Overlooked, cruel, ruthlessly inventive: Silvina Ocampo is the forgotten middle child in the storied family of Argentine Writers. In reality, she was the youngest of six children born in Buenos Aires; one of her older sisters, Victoria, founded the legendary literary magazine Sur. Silvina was introduced to a world of intellectuals and artists at a young age. She studied painting in Paris under the artists Giorgio de Chirico, Ferdenand Léger and André Lhote (painters who inspired the surrealists) before giving it up to pursue literature. At the age of thirty, she took the nineteen-year-old Adolfo Bioy Casares, the novelist who would grow up to write The Invention of Morel, as her lover. They married seven years later.
Ocampo was a well-known figure in Argentina’s literary circuit. She counted Borges and Manuel Payreu among her close friends, though she did not trust journalists and shunned their attention and affection. Despite winning a National Prize for Poetry in 1962, her work remained relatively unknown to the public. When she died in 1993, Casares withheld the news of her death in order to give her the private funeral that she wanted.
Thus Were Their Faces is a collection of Ocampo’s short stories drawn from the seven volumes she wrote in her lifetime. In its introduction, she likens writing to “having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die.” The sense that something magical lies just outside our grasp, that something other could determine our eternal happiness or melancholia, pervades all of the pieces in this collection. It’s hard to even categorize the mode of Ocampo’s fiction: like Kakfa her prose teeters on the line between modernist fairytale and fantastic or fabulist literature, but instead of wobbling and falling it rises above definition and creates its own space, one where the reader is completely at her mercy.
In the title story, “Thus Were Their Faces,” we learn that forty children in a school for the deaf suddenly “[lose] the indifference (but not innocence) so characteristic of childhood.” In other words, the children begin to act in unison: “Forty faces were exactly the same face, forty minds were exactly the same mind, despite differences in age and lineage.” Ocampo teases, refuses to give anything away. She casually reveals that “an angel arrived…with his shining mirror held high…and showed the children that their faces were identical.” She describes the children as both “happy conspirators” and “[so] indissolubly united…they could defeat an army, a pack of hungry wolves, a plague, hunger, thirst, or the abrupt exhaustion that destroys civilizations.” She consistently pushes beyond sketches and descriptions and illustrates all the possibilities within her subjects, leaving the reader to wonder whether her invocations are good, bad or neither.
The brevity of the stories, the title piece is only six-and-a-half pages long, embellishes their intensity. And Ocampo’s frequent choice of children as witnesses to incredible cruelty only strengthens her wondrous and terrifying vision of the world. An eight-year-old girl watches as a dwarf is ironed alive at his own birthday party. A six-year-old girl places a poisonous spider in the hairpiece of a bride-to-be. A fourteen-year-old boy tells a man’s future through the sun in the windows of an abandoned building. Writing in the collection’s preface, Borges, as usual, is right: “She sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us. It is useless to try and fool her.” Ocampo’s prose forms a labyrinth of mirrors that distorts the ordinary world, allowing us to see the beauty and terror of everyday life.
Perhaps this is why Ocampo’s poetry seems somewhat flimsy in comparison. Translated and selected by Jason Weiss, published by NYRB, the collection Silvina Ocampo includes a range of beautiful and expressive pieces from the eight volumes Ocampo published in her lifetime. In “Buenos Aires,” she waxes about the history of her city of birth: “Long before Solís, before Mendoza / like a delirious nebula, / many imagined you from afar / as they walked along the sand or in processions.” She reveals the beauty she sees in her native country and all the mysterious currents that inhabit it, but she fails to plumb the depths of these currents with the same ruthlessness and precision with which she crafts her short stories. The majority of her poetry follows this pattern: evocative and thoughtful, but disappointingly normal and too safe. Lacking the cruelty and ugliness of her prose, her verse seems weak in comparison. For Ocampo: cruelty is strength.
Ocampo’s dark vision occasionally breaks through the safely repetitious beauty of her verse, as in the poem “Childhood Home.” The poem begins with a basic delineation of the title’s subject (“The raindrops upon the skylight windows / hatched lilacs on the glass, fleeting jewels,”) and the speaker’s disdain for the privilege surrounding her (“I fled from the rooms, from the grand staircase, / …because I only liked the quarters / reserved for the servants.”), but it ends with a sinister description:
and that washbowl with wisteria flowers where I would furtively wash my hands and murder my favorite dolls.
In “Mirrors,” Ocampo weaves an fantastic narrative of angels and dragonflies and bodies leaving mirrors until the speaker finally declares:
Now I no longer share a mirror with anyone for if my reflection sees the chance to free them, armies of other people, a world too numerous will take shape and be difficult to stop.
In these moments, when Ocampo strips away the ordinary to reveal the sinister beneath, her poetry rivals the stories found in Thus Were Their Faces. Otherwise, Ocampo’s poetry offers an enjoyable and thoughtful meditation on the world around her, one unfortunately bereft of the clever distortions and marred reflections found in her short fiction.