time now, though it didn't always know itself by its current incarnation.  It took a long, slow, time in making up its mind about how it should be now.  In theory, there is nothing that can or will prevent it from choosing to be something else in the future.  All that is it's own affair.  Those who still wish to make the discovery have their own minds to make up.  Is it worthwhile to throw off the phenomenon for a time, in order to look for something unexpected?

The majority will probably and forever say no.  A few may answer yes.  Those that do will have a road trip ahead of them in order to get there.  If anyone were to remove themselves from the collective hustle and bustle of the streets that call themselves Buenos Aires, and travel a minor distance or so away.  The likely traveler will soon find their way to those less populace places on the map that are seldom visited, even by the tourists who have long since grown tired of the official vacation bureau version of reality.  These are the towns and cul-de-sacs that may have predated the city making up its current frame of mind, or else they are mere off-shoots, the product of other minds deciding they would like to be somewhere else, and yet on the whole prefer the comfort of familiar surroundings.  The place we are looking for is not too far from the coast, yet it is somewhat removed from there.  The name of the town where the discovery can be located does not matter all that much for the purpose of this narration.  Just be sure to pick up and memorize it before you head out on your journey.  If you mention it when asking directions of the locals, many of them will smile and chuckle at you as they point the out the way to go.

The prospective traveler must try not to be put off by these reactions.  The locals along the way mean well, and are being as helpful as they possibly can.  It's just that they know gringos or yanquis like yourself all too well to be at shocked by your continuous presence anymore.  You've been here before.  Sure you have.  The locals never can forget a traveler like yourself.  You've visited this place a long time ago, or maybe it was just yesterday, and odds are even you will be here again.  The names and faces come and go, and yet there's always this curious continuity to the personality involved in the search.  The discovery that you're looking for is situated just a few miles outside of the town in question.  The house, on first appearance, is a trick played on the casual observer.  From the outside "'you had the impression of an apartment, like the ones they build today, with barely enough room to move around in".  It isn't until you make your way to the massive entrance, and adjacent hallway, that the traveler begins to realize the scope of the trick being played on him.  Once inside, the illusion may or might not be dispelled, as the true proportions of the casita begins to make itself known.

"How not to remember the layout of that house. The dinning room, a living room with tapestries, the library, and three large bedrooms in the section most recessed, the one that faced toward Rodriguez Pena. Only a corridor with its massive oak door separated that part from the front wing, where there was a bath, the kitchen, our bedrooms and the hall. One entered the house through a vestibule with enameled tiles, and a wrought-iron gated door opened onto the living room. You had to come in through the vestibule and open the gate to go into the living room; the doors to our bedrooms were on either side of this, and opposite was the corridor leading to the back section; going down the passage, one swung open the oak door beyond which was the other part of the house; or just before the door, one could turn to the left and go down a narrower passageway which led to the kitchen and the bath. When the door was open, you became aware of the size of the house".  Yet this is not the whole of the discovery.  The real find lies in part with the casa itself, and also with whatever transpired here. 

Once upon a time there was a brother and a sister.  The house was theirs.  The place seems to have been a family inheritance from what the locals can gather.  The brother and sister were the end of a long line of rich patriarchs and landowners from way back.  The family amassed its fortune through various means with the passage of time, and while this may be the cause of a certain envy here and there, it is not the main concern of this story, and the locals have difficulty recalling that part anyway.  What they know for certain is that the two relatives lived in that old house for the longest of times.  The sister would keep to herself indoors, while once a week the brother would venture into town for groceries, knitting for the girl, and maybe an occasional book off the stall of a nearby vendor.  The town itself is by no means rustic, though it is the sort of place where very little prefers to happen, as a rule.

It is this general guideline that accounts for the amount of commotion caused when the brother and sister abandoned the casita.  They left all of a sudden, in the middle of the night.  The family took nothing with them.  They have never returned for any of their belongings.  That is where the story more or less comes to end, so far as any of the townspeople know, or are aware of.  They just knew they had to leave.  And here the house has stood ever since.  The brother and sister do not appear to have left any clue as to their current whereabouts.  For all anyone knows, they may have vanished into thin air, and no one is the wiser.  That's true enough as far as the house and its new reputation are concerned.  That brings us to the real discovery to be made here, and its also an open secret in the town below.  The traveler is not the first soul whose curiosity has led him here.  It is an occasional custom of the sporadic youth that still manage to dot the town to carry out one of those coming-of-age rituals that are meant to blood the up and coming young men into finding out who they are.  It's the sort of tradition that has managed to find its way into every odd corner of the map whenever such a challenge is present.

The ritual itself is simple as it is familiar.  All the prospective young blood has to do is try and see if he can spend the night in the casita, and report back what he's heard or seen the next morning.  Here is where a sense of disappointment begins to seep in.  There is not much to report here in the way of "thrills".  What little any of the initiates who've passed the test have to tell is frustrating for its lack of incident.  There is nothing garish to be had here.  It's more like a series of stray encounters with something mysterious that refuses to explain itself.  The best commentary I've heard on the phenomena of the discovery comes from one of the old timers in the village.  He was once a young blood himself.  He has long since gone on to cover himself with the dubious honor of town mayor, and is now enjoying his retirement as a thrice-great grandfather.  The house is one of the few things that linger in his memory.  What makes it so eerie for him, even after all these years is the way nothing seemed to happen all around him, just out of sight, yet not of earshot.  He tried to follow this discovery wherever he thought it was coming from in the house.  He never did say if he ever found anything or not.

What he is certain about all these years later is a number of things.  The first is that, despite whatever was, or might have been in the house, he won his turn at the ritual.  The second is that regardless, he never really slept that night.  The third has to do with how to describe what he experienced during his entire time in that old, abandoned house (the gentlemen in question never ventured back since).  This is something he has struggled with ever since, especially because he remains uncertain of what, if anything happened while he was there.  The most you'll get out of him about it nowadays is that there is nothing to see there, and you'd best not hang around once it gets dark.  There is one other observation he had on the matter, though this is something he only ever told to his wife and son.  The information has long since been pried out of the latter.  He claims that at one point his padre found himself in the library of the casita while nothing was happening all around him.  The commotion was such that the future mayor found himself looking through the old, dusted volumes that were still lined on the shelf, in an effort to take his mind off the surroundings and happenings that weren't there.  

At one one point, the former young blood found himself taking down an old collection of poems from its place on the rack in front of him.  He had a flashlight, though the then young man didn't wish to use it.  To do so might draw attention to the house itself.  This, in turn, would lead someone to alert a constable.  The ritual would come to an end, and he would be the one responsible for it.  Instead, he brought a chair over to one of the windows through which the moonlight was showing clear as day.  He settled himself in, and deliberately buried himself in the pages.  He reckons the book must have been full of good material, because he spent the remainder of his time pouring through the volume.  It was only when he realized that the secondhand sunlight was being replaced with the real thing that he knew he'd passed the test.  He replaced the volume of poetry in its slot, and quickly departed the area.  

Something he found in that book has always stayed with him over the years.  It was a line of verse from an obscure piece going the name of Tuesday.  The title may have been unremarkable, and yet the mayor found something in there that he could always point whenever he recalled the night he spent in the casita.  To him, it summed up everything about the old house, and the brother and sister who left it.  "Are these the voices of our dead friends in the next room?  Or just the gramophone"?  

The Nature of Magical Realism.

In order to get a proper examination of Cortazar's short story, we'll need to make a detour into a discussion of its literary context.  In practical terms, that means going a bit more into detail about the ideas, or generic thinking behind the concept of Magical Realism.  It's not a new topic, by any means.  It's been around since roughly the 1960s, though it was being put to literary practice a good while before its sudden appearance in the English speaking literary scene.  Some critics trace its beginnings as far back as 1949, and based on the textual evidence given in support of it, this timeline seems to be pretty solid and sound.  All well and good, yet the question still remains.  Just what do we mean when we talk about Magical Realism?  In the strictest form, it's little more than a sub-set of the Fantasy genre.  It's a form of modern day fairy tale where all the usual ancient trappings are not so much scaled down to life size, as they are de-familiarized in a heightened sort of way.  A popular story that a lot of people like to point out as a good example of the genre would have to be that of Disney's Encanto.

I'm not so sure that's the correct way to describe that movie.  And yet it's easy to see where the fans are coming from.  The ironic punchline here is that this might be the first time that a great majority of the popular audience has ever gotten such a wide, mass exposure to a lot of the tropes that compose and comprise Latin American fantastic literature.  At the same time, there are clear storytelling choices on display in the film which manage to neatly set it apart from the sub-genre that inspired it.  It's true enough that the film takes at least good part of its inspiration from the work of Gabriel Marquez.  The directors also acknowledge that they've also paid tribute to the great Argentine writer through the scattering of various Easter Eggs planted throughout the feature.  Indeed, it seems as if director Jared Bush and his team of artists borrowed liberally from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude in order to construct the movie's Latin American secondary world.  The Madrigal stronghold, and its surrounding society is mimicked off of the isolated valley of Macondo from Marquez's novel.

Even the overall plot of Disney's film, with its exploration into the lives of three generations of a single family, seems meant to echo the narrative that Marquez chronicles over the course of Solitude's pages.  If all this is true, then there are also significant differences that have to be kept in mind between the sub-genre and what's happening in the Disney movie.  The key disparity rests in the way the filmmakers utilize the imagery and ideas from their original source material.  In the strictest sense, the story they have to tell may be derived from the Latin Boom, however its execution and overall content place it squarely outside the genre proper.  Magical Realism is a lot more surreal and abstracted.  It's not the same as saying its dull, or dry as dust.  There's nothing calm and sedate in a short story about a man locked in a hotel room, and vomiting up pink bunny rabbits on occasion.  Nor am I making up an image that sounds like David Lynch spliced with Cronenberg.  Magical Realism doesn't have stop at the idea of a house existing under an enchantment.  At its best, the genre is capable of catapulting its readers into the kind of secondary landscape typically found in the paintings of Rene Magritte, or the novels of Jonathan Carroll.  Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that authors like Carrol or Peter Straub were able to take a great deal of personal inspiration from the likes of novels such as Aura, and others.

In contrast, Disney's various borrowings of the occasional imagery, if not much the way of any fundamental tropes from the sub-genre results in a final product that might be good on its own terms, yet it is wrong to mistake the film for something its not.  Perhaps the best way to give a suggestion of what an actual Magical Realist story might be like is to use Encanto as a jumping off point.  What if we take a hypothetical storyline involving alternate versions of the main cast of Casa Madrigal?  Please keep in mind, this is not meant to replace the actual movie itself.  It's sticking around for a reason, and there's no cause to argue with that.  What I'm about to outline next is for the sake of helping to gain a better understanding of a sometimes complex literary idea.  In this hypothetical supposal, a version of the Madrigal's story told in a full-on Magic Realist mode would probably start out with, say, someone like Bruno.  The difference is in this version, we meet him in an unfamiliar surrounding.  Like, we'd meet him somewhere on the American West Coast, where he's like this dock hand, or rail worker.

The inciting action for this version of Bruno is that one day a letter arrives in the mail, or else one of those old, Western Union style messengers delivers him a package containing some sort of item from his childhood, when he used to live in Columbia, along with a missive from his niece, Mirabel.  For instance, the package could be the master keys to the old family casita, along with some sort of "Please come find me" request.  What follows could be a bit of hemming and hawing, and yet in the end, Bruno swallows whatever qualms and misgivings he has and sets out (either on foot or by vehicle (I tend to see him piloting an old pickup truck held together by prayer and primer paint, for instance) toward to Western U.S. Mexican Border.  The day before he reaches the Border, Bruno stops at a simple squatters shack, and finds Mirabel there, waiting for him.  The two spend some time getting reacquainted, each of them dealing with the somewhat natural shock that stems from the sense of time collapsing on itself when meeting up once again with an old, familiar face.  That devious trick of the mind which sends each of them hurtling back to a past they'd both thought they'd left behind long ago.  It's clear both of them are having to deal with what Dylan called "A lot water under the bridge, lot of other stuff too".

Despite this, it's also clear that a lot of the old family bonds that used to hold them together have maybe not worn away entirely, and so when Bruno shows her the keys to the old family estate, there's some clear trepidation, yet they both decide to press on and see what it's like to go home again.  Before setting out on their journey, Mira asks Bruno how much he remembers of life at the old place.  It is here that the first faint hints of Magical Realism begins to make itself felt.  This version of Bruno and Mirabel both decided to tear themselves from life under a roof crammed full of family tradition, and went as far away as the states to achieve their own independence.  The trouble is they were so eager to get away and start their lives anew, that it's been a while since either of them have desired to give much thought about their shared pasts, and the house they grew up in.  What follows would be a half joking and/or serious dialogue as the two try to remember their respective childhoods at the casita.  As they both sift through the fog of memory, each of them tries to recall bizarre sounding bits of family trivia.

For instance, Bruno could ask his niece if her brother ever had a habit of wearing other people's faces, or was that someone else?  Mira could respond with another question of her own.  "Did the family ever allow a tiger to roam the halls"?  Bits like these should be the first clue to the audience that we are dealing with a less than real secondary world.  Anyway, we'd follow Mira and Bruno as they make their slow way through Mexico, and down into the South American hill country.  The towns and other signs of civilization slowly dwindling away, until they are almost the only other persons in sight for miles.  At last, they come to the remains of their old hometown.  The place looks like it has seen better days, and can't make up its mind about sticking around, or letting the wilderness reclaim it.  They ask around if anyone can point the way to Casita Madrigal?  This request grants them a few stares of disbelief, slowly merging after a while into a kind of grim satisfaction, and one of the villagers is polite enough to give them direction along with a question.  Are they by any chance related to Abuela Alma Madrigal?  When both of them admit they are, then the satisfaction grows smug, as everyone now has an idea of who they are, and why they're here, to take charge of whatever legacy the family has left.  Before they go, Mira asks the villager what Alma was like.  Only to be told to her face that her old Abuela was a Brouha.

It's a Latin American word.  It means Witch.  Anyway, Bruno and Mira finally arrive at the casita, and find it to be one of the few things in town left standing in a more or less complete shape.  There's dust everywhere inside, and there's not another soul in sight except for the two of them, and the portraits of old members of the familia.  This is the part where the real Magic Realism begins to kick in.  It is also the point where the short story we just outlined can help forward the plot.  Like the two family members in Cortazar's narrative, Bruno and Mirabel would soon find the casita filled with the barely audible, yet ominous sounds.  The sound of furniture being knocked over, scratchings in the walls, barely heard snippets of conversations coming from nowhere, barren hallways full of whispers and sighs.  It gets to a point where all the phantasmal commotion drives Mira and Bruno out of the house.  Having nowhere else to go, they make their way back into the town.  When they get there, however, they find the place has been radically altered.  The houses and store fronts look brand new, more buildings can be seen dotting the town square than when first arrived.  More important than any of this, villagers who appeared old and weathered are now young and relatively vibrant, and members of the previously long gone Madrigal clan can now be seen mingling freely with the town.

Are you starting to get an idea of what people mean by Magical Realism?  It's basically taking the same tropes and ideas that have been done before in the old Fairy Tale tradition, and then utilizing them in ways that artists like Rod Serling would later go on to make famous in The Twilight Zone.  The major difference here is that the tropes have been transplanted to a Latin American setting, where they have intermixed and woven into the local customs and folklore of the region.  The result is a familiar setup that nonetheless comes off as exotic and unexpected to a predominantly Anglo-Saxon audience who have little to no exposure to such similar, yet seemingly different cultural practices.  All it amounts to is what happens when Latino authors learn how to ply the same tricks of the trade as the Brothers Grimm and Salvador Dali on paper.  It is this whole shock of the familiar under the facile garb of a new appearance that made people sit up and take notice, hailing what was older than the hills as a new form of artistic innovation from an unexpected quarter.  The whole thing sounds ironic and somewhat condescending today, yet there is no denying the impact the Latin Boom had on literature as a whole.

Conclusion: Cortazar's Gothic Microcosm. 

That leaves just the author and the story to talk about.  Perhaps its a mistake to label Julio Cortazar as an exile.  He was of Argentinian descent, and he spent too long a span of his life in his native country to ever fit in the with the likes Vladimir Nabokov, and others like him.  At the same time, it's hard not to get the idea that there was always this lingering sense of displacement about his life.  While his parents were South American, the author himself was born in a province of Brussels in 1914.  Even then, the only reason he was there in the first place is because his father was a diplomatic civil servant for the Argentine government.  The advance of World War I eventually sent Cortazar and his family packing back to their own home turf.  There, the writer's father proceeded to compound his failure in diplomacy by matching it in the domestic sphere.  He made a clean and deliberate walkout on his wife and son, and they don't appear to have ever seen him again.  Maria Herminia Descotte, Cortazar's mother, seems to have found ways of keeping herself and her son afloat.  The writer grew up with her and a younger sister in a suburb of Buenos Aires, a setting which acts as a constant specter in most of his works.

Another source of influence for Cortazar appears to have been the family house in Banfield.  I was expecting to find the author living in modest means.  What I wasn't expecting was something akin to a minor league palatial estate.  To be fair, when viewed from the outside, Solar, the house where Cortazar grew up, does manage to come off looking reasonably average enough, wedged as it is between two less obtrusive samples of a middle class suburban neighborhood.  And yet looking at it, even in photos, makes me wonder if perhaps Cortazar's family might have had enough money set by in order to afford a place that gives off the suggestion of being bigger and more lavish than any of its neighbors.  It's not a mansion, yet it always looks like the sort of place that could turn itself into one, when no one else is looking.  Perhaps it was the very nature of his childhood home, the sense of a house that wants to be, or appears bigger than it is, which acted as the first mainspring for Cortazar's imagination.  In particular, there is an account that the author was greatly influenced by the time he spent playing in the backyard of the estate.  I've been unable to find any photographs of this yard.

However, based on just the scant amount of testimony, it must have been all of a piece with the somewhat unique nature of the house itself.  What's interesting about Solar is that whoever built it seems to have tapped into an idea that probably goes as far back as Ovid's Metamorphosis.  The house looks like it is going in two direction at once, like it wants to transform itself into something else, and got stuck stuck somewhere in between, while trying to make up its mind.  As a result, it gives off the constant impression that it is always on the verge of some sort of fantastical transfiguration.  That the everyday quotidian surroundings could metamorphose at any minute into something else.  The very appearance and layout of the house could therefore have been more than enough to ignite a spark in the child's growing imagination.  Cortazar's own testimony seems to bear this out.  Perhaps a prolonged exposure to the life of a city kid in the streets would have knocked the growing Romantic streak out of him.  Instead, he was often sick as a child.  This meant long stays in bed, with not much else for company except the books that were passed on to him for diversion.  It turned out to be enough.

Jules Verne is one of the names listed as ones the writer enjoyed growing up.  Though there are bound to be more than English speaking readers have yet to hear of.  It is just possible to claim that we already have a clue as to what other reading material Cortazar devoured in his downtime.  The answer comes when we recall it was exactly at this time that European Romantic and Surrealist art and literary works were edging their way into the South American continent, and making their influence felt.  It was this same trend that brought a sense of the modern fantastic to the country's bookstalls, and instigated a reading craze in a sizeable enough swath of the young Latino reading public.  

Cortazar appears to have been caught up into this trend, thanks to the excuse of constant sick days.  As a result, guys like him and Gabriel Garcia Marquez could often be found in their rooms, pouring over quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, like any self-respecting bookworm.  The whole thing was of like a chain reaction, with Cortazar serving as just one more link in the middle of it all.  These early reading experiences, combined with the sense of living in a house that looked as if a piece of some fantastic alternate world had managed to establish a beachhead of some kind in ordinary reality, was probably the impetus that enabled Cortazar (along with many others) to achieve his essential, Magic Realist outlook on life.

I think a quote by Cortazar himself says it best. "I spent my childhood in a haze full of goblins and elves, with a sense of space and time that was different from everybody else's (web)".  In particular, it is just possible to claim that Solar plays an outsized role in the creation of a story like "House Taken Over".  Here is where the helpful observation of a blogger known as Simon King might be able to shed some further light on the nature of the story, by giving us a hint about its genesis. "(Its) idea came to the author in a dream. Cortázar, in his dream, found himself in a large mansion and was pushed aside from one room to the next until he was evicted from it. He woke up and wrote the story in a single sitting (web)".  Since the short story first saw the light of day in 1946, it must have been at or around this time that Cortazar stumbled upon his little bout of nocturnal inspiration.  Beyond King's information, there's been little else to find about the background of the tale.  The irony is that his may also be more than enough to work with.  Let's start with how Cortazar manages to tell his story.

The first thing that jumps out at the reader is a palpable sense of dislocation.  This can be seen in the way the writer outlines the initial setup of his story.  "We
liked the house 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 narrator tells us.  What's interesting to note about these opening words is their inherent contradiction.  The narrator insists that he and his sister are living a life of relative contentment, and yet the description he gives of their lives together betrays a different kind of aura.

"Irene and I got used to staying in the house by ourselves, which was crazy, eight people could have lived in that place and not have gotten in each other’s way. We rose at seven in the morning and got the cleaning done, and about eleven I left Irene to finish off whatever rooms and went to the kitchen. We lunched at noon precisely; then there was nothing left to do but a few dirty plates. It was pleasant to take lunch and commune with the great hollow, silent house, and it was enough for us just to keep it clean. We ended up thinking, at times, that that was what had kept us from marrying. Irene turned down two suitors for no particular reason, and Maria Esther went and died on me before we could manage to get engaged. We were easing into our forties with the unvoiced concept that the quiet, simple marriage of sister and brother was the indispensable end to a line established in this house by our grandparents. We would die here someday, obscure and distant cousins would inherit the place, have it torn down, sell the bricks and get rich on the building plot; or more justly and better yet, we would topple it ourselves before it was too late (10-11)".  Aside from a description of how the main cast spends their days, going through the motions in an almost robot-like fashion, this is all we get in terms of characterization.

The curious part is how this turns out to be all we need.  We're not dealing with a novel here.  All Cortazar was able to unearth was the fossil of a short story, and he digs it out of the ground with consummate skill and precision.  What his efforts reveal is a familiar picture.  The situation is sparse and simplistic, amounting to almost a bare-bones stage setting.  There are two main leads, and the main backdrop of the house they live in, like two peas in a cramped, yet somehow empty cubbard.  Right away it's the sort of deal that any fan of Stephen King would be familiar with.  Indeed, it's at this point that some readers may begin to realize just why King cited Cortazar as a good example of Gothic writing.  Part of the reason might be because of stories like "House Taken Over".  In it's basic outline, the short story boils down to all the key ingredients for one of the oldest genre prototypes, the Bad Place, or the seemingly Haunted House story.  This is a conclusion the narrative itself seems willing enough to corroborate.  Like all great Bad Places, the titular domicile does double-duty in the story line.

It acts, in its capacity, as both setting and symbol.  On the one level, it's just the main stage where the action takes place.  On the thematic side of things, it serves as a self-contained, solitary microcosm.  The house itself acts as a mirror of the character's own stagnant isolationism.  This can be seen in the way Irene and her brother appear to go through the motion of being real people, while at the same time almost coming off as a pair of walking mannequins.  In the same way, the house itself gives off an oppressive aura.  The reader is given details of a place that once boasted a different sort of life for itself, one full of a rich and powerful family legacy.  However, all of these backstory elements remain just that.  They're are treated as just "all in the past".  The glory days were over a long time ago, in other words.  The result has left the house not as an actual place to live in, yet rather a Saturnine receptacle for decay and winding down.  This is best demonstrated either by the effect the place has on the story's two main leads, or else its the deadening effect the characters have on the house itself.  It's an interesting note of ambiguity that Cortazar is able to uncover here, and it works in his favor.

It doesn't seem to be a question of where or how the trouble starts in the narrative.  Rather its more of an intriguing question of from what direction the troubles came from.  Is it the house's fault, the family's, or is the truth an odd yet equal mixture of the two?  This is a question the narrative might be able to raise in the minds of some of its readers, while never handing out any easy answers.  Nor does this appear to be required.  Cortazar appears to be relying here on the fine grace notes that some of the best Gothic practitioners have known when to fall back on.  The truth is that sometimes a little bit of ambiguity can go a long way towards deepening the appeal of this type of story.  That said, as of this writing, we're currently living through a time where the Mystery Box approach seems to be all the rage.  Because of this it seems wise to add a word of caution.  Yes, ambiguity can work when done right, however we're seeing lately that there are a lot of ways to get this type of plot device dead wrong, and most of the time its the result of nothing more than pure laziness on the writer's part.  The good news is that this is an entire problem that Cortazar is able to sidestep and bypass with relative ease.

Instead of piling on too many puzzles without the faintest shred of an idea for where its all going, Cortazar is smart enough to let the actual story do the talking.  The result is a narrative that is allowed to play things smart, short, and simple.  This allows the setting to take on a life of its own, and imbue the main narrative and its action all the necessary and welcome sense of a genuine air of mystery.  This can be seen in the almost casual way that Cortazar is able to build things up toward that first crucial moment when the quotidian shifts into the valley of the uncanny.  Take the way he sets up and executes his shot:

"How not to remember the layout of that house. The dinning room, a living room with tapestries, the library, and three large bedrooms in the section most recessed, the one that faced toward Rodriguez Pena. Only a corridor with its massive oak door separated that part from the front wing, where there was a bath, the kitchen, our bedrooms and the hall. One entered the house through a vestibule with enameled tiles, and a wrought-iron gated door opened onto the living room. You had to come in through the vestibule and open the gate to go into the living room; the doors to our bedrooms were on either side of this, and opposite was the corridor leading to the back section; going down the passage, one swung open the oak door beyond which was the other part of the house; or just before the door, one could turn to the left and go down a narrower passageway which led to the kitchen and the bath. When the door was open, you became aware of the size of the house; when it was closed, you had the impression of an apartment, like the ones they build today, with barely enough room to move around in. Irene and I always lived in this part of the house and hardly ever went beyond the oak door except to do the cleaning. Incredible how much dust collected on the furniture. It may be Buenos Aires is a clean city, but she owes it to her population and nothing else. There’s too much dust in the air, the slightest breeze and it’s back on the marble console tops and in the diamond patterns of the tooled-leather desk set. It’s a lot of work to get it off with a feather duster; the motes rise and hang in the air, and settle again a minute later on the pianos and the furniture.

I’ll always have a clear memory of it because it happened so simply and without fuss. Irene was knitting in her bedroom, it was eight at night, and I suddenly decided to put the water up for mate. I went down the corridor as far as the oak door, which was ajar, then turned into the hall toward the kitchen, when I heard something in the library or the dining room. The sound came through muted and indistinct, a chair being knocked over onto the carpet or the muffled buzzing of a conversation. At the same time, or a second later, I heard it at the end of the passage which led from those two rooms toward the door. 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. I went down to the kitchen, heated the kettle, and when I got back with the tray of mate, I told Irene: “I had to shut the door to the passage. They’ve taken over the back part.” 

"She let her knitting fall and looked at me with her tired, serious eyes. “You’re sure?” I nodded.

 “In that case,” she said, picking up her knitting again, “we’ll have to live on this side (12-14)".

Cortazar appears to be walking a very delicate tightrope on these vital passages.  He's been given as complete a picture as possible in his mind of how the inciting action should go, and now he needs to find the right words that will realize it all on the page.  The challenge comes in knowing how to describe a very short scene with as much verbiage as necessary.  The entire thing takes up two paragraphs and two pieces of dialogue.  The first one is rather dense, and descriptive.  Here the author runs the risk of letting to the words smother the story, if that makes any sense, and so the tightrope walk begins.  It's to Cortazar's skill as a wordsmith that he somehow never manages to drop the ball during his whole time crossing the chasm.  Nor does he allow himself or the story to come tumbling down around the readers ears.  Instead, his skill is able to guide us along with the narrator from the house in the light, and the one that occurs in the dark.  Its a crucial point of transition for this type of story, and Cortazar's ability to find all the right words makes it appear smooth and seamless.  A great deal of the author's ability to pull this off comes from the air of unreality that he's able to start out with.

Even before the main action of the plot gets going, Cortazar paints his two lead characters, and the main setting through a series of words that make them come off as downright phantasmagorical, way before even the first hint of genuine the uncanny makes itself known.  It might all just amount to stage setting, however for a story like this, the art of the setup is crucial.  It's not just a question of lulling the audience into a state of suspended disbelief, though that may play a part.  It's more about creating the proper sense of the story's identity through its atmosphere.  While it's probably not incorrect to call it a haunted house type of story, what has to be remembered is that Cortazar is telling one of these fables through his own Magical Realistic lens.  In that sense, attaching the Realist label to this kind of story is a kind of self-canceling irony.  To even try to be realistic about anything in this type of narrative is to kill the specimen and mount it on a wall in a gallery somewhere, as lifeless as a dinosaur fossil.  Instead, by injecting an air of unreality into the proceedings from the start, Cortazar is able to create a fine-tuned, Latin American Gothic short story, one that I think deserves to take its place among the best.

One of the things I've tried to do with this article was give a very rough sketch of a beginner's idea on Magical Realism.  I may have taken a few steps in that direction, and yet there's always more to explore here.  I've been using the Encanto cast and setting as a way of giving the best possible illustration.  If' it's helped at all, it merely demonstrates how the actual sub-genre is a lot more deep and mysterious than I think even the movie itself can suggest.  The main reason I've used Cortazar's short story is because it kind of amounts to the best possible starting place for getting acquainted with this particular form of Latin American fantasy.  

That's all Magical Realism is when you get right down to it, anyway.  Just another form of fantasy writing that the Euro and American Ivory Tower were kind enough to smile on for a lot of pretentious reasons.  Terry Pratchett, however, seems to have been one of the few authors willing to cut through the pretense, and call the whole thing out for what it is.  Basically, what it means in practice is that this is how Latinos sometimes like to tell fairy tales.  It's a sub-genre with a lot of mainstream obscurity to it.  It therefore rewards plenty of unearthing in the future.  Right now, I'd have to say that Julio Cortazar's "House Taken Over" represents a very good way to help break the ice. 

No comments:

Post a Comment