This 1946 story, the first Cortázar ever published, addresses powerfully and compactly the relationship between habitation and haunting, between our simple uses of a space and the dimensions it ultimately takes on. Here, the sinister emerges from the interruption of silence, a signal of some other presence that renders a room suddenly unfamiliar and uninhabitable. In its insistence on the ever more dramatic effects of isolation, this is a story that understands space as the product of social use.
“House Taken Over” has, like the sounds it describes, gradually staked out a place of its own in Argentine literature, with its echoes audible in works by any number of authors. Two slender volumes recently released by Charco Press, a new publisher of Latin American literature in translation based in the UK, engage with aspects of Cortázar’s legacy and do a great deal to elaborate and complicate it. Like the siblings in that story, Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room, translated by Charlotte Coombe, and Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin, translated by Frances Riddle, adopt different approaches to the question of how one might occupy a space and spend time within it. And like siblings everywhere, any kinship these two novels exhibit tends to be less interesting than what they accomplish individually.
Romero, who had published six novels and a collection of short stories before the release of The President’s Room in Spanish in 2015, has framed the literary as a singular space resembling the distinctive setting in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker:
literature is for me like the zone visited by the characters in the film, where everything looks the same and where everything is, in fact, different. Everything changes in literature. None of the conversations with which we construct reality are the same once within it. Literature misinterprets them, unsettles them, re-signifies them, empties them and fills them up again.
For Romero, then, language both constructs and circulates, and literature takes it over, evicting some meanings and evacuating others.
A similarly unsettled and unsettling space sits at the center of Romero’s novel, which begins with a narrated blueprint of the young, unnamed narrator’s house. He informs us that within every home in his suburb and others like it is a room dedicated to the president, who may end up spending a night there at some point. This strange uncertainty gives way to an even stranger regularity since these spaces see no everyday use, and most of the time the inhabitants forget they are even there. Indeed, it is only when their mother cleans their president’s room once a week that the narrator and his brothers seem to recall its existence and lurk at the edges of the open door, hoping to catch a glimpse of what they understand is off-limits to them. On one occasion, however, the narrator spots his father sitting in the space, silently sipping whisky that has supposedly been set aside for the president.
Although every house should have such a room dedicated to the president, nothing dictates what it should contain. All the members of the narrator’s family, like the previous generations who constructed the house and lived in it, must collectively agree on what will occupy the room and accompany the president should he decide to visit. Yet with a camp bed, books, cigarettes, clocks, a magnifying glass, tissues, a kettle, and various other items, the furnishing of the room reveals no underlying logic nor any coherent conception of who the president is or what he might need. The family members merely imagine what the president could do with an item that has been proposed as a possible addition, not whether it would be useful, and the determination of the space therefore becomes thoroughly social but somehow also curiously detached from the family’s life.
Just as puzzling as the space is the narrator who becomes obsessed with it. It is perspective and not presence that shapes his understanding of the strange room inside his house. “When I think about a place,” he explains, “I’m usually in another place.” The only exception to such a rule is the attic that he alone visits. Like the laurel tree outside the house whose branches allow the narrator to look into the president’s room from afar, the attic provides some of the separation necessary for clarity, although this ultimately proves elusive for both narrator and reader. “When you’re little,” the narrator points out, “you’re closer to shadows than you are to things.”
Along with the attic, the other place that partly frames the narrator’s understanding of the president’s room is the basement. Although neither his house nor any other in the neighborhood has one—they have all been bricked up as a result of the terrible yet unidentified things that used to happen in them—these subterranean spaces loom large in his imagination. The one time the narrator visited a house with a basement, there was a strange echo, one that swallowed up the laughter at a birthday party and sent back a sinister sound.
In this way The President’s Room alludes to the right-wing violence that ravaged most of Latin America in the second half of the twentieth century, and recalls disturbing episodes from Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Yet Romero also includes subtle references to a specifically Argentine history: much like the infamous green Ford Falcons that snatched up the unsuspecting during the dictatorship, a mysterious car slowly drives by during the temporary disappearance of the narrator’s younger brother.
The novel is, however, less concerned with establishing strict historical parallels than with capturing overtones. The narrative’s concern with architectonics is accompanied by an attention to acoustics, and to how the meaning of a sound depends on the space where it is heard. (“You can’t just whistle anywhere,” the narrator explains. “Or you can, but then things change.”) When the spectral president does finally visit the room in the house of the narrator, the latter observes from the laurel tree and performs a careful auscultation outside the door to the now-occupied president’s room. He soon mimics what he alone hears—no one else from his family notes the presence of this politician who has taken populism to an extreme—with such facility that it calls into question any clear distinction between source and echo.
Combining certain aspects of the styles of famous predecessors like Cortázar and Borges, as well as of lesser-known figures like José Bianco, Romero’s short novel, with its brief sections creating the haunting atmosphere depicted by a breathless young narrator, will undoubtedly reward re-readings. Attuned to the construction of spaces of interiority and intimacy, it forces us to consider where we house imagination and where we store our pasts.
If The President’s Room focuses on a center and the frustrating and frustrated efforts to understand it, Slum Virgin instead traces how things fall apart. In the terms set out in Cortázar’s story, one might say that where Romero dwells on a space taken over yet curiously uninhabited, Cabezón Cámara instead locates literary potential in that very process of taking over and brings it out on a broader scale. To put it another way: if the former knits a pair of socks, the latter stitches together a sweater from an impressive collection of yarns.
Such differences become apparent even at the sentence level. Romero’s sharp, sparse prose comes through clearly in a confident translation by Charlotte Coombe, but Frances Riddle’s rendering of Cabezón Cámara’s exuberant range of styles truly shines. Covering everything from lyrics to a funeral elegy and navigating unexpected hybrids with ease—one brief passage, for instance, calls for “a mix of lower-class River Plate dialect and proper Cervantes Spanish”—she deftly captures the rhythms of an often effervescent style. Riddle’s agile English performs a delicate balancing act that reflects one of the novel’s underlying themes: making things accessible but not necessarily immediately transparent.
The central episode in Slum Virgin is the visit of a journalist, Quity, to a Buenos Aires villa or slum. She covers crime in the capital city even as she harbors hopes of returning to the study of literature. For her, the slum represents the possibility of winning a prestigious journalism grant that would allow her to “go back to the beginning, to literature, the Greeks, the motionless maelstrom of translations and the dry violence of academic debate.” Yet more than the slum itself, what interests her—and what, she thinks, might interest the jury awarding the grant—is the charismatic figure who has become its de facto leader: Cleo, a transvestite formerly known as Carlos Guillermo, who has long lived in the slum and who regularly converses with the Virgin Mary.
Yet the journalist and her source ultimately develop a rather different sort of relationship. Cleo and Quity become lovers who find solace in each other’s company in the wake of the slum’s devastation by a lethal combination of bulldozers and bullets. The novel therefore recounts not only what led Quity to the slum but also what she left with, when forced to return to her home after months spent living there. Composed as a manuscript written by Quity that also includes dictated commentary on its contents from Cleo, it was supposedly produced after they escape Argentina for Miami, that northern capital of bourgeois Latin America, where they live off the riches derived from a cumbia opera based on their experiences in the slum and that shares its title with the novel.
As the differences between Cleo and Quity suggest, space can never be summed up from a single viewpoint. That principle even applies to the very name of the slum that stages much of the book’s action: “El Poso.” Poso can mean dregs or grounds, but it’s also a homophone of “pozo,” a well. One of the novel’s most memorable lines captures the way these conflicting characterizations could be combined: “El Poso was the kingdom of eternal youth: no one dies of old age, they die of curable illnesses or unnecessary bullets.”
But more than a wellspring of wasted possibility, the slum is also a source of sustenance. In a conversation with the Virgin, Cleo hits upon the idea of an aquaculture project that utilizes some of the slum’s geographical features and that later begins with a carp stolen from the Japanese Garden located in the heart of wealthy Buenos Aires. The project thus turns the poso into a pozo that brings relative wealth to those inside the slum and recognition from those outside it. While some residents receive invitations from universities to talk about experiences of self-management, others enjoy the bounty of their carp crop. Caught up in the decadence that accompanies a newfound abundance, they celebrate to the sounds of cumbia and sweat through cocaine binges, dulling both pain and the awareness that there are certain aspects of their status that success can never fully eliminate, such as threats from the police and private security forces.
Unlike both Romero and Cortázar, Cabezón Cámara—one of the founders of #NiUnaMenos, a movement dedicated to raising awareness of femicide and gender violence in a country where every 30 hours a woman is killed simply because she is a woman—does not shy away from explicit violence. She forgoes insinuation in favor of straight-shooting in a novel whose first pages explore an attempt to process a loss resulting from a senseless act of violence. Elsewhere, mercy emerges only in the form of euthanasia when a young woman, extensively tortured, is saved from a painful death by a shot to the head. Even Cleo’s distinctive ability to converse with the Virgin is only revealed to her in a police station, after a brutal beating by the officers.
Space, in this context, is literally shot through with the violence of both state and capital, which send in the forces that level the slum in order to pave the way for a real estate deal. In Quity’s recollection, resistance was not necessarily futile but simply not feasible: “It would only have been enough if we’d been an army but if we’d become an army we would’ve ceased to be what we were: a small happy crowd.” Somewhat paradoxically, protecting the essential aspects of one’s space would have required abandoning them.
Slum Virgin is thus never a blind celebration of a space of alterity but rather an exploration of the alternatives posed by those who have little regard for facile categorizations or restrictive roles. Cleo, for instance, first emerges in the book, in Quity’s description, “as my mother and my father and my provider.” Together they form a family in Miami after Quity becomes pregnant, but that household is simply a continuation of earlier efforts at a more dispersed or distributed approach. During her stay in the slum, Quity adopts—in a communal sense—a young boy, although she will later say that he adopted her. Quity’s observation about prayers holds true for much of the slum’s organization and operation, including that adoption: “no god was listening to them but they were listening to themselves and they were listening together and it was that joining of forces that mattered.”
The loss of that little boy, however, shakes Quity’s belief that any positive power can be found in the slum. Sunk into a permanent state of mourning and profound pessimism, her outsider’s disillusionment stands in stark contrast to Cleo’s insider optimism, which had wavered but ultimately recovered. It’s a tale of two expectations: although Quity had been attracted to the slum because it provided a story that had not really been told, she could not deal with its ending; Cleo, meanwhile, relies on a faith that always delivers, although not always in time.
By including the voice of an outsider initially inclined to romanticize alongside a relentlessly transgressive figure who regularly accesses the transcendent, Cabezón Cámara represents a conflicted social space that has no typical dweller. Instead, a variety of viewpoints converge and diverge to create spaces that, more often than not, are contested rather than settled. Where The President’s Room obfuscates this same question of perspective by regularly undermining the reliability of its unnamed narrator, Slum Virgin reminds us that one can never define one’s position in isolation.
In both novels, the political is the spatial, which is in turn the literary and its ability to upset patterns of representation and reception. Like the mysterious sounds from Cortázar’s story, the literary takes over as it proposes how we might populate old spaces with new inhabitants. In an interview following the Spanish release of Slum Virgin in 2009, Cabezón Cámara articulated precisely this idea while partly anticipating Romero’s novel, which would not appear until six years later. For her, Slum Virgin’s mix of high and low culture, the clash between references to the classics and to cumbia, “could be considered a wager about what one would like to see happen with identities in society. Let the transvestite mix with the president, not in a relationship of prostitution but instead an equal one, in a public space, for instance. Let everyone mix with whatever they feel like mixing with.”
By making Cabezón Cámara and Romero’s works available to English-language audiences, Charco Press opens up the space of possibility where such mixing might occur. In this they resemble Buenos Aires publisher Eterna Cadencia, which originally published both novels. Despite being a little less than ten years old, its catalogue already contains much of the best work from both Argentina and abroad, and Charco, with its auspicious debut, leaves little doubt that it will remain an excellent collaborator and also become a promising English-language counterpart.