Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo trans. Daniel Balderston (NYRB, Jan. 2015) Reviewed by Scott Esposito

Thus Were Their Faces
by Silvina Ocampo
trans. Daniel Balderston
(NYRB, Jan. 2015
)

Reviewed by Scott Esposito

The overlooked genius among geniuses—this is how people always seem to refer to Silvina Ocampo. As the story goes, she was the ill-fated member of Argentina's great modernist clique, always outshone by her publisher sister, Victoria, her brilliant husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and their incandescent friend, Jorge Luis Borges.

Born in 1903, four years after Borges, she married Bioy in 1940, when he was just 26. Her first book came in 1937, and it was followed by regular installments of poetry and prose right up until her death in 1993, even in the face of Alzheimer’s in the 1980s. She has been adored, receiving prestigious awards for her books and winning lavish praise from legends like Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Alejandra Pizarnik. But it is true that in Argentina Ocampo’s reputation is far from the heights reached by Borges and Bioy. And in English things are even worse: a collection of her stories only reached English in 1988, and her first ever book of poetry in English translation appears this year.

To this day it is not hard to find people calling her Argentina’s “best-kept secret.” This may point to barriers for women in the heady modernist golden age, and it may also indicate barriers around the sort of fiction Ocampo wrote. Her influences are much harder to locate than those of Borges or Bioy—making it more difficult to situate her into a cultural lineage—and she chose subjects that courted marginality: child-narrators, the lives of animals, women’s couture, dolls, and madwomen. Borges, Bioy, and Ocampo all brought the surreal into the everyday, but whereas Bioy imagined how technology interfaced with his bizarre plots, and whereas Borges heroicized his adventure tales into master narratives that wrought new truths, Ocampo camouflaged her fantasies, as though they were microscopic details in yards of baroque wallpaper. If you blink at the wrong moment everything will look perfectly normal, yet once you do see that tiny seam in the fabric of what is, your eyes will see nothing else.

It is commonly recounted that Ocampo started her artistic life as a painter with de Chirico in 1930s Paris, and her stories have that same sense of being ruled by their vanishing point, of a sphinxlike torpor cast in six-yard shadows by blazing sun. Her tales can feel timeless, and they connote the occult sensation that what looks like free will is actually kismet. Although Ocampo plays with quotidian domesticity and common fairy tales, she finds frames and angles to make them feel mysterious and menacing. Her poetic sentences apply just the right pressure to turn everyday details vivid, but not lurid; see, for instance, the woman she describes as having “incredibly black hair, and her face was so transparent that it was as if it had been erased; but all that was left of her hair was a very careful white knot, and her dress had five pleats in which Leonor’s eyes got lost.” Such sentences collect into paragraphs whose seeming illogic soon resolves into a powerful inevitability.

It is hard to decide where to draw the lines in her stories: the difference between a clue and a detail, the moment when connections break down into chaos, or even what divides past from present from future. Why does a wife who takes up residence in the home of a woman in an insane asylum eventually inherit her personality? With Ocampo we cannot apply the same old notions of identity and memory. “Autobiography of Irene” sees its narrator foretelling her own death, but there is a twist—like an infinitely recursive spiral, she ends up meeting the young woman who will ensure that fate by writing her biography; she is herself. Elsewhere, forty deaf children merge into a fungus-like mind as they are drawn inexorably toward some secret only they can sense. Are they one or many—or both? Everywhere identities and signs interpenetrate, from the grandeur of plots to the tininess of individual sentences: “The noise of a sewing machine wrapped the house as if in a hem of silence and the only sound was the moaning that tears must make in order to squeeze out of closed eyes.”

In the sly, novella-length “The Imposter,” a young man is sent by a father into the countryside to spy on his troubled son. At length, the mole learns that his target is enmeshed in a love affair with María Gismondi, no matter that she died four years ago. To reach this conclusion he must first navigate through a crowd of false Marías, and when he finally forces his friend’s confession, it is a short-lived victory. Yes, he admits, in a certain sense his María has passed away but, “I understood that 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. That’s why I can’t forgive you for saying that María Gismondi is dead.” The story concludes with a bloody climax that is followed by the kind of twist Bioy and Borges also loved to employ—one that in other hands would become cheap kitsch but here is an opportunity to push the foregoing into the eternal. Already a meditation on the distance that identity can traverse after death, it becomes an open question on just what life is, and how words perpetuate it through the years. As the mystic narrator of the coda says, “the consequences of any act are, in some sense, infinite.”

One of the striking things about “The Imposter” is the way that agency gets shuffled around, passed off from hand to hand as the story twists and its frame expands. We can feel the narrator’s uneasiness that he is less the author of his life than an observer in it; this is a powerful source of existential anxiety, for him and so many other of Ocampo’s protagonists. Such agency-shifting gives these stories a powerful plurality. Take “The Velvet Dress,” which simply recounts the fitting of a murderous dress on an old woman. Ocampo had a way of making her women seem almost devoured by their clothes:

For a few seconds Casilda tried unsuccessfully to pull the skirt of the dress down over the lady’s hips. I helped as best I could. She finally managed to put on the dress. For a few moments the lady rested in the armchair, exhausted . . .
I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequined dragon. The lady stood up again and, staggering slightly, walked over to the mirror. The sequin dragon also staggered. The dress was now nearly perfect, except for an almost imperceptible tuck under the arms. Casilda took up the pins once more, plunging them perilously into the wrinkles that bulged out of the unearthly fabric.

Moments later the woman falls down dead. Who has killed her? Herself, the dress, the sequin dragon, the seamstress, fashion, or the child-narrator who punctuates seven of these thirty-two paragraphs with an impish “how amusing!”? This could have been a perfectly forgettable tale, but by spreading the agency around Ocampo gives it a moody, menacing tone, and makes that bizarre child narrator feel exceedingly creepy.

The jaunty, blasé voice behind “The Velvet Dress” is pure malice, unconcerned with who or what is in control, but the most sincere and sympathetic of Ocampo’s narrators share their misgivings as to their measure of free will. “At times I suspect that I don’t merely see the future but that I cause it” says the narrator of “The Doll.” A strange declaration—what “causes” the future if not the present?—but one that sits comfortably in these stories, where there is an ongoing feeling that the future is somehow exerting influence on the present, not vice versa. Borges singled out such foreknowledge as one of Ocampo’s unique qualities, saying, “there is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or to the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” Premonitions flood her stories with an occult dusklight, and they also imply a philosophical stance: causation is an antique from the 16th century, and we should learn from those who are sensitive to what it ignores. This partly explains the preternatural intelligence of her many child-narrators—though immature, they access details beyond the reach of cause and effect, and so they intuit moods and pressures that are too subtle for their elders. Animals, too, occupy this space; these stories ache to find the overlaps between what they understand and the sorts of humans who might comprehend it.

The narrator of “The Doll”—she who suspects she not only sees the future but also causes it—recounts a key childhood episode that sits delicately on the axis between clairvoyance and coincidence. Motherless and very young, she has been passed from foster home to foster home; in the latest of her many substitute families she is caught innocently playing with the household son and thought to be corrupting him. It is assumed that when the boy’s mother returns from a trip she will dispatch the little girl, but before that can take place the mother gives the girl a surprise doll. Everybody realizes that it is the exact item the little girl has been endlessly talking about. There is no way she could have known about it beforehand. “Witch,” her guardians declare, and her place in the home is assured.

The question of “The Doll” is who can take credit for what. In the first paragraph the narrator confides her suspicion that she causes the future instead of merely witnessing it, but is this really just the fantasy of a disempowered woman, a way of granting herself authority? The point could be argued endlessly, and the story’s final, ambiguous line does nothing to resolve the question: “that was how they pointed me toward the difficult art of soothsaying.” So then who is really the author of her future: the little girl who seems to have foreseen the doll, or the adults who convince her she is a fortune teller? This uncertainty is precisely what makes soothsaying both difficult and an art, and it is inside this fog that Ocampo locates her version of free will.

If the soothsayers in Ocampo’s stories tend to be young, it is perhaps because the aged are too full of memories to imagine any future other than the past. “This whole world is a monument to our fidelity,” explains the narrator of “And So Forth,” “if you go in search of a world without memories in order to forget, there is nothing that will block our eyes or our ears.” In other words, we can never escape our pasts because everything in the world reminds us of it. The protagonist of this short, exceedingly bizarre work aches from some lost love, and, try as he might to run away, his flight only serves up remembrances. But then something happens. He discovers a mermaid on a beach and is captivated. There is a certain logic here: what frees us from the prison of our memories is something that can only exist in the imagination.

In addition to our memories, Ocampo’s other major prison is time. This is perhaps the source of her infamous cruelty—it is said that she was passed over for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature in 1979 because her work was deemed “too cruel,” and Borges himself in the foreword to this volume notes her “strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty.” Ocampo’s fiction can feel so cruel because the forces in her stories inflict their malicious deeds by their very nature, like cats lazily kneading the last bits of life from a mouse. None is more implacably itself than the passing seconds. Cruel indeed to imagine a world where our youthful selves are but antecedents to a future waiting to claim us, and where our elder selves are pinned beneath the weight of everything that was ordained. But Ocampo will not deny us all hope. “Uncertainty is a form of happiness that works in lovers’ favor,” she writes in “Lovers,” which simply recounts an afternoon a man and a woman spend eating cake together, their frenzied consumption of the treats neatly allegorizing how routine eventually spoils passion. But there is a twist here: the lovers never quite become lovers—they are too shy, and maybe the better off for it. Sometimes it is richer to be poised on the brink of a kiss than to take the plunge, and sometimes it is better that a time-travel paradox defies all efforts to chain it into cause and effect. Ocampo might be right: perhaps the future is pre-ordained. Good, then, that the insufficiency of our five common senses leaves us in doubt.

There have been previous efforts to bring Silvina into acclaim. The NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces is itself an expansion of a 1988 translation, and a search for her work will show scatterings of out-of-print translations, individual stories and poems collected in anthologies, numerous dissections in academic papers, and miscellaneous mentions in books by the likes of Alberto Manguel, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Ilan Stavans. Until fairly recently her husband Bioy had the same poor luck in English, seeing his books come into and out of print, adored by a handful but generally neglected. It was only with the 2003 reissue of his classic The Invention of Morel that he found a sizable audience in the English language. Perhaps this indicates a certain change in the stories Americans now tell ourselves, suitable to making the work of this pair palatable. Are not the clairvoyant, crime-fighting precogs of Minority Report now a matter of national paranoia, The Matrix’s hyperreality a place that we understand ourselves to somehow inhabit? How near to these are Ocampo’s infinite recursions, her soothsaying young women, preternatural children, and malicious objects? Bioy proved himself a perfect match for the films the French avant-garde would attempt in the 1960s; so now, seeing the fantasias the Wachowskis eagerly fling upon the screen, the games David Lynch will play with identity and chronology, Christopher Nolan’s elaborate narratives around memory and subconscious, I think it is time for Ocampo’s dark star to rise.

 

Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books, 2013). He is currently writing a short book on gender to be published next year by Anomalous Press.