Born Out of Rapt Distraction: On Silvina Ocampo’s ‘Thus Were Their Faces’

January 27, 2015 | 6 books mentioned 1 8 min read


This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston.

What we have in Silvina Ocampo is a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school. In 1979 her 42-year body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. “Demasiado crueles” (far too cruel) was the verdict of that year’s panel of judges.[1] It wasn’t Ocampo’s poetry the judges were talking about — she’d won notable poetry prizes in previous years. Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry, where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses. In Ocampo’s poem “A Tiger Speaks,” having briefly surveyed episodes of interaction between humankind and other species in the first stanza, the tiger begins her second stanza with the remark: “We never managed to agree / about man’s true nature.”[2] The tiger’s tone awakens ominous awareness of a class of gaze that passes over the deeds of human beings and finds little humanity in them. It could be that poetry is more readily accepted as a natural vessel for long-distance dispatches of this kind, no matter how precise or orderly the poem’s technical form. Short stories tend to be received quite differently: certain structural assurances are demanded, some guarantee that if and when an event or an idea throws us off-balance, by the end that balance will be restored, or at the very least the tools for its restoration will be within reach. And so “far too cruel” was the verdict on Ocampo’s short fiction, some of the best of which is collected in this book. It’s true that aside from their narrative technique of tripping you up and leaving you on the floor, Ocampo’s stories narrate the inner lives of heartless children, half-mad lovers, and assorted others who lean out of the pages to speak to us with all their anomie showing. Here’s the narrator of “Friends,” for example, sardonically noting the external resemblance between a surfeit of grief and a light smattering of gaiety: “Nearly the whole town was in mourning; the cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest.”

As readers of Ocampo we follow the first Red Riding Hood, bypassing that initial pretense of going among the leaves of a book or a forest in search of kindly, tidy wisdom from the type of grandmother nobody ever really had. No, there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray. I’m tempted to call Ocampo’s readers Red Reading Hoods, but I can well imagine your scorn. In her stories characters negotiate the entrapments of time, which rewards relentless determination, or at least doesn’t punish it. In “Icera,” a small girl from a poor family decides not to grow any bigger than the biggest doll in the doll department of a toy store near her house; her efforts to keep her material wants small face a setback after Icera’s four-inch growth spurt, but that addition of four inches to her height is the full extent of her physical growth between preadolescence and middle age, and we leave her being packaged up happily in a blue cardboard box intended for the transportation of an expensive doll. The narrator doesn’t invite us to wonder at or worry about this turn of events; there’s a level on which Ocampo’s stories are matter-of-fact reports of the everyday traffic (outgoing) between the mind and the world.

covercovercoverOcampo airily collaborated with her immediate contemporaries, co-editing anthologies and writing a short, charmingly off-kilter murder mystery called Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (1946) with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Bioy Casares is the author of one of the 20th century’s most ingenious and affecting works of fabulism, The Invention of Morel (1940), and part of the fun of reading a book co-authored by this superlatively well-read couple lies in trying to guess which parts were written by Bioy Casares, which parts were written by Ocampo, and which parts were written by one impersonating the other. Her novella The Topless Tower (1968) is an adventure diligently narrated by Leandro, a boy who finds himself trapped in a painting. Being trapped in the painting isn’t his only problem; his intellect frequently gets ahead of him and even as he describes his surroundings and encounters he underlines certain words that he uses but doesn’t yet understand (“lugubrious,” “macabre,” “cynical”); these notations serve as reminders to look up the meanings later. Here Ocampo’s fondness and flair for nonsense literature in the vein of Lewis Carroll is palpable. (Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is, after all, a book-long chess game.) There are few other writers who can apply such abstract mischief to narrative without stripping it of its human flesh. If Ocampo’s solo fiction continues to elude canonization within Argentine literature, it will be because the tradition that Ocampo seems to work within is that of the visionary whose sensibility crosses plural borders.

Like Emily Brontë, Ocampo was a younger sister whose literary vision takes its own unruly path away from that of her elder (in Ocampo’s case this elder sister, the revered writer and critic Victoria, was her first publisher). Love is as fearsome in an Ocampo story as it is in Wuthering Heights; emotion has a way of sealing us into a charmed circle that makes us incomprehensible to everyone who stands outside it. This kind of circle shrinks and shrinks until even the beloved is impossible to read clearly, and then finally we’re unable to even pretend to understand our own thoughts. At times Ocampo’s characters speak to us as if under the influence of a truth drug that won’t permit them to simplify the expression of their motivations. In “Autobiography of Irene,” a malicious act is motivated by panic — how else can a teenage girl govern a tempestuous inner life that turns her regard for a beloved teacher into something that feels life threatening, an emotion one could drown in? “[One] day, crying because I already knew how mistaken and how unfair I could be, I made up a slander against that young lady, who had only wanted to praise me.” We also see a similar blurring of psychic attack and defense in “The House Made of Sugar,” in which, having ignored his wife’s superstitions, a man watches the logically impossible repercussions of his actions drain the stability from his marriage with a petulant malevolence that may remind you of a small tyrant who punishes her parent’s disobedience by holding her breath until she loses consciousness. At the end of that story we can only agree with the narrator’s summation: “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar, which now stands empty.” From time to time a form of comic relief is derived from Ocampo’s invitation to view love, romantic or otherwise, from a position of amused disgust — in “Lovers,” a heavy date for two of Ocampo’s characters consists of the joyless, mechanical overconsumption of cake accompanied by “shy conversation on the theme of picnics: people who had died after drinking wine or eating watermelon; a poisonous spider in a picnic basket one Sunday that had killed a girl whose in-laws all hated her; canned goods that had gone bad, but looked delicious.” In “The Guests,” a gift box is found to contain “two crude magnetic dolls that couldn’t resist kissing on the lips, their necks stretched out, as soon as they were within a certain distance of each other.”

Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it: “there are voices that you can see, that keep on revealing the expression of a face even after its beauty is gone,” the protagonist of “Autobiography of Irene” tells us. Blake began with drawing, but just as she tells us in her own words, Ocampo was a painter, an increasingly frustrated student of the cubist Fernand Léger (“nothing interested Léger except the design of his paintings”) and then the proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (“I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color”), until she turned to writing as her own particular means of transforming reality. I consider this when the imagery in Ocampo’s stories slides between the concrete and the abstract, recalling Blake’s spectral embodiments, the ones that rise and float and walk alongside solidly hewn stars and beasts with the look of living stone. When I read “Visions,” a short story of Ocampo’s in which a bedridden woman awaits death (or recovery), I see Blake’s brutal light, rays that blast through all other colors to center and re-center his paintings and illustrations. “Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it,” Ocampo’s narrator says. Either this presence called beauty has an innate power to change us as it approaches and recedes, or it is our own functional creation, an ever-shifting evocation of those moments beyond language when we get closer to and beat an abashed retreat from whatever it is that drives consciousness. Always within reach, yet always mysterious, is this essential self, leading Ocampo to end her own preface to this book with the question: “Will we always be students of ourselves?”

In his preface to this book, Borges writes that Ocampo “sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us. It is useless to try to fool her.” I agree that Ocampo sees, but the all-consuming grudges held by her characters create an initial difficulty in discovering just where her mercy intersects with her clear sight — in “The Fury,” a girl who receives a fish and a monkey as conciliatory gifts from her tormentor simply allows the poor creatures to starve to death. Here gentleness is merely a prologue to some truly dark deed or other. In “The Clock House,” the role at a party of a hunchbacked man named Estanislao goes from guest of honor to victim — it’s impossible to conclusively decide whether or not the child narrator is feigning incomprehension of Estanislao’s fate or is genuinely innocent. Either way we readers are brutalized by the educated guesses the narrative leads us to make. The party guests propose that Estanislao’s suit be ironed with its owner still in it; this occurs, and the commotion of this event is described in the vaguest and most chilling of terms: “Nobody was laughing except for Estanislao.” After that our young narrator N.N. steps back and will not share in the resultant vision. Elsewhere Ocampo demonstrates that she understands, alongside Emily Dickinson, that “The heart asks pleasure first / and then excuse from pain,” but this doesn’t prevent her sharp commentary on the eager adoption of strategies to excuse ourselves from pain. The narrator of “The Prayer,” a story of deadly weakness, notes the prevailing mood at the funeral of an eight-year-old killed by another eight-year-old: “Only one old lady, Miss Carmen, was sobbing, because she didn’t understand what had happened. Oh my God, how miserable, how lacking in ceremony the funeral was!”

I think what Ocampo understands is that so many of our cruelties and treacheries are born out of a sort of rapt distraction; our memories don’t work very well and we try to kick-start them with reenactions, or new and wholly unnecessary treacheries that present themselves to us as reenactions. In “The Mortal Sin,” a household servant named Chango bids his employers’ young daughter to look through a keyhole into the next room, where he’ll show her “something very beautiful.” The girl does as she’s told, and what she sees is made ghastly by the insistent voice of a man in the next room, speaking with “a commanding and sweet obscenity: ‘Doll, look! Look!’” In this way the girl is made fully conscious of her gaze being manipulated for the pleasure of another, a pleasure that’s utterly indifferent to her own dissent. “I feel such sorrow when I think how horror imitates beauty,” the narrator tells us. “Through that door, Pyramus and Thisbe, like you and Chango, spoke their love through a wall.”

These stories seem to agree with Lewis Carroll’s White Queen that it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward, after all. And the further back we look, the less time we have left to see. Even worse, no matter how long or faithfully we look along that line, it doesn’t go back far enough, there’s still something, something big that we’ve all forgotten — we can’t remember what exactly we’re all supposed to be to each other, what we have been, what we can be, and that makes us rough playmates. The living appall us; how can we be at peace with them when they insist on standing so insistently between us and our ghosts? As Armando Heredia explains in the story “The Impostor,” it would be better if we were less careless with the influence we exert upon each others’ experience of the boundaries between life and death: “our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings. If those people imagine that we are dead, we die.” If Armando is right, then on a moment-to-moment basis the terms of the continued existence of any individual are far more fragile than we dare to feel. And like those of Ocampo’s characters who make it to the end of the story without having been murdered by a thing as simple as a velvet dress, or strangled by a grip as powerful as the eddies of an infernal whirlpool, there’s something to be said for counting yourself lucky to be a survivor of yesterday, today, and maybe even tomorrow.

[1] In an interview with Patricia Klingenberg in March 1980, Ocampo reported that she was denied the National Prize in 1979 by judges who felt her stories were ‘demasiado crueles.’” Quote from Cynthia Duncan, “Double or Nothing in Silvina Ocampo’s ‘La casa de azúcar,’” Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana 20, No. 2 (November 1991).

[2] Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems, selected and translated by Jason Weiss (New York: NYRB/poets, 2015).

is the author of five novels, including White Is for Witching, which won a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award; Mr. Fox, which won a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and most recently Boy, Snow, Bird. In 2013, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.