Casa tomada: House Taken Over

The following is an English translation of Casa tomada.

We liked the house because apart from its spaciousness and antiquity (today old houses succumbed to the more advantageous sale of their materials) it kept the memories of our great grandparents, our paternal grandfather, our parents and our childhood.

Irene and I became used to persisting alone in it, which was a fortune as in that house eight people could live there without getting in each other’s way. We cleaned in the morning, getting up at 7, and at 11 I would leave Irene the last bedrooms to go over and I would go the kitchen. We would eat lunch at noon, always punctual; then there was nothing left to do outside of a few dirty dishes. It was a pleasant lunch for us, thinking about the profound and silent house and how the two of us were sufficient to keep it clean. At times we came to believe that it was the one who would not let us get married. Irene had turned down two suitors for no particular reason, María Esther died on me before we became engaged. We entered our 40s with the unspoken idea that our simple and silent sibling marriage was a necessary closure of the genealogy, started by our great grandparents in our house. We would die there some day, lazy and disdainful cousins would be left with the house and they would throw it to the ground to become rich by the land and the bricks, or better, we ourselves would justly demolish it before it was too late.

Irene was born a girl who bothered no one. Apart from her morning routine she passed the rest of the day knitting in the sofa of her room. I do not know why she knit so much, I believe that women knit when they have found in that work the great pretext of doing nothing. Irene was not this way, she always knit necessary things, sweaters for the winter, socks for me, bed jackets and vests for herself. Sometimes she knit a vest and then undid it in a moment because something did not please her; it was funny to see a pile of curled wool in the basket, refusing to lose its shape for some hours. Saturdays I went to the city center to buy wool, Irene had faith in my taste, she was pleased with the colors and I never had to return skeins. I made the most of those outings to walk around the bookstores and ask vainly if there was new French literature. Since 1939 nothing worthy had arrived in Argentina.

But it is the house that I am interested in talking about, the house and Irene, because I am not important. I ask myself what Irene would do without knitting. One could reread a book, but when a pullover is finished one cannot repeat it without a scandal. One day I found the bottom drawer of the camphor dresser full of shawls, white, green, and lilac. They were with moth repellent, piled up like a dry-goods store; I did not have the courage to ask Irene what she thought to do with them. We did not need to earn a living; every month money arrived from the farms and the money increased. But to Irene, only knitting entertained her, she showed a wonderful skill and to I passed the hours watching her hands like silvered sea urchins, needles coming and going and one or two baskets on the floor where the balls of wool were constantly shaken. It was beautiful.

How I do not remember the distribution of the house. The dining room, a room with hand-woven wall tapestries, the library and 3 huge bedrooms was in the most remote part of the house, the part that looked out upon the street Rodríguez Peña. Only a corridor with a solid oak door isolated this part of the wing that then leads to where there is a bathroom, the kitchen, our bedrooms and the living room, which connected the rooms and the corridor. One entered the house by an entrance hall with plaster decorations, and the inner door opened into the living room. So that one entered by the entrance hall, opened the inner door and went into the living room; the house had side doors to our bedrooms, and ahead the corridor led to the more remote part;  moving forward from the corridor one passed through the oak door and beyond the other side of the house began, or one could just turn left before the door and continue down the more narrow corridor that arrived at the kitchen and the bathroom. When the door was open it warned one that the house was very large, if not, it gave the impression of a department being built only to be moved; Irene and I always lived in this part of the house, almost never did we go farther than the oak door, except in order to do the cleaning, it is amazing how dust accumulates. Buenos Aires would be a clean city, but that is the fault of the citizens and nothing else. There is too much dust in the air, hardly a gust blows and one feels the dust on the marble console tables and between the diamonds of the macramé table covers; it takes work to really get rid of it with a feather duster, it flies and stays suspended in the air, a moment later depositing itself on the furniture and the pianos again.

I will always remember the moment with clarity because it was simple and without useless circumstances. Irene was knitting in her room, it was 8 at night and suddenly it occurred to me to put the kettle on the fire to heat water for mate. I went through the corridor until I faced the half closed oak door, I turned around the corner that led to the kitchen when I heard something in the dining room or the library. The sound came, imprecise and quiet, like a knocking over of a chair onto the rug or a muffled whisper of conversation. I heard it also, at the same time or a second later, at the end of the corridor that led from that part to the door. I threw myself against the door before it was too late, I closed it suddenly leaning my body into it; fortunately the key was placed on our side and moreover I moved the huge bolt into place for more security.

I went into the kitchen, heated the kettle, and when I was back with the mate tray I told Irene:

“I had to close the corridor door. They have taken over the back part.”

She let the knitting fall and she looked at me with serious and tired eyes.

“Are you sure?”

I nodded.

“Well,” she said picking up the needles, “we will have to live on this side.”

I brewed the mate very carefully, but she took a while to start her work again. I remember that she knit a gray vest; I really liked that vest.

The first few days seemed distressing to us because both of us had left many things in the other part of the house that we wanted. My books of French literature, for example, were all in the library. Irene missed some table covers, a pair of slippers that kept her warm so much in the winter. I missed my juniper pipe and I believe Irene thought about a bottle of medicinal tonic that she had had for years. Often (but this only happened the first few days) we would close some dresser drawer and we would look at each other with sadness.

“It is not here.”

And it was one more than anything that we had lost the other side of the house. But also we had advantages. The cleaning was simplified so much so that we got up much later, at 9:30 for example, and by 11  we were with nothing to do. Irene became accustomed to being with me in the kitchen and helping me prepare lunch. We thought about it well, and she decided this: while I prepared lunch, Irene would cook dishes to eat cold at night. We were happy because it is always bothersome to have to leave the bedrooms at sunset and start to cook. Now the table in Irene’s bedroom and the serving dishes with cold cuts was enough for us.

Irene was content because it left her more time to knit. I walked around a bit, lost, because of my books I no longer had, but in order not to afflict my sister I began to examine my father’s stamps, and this helped me to kill time. We quite enjoyed ourselves, each one in his things, almost always we reunited in Irene’s room because it was more comfortable. Sometimes Irene would say:

“Look at this stitch that I have made. Does it not look like a clover?”

A while later I would put a piece of paper before her eyes for her to see the excellence of some stamp from Eupen and Malmédy [two districts of Belgium joined in 1920]. We were well, and little by little we began to not think. One can live without thinking.

(When Irene talked in her sleep I was immediately unable to sleep. I could never get used to this voice of a statue or parrot, a voice that came from dreams and not the throat. Irene said that my dreams contained large brusque movements that sometimes made the blanket fall off. Our bedrooms had the living room in the between them, but at night one could hear any thing in the house. We heard each other breath, cough, we foresaw the gesture that leads to the bedside lamp switch key, the mutual and frequent insomnia.

Apart from this all was quiet in the house. During the day were the domestic noises, the metalic clicking of the knitting needles, the creaking of the turning pages of the stamp album. The oak door, I believe has been said, was solid. In the kitchen and the bathroom, that touched the taken part, we would talk very loudly or Irene sang cradle songs. In a kitchen there is too much noise from dishes and glasses that other sounds are broken and unheard. Very few times we allowed silence there, but when we would return to our rooms and the living room, then the house became quiet and dimly lit, we would even step quietly so as not to bother each other. I think that was why at night, when Irene began to sleep talk, I was immediately unable to sleep. )

It is almost to repeat the same thing except for the consequences. One night I am thirsty, and before going to bed I told Irene to go to the kitchen and get me a glass of water. From the door of the bedroom (she knit) I heard a noise in the kitchen; maybe in the kitchen or maybe in the bathroom because the bend of the corridor muffled the sound. Irene was called to attention by my sudden stop, and she came to my side without a saying a word. We remained, listening to the sounds, noting clearly that they were from this side of the oak door, in the kitchen and the bathroom, or in the same corridor where the bend began almost at our side.

We did not even look at each other. I squeezed Irene’s arm and made her run with me to the storm door, without looking back. The noises were louder but always muffled, behind us. I closed with one blow the storm door and we were left in the hallway. Now nothing was heard.

“They have taken this part,” Irene said. The knitting hung from her hands and the threads went to the door and were lost under it. When she saw that the balls had gone to the other side, she released the knitting without a glance.

“Did you have time to bring anything?” I asked her uselessly.

“No, nothing.”

We were with what we were wearing. I remembered the 15 thousand pesos in the wardrobe in my bedroom. It was too late now.

As I still had my wristwatch, I saw that it was 11 at night. I put my arm around Irene’s belt (I think she was crying) and we left like this into the street. Before moving away I had pity, I closed the entrance door well and threw the key into the sewer. It would not do to have some poor devil happen to rob the house and enter it, at that hour and with the house taken over.

Original short story can be found here:

Cortázar, Julio. “Casa tomada.” Contemporary Latin American Literature. Ed. Gladys M. Varona-Lacey. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill, 2001. 157-161. Print.

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7 Responses to Casa tomada: House Taken Over

  1. Pingback: Casa Tomada por Cortazar « conversaciones en espanol

  2. Riley Sierra says:

    is this a ghost story?

    • Lauren says:

      Not really, but it does have that kind of feel. It’s really about the lower class “kicking out” and overthrowing the upper class. Some people from the lower class are physically and literally moving into the sister and brother’s home in this story.

      • Eric says:

        What do you mean the lower class is kicking out the upper class. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

      • Eric says:

        Can you go into more detail, please. Was there some kind of movement during this time period in Argentina that leads you to believe your analysis about the lower class taking over the upper class?

  3. Riley Sierra says:

    thank you! That was very insightful

  4. Mandar says:

    Is not only the lower class. They were racial issues. The “invaders” were mostly mixed with native americans while the others were from Europe.

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