Found in Translation: ‘Thus Were Their Faces’ by Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) is little known in the English-speaking world. As the film-maker Edgardo Cozarinsky remarked, she was ‘for decades the best-kept secret of Argentine letters’. During her lifetime, she was intimately surrounded by leading lights of twentieth century Argentine literature — her husband was Adolfo Bioy Casares, their best man was none other than Jorge Luis Borges, and her sister Victoria Ocampo ran the literary journal and publishing house Sur.

Silvina Ocampo
Silvina Ocampo [Source: Wikimedia Commons | Photo taken by Bioy Casares, published in the magazine Pajaro de fuego]
Ocampo could be described as a genius nestled among geniuses. But it is only recently that her works have become readily available in English. A small selection of her corpus had been translated previously — some of her stories were published in English in 1988. Nonetheless, despite a small group of devoted fans, she remained an author of whom few had heard. Then in 2015, her Selected Poems (translated by Jason Weiss) were published by NYRB in 2015, the first collection of her poetry to ever appear in English. Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of forty-four short stories sensitively translated by Daniel Balderston, appeared alongside the Poems in May 2015.

From Thus Were Their Faces, drawn from anthologies spanning the whole of her literary career, it becomes clear that Ocampo had a remarkable astuteness about our behaviour as humans and the self-created nightmares which haunt us. Whilst it is possible to classify these stories as falling within the genres of Magic Realism and modernism, Ocampo takes her stories to much stranger, darker places: perhaps the unnerving aspect of her stories is how meticulously she cuts too close to the bone for comfort. It is little wonder that the judges for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature in 1979 found her work ‘too cruel’ for a prize.

Cruelty and the nature of those who commit cruelty are themes that run throughout these brutal, yet forgiving, stories. The narrator of ‘The Impostor’ muses, after throwing a stone at a cat, ‘… how cruel people can be when they are afraid’. I’m tempted to recall an early scene in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in which Lockwood justifies his actions by stating ‘Terror made me cruel’. However, Ocampo offers no reassurance that cruelty can be traced back to unheimliche passions or ghostly visions, comfortingly detached from our everyday experience of life: after a man murders someone in ‘The Fury’, he dispassionately comments ‘to avoid a scandal, I managed to commit a crime.’ It is a blackly humorous statement that rings too piercingly true for us to laugh. The characters in Ocampo’s stories seem to be driven to cruelty almost inexplicably, as if by pre-ordination, yet gruesome acts are preceded by human, all too human, compulsions. Ocampo is merciless in her exposition of us, but perhaps she forgives us the same time: we don’t know if we are helpless or not, reading these stories. Ocampo does not spare herself from this exposition, as she asked of herself in an anthology’s introduction, ‘Will we always be students of ourselves?’

In our own world, perhaps we destroy each other’s existences not by murder but by ceasing to treat people with compassion. Heredia in ‘The Impostor’ warns us, ‘I understood that our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings’ which lays bare the frightening truth of our precarious existence as social beings. We depend on how we relate to other people, and how they relate to us. A similar note of caution is delivered in ‘The Autobiography of Irene’: ‘I felt guilty for the death of my father. I had killed him when I imagined him dead.’ These stories call to our attention that our inhumanity, our minor apocalypses, our grim endings can maybe all be derived from the mundanely macabre act of disregard. Ocampo proposes that maybe we ought to be more careful, even if we might also be pitiful creatures of destiny.

Borges credited Ocampo with the gift of ‘clairvoyance’, but it is in a little-known poem by Ocampo’s friend and lover Alejandra Pizarnik that the true profundity of this gift is unveiled. She writes that Ocampo’s writing ‘emanates prophecies all night long’. Ocampo deals in the nocturnal terrors that skulk in the corners of our mind as we anguish over the blurred boundaries between existence and non-existence, between guilt and a clear conscience; between accidents and purposeful cruelty. Her certainty about human behaviour is derived from her remarkable ability to put the everyday horrors of the way we relate to the world and ourselves under a magnifying glass. She is quick to remind us of the little monstrosities we might have missed when we blinked. This service is performed with wit and an ironic charm that marks her out as Argentine literature’s foremost sibyl.

Rida Vaquas

Rida Vaquas is a First Year History student at Oxford. Whilst usually found poring over books about the nineteenth century German socialist movement, her secret passion is Latin American women’s poetry – a passion she very much hopes to popularise.

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