My first encounter with Silvina Ocampo’s work came in the shape of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a novella she co-wrote with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. This playful take on the traditional murder mystery genre made my 2014 end-of-year highlights, so I’ve been looking forward to reading Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short stories published earlier this year. In her introduction to this collection, Helen Oyeyemi informs us that the panel of judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature deemed Ocampo’s body of work to be “demasiado crueles” meaning “far too cruel” and so they denied her the prize. While it’s true to say that several of these stories feature rather sinister events, I’m not sure I would simply label them as “cruel”. They’re far more interesting than that, a point I hope to demonstrate in this review.
Faces contains forty-two stories drawn from seven different collections of Ocampo’s writing published from 1937 to 1988; the pieces vary in length from one or two pages to longer works.
Several of the pieces throughout the collection feature individuals who possess the ability to see into the future, an unsettling sense of clairvoyance that often arouses suspicion amongst those around them. In one of my favourite stories, Autobiography of Irene, a young woman describes how she foresaw her father’s death three months before it happened.
I was happy, but the sudden death of my father, as I said before, brought about a change in my life. Three months before he died, I had already prepared my mourning dress and the black crepe; I had already cried for him, leaning majestically on the balcony railing. I had already written the date of his death on an etching; I had already visited the cemetery. All of that was made worse by the indifference I showed after the funeral. To tell the truth, after his death I never remembered him at all. (pg. 78)
This clever, beautiful and moving piece ends with a development that brings Irene’s story full circle, one that made me turn back to the beginning to read it a second time.
The supernatural crops up again in The House Made of Sugar, the first of several excellent pieces taken from Ocampo’s 1959 collection, The Fury. In this disquieting story, the narrator tells of his partner, Cristina, a woman whose life is governed by superstitions.
There were certain streets we couldn’t cross, certain people we couldn’t see, certain movie theaters we couldn’t go to. Early in our relationship, these superstitions seemed charming to me, but later they began to annoy and even seriously worry me. When we got engaged we had to look for a brand-new apartment because, according to her, the fate of the previous occupants would influence her life. (She at no point mentioned my life, as if the danger threatened only hers and our lives were not joined by love.) (pg. 91)
Finally, the narrator finds what he hopes will be the ideal place: a little house that looks as if it is made of sugar. On discovering that the house had been occupied in the past and subsequently remodelled, he decides to keep quiet and let Cristina believe that their home is brand new. But once the newly-weds move in, the narrator starts to notice certain changes in Cristina’s behaviour. Slowly but surely she begins to inhabit another woman’s life, that of the mysterious Violeta, the previous occupant of the house.
In The Photographs, a fateful little story from the same period, Ocampo shows her talent for taking what should be a joyful celebration and injecting a touch of the macabre into it. Recovering from a stay in hospital and unable to walk unaided, Adriana is allowed home for her fourteenth birthday party. As they wait for the photographer (Spirito) to arrive, the guests entertain themselves with ‘stories of more or less fatal accidents. Some of the victims had been left without arms, others without hands, others without ears’.
Members of the family jostle and position Adriana for a series of photographs, moving and manipulating her as if she were a rag dog. As the story unravels, there is a striking contrast between the sugar-coated sweetness of the occasion and the insensitivity shown towards the young girl.
In the third photograph, Adriana brandished the knife to cut the cake, which was decorated with her name, the date of her birthday, and the word “Happiness,” all written in pink icing, and covered with rainbow sprinkles.
“She should stand up,” the guests said.
An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”
“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”
Adriana grimaced with pain, and once more poor Spirito had to take her picture sunken in her chair surrounded by the guests. (pgs. 122-123)
The Velvet Dress, touches on another contrast: the dual nature of velvet, a fabric that feels smooth when rubbed one way and rough when rubbed the other; a fabric with the power to repel as well as attract. This story features a woman who is having a dress made-to-measure, a velvet dress featuring a dragon motif embroidered with black sequins.
I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequin 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. (pg. 146-147)
Without wishing to give too much away, this brief but effective tale takes a sinister turn. It’s narrated by a child, the dressmaker’s companion, who peppers the narrative with several cries of “How amusing!”
This childlike sense of mischief and wickedness is present in several of Ocampo’s stories, especially those from the 1950s and ‘60s. Other pieces from this period include:
- The Wedding: another story with a sting in its tail, this one featuring a girl who hides a huge spider in the hairpiece of her soon-to-be married neighbour, Arminda. As the girl’s friend says “Spiders are like people: they bite to defend themselves.”
- Mimoso: a sinister story of a woman who has her beloved dog embalmed following its death. But when someone taunts and criticises her for doing so the woman takes her revenge in the most fitting way possible.
- The Perfect Crime, in which a man commits a crime of passion involving poisonous mushrooms.
- The Lovers, which features a couple who meet sporadically. Shy and with little to say to one another, they indulge in a ritual of picnicking on cakes. As they devour the pastries with ‘loving greed and intimacy’ they find a way to commune with each other and their movements become synchronised.
- Thus Were Their Faces: a strange, dreamlike story in which forty children from a school for the deaf strive to assume similar characteristics, personalities and identities ‘as if they wanted to become equal’. Here’s an extract:
They were also linked by the violence of their gestures, by their simultaneous laughter, by a boisterous and sudden feeling of sadness in solidarity hidden in their eyes, in their straight or slightly curly hair. So indissolubly united were they that they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.
At the top of a slide, out of excitement not wickedness, they almost killed a child who had slipped in among them. On the street, in the face of admiring enthusiasm, a flower vendor almost perished, trampled with his merchandise. (pg. 193)
Several of Ocampo’s stories blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. One of the earliest stories, The Imposter, demonstrates this to good effect. In this extended piece, the young man who narrates the story is sent on a journey by a family friend to check up on his son – the boy has hidden himself away at a secluded ranch in the countryside. When the narrator arrives, several objects and people remind him of things he has seen before: images, people and scenes from his dreams start to appear in reality; strange developments occur; and as the story progresses, one begins to question what is real and what is illusory. This is another story featuring a shift that will have you flipping back to the beginning to read it again.
Some of Ocampo’s final stories are characterised by a free-spirited wildness, possibly the product of an especially vivid imagination in the years leading up to her death. Others are gentler, tenderer pieces such as And So Forth, which features a man who falls for a mermaid. This beautiful, mystifying story reads like a prose poem, an ode to a different kind of love.
I love the stories in Thus Were Their Faces, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of the pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. Ocampo studied painting with the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and this flair for the artistic shows in her prose which sparkles with strange and mysterious imagery. This is an unusual and poetic collection of stories – highly recommended.
Thus Were Their Faces is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20, #TBR20 round 2.