EVEN IN HER NATIVE Argentina, Silvina Ocampo’s work has long been overshadowed by her contemporaries: one of Ocampo’s five sisters, Victoria Ocampo, was the founder and editor of Sur, a prestigious Argentine literary journal, which published and was often guest edited by writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Alfonso Reyes, Guillermo de Torre, and Pablo Neruda. Borges was a collaborator and good friend of both of the Ocampo sisters, which caused some to compare Ocampo’s work to Borges’s, calling her stories “insufficiently Borgean.” In 1940, Ocampo married another Argentine writer and Borges collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, author of The Invention of Morel. Although they had a tempestuous relationship — Bioy Casares had multiple lovers during their marriage, which Ocampo did not endorse, and fathered children with some, one of whom Ocampo adopted — they remained married until her death in 1993. Ocampo was also the object of the much younger poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s affection. Pizarnik wrote Ocampo multiple love letters, including a particularly desperate one only days before Pizarnik committed suicide at age 36.
Her work has been far less known to readers of English. This November, City Lights published her debut collection of stories, Forgotten Journey, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan, and her only novel, The Promise, translated by Levine and Jessica Powell.
Ocampo’s characters belong to a world similar to that of writers like Borges, Amparo Dávila, Italo Calvino, and Leonora Carrington. John Freeman wrote, “These two newly translated books could make her a rediscovery on par with Clarice Lispector. […] Lusciously strange, uncompromising, yet balanced and precise, there has never been another voice like hers.” Interest in translation of Latin American writers has greatly increased over the past decade, partly due to what Nathan Scott McNamara dubs “The Bolaño Effect.” Previously untranslated writers are experiencing a moment in the spotlight, which has led to the work of many female authors, like Lispector and Dávila, whose work was not previously considered highly marketable to English readers.
While Borges’s and Casares’s characters inhabit fantastical worlds, Ocampo’s exist in what resembles our own, but shifted subtly to reveal the casual cruelty inherent in society. Many critics have noted the ruthless behavior of her characters, and she once said in an interview that she was not given Argentina’s National Prize for Literature because her stories were “too cruel.” Her characters are confronted by sudden realizations and uncanny situations. There is a house of sickly children, a ranch plagued by “the cries of strange birds,” and a knit blue cardigan that makes its wearer feel the overwhelming difficulty of the world. Nothing is quite as it seems; even the dead are perhaps patiently waiting to take their next breath.
Her characters boast names like Mademoiselle Dargère, Cipriano, or Florindo Flodiola, a singer who flees the house where he has been invited to perform, “running through the hallways, with his arms in the form of screams.” Ocampo’s descriptions often blend the senses in unexpected ways, using the comparison of a shape or smell to plumb the depths of a character’s memories, or emotional state. Her sensory associations are perhaps a nod to her origin as a visual artist (she studied with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger, who both influenced the Surrealists) as she outlines the human condition through artistic representation.
Ocampo disrupts banal settings with unsettling thoughts — one reason her work attracts a feminist reading. Her characters do not overtly challenge the patriarchal systems they exist in, but supernatural events often intervene in ways that allow for a break in the system, if not an escape.
In Forgotten Journey, many of the stories feature girls, sisters, and young female friends. They exist in the same plane as the adults around them, but within an imaginative world of their own. Young girls play in fields by a stormy sea and communicate through fences as their guardian angels sleep. They learn through other girls and women of the world’s secrets, often a dark and scary transformation, which ends in the loss of innocence, or death.
In one story, “The Lost Passport,” a 14-year-old girl named Claude Vildrac travels alone on a boat to visit a strange aunt who lives in a big house far away. She has a new passport just for the occasion, which terrifies her.
If I lose this passport, then no one will know who I am, including me. I must not lose this passport. If I do lose it, I will have to stay on this boat forever, until the years wear it down and ready it for a shipwreck. Old boats are sure to sink at some point, so I’ll be forced to die by drowning, my hair loose and all wet, with my photograph in the newspapers as “the girl who lost her passport.”
Claude spends her days aboard the ship “reading her passport like a prayer book.” She is left in the care of a family whose name she can’t remember, but she hopes that the journey doesn’t go by too quickly, because she wants to spend “many days running around freely on deck — alone, alone, alone.”
Someone soon catches her eye though — a woman named Elvia, who an older man tells her is a “working girl.” Claude does not understand how Elvia, a woman who she describes wearing “a dress that cried out of loneliness in the sheen of the night […] [t]he five bottles of perfume she used on herself made a kind of garden around her,” could be a working woman, whom she imagines wearing in a worker’s suit with patches, carrying “large bags on their backs like day laborers trudging from ranch to ranch.”
Ocampo uses Claude’s innocence to reframe and challenge conservative views of sex and femininity. Claude’s fascination with Elvia toes the line between teenage idolatry and a first crush, a line that Ocampo continually blurs. When the ship is hit by a large scallop-finned fish from the bottom of the sea, Claude runs to the lifeboats, but Elvia is walking alone down the decks. Claude chases after her with a lifejacket in her arms. “The ship would sink forever,” she fears, “carrying her name and irreplaceable face to the bottom of the sea.” Claude’s love surmounts her deepest fear, death, and flies in the face of conventional societal systems.
Ocampo writes relationships between women and girls fraught with tension. Some conflict stems from class — Ocampo’s family belonged to Buenos Aires high society — such as a rich and poor girl that become friends in “The Two Houses of Olivos,” or the ranch hand’s daughters in “The Backwater,” who grow up with the owner’s children, but are left behind as the landowner’s girls leave for school, then move away.
Other tensions come from societal expectations, specifically in raising children and upholding the image of the virtuous woman. In “The Poorly Made Portrait,” Eponina “hated her sons one by one as they were born, thieves who had stolen her adolescence and who were never imprisoned, except by the arms that rocked them to sleep.” Those arms belong to Ana, a servant, who distracts Eponina with songs in the morning, and is always the first one up, who cooks, cleans, and tidies. One day, Ana cannot be found, so Eponina goes looking for her, and eventually finds her in the attic, covered in blood. Ana has killed one of Eponina’s sons. As the family looks on in horror, Eponina gives Ana “a long, surprisingly tender embrace.”
The most fraught relationships are those that, like Claude Vildrac’s obsession, could be read as sexual. In one story, a girl wants to visit the daughter of her father’s friend, Elena, but is told they won’t be able to that day. Her reaction: “[S]he felt that a vast ocean like the one they taught her about on the maps separating her from the face she wanted to reach, as it faded away before her: Elena’s.” Thus ends the story; a dramatic turn for a missed playdate. In Ocampo’s novel, The Promise, two women, Lily and Lillian, are always together, and they begin to look more and more alike:
At the age of twenty they fell in love — or believed they fell in love — with the same man. One would see the boy in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. He thought he was deceiving them both, be he wasn’t deceiving anyone. The two of them were deceiving him, because instead of kissing him they were kissing each other, because instead of adoring him they adored one another.
Through these tensions, Ocampo draws out a world of lust, disobedience, and desire that exists adjacent to patriarchal society, in a sheltered world that centers female narratives. She uses the fantastical to upend the power structures she saw around her, and to question traditional male-female roles.
In The Promise, Ocampo further addresses the many forms of love, and femininity, through selective, shattered memory. The Promise is the longest piece of fiction and only novel that Ocampo wrote. In Ernesto Montequín’s introduction, he writes that Ocampo first mentioned writing it in an interview in 1966. Ocampo claims that it took her decades to complete the novel because “the main character is endlessly telling us things; something is making this woman talk on and on, telling one thing after another. It’s a promise that she has made and that she keeps so as not to die, but one can tell she is dying.” The novel was finally published in 2011, almost 20 years after Ocampo’s death in 1993.
The novel is told from the point of view of a woman who has fallen off of a ship and is floating in the ocean. As she floats, she recalls the people she has met in her life, examining each as a bead on the string of an opalescent necklace.
“I don’t have a life of my own; I have only feelings,” the narrator begins. “My experiences were never important — not during the course of my life, nor even on the threshold of death. Instead, the lives of others have become mine.”
This statement could be applied just as much to Ocampo’s life as to her narrator’s. As the academic critic Cynthia Duncan wrote, Ocampo “lived most of her professional life in the shadow of others,” and represented the traditional and conventional image of the obedient woman. Similar to Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, Ocampo uses her narrator to subtly critique the society that has kept her subservient, and softly tears it apart from within.
As Clarissa does, Ocampo’s narrator can peer into the minds of other characters. She examines each person, entering their consciousness as if in a dream. She jumps back and forth in time, and revisits a particular couple, Leandro and Irene, repeatedly as she attempts to answer the question: “What is falling in love, anyway?”
To her, it seems, love is overwhelming. She can see that Leandro and Irene’s love is doomed. As Irene reclines on the couch, calling for him, the narrator wonders, “Did she love him? Was that what love looked like?” She counters with Leandro’s thoughts, who, she says, “needed Irene to love another being that wasn’t him in order to feel any interest in her. It is so overwhelming to be loved exclusively.” Here, love is beautiful, but it is also secrets, confusion, and pain.
The narrator’s grappling with love is a reflection of Ocampo’s own questions concerning partnership and desire. As Montequín writes, the novel can be read as a “posthumous autobiography.” Love is a mess, and so is memory, as the narrator floats closer to a sure death. As the memories surface, the narrator realizes that “what I imagine becomes real, more real than reality.” She speaks to the isolated consciousness inherent in the human condition, the inability to ever be entirely understood by another individual. Memory lies in the space between perception and reality, and this is where the fantastic muddies the water. Memory becomes fantasy, which then becomes reality. Ocampo’s narrator grasps, floating in the ocean, that her isolated imagination may be the only thing that is real.