Category Archives: Ocampo Silvina

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

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.

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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.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Back in July, I read a few books to tie in with Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month. All well and good except I ended up with several other books on my shopping list on the back of other bloggers’ reviews. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate was near the top of that list thanks to Grant’s review, and when I spotted it in the new Foyles, I couldn’t resist.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, first published in 1946, is the only known work of fiction by Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo and her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and what a little gem it is.

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The novella is narrated by Dr. Humberto Huberman, a physician who also happens to be a writer. As the story opens, Huberman is travelling to the Hotel Central in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar with the intention of working on his latest screenplay, an adaptation of Petronius. The hotel – owned by the doctor’s cousin, Andrea and her husband, Esteban – is marooned on a bed of sand ‘like a ship on the sea’, and at first sight the good doctor believes he has discovered the ‘literati’s paradise,’ the perfect setting in which to finish his play.

A number of other guests are staying at the hotel, most notably two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé, Enrique Atuel and Dr. Cornejo, another gentleman known to the group. It’s not long though before our narrator senses tensions within this party. Firstly, he overhears a disagreement between Mary and Emilia’s fiancé at the beach. Mary is determined to go swimming, but Atuel seems overly concerned for her safety in light of the currents. Cornejo, on the other hand, sees no little danger in the situation and encourages the girl to take to the waters. A little later, as Huberman returns to his room, he hears the two sisters insulting one another furiously, and as night descends, the atmosphere at the hotel takes a rather sinister turn:

Suddenly, the howling of the dogs was drowned out by an immense moan; it was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.

“A windstorm. We must close the doors and windows,” declared my cousin.

A drumming sound, like rain, beat against walls.

“Here it rains sand,” noted my cousin. Then she added: “Just as long as we don’t end up buried…”

Nimbly, the rotund typist closed the windows. She looked at us, smiling, and said: “Something is going to happen tonight! Something is going to happen tonight!” (pg. 32, Melville House)

And she’s right. When Emilia discovers Mary’s body the following morning, Huberman swiftly inserts himself into the proceedings by declaring that the young woman has been poisoned. By now we’ve gathered that our narrator is a somewhat supercilious and pedantic busybody, one who feels compelled to involve himself in the investigation, at least until the police arrive.

Bioy Casares and Ocampo have much fun with this set-up, and Huberman’s character in particular. The narrator’s observations on Atuel, whom he considers a prime suspect, are deliciously sharp and barbed:

“Don’t touch anything!” I shouted. “You are going to muddle the fingerprints.”

I gave Cornejo and Atuel a severe look. The latter seemed to be smiling with veiled slyness. (pg. 41)

“The manner makes the man,” I thought. Atuel’s manner, like that of an overly debonair tango crooner, was beginning to exasperate me. (pg. 42)

And while Humberto waits for the arrival of the police, he seems equally concerned with the impact of events on the hotel’s schedule for meals and afternoon tea:

My plan was precise: take tea; visit Emilia before the police arrived; receive the police. Yet I feared that my cousin’s inexplicable delay in preparing, recipe in hand, some scones that aspired to equal Aunt Carlota’s justifiable famous ones, might perhaps signal the downfall of this most reasonable plan. (pg. 50)

Naturally, once Commissioner Aubrey and Doctor Montes (the police physician) arrive, our narrator could step aside and leave the investigation to the authorities. Huberman, however, continues to believe that the case will benefit from his observational skills and powers of reasoning, especially since Montes appears to have arrived in a state of inebriation:

The doctor was drunk; he had arrived drunk.

Cecilio Montes was a man of medium height and fragile build. He had dark wavy hair, large eyes, extremely pale skin, a finely boned face and a straight nose. He was dressed in a greenish cheviot hunting- suit, quite well cut, that, once upon a time, had been of high quality. His silk shirt was dirty. The hallmarks of his general aspect were slovenliness, neglect, ruin – a ruin that yet allowed glimpses of a former glory. I asked myself how this character, an escapee from a Russian novel, had appeared in our midst; (pg. 53)

What follows is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect, even Huberman initially. There are twists and turns aplenty, and a few red herrings thrown in for good measure. It’s all tremendous fun.

On the surface, the novella reads like a traditional murder mystery; look a little closer, however, and we can see how the writers are gently poking fun at the genre. Once the heat is off and he can align himself with the police team, our narrator draws upon his knowledge of crime fiction to aid and abet the investigation. For instance, when the Commissioner relays his initial hypothesis on the murder, Huberman goes a little too far in trying to challenge a logical argument with an emotional response:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focus entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would endure…” (pg. 67)

I thoroughly enjoyed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. It’s atmospheric, too; at one point, our narrator gets lost in a sandstorm, swept up in a labyrinth of sand, mud and marine life. The hotel seems to be sinking into the sand, almost as if it is being subsumed by its surroundings. As Andrea warns Huberman soon after his arrival at the hotel: ‘If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.’

In many ways this book reminds me of Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, which I reviewed a few months ago, another delightful novella involving a mysterious death. I can recommend both.

I read this book to link in with Richard’s celebration of Argentine and Uruguayan lit.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell) is published in the UK by Melville House Publishing. Source: Personal copy.