(San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2019)
Forgotten Journey, Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan
The Promise, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell
There’s a peculiar imbalance between Forgotten Journey and The Promise, the first and last works of fiction by the Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo, published this year by City Lights Books in translations by Suzanne Jill Levine, with Katie Lateef-Jan and Jessica Powell: at the outset of her career, this best friend of Jorge Luis Borges was eager to look back on the course of her life from the vantage of a successful author; so, in Viaje olvidado, a 1937 collection of vignettes that marked her transition from poems to short stories, she portrayed childhood as a nightmarish memory of the future, and adulthood as a delirium that might wreak havoc on a castaway or an invalid; and at her career’s close, she labored for more than twenty years to complete a series of fictionalized reminiscences, only to leave behind a 1989 manuscript novella called La promesa that would take her estate another twenty years to publish. She returned to a handful of themes over and over, and a single character named Irene stands out from her oeuvre, as a universal and timeless figure for the human personality, in stark contrast with her environment.
Ocampo has a reputation for depicting kids who behave horribly, but the pieces in Viaje olvidado portray an adult world that destroys children, so that the little corpses turn into cold gestures of contempt for grownups. The stories strain to achieve a macabre effect: “Eponina opened the trunk and saw her dead son” (“The Poorly Made Portrait”); “Charlotte caressed him, and thick drops of blood left their mark on her hand” (“Landscape With Trapezes”); “Standing on a window ledge on the third floor, they took a glorious leap … but she kept on ironing” (“The Acrobats”); “Her mother knelt in the grass wailing, imagining her daughter dead, floating among the fruits in the canals with weeds tangled in her hair” (“Saint’s Day”); and “Shrouded in the organdy gauze of an old-fashioned lady automobile driver, she died like Joan of Arc, hearing voices” (“The Linio Milagro Family”). Enjoyable as these lines are, they mistake stylishness for vision, and the collection as a whole leaves you with the impression of a writer who has a knack but is still trying to find her way. Only two stories in Viaje olvidado, “The Sea” and “Sarandí Street,” anticipate the writer’s mature technique, as the characters undergo epiphanies—“She felt the sea for the first time against her breasts and leapt into the water that from afar had frightened her with its big waves, its small waves, and its undertow, crashing over the breakwater, sinking ships;” and “This boy, who was almost my own, now has an unfamiliar voice that bellows from the radio, I’m trapped in the dark little room of my hands, and through the window of my fingers I see a pair of men’s shoes on the edge of the bed”—while a third story, “The Wide and Sunny Terrace,” with its combination of eroticism, memory, illness and hallucination during a sojourn in the ocean, encapsulates her final work, the novella La promesa, in a single sentence: “She would have been able to swim, because swimming is just lying down, moving over dense mattresses of water, and the sun would have cured her, but the trees were bare against a gray sky and the awnings over the windows flapped in the wind.” In some ways La promesa, and by extension Ocampo’s body of work as a whole, is the elaboration of a single conceit.
A handful of pieces across Ocampo’s oeuvre stand at the center of this main line of development, and in these stories she deals with the genre conventions of prose fiction, and she’s at her most traditional and her most original. In the 1961 short story “Visions,” for example, an ailing woman describes her synaesthesia while under the influence of intravenous medication—“On the highest note, which enters all ears as if it were a long needle, people are so disturbed that the tremulous sound vibrates, endlessly prolonged”—and in the 1970 short story “Men Animals Vines,” the survivor of a shipwreck ruminates on what it means to find herself so far away from civilization that she doesn’t miss its pursuits—“Now that I am surrounded by vegetation that grows at random, would I prefer to be surrounded by well-kept plants?”—so that, looking ahead with the benefit of hindsight, you can take in her distinctive blend of themes. But what’s fascinating about La promesa, as anglophone readers can now appreciate thanks to this translation, is what it says about Ocampo’s technique. You can see this in the way it develops her best character, a woman named Irene.
Irene appears several times throughout the more than forty years of Ocampo’s career. She takes on more specificity the more the author separates herself from her creation. We first meet Irene in the 1945 poem “Autobiography of Irene.” Here she’s an alter ego. She casts her glance backward. This abstraction of a child’s imagination is an aesthetics of the uncanny. Her dreams are the remembrance of what is still to come:
These things are not important
but I always wanted to remember them…
I could only remember the future:
how my house was going to be, not the way it was,
the boys already with faces of men,
the rosebuds withered,
the absent vine blooming.
I could see the people dead
who were about to die, and
I never communicated to anyone
those anxious zones
in my memories of the future.
Mysterious phrases silenced me.
I was quiet and I liked to hear
those who remembered the past
(that realm prohibited to me).
I only remembered the future!
On the verge of her death Irene relives the girlhood in which she had longed for decrepitude. She next appears in a 1948 short story, also called “The Autobiography of Irene,” which describes the same situation in prose rather than verse:
On several occasions I imagined my death, while sitting before mirrors and holding a paper rose. Now I have that rose in my hand (it was in a vase by my bed). A rose, a vain ornament smelling like a rag, with a name written on one of its petals. I don’t need to smell it, to look at it: I know it’s the very same one. Today I am dying, and my face is the very one I saw in the mirrors of my childhood.
This is the title story of Ocampo’s second collection. As Mariana Enriquez notes in her portrait of the author, The Little Sister, the book can be read in the context of the author’s position within the polemics of her time. For Enriquez, Irene is “the girl who, more than knowing the future, lives it” in “a remodeling of the Borgesian model of narrative.” Enriquez continues:
Autobiography of Irene is, without a doubt, a book influenced not only by Borges, but also by the debates on literature that took place in the magazine Sur, to which Silvina Ocampo was not a stranger although, as with almost everything in her life, she preferred to stay in the shadows.
As elaborate as Irene’s consciousness may be in the story and poem, therefore, she remains a vehicle, a way to convey the preoccupations for which Silvina Ocampo could not, or would not, otherwise find a form. What Irene doesn’t yet possess, as of 1948, is a life of her own, an independent existence as part of the social and historical world—separate from her visions and dreams—much as Ocampo’s technique would need to be disentangled from the influence of Borges and Sur. These distinctions will emerge in La promesa.
La promesa is the tale of a Buenos Airean woman who embarks on a ship to visit relatives in Cape Town and falls overboard while reaching for a brooch as it falls from her scarf in midocean. Afloat for days, until a raft stocked with provisions drifts toward her, she amuses herself by letting her thoughts wander in a revery of the people she has known. In a prayer to Saint Rita she promises to write these disjunct memories down in a book and publish it, if she’s allowed to survive. A series of vignettes, each a page or two long at most, La promesa paints a panorama of Argentine society in broad strokes, ranging from gruesome mock news items—“she told them how she had cut her into little pieces, which (mixed into the potash) were used (except the bones, which she buried) to make the soap”—to the drollery of an exhausted raconteuse—“As he took my chest measurements, he would touch with satisfaction certain protuberances on the lapel that were both expertly and indecently placed, such details being pertinent to his profession”—so that the cumulative effect is that of an entire world, glimpsed through a set of apertures placed just so. But the truly fascinating thing about La promesa is the character of Irene. Her last name is Roca now (it used to be Andrade). She is a single mother, raising a daughter named Gabriela, whom she addresses using the masculine Gabriel, and whose father is never mentioned. The anonymous narrator is in love with Leandro, a hospital employee. Irene is in love with Leandro too. He doesn’t care much for either of them, and his indifference is his function in the book: to serve as a foil, so Ocampo can separate her protagonist from Irene. At the distance of her envy, the authorial voice lets us in on her character’s life story at last. Irene was not born in Argentina, but in the village of Ginzo de Limia, in Spain; her aunt offered to take her in, so she moved to Buenos Aires. Her stepfather was an alcoholic and her mother abandoned her and was found dead, not eaten by wolves, in the snowy woods. Endowed with a joyful nature, unlike her gloomy child, Irene did not flee from Franquist Spain, the way a character created by a lesser author might be expected to do. Instead, she turns out to be something more elusive and difficult, a daughter of fortune—which is fascinating, given what one knows about her inward life from the “Autobiography” poem and story, because she is so different from her author: a symbol. Pieced together thus intermittently across the decades, the composite image of Irene makes her Ocampo’s most captivating creation.
For all that La promesa might accurately be termed a miniaturist achievement, the book also has the light touch, the brisk burnish, of a late-style work, a final opus. These lines from the opening section are unmistakably an author’s testament:
I don’t have a life of my own; I only have feelings. My experiences were never important—not during the course of my life or even on the threshold of death. Instead, the lives of others have become mine.
It’s worth remarking that this testamentary quality of La Promesa is disturbing, as well as poignant. According to Ernesto Montequín, Director of the Villa Ocampo Center in Buenos Aires, the book’s closing passages, “written by hand on loose sheets of paper, with intricate and faltering strokes, are also some of Silvina Ocampo’s final pages”—and in that light, these lines from the ending might give you pause:
I do not believe in the horrible guises of human beings, in bad people, in unjust people. There are moments when a perfect light illuminates them and they prefer to die at the feet of innocence or intelligence. Either one of the two will be our salvation, even if no one believes this is so.
As articles of faith, offered up in propria persona by the author, these passages strike me as either insane or insincere, because it’s impossible for a real person to live up to them in the real world. And yet, as a fictional credo, so to speak—a dream that enlarges the imagination into a zone apart—they’re a pleasure, since they don’t invite the reader to share in a belief. The latter point is worth emphasizing in the context of the author’s biography. Silvina Ocampo’s life story should complicate the attempt to make her into a twenty-first-century white American middle-class liberal. A single detail will suffice to paint the picture. Ocampo was married and, perhaps like the bluestockings who have reviewed her books in the American trade press, she insisted on going places independently from her husband in a car of her own—a Ford Falcon, as it happens—but, probably unlike the reviewers, she never drove it, because her chauffeur did. This author’s aristocratic status within late twentieth-century Argentine society is an inconvenient fact that should confound any effort to make her out as a feminist—a relatable person, in any case—and it’s also the difference that should be kept foremost in mind in the consideration of passages like these, which seem autobiographical. It should make you pause, as you rush to clasp her in a spiritual embrace.
The Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina Ocampo’s husband, wrote in a letter to the American translator and scholar Suzanne Jill Levine that her English version of one of his short stories “does not feel like a translation but rather reads like an original;” while Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a review that Levine’s biography of Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman, had “the air of an immense and entertaining fresco.” Praise from the luminaries of hispanophone literature doesn’t get any higher than that—unless you count a letter Puig wrote to Levine from Buenos Aires in 1971, telling her that he had just been at a party at the house of a writer where all the writers in the room wanted to be translated by her. When she was starting her academic career, Levine, “a native-born New Yorker and the grandchild of Eastern European immigrants,” felt “the company of the text,” and discovered her “affinity for Latin American writers … a certain rootless spirit … a cosmopolitan spirit, from big cities like Buenos Aires or Havana.” In her 1991 book The Subversive Scribe, Levine recalls that as a young woman, “I eagerly donned the mask of Castilian Spanish, expressing myself more emphatically in Spanish than in English.” Of this new way of expressing herself, she asks, “Wasn’t this mask also a means of bringing to life parts of myself suppressed in English?” Maybe we can all wear the mask we need to bring ourselves to life. For the right reader, Silvina Ocampo might be just what is needed.
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Erik Noonan is from Los Angeles. He is the author of the poetry collections Stances and Haiku d’Etat and his writing appears in the anthology Cross Strokes. Erik is a Podcaster at the Dalkey Archive Press and Assistant Editor at Asymptote. He lives in Oakland. For more, please visit eriknoonan.net.