House Taken Over by Julio Cortázar, 1946
The magic trick:
Telling the story of an accelerating conflict, but never specifying what the particulars of that conflict are
We begin a week of Julio Cortázar for you today.
A true literary iconoclast, Cortázar seems at times to be willfully putting the reader off. Which I suppose is part of the charm?
Every story is like a miniature puzzle to solve.
So let’s start at the start – his very first published story. It establishes what I think will reveal itself this week as a common theme among these stories: the unspecified problem.
Our premise finds its conflict quickly. The family home of a brother and sister is being invaded by intruders. They’ve taken over the library and appear to be expanding their reach soon.
But who are they? What are their intentions?
We never find out. We never find out, but that’s not to say the characters in the story don’t know. They react as if there is no mystery at all. Their actions follow a certain kind of logic.
But it leaves the reader in an interesting position.
We know there’s a conflict. That much is obvious. The particulars of the problem, though, are never specified.
And that’s quite a trick on Cortázar’s part.
Irene never bothered anyone. Once the morning housework was finished, she spent the rest of the day on the sofa in her bedroom, knitting. I couldn’t tell you why she knitted so much; I think women knit when they discover that it’s a fat excuse to do nothing at all. But Irene was not like that, she always knitted necessities, sweaters for winter, socks for me, handy morning robes and bedjackets for herself. Sometimes she would do a jacket, then unravel it the next moment because there was something that didn’t please her; it was pleasant to see a pile of tangled wool in her knitting basket fighting a losing battle for a few hours to retain its shape. Saturdays I went downtown to buy wool; Irene had faith in my good taste, was pleased with the colors and never a skein had to be returned. I took advantage of these trips to make the rounds of the bookstores, uselessly asking if they had anything new in French literature. Nothing worthwhile had arrived in Argentina since 1939.
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