Silvina Ocampo - undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the story and the novella. Here are tales of doubles and impostors, angels and demons, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks, a beautiful seer who writes the autobiography of her own death, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman

Silvina Ocampo, Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories
Silvina Ocampo, intro. by Helen Oyeyemi, Trans. by Daniel Balderston, preface by Jorge Luis Borges, NYRB Classics, 2015.

Thus Were Their Faces offers a comprehensive selection of the short fiction of Silvina Ocampo, undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the story and the novella. Here are tales of doubles and impostors, angels and demons, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks, a beautiful seer who writes the autobiography of her own death, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman, a suicidal romance, and much else that is incredible, mad, sublime, and delicious. Italo Calvino has written that no other writer “better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.” Jorge Luis Borges flatly declared, “Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature.”
Dark, gothic, fantastic, and grotesque, these haunting stories are among the world’s most individual and finest.

These stories are feverish, cruel, and wry, set among the surrealisms of puberty, disability, and precarity.—Joshua Cohen

She lived a little in the shadow of her sister Victoria on the one hand and of her husband Bioy Casares and Borges on the other. She was an extravagant woman when writing her stories, short and crystalline, she was perfect.—César Aira

Ocampo wrote with fascinated horror of Argentinean petty bourgeois society, whose banality and kitsch settings she used in a masterly way to depict strange, surreal atmospheres sometimes verging on the supernatural.—The Independent

Few writers have an eye for the small horrors of everyday life; fewer still see the everyday marvelous. Other than Silvina Ocampo, I cannot think of a single writer who, at any time or in any language, has chronicled both with such wise and elegant humor.—Alberto Manguel

Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature.—Jorge Luis Borges

Silvina Ocampo is, together with Borges and García Márquez, the leading writer in Spanish.—Jorge Amado

Unsettling and off-kilter, revelatory and readable.—A.N. Devers, Longreads

This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo:
What we have in Silvina Ocampo is a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school. In 1979 her 42-year body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. “Demasiado crueles” (far too cruel) was the verdict of that year’s panel of judges.[1] It wasn’t Ocampo’s poetry the judges were talking about — she’d won notable poetry prizes in previous years. Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry, where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses. In Ocampo’s poem “A Tiger Speaks,” having briefly surveyed episodes of interaction between humankind and other species in the first stanza, the tiger begins her second stanza with the remark: “We never managed to agree / about man’s true nature.”[2] The tiger’s tone awakens ominous awareness of a class of gaze that passes over the deeds of human beings and finds little humanity in them. It could be that poetry is more readily accepted as a natural vessel for long-distance dispatches of this kind, no matter how precise or orderly the poem’s technical form. Short stories tend to be received quite differently: certain structural assurances are demanded, some guarantee that if and when an event or an idea throws us off-balance, by the end that balance will be restored, or at the very least the tools for its restoration will be within reach. And so “far too cruel” was the verdict on Ocampo’s short fiction, some of the best of which is collected in this book. It’s true that aside from their narrative technique of tripping you up and leaving you on the floor, Ocampo’s stories narrate the inner lives of heartless children, half-mad lovers, and assorted others who lean out of the pages to speak to us with all their anomie showing. Here’s the narrator of “Friends,” for example, sardonically noting the external resemblance between a surfeit of grief and a light smattering of gaiety: “Nearly the whole town was in mourning; the cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest.”
As readers of Ocampo we follow the first Red Riding Hood, bypassing that initial pretense of going among the leaves of a book or a forest in search of kindly, tidy wisdom from the type of grandmother nobody ever really had. No, there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray. I’m tempted to call Ocampo’s readers Red Reading Hoods, but I can well imagine your scorn. In her stories characters negotiate the entrapments of time, which rewards relentless determination, or at least doesn’t punish it. In “Icera,” a small girl from a poor family decides not to grow any bigger than the biggest doll in the doll department of a toy store near her house; her efforts to keep her material wants small face a setback after Icera’s four-inch growth spurt, but that addition of four inches to her height is the full extent of her physical growth between preadolescence and middle age, and we leave her being packaged up happily in a blue cardboard box intended for the transportation of an expensive doll. The narrator doesn’t invite us to wonder at or worry about this turn of events; there’s a level on which Ocampo’s stories are matter-of-fact reports of the everyday traffic (outgoing) between the mind and the world.
Ocampo airily collaborated with her immediate contemporaries, co-editing anthologies and writing a short, charmingly off-kilter murder mystery called Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (1946) with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Bioy Casares is the author of one of the 20th century’s most ingenious and affecting works of fabulism, The Invention of Morel (1940), and part of the fun of reading a book co-authored by this superlatively well-read couple lies in trying to guess which parts were written by Bioy Casares, which parts were written by Ocampo, and which parts were written by one impersonating the other. Her novella The Topless Tower (1968) is an adventure diligently narrated by Leandro, a boy who finds himself trapped in a painting. Being trapped in the painting isn’t his only problem; his intellect frequently gets ahead of him and even as he describes his surroundings and encounters he underlines certain words that he uses but doesn’t yet understand (“lugubrious,” “macabre,” “cynical”); these notations serve as reminders to look up the meanings later. Here Ocampo’s fondness and flair for nonsense literature in the vein of Lewis Carroll is palpable. (Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is, after all, a book-long chess game.) There are few other writers who can apply such abstract mischief to narrative without stripping it of its human flesh. If Ocampo’s solo fiction continues to elude canonization within Argentine literature, it will be because the tradition that Ocampo seems to work within is that of the visionary whose sensibility crosses plural borders.
Like Emily Brontë, Ocampo was a younger sister whose literary vision takes its own unruly path away from that of her elder (in Ocampo’s case this elder sister, the revered writer and critic Victoria, was her first publisher). Love is as fearsome in an Ocampo story as it is in Wuthering Heights; emotion has a way of sealing us into a charmed circle that makes us incomprehensible to everyone who stands outside it. This kind of circle shrinks and shrinks until even the beloved is impossible to read clearly, and then finally we’re unable to even pretend to understand our own thoughts. At times Ocampo’s characters speak to us as if under the influence of a truth drug that won’t permit them to simplify the expression of their motivations. In “Autobiography of Irene,” a malicious act is motivated by panic — how else can a teenage girl govern a tempestuous inner life that turns her regard for a beloved teacher into something that feels life threatening, an emotion one could drown in? “[One] day, crying because I already knew how mistaken and how unfair I could be, I made up a slander against that young lady, who had only wanted to praise me.” We also see a similar blurring of psychic attack and defense in “The House Made of Sugar,” in which, having ignored his wife’s superstitions, a man watches the logically impossible repercussions of his actions drain the stability from his marriage with a petulant malevolence that may remind you of a small tyrant who punishes her parent’s disobedience by holding her breath until she loses consciousness. At the end of that story we can only agree with the narrator’s summation: “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar, which now stands empty.” From time to time a form of comic relief is derived from Ocampo’s invitation to view love, romantic or otherwise, from a position of amused disgust — in “Lovers,” a heavy date for two of Ocampo’s characters consists of the joyless, mechanical overconsumption of cake accompanied by “shy conversation on the theme of picnics: people who had died after drinking wine or eating watermelon; a poisonous spider in a picnic basket one Sunday that had killed a girl whose in-laws all hated her; canned goods that had gone bad, but looked delicious.” In “The Guests,” a gift box is found to contain “two crude magnetic dolls that couldn’t resist kissing on the lips, their necks stretched out, as soon as they were within a certain distance of each other.”
Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it: “there are voices that you can see, that keep on revealing the expression of a face even after its beauty is gone,” the protagonist of “Autobiography of Irene” tells us. Blake began with drawing, but just as she tells us in her own words, Ocampo was a painter, an increasingly frustrated student of the cubist Fernand Léger (“nothing interested Léger except the design of his paintings”) and then the proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (“I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color”), until she turned to writing as her own particular means of transforming reality. I consider this when the imagery in Ocampo’s stories slides between the concrete and the abstract, recalling Blake’s spectral embodiments, the ones that rise and float and walk alongside solidly hewn stars and beasts with the look of living stone. When I read “Visions,” a short story of Ocampo’s in which a bedridden woman awaits death (or recovery), I see Blake’s brutal light, rays that blast through all other colors to center and re-center his paintings and illustrations. “Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it,” Ocampo’s narrator says. Either this presence called beauty has an innate power to change us as it approaches and recedes, or it is our own functional creation, an ever-shifting evocation of those moments beyond language when we get closer to and beat an abashed retreat from whatever it is that drives consciousness. Always within reach, yet always mysterious, is this essential self, leading Ocampo to end her own preface to this book with the question: “Will we always be students of ourselves?”
In his preface to this book, Borges writes that Ocampo “sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us. It is useless to try to fool her.” I agree that Ocampo sees, but the all-consuming grudges held by her characters create an initial difficulty in discovering just where her mercy intersects with her clear sight — in “The Fury,” a girl who receives a fish and a monkey as conciliatory gifts from her tormentor simply allows the poor creatures to starve to death. Here gentleness is merely a prologue to some truly dark deed or other. In “The Clock House,” the role at a party of a hunchbacked man named Estanislao goes from guest of honor to victim — it’s impossible to conclusively decide whether or not the child narrator is feigning incomprehension of Estanislao’s fate or is genuinely innocent. Either way we readers are brutalized by the educated guesses the narrative leads us to make. The party guests propose that Estanislao’s suit be ironed with its owner still in it; this occurs, and the commotion of this event is described in the vaguest and most chilling of terms: “Nobody was laughing except for Estanislao.” After that our young narrator N.N. steps back and will not share in the resultant vision. Elsewhere Ocampo demonstrates that she understands, alongside Emily Dickinson, that “The heart asks pleasure first / and then excuse from pain,” but this doesn’t prevent her sharp commentary on the eager adoption of strategies to excuse ourselves from pain. The narrator of “The Prayer,” a story of deadly weakness, notes the prevailing mood at the funeral of an eight-year-old killed by another eight-year-old: “Only one old lady, Miss Carmen, was sobbing, because she didn’t understand what had happened. Oh my God, how miserable, how lacking in ceremony the funeral was!”
I think what Ocampo understands is that so many of our cruelties and treacheries are born out of a sort of rapt distraction; our memories don’t work very well and we try to kick-start them with reenactions, or new and wholly unnecessary treacheries that present themselves to us as reenactions. In “The Mortal Sin,” a household servant named Chango bids his employers’ young daughter to look through a keyhole into the next room, where he’ll show her “something very beautiful.” The girl does as she’s told, and what she sees is made ghastly by the insistent voice of a man in the next room, speaking with “a commanding and sweet obscenity: ‘Doll, look! Look!’” In this way the girl is made fully conscious of her gaze being manipulated for the pleasure of another, a pleasure that’s utterly indifferent to her own dissent. “I feel such sorrow when I think how horror imitates beauty,” the narrator tells us. “Through that door, Pyramus and Thisbe, like you and Chango, spoke their love through a wall.”
These stories seem to agree with Lewis Carroll’s White Queen that it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward, after all. And the further back we look, the less time we have left to see. Even worse, no matter how long or faithfully we look along that line, it doesn’t go back far enough, there’s still something, something big that we’ve all forgotten — we can’t remember what exactly we’re all supposed to be to each other, what we have been, what we can be, and that makes us rough playmates. The living appall us; how can we be at peace with them when they insist on standing so insistently between us and our ghosts? As Armando Heredia explains in the story “The Impostor,” it would be better if we were less careless with the influence we exert upon each others’ experience of the boundaries between life and death: “our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings. If those people imagine that we are dead, we die.” If Armando is right, then on a moment-to-moment basis the terms of the continued existence of any individual are far more fragile than we dare to feel. And like those of Ocampo’s characters who make it to the end of the story without having been murdered by a thing as simple as a velvet dress, or strangled by a grip as powerful as the eddies of an infernal whirlpool, there’s something to be said for counting yourself lucky to be a survivor of yesterday, today, and maybe even tomorrow.
[1] In an interview with Patricia Klingenberg in March 1980, Ocampo reported that she was denied the National Prize in 1979 by judges who felt her stories were ‘demasiado crueles.’” Quote from Cynthia Duncan, “Double or Nothing in Silvina Ocampo’s ‘La casa de azúcar,’” Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana 20, No. 2 (November 1991).
[2] Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems, selected and translated by Jason Weiss (New York: NYRB/poets, 2015). -  

“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside us, and nobody finds out until many years later.” So wrote Silvina Ocampo from her home in Buenos Aires in 1987. With the arrival this week, nearly 30 years later, of her magical collection of selected stories, Thus Were Their Faces, Ocampo’s earlier words resonate now with something of the “clairvoyance” Borges once attributed to her. Her hefty volume comes to us from New York Review Books (NYRB) Classics and features several stories translated into English for the first time by Daniel Balderston. This week, NYRB Poets also released Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems translated by Jason Weiss. The poems make an insightful companion to her stories, reading like a much-polished, metered journal, covering some of the same territory that she explored in her stories.
Over the course of her lifetime and the greater part of the 20th century, Ocampo published seven books of short stories—the first, Forgotten Journey, in 1937, and the last, Cornelia Before the Mirror, in 1988. Clocking in at 42 stories and 354 pages, Thus Were Their Faces bears testimony to an extremely disciplined life’s work, containing at least a few stories (and often several) from each of her collections.
At a young age, Ocampo left Argentina for Paris, where she studied as a painter. This early training is reflected in the highly visual nature of her writing, which is not to call her language overly descriptive. In fact, her style is often quite spare and direct. Rather, like a surrealist painter, she liked to crowd the stage of her stories with unlikely companions in unexpected situations. In Ocampo’s visions, this play with the unexpected became a way to elevate and amplify the fabulous while also exposing less-scrupulous and sometimes shocking everyday behaviors.
Probably more than anything else, sheer curiosity propels readers through her stories. Elements of the supernatural and the weird permeate almost all of the 50-plus years worth of stories in Thus Were Their Faces. In “Magush,” people in a small town visit a forever-young boy to have him read their fortunes in the windows of an abandoned building. In “The Photographs,” a family drapes and arranges their paralyzed daughter in various poses to capture her immobile joy on her 14th birthday. In “The Velvet Dress,” a woman hoping to have some alterations made winds up instead being suffocated by a dress as our young narrator looks on and periodically exclaims, “How amusing!” In “Sheets of Earth,” a gardener becomes so deeply attuned to his work in the soil that he accidentally plants himself.
Given the surreal quality of the individual stories, it’s notable how linear the selected works reads from story to story, collection to collection, in some ways mimicking the stages of life. For example, the opening story, “Forgotten Journey” has a young girl “trying to remember the day she was born.” All her life, the girl’s nursemaid has led her to believe that before babies are born they live on shelves in a large department store in Paris until their mothers order them and come pick them up. When her mother contradicts this belief with talk of “flowers and birds,” she becomes a stranger to the girl. And when the girl looks out the window, rather than the sunny day her mother comments on outside, the girl sees a “dark sky of night where no bird sang.” The girl is the first of many young narrators that reign in Ocampo’s early stories, especially, who distrust the adult world of their parents and who face dark, alternative realities on their own.
“The Impostor,” a chilling novella first published in 1948 and here in English for the first time, begins with the teenager Luis Maidana riding a train on a mission akin to Patricia Highsmith’s talented Mr. Ripley. Namely, Luis’s father’s friend has sent him to monitor and send updates on the man’s son, Armanda Heredia. With the extra space that the novella allows, Ocampo braids in more character development and suspense than she achieves in her shorter stories, many of which are only a couple of pages long. As the title implies, “The Impostor” is a story of shifting and sometimes obscured identities. At the same time, it’s a regional story, set on a ranch near Cacharí, a sparsely populated, oh I’ll just say it, ghost town southwest of Buenos Aires. The rural landscape allows Ocampo to do what she does best, blurring the lines between waking life and dreams, the natural and the supernatural. At one point, contemplating the movements of a horse rumored to have been viciously blinded by Armanda, Luis says, “Animals are the dreams of nature.” It’s mind-blowing hallucinogenic lines like these that Ocampo casually tips our way that make it important to take the stories in small, slow doses lest we zip by and miss them.
“The Impostor” is one of those novellas that makes you wish that publishers were willing to put more of these mid-range narratives out in the world all on their own—the perfect length for a short plane or train ride. Without giving away too much, fans of Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (1940) will probably appreciate the appended conclusion of “The Impostor.” In her novella, Ocampo plays at a strikingly similar ending structure, but I would argue she handles it to greater effect than Bioy Casares. Still, if anyone might have gotten permission to take such a liberty, it would probably be Ocampo, as the two were married for over 50 years.
Speaking of marriage, several of the stories included from Ocampo’s The Fury (1959) and The Guests (1961) take marriage and extra-marital activities as their focus. These stories represent Ocampo twenty years into her writing career, a period some have identified as her prime and the era of her darkest stories. “Sometimes I think I can still hear that drum,” Octavio tells us in the opening line of “The Fury” as he gives a furtive look over his shoulder. Octavio has blood on his hands, but he is just one of many confessing their sins to us in these stories where Ocampo resurrects the idea of an earthly what-goes-around-comes-around-justice once meted out by the Furies in Greek mythology.
Note should probably be taken of the title story, “Thus Were Their Faces,” which draws its name from a verse in Ezekiel that appears as an epigraph to the story: “Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.” The passage references four creatures that Ezekiel sees coming in on a “windstorm,” essentially a stylish entourage that precedes The Lord as he flits around Babylon. Ocampo’s title and epigraph leave off just how thus their faces were, but looking back up a few verses in the New International Version of the Bible, Ezekiel offers this explanation:
Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.
All of which adds up to some seriously Cubist-funkified faces that we can imagine Ocampo coming across and chuckling over as she takes a sip from her Fernet. Yes. I will write a story about that, she declares, scooting up to her typewriter.
Except she doesn’t, not quite. Instead, in “Thus Were Their Faces” she gives us something better, a first-person plural voice that slowly unwinds the mystery of a group of deaf schoolchildren: “Forty faces were exactly the same face, forty minds the same mind, despite differences in age and lineage.” It’s an eerie and troubling story of young schoolchildren the likes of which we don’t see again until Donald Barthelme’s “The School” in 1981. It’s the kind of gnawing collective story, like William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” that only a town can tell.
The selections from Ocampo’s penultimate collection, And So Forth (1987), give us some of her most playful work. Most notable is “The Music of the Rain,” which details a concert given by child prodigy pianist and eccentric Octavio Griber, who travels around on a tour of private residences with his mother. Along with a biting, sarcastic humor, this story offers a cinematic quality that might inspire Wes Anderson. For example:
The pianist sat down at the stool, placed his burning cigarette on the edge of the piano, and swung around several times in order to establish the correct height. He looked at his feet, the pedals, his feet, the pedals again, and then started playing scales with one of his big toes. The notes poured out in a most unusual staccato.
More than in any of her other writings, those from And So Forth seem to poke fun at the feelings of entitlement often attributed to the upper echelons of society. The aforementioned “Sheets of Earth” begins with a wealthy homeowner appreciatively watching her talented gardener from afar. Ocampo delivers this passing lady of leisure in her moment of joy thusly:
Sitting on the terrace, wrapped in the whiteness of her dress, she felt what all women dressed in white must feel on a beautiful day—she felt transparent and impersonal like the day itself, surrounded by crowds of flowers awaiting her.
If we are to follow the lifecycle of the stories we laid out earlier, we come to some more tortured and fatalistic questions in Ocampo’s last stories. From notes before and after the text, we know that Ocampo faced off with Alzheimer’s in her final years. This biographical note pulls at us with the confessional but not fully disclosed voice in “And So Forth.” Ocampo, who was married to Bioy Casares until her dying day, begins the story,
Loving someone isn’t enough. Perhaps out of fear of losing the one you love, you learn to love everything that surrounds him. The scarf he wore, his shirt, his handkerchief, the pillow with its faux vanilla beans where you both lay your heads… This whole world is a monument to our fidelity, because what is ours will never be found elsewhere without all the visions I have listed, symbols of the love that enslaves us. And if you go in search of a world without memories in order to forget, there is nothing that will block our eyes or our ears.
And probably, on this moving revelation, this is where we should find our end, where there is still the promise of love and mermaids and more of the magic that Ocampo spent a lifetime building up only to generously share with the English-speaking world now. -

The overlooked genius among geniuses—this is how people always seem to refer to Silvina Ocampo. As the story goes, she was the ill-fated member of Argentina's great modernist clique, always outshone by her publisher sister, Victoria, her brilliant husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and their incandescent friend, Jorge Luis Borges.
Born in 1903, four years after Borges, she married Bioy in 1940, when he was just 26. Her first book came in 1937, and it was followed by regular installments of poetry and prose right up until her death in 1993, even in the face of Alzheimer’s in the 1980s. She has been adored, receiving prestigious awards for her books and winning lavish praise from legends like Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Alejandra Pizarnik. But it is true that in Argentina Ocampo’s reputation is far from the heights reached by Borges and Bioy. And in English things are even worse: a collection of her stories only reached English in 1988, and her first ever book of poetry in English translation appears this year.
To this day it is not hard to find people calling her Argentina’s “best-kept secret.” This may point to barriers for women in the heady modernist golden age, and it may also indicate barriers around the sort of fiction Ocampo wrote. Her influences are much harder to locate than those of Borges or Bioy—making it more difficult to situate her into a cultural lineage—and she chose subjects that courted marginality: child-narrators, the lives of animals, women’s couture, dolls, and madwomen. Borges, Bioy, and Ocampo all brought the surreal into the everyday, but whereas Bioy imagined how technology interfaced with his bizarre plots, and whereas Borges heroicized his adventure tales into master narratives that wrought new truths, Ocampo camouflaged her fantasies, as though they were microscopic details in yards of baroque wallpaper. If you blink at the wrong moment everything will look perfectly normal, yet once you do see that tiny seam in the fabric of what is, your eyes will see nothing else.
It is commonly recounted that Ocampo started her artistic life as a painter with de Chirico in 1930s Paris, and her stories have that same sense of being ruled by their vanishing point, of a sphinxlike torpor cast in six-yard shadows by blazing sun. Her tales can feel timeless, and they connote the occult sensation that what looks like free will is actually kismet. Although Ocampo plays with quotidian domesticity and common fairy tales, she finds frames and angles to make them feel mysterious and menacing. Her poetic sentences apply just the right pressure to turn everyday details vivid, but not lurid; see, for instance, the woman she describes as having “incredibly black hair, and her face was so transparent that it was as if it had been erased; but all that was left of her hair was a very careful white knot, and her dress had five pleats in which Leonor’s eyes got lost.” Such sentences collect into paragraphs whose seeming illogic soon resolves into a powerful inevitability.
It is hard to decide where to draw the lines in her stories: the difference between a clue and a detail, the moment when connections break down into chaos, or even what divides past from present from future. Why does a wife who takes up residence in the home of a woman in an insane asylum eventually inherit her personality? With Ocampo we cannot apply the same old notions of identity and memory. “Autobiography of Irene” sees its narrator foretelling her own death, but there is a twist—like an infinitely recursive spiral, she ends up meeting the young woman who will ensure that fate by writing her biography; she is herself. Elsewhere, forty deaf children merge into a fungus-like mind as they are drawn inexorably toward some secret only they can sense. Are they one or many—or both? Everywhere identities and signs interpenetrate, from the grandeur of plots to the tininess of individual sentences: “The noise of a sewing machine wrapped the house as if in a hem of silence and the only sound was the moaning that tears must make in order to squeeze out of closed eyes.”
In the sly, novella-length “The Imposter,” a young man is sent by a father into the countryside to spy on his troubled son. At length, the mole learns that his target is enmeshed in a love affair with María Gismondi, no matter that she died four years ago. To reach this conclusion he must first navigate through a crowd of false Marías, and when he finally forces his friend’s confession, it is a short-lived victory. Yes, he admits, in a certain sense his María has passed away but, “I understood that our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings. If those people imagine that we are dead, we die. That’s why I can’t forgive you for saying that María Gismondi is dead.” The story concludes with a bloody climax that is followed by the kind of twist Bioy and Borges also loved to employ—one that in other hands would become cheap kitsch but here is an opportunity to push the foregoing into the eternal. Already a meditation on the distance that identity can traverse after death, it becomes an open question on just what life is, and how words perpetuate it through the years. As the mystic narrator of the coda says, “the consequences of any act are, in some sense, infinite.”
One of the striking things about “The Imposter” is the way that agency gets shuffled around, passed off from hand to hand as the story twists and its frame expands. We can feel the narrator’s uneasiness that he is less the author of his life than an observer in it; this is a powerful source of existential anxiety, for him and so many other of Ocampo’s protagonists. Such agency-shifting gives these stories a powerful plurality. Take “The Velvet Dress,” which simply recounts the fitting of a murderous dress on an old woman. Ocampo had a way of making her women seem almost devoured by their clothes:
For a few seconds Casilda tried unsuccessfully to pull the skirt of the dress down over the lady’s hips. I helped as best I could. She finally managed to put on the dress. For a few moments the lady rested in the armchair, exhausted . . .
I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the fittings of the dress with the sequined 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.

Moments later the woman falls down dead. Who has killed her? Herself, the dress, the sequin dragon, the seamstress, fashion, or the child-narrator who punctuates seven of these thirty-two paragraphs with an impish “how amusing!”? This could have been a perfectly forgettable tale, but by spreading the agency around Ocampo gives it a moody, menacing tone, and makes that bizarre child narrator feel exceedingly creepy.
The jaunty, blasé voice behind “The Velvet Dress” is pure malice, unconcerned with who or what is in control, but the most sincere and sympathetic of Ocampo’s narrators share their misgivings as to their measure of free will. “At times I suspect that I don’t merely see the future but that I cause it” says the narrator of “The Doll.” A strange declaration—what “causes” the future if not the present?—but one that sits comfortably in these stories, where there is an ongoing feeling that the future is somehow exerting influence on the present, not vice versa. Borges singled out such foreknowledge as one of Ocampo’s unique qualities, saying, “there is in Silvina a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or to the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” Premonitions flood her stories with an occult dusklight, and they also imply a philosophical stance: causation is an antique from the 16th century, and we should learn from those who are sensitive to what it ignores. This partly explains the preternatural intelligence of her many child-narrators—though immature, they access details beyond the reach of cause and effect, and so they intuit moods and pressures that are too subtle for their elders. Animals, too, occupy this space; these stories ache to find the overlaps between what they understand and the sorts of humans who might comprehend it.
The narrator of “The Doll”—she who suspects she not only sees the future but also causes it—recounts a key childhood episode that sits delicately on the axis between clairvoyance and coincidence. Motherless and very young, she has been passed from foster home to foster home; in the latest of her many substitute families she is caught innocently playing with the household son and thought to be corrupting him. It is assumed that when the boy’s mother returns from a trip she will dispatch the little girl, but before that can take place the mother gives the girl a surprise doll. Everybody realizes that it is the exact item the little girl has been endlessly talking about. There is no way she could have known about it beforehand. “Witch,” her guardians declare, and her place in the home is assured.
The question of “The Doll” is who can take credit for what. In the first paragraph the narrator confides her suspicion that she causes the future instead of merely witnessing it, but is this really just the fantasy of a disempowered woman, a way of granting herself authority? The point could be argued endlessly, and the story’s final, ambiguous line does nothing to resolve the question: “that was how they pointed me toward the difficult art of soothsaying.” So then who is really the author of her future: the little girl who seems to have foreseen the doll, or the adults who convince her she is a fortune teller? This uncertainty is precisely what makes soothsaying both difficult and an art, and it is inside this fog that Ocampo locates her version of free will.
If the soothsayers in Ocampo’s stories tend to be young, it is perhaps because the aged are too full of memories to imagine any future other than the past. “This whole world is a monument to our fidelity,” explains the narrator of “And So Forth,” “if you go in search of a world without memories in order to forget, there is nothing that will block our eyes or our ears.” In other words, we can never escape our pasts because everything in the world reminds us of it. The protagonist of this short, exceedingly bizarre work aches from some lost love, and, try as he might to run away, his flight only serves up remembrances. But then something happens. He discovers a mermaid on a beach and is captivated. There is a certain logic here: what frees us from the prison of our memories is something that can only exist in the imagination.
In addition to our memories, Ocampo’s other major prison is time. This is perhaps the source of her infamous cruelty—it is said that she was passed over for Argentina’s National Prize for Literature in 1979 because her work was deemed “too cruel,” and Borges himself in the foreword to this volume notes her “strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty.” Ocampo’s fiction can feel so cruel because the forces in her stories inflict their malicious deeds by their very nature, like cats lazily kneading the last bits of life from a mouse. None is more implacably itself than the passing seconds. Cruel indeed to imagine a world where our youthful selves are but antecedents to a future waiting to claim us, and where our elder selves are pinned beneath the weight of everything that was ordained. But Ocampo will not deny us all hope. “Uncertainty is a form of happiness that works in lovers’ favor,” she writes in “Lovers,” which simply recounts an afternoon a man and a woman spend eating cake together, their frenzied consumption of the treats neatly allegorizing how routine eventually spoils passion. But there is a twist here: the lovers never quite become lovers—they are too shy, and maybe the better off for it. Sometimes it is richer to be poised on the brink of a kiss than to take the plunge, and sometimes it is better that a time-travel paradox defies all efforts to chain it into cause and effect. Ocampo might be right: perhaps the future is pre-ordained. Good, then, that the insufficiency of our five common senses leaves us in doubt.
There have been previous efforts to bring Silvina into acclaim. The NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces is itself an expansion of a 1988 translation, and a search for her work will show scatterings of out-of-print translations, individual stories and poems collected in anthologies, numerous dissections in academic papers, and miscellaneous mentions in books by the likes of Alberto Manguel, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Ilan Stavans. Until fairly recently her husband Bioy had the same poor luck in English, seeing his books come into and out of print, adored by a handful but generally neglected. It was only with the 2003 reissue of his classic The Invention of Morel that he found a sizable audience in the English language. Perhaps this indicates a certain change in the stories Americans now tell ourselves, suitable to making the work of this pair palatable. Are not the clairvoyant, crime-fighting precogs of Minority Report now a matter of national paranoia, The Matrix’s hyperreality a place that we understand ourselves to somehow inhabit? How near to these are Ocampo’s infinite recursions, her soothsaying young women, preternatural children, and malicious objects? Bioy proved himself a perfect match for the films the French avant-garde would attempt in the 1960s; so now, seeing the fantasias the Wachowskis eagerly fling upon the screen, the games David Lynch will play with identity and chronology, Christopher Nolan’s elaborate narratives around memory and subconscious, I think it is time for Ocampo’s dark star to rise. - Scott Esposito

A popular critical shorthand describes Clarice Lispector as the Virginia Woolf of South America. A better analogy would be Silvina Ocampo. Benjamin Moser’s Lispector biography Why This World (2009) makes clear that as a poor Jewish immigrant who grew up in an isolated region, married a diplomat, and wrote most of her early fiction abroad, Lispector was a latecomer to her country’s Rio de Janeiro–based literary firmament. By contrast, Ocampo, like Woolf, was a descendant of 19th-century aristocrats, married a well-known man from her own social class, and spent nearly her entire career in the capital city where she was born. As Woolf was able to publish through her husband Leonard’s Hogarth Press, so Ocampo had at her disposal the magazine and publishing house of her sister Victoria’s famous Sur. Like the inhabitants of Bloomsbury, the Buenos Aires clique to which Ocampo belonged—an extension of the European-influenced Florida poetry movement of the 1920s—was cosmopolitan in its reading, apolitical or reactionary in its ideology, and sexually intertwined. In aesthetic terms, the writing of Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Sur’s long-time managing editor, José Bianco, constituted a coherent literary statement. Until recently, this unity has been overlooked: Borges overshadowed the other three writers’ work, shrinking their achievements to acolytes’ imitations of a master. The reassessment of Bioy Casares’s fiction has begun to correct this imbalance; now it is Silvina Ocampo’s turn.
The academic research of Daniel Balderston, the translator of the present selection of Ocampo’s short stories, has helped to elucidate the interpersonal dynamics of Ocampo’s milieu. The sexually repressed Borges, who came from a socially modest background on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and who shared an apartment with his mother until he was in his late seventies, met the handsome, aristocratic Bioy Casares, who combined the social accomplishments of a European-descended gentleman with the brash, horseback savvy of a gaucho, around 1932 when he was in his early thirties and ABC (as Bioy was sometimes known) was eighteen. It was love at first sight: Borges dined at Bioy’s house most nights for the next fifty years. Serving as a literary mentor to the younger writer, Borges gleaned vicarious self-affirmation from Bioy’s womanizing, his roots in the landed aristocracy, and his skill in exploiting his inherited property to make himself even richer. Through Borges, Bioy met the Ocampo sisters. Silvina, having studied painting in Paris with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger, was beginning to channel her acute visual sense into fiction and poetry. Two concurrent events in 1940 sealed the quasi-ménage-à-trois of Borges, ABC, and Silvina: the publication of an anthology of fantastic literature which the three of them edited together, and the marriage of Silvina Ocampo to Bioy Casares, with Borges as one of the few wedding guests.
For many years these writers were little known beyond Buenos Aires. Yet, from the early 1960s onward, when Borges became world famous, Silvina Ocampo’s marriage both consolidated and confined her literary reputation. As Bioy Casares was often portrayed as little more than Borges’s literary butler, so Silvina became an appendage to an assistant; she was doubly depreciated as the youngest sibling of the socially better-known Victoria, who never stopped treating her as her “little sister.” The unspoken mystery at the heart of Ocampo’s life is her marriage. She knew, apparently, that she could not have children. Married to an aristocrat eleven years younger than she, who desired an heir, Ocampo tolerated many infidelities and two illegitimate children, one of whom she accepted into her home. In addition to being unfaithful, her husband was the object of daily adoration on the part of Borges, who himself was rendered uneasy by José Bianco, another frequent dinner guest, who was an out-of-the-closet gay man. Silvina’s own intense relationship with the young poet Alejandra Pizarnik, thirty years her junior, who committed suicide in 1972, left behind a passionate correspondence that has tantalized literary scholars. It would have been possible for Silvina to follow the example of Victoria, who left her husband, lived as an independent woman, and had affairs with eminent men. Yet, as the host couple of literary innovation in Buenos Aires, “los Bioy” were a veritable institution, united by their elite social backgrounds (whose patriarchal conventions may have conditioned Silvina to ignore her husband’s philandering) and by their shared literary references and creative obsessions.
In contrast to the predominantly monoglot Brits of Bloomsbury, the Sur inner circle were all effortlessly trilingual in Spanish, English, and French. Their fiction was the extension of their multilingual reading and the translations they published: Borges of Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, and William Faulkner, Silvina of Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. Perceiving literature as something approaching a mental chess match, the Sur group avoided sullying their pages with politics. The reactionary populism of General Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55) disgusted them because it enthroned the immigrant-descended rabble, sheering power away from old-stock Argentines of Spanish or English lineage (Borges had both, while Bioy was partly of French descent; the Ocampos were descended from Spanish colonial governors of Peru and Argentina). Yet, though Perón got Borges dismissed from his job at the National Library and jailed Victoria Ocampo for a few days, he does not appear in explicit form in their fiction. Some critics read the Borges story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as an allegory about fascism; otherwise they remained silent. They were silent again, to their much greater detriment, during the Dirty War of 1976-83, when thirty thousand Argentines, including many intellectuals, were “disappeared” by the military regime. This silence, which sealed their alienation from mainstream Latin American intellectual currents, contributed to sinking the reputations of Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo.
In its early years, the internationalization of Latin American fiction that began in the late 1950s was inseparable from allegiance to the Cuban Revolution: a faith from which the Sur group dissented with such vehemence that Victoria Ocampo fired José Bianco as managing editor of her magazine for the crime of travelling to Cuba to serve on a literary jury. The young novelists of the 1960s could not deny their debt to Borges: it was evident in Julio Cortázar’s neo-fantastic short stories, in Gabriel García Márquez’s infinitely flexible conception of storytelling (Mario Vargas Llosa had discovered William Faulkner, his most overt literary influence, by reading Borges’s translation of The Wild Palms). Yet while Borges was untouchable, in spite of his reactionary politics, his collaborators were not; Bioy and Silvina were never embraced by the young readers of the 1960s and 1970s. Silvina suffered the greater rejection because she was a woman.
The revolutionary enthusiasms of the 1960s, with Che Guevara as their idol, bred their own form of guerrilla-worshipping machismo. No figure was more despised, among progressives, than the out-of-touch dama of the upper bourgeoisie who was oblivious to her society’s social problems. By the 1970s, for many, Silvina Ocampo incarnated this figure. Katherine Mansfield criticized Virginia Woolf for suppressing the reality of the First World War from her fiction; Silvina was cast into neglect for remaining immured in her own imaginary universe. In her introduction to this edition of the stories, Helen Oyeyemi quotes the verdict of the jury of Argentina’s National Prize for Literature, which, in its decision to pass over Ocampo for a distinction which she obviously deserved, decreed that her stories were “demasiado crueles.” The phrase reflects how Ocampo had come to be perceived: as a nasty old woman who lacked sympathy for anyone, particularly the poor; as the embittered, cuckolded wife of an upper-class cad; as a hanger-on whose only artistic accomplishment was to have been born rich and married into a privileged clique. Worst of all, in an era dominated by the massive novels of Vargas Llosa, García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes, and by the political poetry of Pablo Neruda and Central American revolutionaries such as Roque Dalton and Ernesto Cardenal, Ocampo wrote short stories; her poems pursued mental labyrinths which, though deeply felt, thrived on abstraction.
Yet, as her stories reveal, it would be a mistake to assume that Ocampo’s approach to her milieu was uncritical. In her Childhood in the Works of Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik (2003), Fiona Mackintosh suggests that, “Silvina Ocampo’s literary world—though basically rooted in her privileged social class and intellectual milieu—evolves and flourishes in a spirit of impish perversity and contrariness towards it.” A restless posture toward the fascination with imaginary worlds, the inherited male conventions of fantastic fiction, animates Ocampo’s short stories from an early stage. She is less programmatic and more whimsical than Borges or Bioy; if she often impersonates male narrators, there is a sense, which is absent in her male counterparts, that the charade of maleness itself is part of the fictional game.
Based on the two-volume Cuentos completos published by Emecé in 2000, Balderston’s NYRB Classics edition, Thus Were Their Faces, selects from each of the seven volumes of stories that Ocampo published in her lifetime. Two-thirds of the stories—twenty-eight out of forty-two—are drawn from two collections published in 1959 and 1961 respectively. The early fiction is somewhat under-represented. Ocampo’s first collection, Viaje olvidado (1937; “Forgotten Journey”), the only book of stories she published prior to marrying Bioy (though she was probably already living with him when she wrote many of the stories), is both more female and more feminist than the work she produced after she had co-edited the anthology of fantastic literature. It includes, for example, “La calle Sarandí” (“Sarandí Street”), in which a little girl narrates, with icy objectivity and a brilliant selection of telling detail, the story of her sexual abuse. Balderston omits this story, including only two very brief pieces from Viaje olvidado. The result is to emphasize the writer that Ocampo became in her middle years: a woman defining herself within a literary enclave run by famous men and her domineering older sister.
The novella-length “The Imposter,” from a 1948 collection, is one example of the product of these tensions. In a voice which echoes 19th-century British narratives of young men relegated to big country houses, the 18-year-old narrator, Luis, relates how he is sent to a decaying hacienda south of Buenos Aires to study for his exams. The hacienda’s only resident, Armando, is a dissolute young man who has retreated to the countryside for unknown purposes. The house is full of bats; the local girl with whom Armando makes dates may be dead. The Gothic trappings build to Luis’s realization that Armando is insane. The voice echoes those of authors prized by Borges, such as Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson, as does the final revelation that Luis’s narrative is a manuscript discovered by an editor. The Borgesian twist that Luis’s manuscript turns out to have been written by Armando suggests that fiction always consumes and diminishes what we take to be reality; it depicts masculinity as an identity that can be imagined, and is therefore equally accessible to writers of all biological genders.
When Ocampo writes women, the screen of her imagination thins, with the result that her female narrators sometimes feel slightly constructed. Two longer stories, “Autobiography of Irene” from early in Ocampo’s career and “Visions,” from the middle years, are narrated by women whose existences are less persuasive than those of Ocampo’s male speakers. By contrast, “The Expiation,” told by a woman who recalls a tortured marriage complicated by a would-be lover, incipient racial prejudice, and a flock of homicidal canaries, conveys a palpable emotional charge. Ocampo’s use of the fantastic, which she inherits, in tandem with Borges and Bioy, from 19th-century forbears, is often most self-assured when her narrator is a man. The fantastic occurrences in her stories are “impish and perverse” insurgencies against the cultivated veneer of her native city. Her social range is broader than she is given credit for: the setting may be upper-class or proletarian, rooted in the core of the city, or, as in the title story of this collection, set on its outer fringes. Her fantasy is both purer and more urban than that of her contemporaries and followers: it is not a consequence of the return of the pampas and the gauchos, repressed by sophisticated Buenos Aires, as in Borges’s “The South”; nor is fantasy a political weapon with which to expose the illusions of the bourgeoisie, as in Cortázar’s early stories. Ocampo accompanied Bioy Casares on long trips to Europe, yet Europe did not become the setting of her stories as it did of many of his. “The Imposter” is intriguing because it represents a rare departure from the city, as does “El Remanso” (“The Country Retreat”), from Viaje olvidado, which does not appear here.
Ocampo’s fantasy can be seen at its most classically perfect in stories such as “The House Made of Sugar,” where a male narrator of modest financial means seeks a house where he and his new bride, Cristina, can settle. Their home turns out to have been occupied previously by a woman named Violeta, who was involved in a scandalous love triangle. When the couple move in, they receive phone calls that threaten vengeance; people mistake Cristina for Violeta. Cristina cannot help but become Violeta; her husband cannot help but suspect her of re-enacting Violeta’s infidelities. The fiction that subsumes and abolishes objective reality is an irresistible force. In an analogous vein, the narrator of “The Fury” immerses himself in the life-story of a woman he meets in a park to a point where, without realizing what he is doing, he murders a child. In “Friends,” an infant male narrator attributes the flood and cholera epidemic that afflicts his suburban village to his best friend’s malevolent powers; their shared belief in these powers casts a spell that causes the friend to kill himself in order to avoid destroying the narrator. Like Borges and Bioy, Ocampo can delight in the strictly genre material of fiendishly clever plots, as in “The Perfect Crime”; yet in her most gripping work the closed worlds of agonizing love affairs or suffocating friendships breed an alternate reality that lays down its laws in defiance of the laws of nature. In the later collections, where Ocampo’s imagination wanes, the stories’ endings seem less deceptively simple than merely trivial. Yet even in her final years, as the theme of death mutes her infant characters’ whimsy, she tries out new forms. “Cornelia Before the Mirror,” the final longer story included here, replaces Ocampo’s customary use of the monologue form with a series of dialogues.
In a symmetry appropriate to her writing, Ocampo also published seven books of poems. Like Balderston, Jason Weiss has honed his English renderings of Ocampo’s work over decades. The selections from each of the seven volumes chart Ocampo’s progression from a typical Argentine poet of the 1930s, mythologizing the pampas and Buenos Aires, to a writer of sonnets and formal metrical structures, which loosen into free verse as Ocampo’s confessional impulse grows stronger. These confessions are not revealing of biographical details but rather of currents of feeling anchored in a language which remains plain spoken while handling rich imagery and erudite allusions. Perhaps the greatest surprise, after reading Ocampo’s stories, is how female the poems are. “Autobiography of Irene,” for example, feels far more persuasive than its prose counterpart. Ocampo’s imagery, nourished by her training in Surrealist art, feels simultaneously surprising and integrated. Yet her voice can also be direct and unadorned, as in “Act of Contrition”: “I have so much repentance in me / so many useless presentiments, / a dog’s blind loyalty, / a heart that can be of iron / unmoved sometimes even by death, / or joy, or good luck.” Her best poems, such as “Darkness,” in which two lovers’ passion is conveyed by an itemization of the noises outside their room, have a kind of deliberate nonchalance that heightens their intensity through hints that never quite materialize into statements, yet leave the reader with the conviction that something important has been learned.
Both of these translations are shopworn in the positive sense that they have been reworked long enough to develop their own English identities. Balderston, who translated some of these stories for an earlier Penguin edition of Ocampo’s fiction, reports that in preparing this edition, “I have revised to pull the English syntax a bit farther from the Spanish.” His work pays off: even treacherous Latinate phrases such as, “La ansiedad es una forma de dicha que beneficia a los amantes” emerge in pleasing, plain English: “Uncertainty is a form of happiness that works in lovers’ favor.” Ocampo sometimes puts Balderston to the test, as in the story “Men Animals Vines,” from a 1970 collection, where the first-person narrator, marooned in the jungle after a plane crash, observes his identity changing from male to female as his body becomes enmeshed in vines and creepers. In the Spanish, the shift in gender is expressed by the switching of adjectival past participles from masculine to feminine forms; as this change cannot be reproduced in English, Balderston opts for: “I, suddenly female, wrap the pen in my green fronds.” The “suddenly female” is the translator’s insertion; it may be a blunt solution to capturing the change in the narrator’s identity, but it signals Balderston’s willingness to try almost anything to wrestle Ocampo’s work into English. Weiss is similarly committed: his thirty years’ work on Ocampo’s poetry has produced a surface that is virtually seamless.
Roberto Bolaño, when accused of misogyny for deriding Isabel Allende and Marcela Serrano, replied: “A woman writer (escritora) is Silvina Ocampo. A woman scribbler (escribidora) is Marcela Serrano. Light years separate them.” These two volumes give English readers the opportunity to raise Silvina Ocampo from her position of neglect as a hanger-on in the Bloomsbury of Buenos Aires and recognize her as South America’s misunderstood Virginia Woolf. - Stephen Henighan

The work of Argentine author Silvina Ocampo is rife with unlikely marriages, deadly weddings, and botched birthdays. Ocampo’s funerals are cheerful, her fêtes funereal. “The cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest,” she writes of a funeral procession in “Friends,” one of the stories in the newly translated collection Thus Were Their Faces. The mourners “were so enraged they looked happy. On [the] white coffin they had put bright flowers, which were constantly praised by the women…. I don’t think anyone cried.” In another story, “The Photographs,” a convalescent birthday girl dies in the frenzy of her overcrowded party, smothered by relatives and friends taking pictures. For Ocampo, there is something sinister about the hypocrisy of celebration, and Thus Were Their Faces comprises a vengeful series of happy occasions gone wrong.
A sometime student of the proto-surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, Ocampo (1903–1993) was steeped in an artistic tradition that sought to expose the primitive urges behind our restrained facades. In dreams, visions, and hallucinations, her characters are stripped of their inhibitions and afforded access to the more vital—and violent—parts of themselves. Ocampo’s children are especially resistant to the contrivance of celebratory ritual. In Thus Were Their Faces, they are Satanists, murderers, and arsonists, setting houses on fire and planting poisonous spiders in a bride’s hairpiece. Transfixed by a bleak painting in her childhood home, one young narrator discovers “a frightening, dark world,” only to report, unperturbed, that “children sometimes find pleasure in such worlds.”
Most of Ocampo’s characters strive to find their way back to the sinister but beguiling landscape of childhood savagery. In the stories, memory overshadows experience, and life is no more than the trivial enactment of more vibrant imaginings and reminiscences. “I lived, waiting for life’s limit that would draw me closer to memory,” one character reflects. In the sprawling tale “Autobiography of Irene,” a girl with the gift of supernatural foresight prefers to prophesy events than to live them. For her, life is “extremely brief, indeed almost nonexistent, for one who foresees [it] and then merely experiences [it].” Like several of Ocampo’s characters, Irene lives backwards, returning at the end of her story to a renewed sort of youth: “Trembling, I was coming closer to the past,” she concludes.
Irene’s life is inverted, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. Other characters in Thus Were Their Faces take matters a step further, adopting lives entirely prior to their own. In the haunting story “The House Made of Sugar,” a woman gradually takes on the persona of her house’s previous owner, dressing and speaking like her predecessor and ultimately answering to the other woman’s name. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life, her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes,” she mutters to herself. “I’m bewitched.” The lives that Ocampo’s characters lead in their dreams have an urgency and permanence that elsewhere elude them, and their imagined selves both predate and outlive their actual selves. In the dark world of Ocampo’s fiction, the familiar yet unsettling imagery of fantasy has a sense of reality that reality itself often lacks.
Throughout the book, fantasy and physicality converge in sexual encounters as vicious as they are passionate. Like her children, Ocampo’s lovers are selfish and sadistic, intent on disarming and wounding one another. Their perverse brand of eroticism hinges on confrontation: “When two people fight it seems as if they are embracing.” For Ocampo, attraction is a close correlate of ambivalence. In the story “The Velvet Dress,” a garment that will ultimately suffocate and kill its wearer nonetheless magnetizes her. “Velvet sets my teeth on edge, gives me goose bumps . . . and yet for me there’s no other fabric like it in the whole world,” she tells her dressmaker. “Feeling its softness with my hand attracts me even if it sometimes repels me.”
In “Lovers,” another tale of dangerous over-indulgence, a man and woman rendezvous not to go to bed but to gorge themselves with cake. “With loving greed and greater intimacy they took the second pieces…. Without hesitating, squinting their eyes, they lifted them up to mouths agape, … with greater energy and speed, but with identical pleasure, they began chewing and swallowing once more, like two gymnasts exercising at the same time.” When the meal is over, “abundant whipped cream dripped on the grass.” “Lovers” is repellent: It boils the sex act down to its gross essentials. Both lovers look on with trepidation as their feast dwindles to a few sparse crumbs, leaving them drearily glutted. For the lovers in question, romance is no more than an act of parallel consumption—and parallel satiation.
Ocampo can be cruel and cynical, but her spitefulness is clever, and, at her best moments, something tender lurks beneath the sadism. The punishments she cooks up for her characters are presented with unmistakable irony, and the results are frequently comedic and not infrequently touching. If her protagonists are callous and vindictive, they are also damaged, reacting almost reasonably to a world of treachery.
In “Mimoso,” perhaps the book’s best story, a woman slavishly devoted to her dog taxidermies the animal after its death. When one of her neighbors ridicules her, dismissing her dedication as insanity, she kills him by serving the taxidermied pet, replete with toxic embalming chemicals, for dinner. “Won’t people say you’re crazy?” her husband asks when she first decides to preserve her beloved dog. “So much the worse for them,” she responds. “They are heartless, and life is very sad for the heartless.”
The woman is a murderer, yet her statement rings true. There is something inhuman about her neighbor’s trivialization of her immense passion, and something sympathetic about her own outsized—if misguided—caring. Like so many of Ocampo’s ill-fated characters, she takes her love to its harsh but inevitable conclusion. Thus Were Their Faces does not gloss over the jealousies, excesses, and frenzies that characterize, in some form or another, all relationships important enough to matter. And in a world where fantasy and reality converge, the logic of our dreams guides our actions: Madness is transformed into a sort of sanity, cruelty into a sort of heroism, passion into a sort of religion. - Becca Rothfeld

Silvina Ocampo is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the short story. Italo Calvino once said about her, “I don’t know another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.” Thus Were Their Faces collects a wide range of Ocampo’s best short fiction and novella-length stories from her whole writing life. Stories about creepy doubles, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks to a girl, a house of sugar that is the site of an eerie possession, children who lock their perverse mothers in a room and burn it, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the cruelty of Ocampo’s stories was the result of her nobility of soul, a judgment as paradoxical as much of her own writing. For her whole life Ocampo avoided the public eye, though since her death in 1993 her reputation has only continued to grow, like a magical forest. Dark, gothic, fantastic, and grotesque, these haunting stories are among the world’s finest.

Goodreads description.

With a description like that you can see why I asked Silvina Ocampo's publisher, New York Review of Books, for a review copy. And I can tell you the book lived up to the description.
Ocampo's style is sometimes demanding on the reader and I found myself putting down the book between stories to muse over what I had just read.  But the book is all the better for that.
Even though I read the stories several days ago, they have stayed with me like a dark shadow somewhere on the periphery of my vision.  The word "dark" is rightly used of Ocampo's stories. At times they reminded me of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl in the way they would jolt me with a sudden dark turn. But then Ocampo also  shows that the dark is only seen in the context of light. As she writes in the preface, Writing is 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. 
Ocampo is probably better known as a poet  and it shows in her prose, which is at times sublime.  I could fill this review with quotations. But let us just take this one, which ends  probably my favourite story in the collection: Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it. But where is my bed, where can I wait in comfort? I'm not lying down: I'm unable to lie down. A bed is not always a bed. There is the birthing bed, the bed of love, the deathbed, the riverbed. But not a real bed... How perfect is that! The short sentences, the repetition, the symbolism, all could be translated into poetry, all you have to do is add line-breaks. And the poetical form is also appropriate for the story and the voice of the narrator - a woman, who with these words is slipping into death.
Ocampo is masterly in her use of narrative voices. As well as the dying, she is capable of speaking as a child. Sometimes the innocence of the child's voice contrasts with the story the child is unwittingly telling. Sometimes the child narrator is far from innocent. Nor is Ocampo's skill in the use of voices restricted to children. In The Prayer the female narrator is unable to confront the horror of what might/will happen as a result of her action and so the horror is left unstated and yet can clearly be read between the lines, leaving us with a sense of impending doom.
Magic realism appears in many of the stories, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.  In one story a gardener's hand digs into the earth only to take root there. In the short story which lends its title to the collection a group of deaf children dream the same dreams, make the same mistakes in their notebooks and when asked to draw all draw pictures of wings. The story culminates with children jumping from a plane. When interviewed, their teacher asserts that when the children threw themselves into the void they had wings.  
I commend this magical, dark and wonderful book and its remarkable author to you. - Zoe Brooks

It’s somewhat shameful, but though I’ve known of Silvina Ocampo for a few years now, mostly I think of her as the spouse of Adolfo Bioy Casares and as the friend of Jorge Luis Borges, though I know she was a talented and independent literary mind in her own right. Why, the only thing I’d read by her was a book she wrote with her husband, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (which I reviewed here). Of course, part of the problem is that in English, little of her life’s work (she died in 1993 at the age of 90 after publishing poetry and short fiction for six decades) has been available. This week, however, we’re getting a comprehensive collection of Ocampo’s short stories from NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces (translated from the Spanish Daniel Balderston, 2015). They are also putting out a lovely edition of her poetry, but more on that later.
Thus Were Their Faces contains stories from each of Ocampo’s seven short story collections, from 1937’s Forgotten Journey to 1988’s Cornelia Before the Mirror. It’s a large book, with (by my count) 42 stories, most as short as a few pages, and just a couple topping 20 pages.
These are fiendish stories, usually about an individual, a man or woman, whose emotional state might seem stable on the outside but that is absolutely in extremis. I was often reminded of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the fury that builds up and then snaps into a calm madness. Many of these characters are, perhaps unbeknownst to us when the story begins, already in that calm madness. And sometimes — strange, this — I felt like I was reading from the perspective of that elusive woman on the other side of the yellow wallpaper. I can think of none that are about more mundane scenes, though several of the characters seem to want us to think their world coincides with what most of us would consider normal.
Let’s take a look at the first story, “Forgotten Journey,” part of Ocampo’s debut back in 1937. While it is perhaps telling that most of the stories here come from the later collections, the strangeness is apparent from the starting line: “She was trying to remember the day she was born.” Or is that so strange? It almost seems charming: a child, furrowing her brow, straining to recall such a momentous moment. Rather than ease you into the strangeness, let me just skip right to the final paragraph (without spoiling the three-pages story):
A moment later, her mother said she was going to open the window, and after opening it, immediately her mother’s face completely transformed: she was a lady in a feather-covered hat who just happened to be visiting the house. The window was almost shut, and when her mother told her that the sun was glorious, she saw the dark sky of night where no bird sang.
When I read Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, I thought that it was a book that was often more interested in tone and atmosphere than plot and sense. That’s certainly the case with these early stories. Ocampo is exercising her skills, testing the limits of her imagination, learning that she had no limits. By the time we get to her 1959 collection, The Fury, she is adroitly mixing the bizarre with genuine pathos.
Take, for example, “The House Made of Sugar,” in which a husband tells about his wife’s strange superstitions (though, he notes, she takes no heed of the usual superstitions, like what to do if you have a broken mirror; surely, this is a husband who thinks his way is normal and any other is stranger); one of her superstitions demands that she know about any prior owners of any home they inhabit. She doesn’t want their influence to infect her life. In order to get around this, the husband takes her to a home that appears new, but that’s only because the prior owners had it renovated. The husband admits to being deceptive in order to get his wife to agree to buying this house, but he pays the price when, after they move in, he must work hard to ensure his wife never finds out about his deception.
But, as the story progresses, his wife doesn’t seem to mind: “I’m someone else, perhaps someone happier than I.” In the end, things turn out for the worst, and our narrator says, “I don’t know who was the victim of whom, in that house made of sugar.” While this story feels somewhat predictable as you read it, it takes some unique turns, but, more importantly, Ocampo injects the tragedy of everyday life into the bizarre, even if we can rarely feel the tragedy since the characters are often a few degrees removed from us by Ocampo’s playful disdain for them.
In her introduction to this volume, Helen Oyeyemi talks about when, in 1979, Ocampo’s body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. The reason the judges cited? Her work was “demasiado crueles,” or, “far too cruel.” Sometimes, an author can show a character’s foibles while still loving, even honoring, that character. I have to agree with those judges insofar as Ocampo’s stories are filled with a playful cruelty, as if Ocampo’s characters are mere characters in a game and Ocampo gets to take delight in torturing them. But “far too cruel”? No, I take delight in her torture as well, and, at the end of the day, this delight does a bit of a reversal on that old title making it feel better to say “where there’s hate, there’s love.” -  

“The world is not magical. We make it magical all of a sudden inside us, and nobody finds out until many years later.” –Silvina Ocampo After years of hiding her writing, it took the encouragement of her husband, the equally extraordinary author Adolfo Bioy Casares, her sister, legendary publisher Victoria Ocampo, and her dear friend and collaborator—and best man at her wedding—Argentine literary sovereign Jorge Luis Borges, to usher Silvina Ocampo’s fecund imaginings into the world. Most of the stories in NYRB’s new collection Thus Were Their Faces were first published when Ocampo was over 50. None of Ocampo’s stories were collected in English until 1988’s Leopoldina’s Dream, which has long been out of print, making the graciously expanded Thus Were Their Faces that much more necessary. Silvina Ocampo, also new from NYRB, is the first collection of poetry to ever appear in English. Sublime poet and eminent master of the modern fantastic—her heirs include Julio Cortázar, who praised her ability to summon the strangeness in the everyday, Roberto Bolaño, who declared that he “would live very happily in Silvina Ocampo’s kitchen,” and César Aira—Ocampo deserves to be heralded alongside the greatest Latin American authors of the 20th century.
Ocampo initially intended to become a visual artist. Born to an affluent Buenos Aires family in 1903, she studied in Paris with luminaries: Chirico, Léger, André Lhote. But Ocampo grew disillusioned with painting, and when it came to what would prove her true vocation she was hesitant to debut. Perhaps, as she writes in ‘Men Animals Vines,’ a story about an air crash survivor who slowly merges with his jungle prison, “There are people who only find out who they are after a long time.”
Ocampo, the youngest of six children, exercised a gift for locating the twilit fringes of experience in child characters. (She was formatively influenced by Lewis Carrol.) Drawn to wonderment yet utterly unsentimental, she rendered children as “tiny detectives,” corrupted by curiosity, capable of cruelty and sacrifice, nascently erotic. Her stories are littered with bad seeds, deaf or paralyzed children, cursed or cursing children. We find a six-year-old boy in telepathic servitude to an adult woman, and an eight-year-old girl who has 20 orgasms a day. Thus Were Their Faces’ titular tale describes 40 children who seem born of a shared hive, bearing the same facial expressions, dreaming the same dreams, making the same mistakes in their notebooks, sharing the same inexplicable destiny.
Destiny looms merciless and great in Ocampo’s fiction, yet her prose is intimate and precise, alert to detail. As attuned to objects as she is to anxieties, Ocampo embroiders the material into the fabulous, oneiric or doom-laden. Death is voracious: death by swamp, arachnid and velvet, by floods, train wrecks and typhoid. Fates are foretold. Fantasies, prayers and dreams are repeatedly made manifest. In ‘Magush’ an adolescent divines the future in the windows of a vacant building. ‘The Imposter’ is a gothic masterpiece about cumulative déjà vu. ‘House of Sugar’ concerns a superstitious newlywed who unknowingly inherits the identity of a woman she’s never met.
The persistence of the uncanny in her work is tempered by an almost surgical study of perception’s subjectivity; for Ocampo, memory and forgetting possess equal allure. In ‘Strange Visit’ a face is “so transparent that it was as if it had been erased.” The story seems to be fading from memory as it’s being written. ‘Visions’ is narrated by a hospitalized woman perpetually suspended between recovery and oblivion. Its prose never spills into the florid, yet its eerie incantory power accrues to the point where, as with the psychological chillers of Maupassant, the reader comes to feel incarcerated by the narrator’s spectral visions.
While Ocampo’s prose is heavily populated with children and young adults, her poetry favours plants, animals, places and sensory ephemera. She composes eloquent epitaphs for a tree, for an aroma. A house dreams of becoming a boat. Nostalgia suffuses recollections of walks, holidays and gardens. Her poetic voice is often tranquil. There are repeated calls to vanquish fears of death.
Yet when her poetry wanders into the terrain of people, Ocampo exhibits emotional dexterity and arresting candidness. Borges extolled what he deemed Ocampo’s clairvoyance: “She sees us as if we were made of glass, sees us and forgives us.” That clairvoyance seems to extend to what was once called “woman’s intuition.” Bioy was 11 years Ocampo’s junior. They became lovers when he was 19, she 31. Ocampo could not bear children but eventually helped raise a child Bioy fathered with another woman. Their 60-year marriage was polyamorous, but not without angst. From ‘Love Persued’: “You thought that in the night/ were places so remote/ love could hide away/ forever there/ but the day pursues/ the night and darkness/ ends with beds.” Possessiveness and jealousy creep into these poems. From ‘Love’: “to escape the anxiety in my complaints […] never to be afraid of losing you/ through fickleness and unfaithfulness.”
The paranoia and viciousness found in so much of Ocampo’s work is offset by recurrent evocations of passion, romance, heroism and risk. Because her life, or the little I’ve been able to learn of it, seems as mysterious and contradictory as her work, I fear that I’m in danger of conflating the two. Ocampo, who died in 1993 of Alzheimer’s, is long gone. Her legacy is tremendous, and her biography alluring—they converge into mystique. But these new collections, smartly compiled in chronological order, allow us to read Ocampo one story, one poem, one sentence at a time. “What matters is what we write,” Ocampo assures, “that is what we are, not some puppet made up by those who talk and enclose us in a prison so different from our dreams.” - José Teodoro

I'll admit it was the Remedios Varo painting on the front that initially attracted me to Thus Were Their Faces, NYRB Classics' new collection of short stories by Argentine fabulist writer, Silvina Ocampo.  And am I ever glad I judged this book by its cover!  It is truly one of the most marvelous things I've read in a long while, and Ocampo has become a literary heroine of mine.
These 42 stories are anthologized from her writings between 1937 and 1988, and each is a remarkable study in specificity and imaginal thinking.  The protagonists of her tales are often children or adolescents or the very elderly wrestling with big questions about love, religion, and death.  Magical goings-on are frequent, though are grounded in a world (usually Buenos Aires) that feels steely-eyed and true.  There are birthday parties, courtships, marriages, friendships, and crimes, each embroidered by elements of clairvoyance or supernatural interactions that heighten the drama, albeit with a deliciously slow build.
My three favorite stories appear in succession, all originally published in 1959 as part of her collection, "The Fury."  "Azabache" is a tale about a man who marries his equine-obsessed servant, Aurelia, whose fate is bound inextricably with that of her beloved horse.  In "The Velvet Dress," a tailor creates a black, dragon-sequined dress for a client, and they both have to reconcile its beauty with its heaviness and dark powers that threaten to overwhelm them.  And in perhaps my very favorite story, "Leopoldina's Dreams," two sisters try to trick their crone grandmother into conjuring jewels and gold as she sleeps, rather than the usual far more humble feathers and stones that tend to appear upon her waking.  Ocampo's description of Leopoldina alone made me swoon:
"In the kitchen, sitting on a high-backed wicker chair, Leopoldina was smoking.  She was so old that she looked like a scribble; you couldn't see her eyes or her mouth.  She smelled like earth, grass, dry leaves: not like a person.  She announced storms and bad weather like a barometer; even before I did she could smell the mountain lion coming down from the hills to eat the young goats or twist the necks of the colts.  Despite not having left the house for thirty years, she knew, as birds know, where there were ripe nuts, figs, and peaches, in what valley, beside which stream.  Even the crispin bird, with its sad song, shy as a fox, came down one day to eat bread crumbs dipped in milk out of her hands, surely believing that she was a bush."
Here's another favorite section, from her story, "Autobiography of Irene," about a melancholic young seer who falls in love for the first time:
"A silence of cloisters and roses was in our hearts.  No one could guess the mystery that linked us.  Not even those colored pencils or the jujube candies or the flowers he bestowed on me gave us away.  He would write my name on the trunks of trees with his penknife, and when he was being punished, he would write it with chalk on the wall."
I love the clarity of her writing with its short sentences and vivid images.  Naturally, some credit must go to the translator, Daniel Balderston.  But I appreciate that Ocampo's voice is lush without being flowery, and unapologetically straightforward as it enthralls.  Each line shines like a blade.
It's no wonder she had a background in painting, having studied with de Chirico and Leger in Paris, as she is a master picture painter in her writing.  But she felt she had far more freedom expressing herself in words, as she states in her author's introduction also included in this collection.  Her life was filled with - some might say eclipsed by - other luminaries.  She was married to Bioy Casares, author of cult favorite, The Invention of Morel.  And they were both dear friends and collaborators with Borges, whose preface to one of her books is republished at the beginning of "Thus Were Their Faces" as well.  As he wrote,
"It is strange that it should be I, for whom telling a story is the attempt to capture only its essential elements, who should present to readers a work as wise, as changeable, as complex, and at the same time as simple as this collection.  I thank the gods for this happy fate."
I share his sentiment, and I hope that you, too, will discover Ocampo's exquisite storycraft for yourself. -

New York Review Books has done it again, granting new life to yet another neglected gem of world literature. I had never heard of Silvina Ocampo before picking up this title, but when I saw that NYRB was putting out a collection, and that authors like Borges and Calvino much admired her, I knew there was a hole in my literary knowledge that must be filled. I was not disappointed. Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces is a collection of short stories boasting enough merit to put her firmly in ranks with the masters of the form – like Borges, O’Connor, Poe, and the like. In my mind, she is the Argentinian Shirley Jackson, with every story evoking a fantastic atmosphere – at once creepy and inviting. Ocampo is a literary angler, drawing her piscine audience closer to the hook with every mysterious sentence until we bite at the bait and she reels us in. Her characters are broken, rubbing against the realm of the civilized world with disturbing results. The fantastic world she creates is not a world of happy truths and pretty vistas, but one of reverential longing and obsessive destruction. I absolutely adore it!
Many of Ocapo’s tales toy with the innocence of childhood (or the lack thereof). At the cusp of adulthood, her characters’ romantic innocence brushes against the strict mores of adult society with perilous results. These child-like subjects cannot cope with the civilized order of the modern world and, as a result, become the agents of chaos and destruction. In the titular tale, a group of children from a school for the deaf are visited by an angel, we are told, and become unified in the appearance of their faces and the notions of their minds, much to the wonder and concern of their caretakers. In the end, they are all said to have died in a tragic plane crash, but all witnesses report that they were taken by the angels. It is as if the children represent the spiritual ideal of the world, in which there is a great togetherness and the reasons for strife are all lifted from them. But these children cannot fit into the real world, and thus are dramatically whisked away by their angelic protectors.
In “The Mortal Sin,” a young girl about to take her first communion is forced by one of the servants to watch as he commits some unspoken (probably sexual) act upon himself. The child values her purity and piety above all, choosing to live ascetically (the resulting irony being that her parents reward her with great luxuries), but she cannot bring herself to confess to what she has seen. Consequently, she is plagued for the rest of her life with the knowledge that she has taken communion in a state of deadly sin. The tale is told in the second person, so we can only imagine that it is Chango, the abusive servant, the only other person who knows her secret, who is telling this tale with a sick, almost pious, joy in his voice. This little girl, who wants only to be good and pure, can find nothing but corruption in the world and must suffer throughout her life – ignorant of the state of her soul.
The story, “Voice on the Telephone,” tells of an affluent boy, Fernando, who, during the middle of his birthday party, hides in the couch and becomes a voyeur to the intimacies of the female adults nearby, stealing fancy matches in the process. Unattended by the parents or servants, he and the other children set a fire in the room with the parents, locking them in and burning them alive. But Fernando is more concerned with an expensive Chinese chest of drawers having survived the fire. His apathy for the lives of the adults is cloaked with childlike innocence, his actions and attitudes only a mirror reflecting these uncaring adults.
Another great thematic element of Ocampo’s work appears to be a great fascination with memory, especially in terms of how it determines reality and identity. For this reader, “The House Made of Sugar” is perhaps the most memorable tale told and deals with memory in precisely these terms. It tells of a superstitious young woman, Cristina, who moves into a house, which looks as if it was made of sugar, just after she is married. Her husband has lied to Cristina, telling her that they are the first people to live in that house, for he fears that she would not want to live there otherwise. He goes to great lengths to shield Cristina from the truth, gathering the mail before Cristina and trying to head off meetings with neighbors. All the while Cristina becomes more reserved, her usual happy demeanor turning to one of sadness. She loses all her superstitions and gains the ability to sing. She begins to feel as if she has the successes and failures of another person. The reader is left to wonder if it is the actions of the husband that has provoked such change in Cristina, but what has happened is something much more fantastic. Strangers begin to mistake Cristina for Violeta, a previous tenant of the house made of sugar, with vivid memories of her, so much so that Cristina actually begins to believe it—packages for Violeta come to Cristina, past lovers adamantly believe Cristina to be Violeta, warning her to stop seeing other lovers. Cristina’s husband searches out the true Violeta, finding only an old voice coach of hers, who informs him that Violeta is dead, tormented by the belief that someone had stolen her life. In the end, Cristina leaves her husband, becoming Violeta wholly. Cristina became Violeta in the memory of others, and as such, became Violeta in reality. The real Violeta lost those memories, and in that suffered a death of identity. It is a truly haunting tale that seems to warn the reader what a slender thread our lives hang on, that these ephemeral memories are the only ties to our beloved identities and lives.
In “The Autobiography of Irene,” Irene treats the knowledge of her future as a form of memory and thus inactively and serenely awaits the hour of her imminent and unavoidable death, passing the time by reluctantly telling her life to her biographer. In “The Objects,” the exact objects of Camila’s childhood begin to reappear in her life. She grows so concerned with the nostalgia of these objects that she cannot cease caressing them and “finally enter[s] hell.”
It is memory that defines the terms of life for Ocampo, and when reading her classic stories as they are presented by NYRB in Thus Were Their Faces, we are certain to breathe a new life into them with our remembrance. I, for one, will never forget that uncomfortable feeling of reading these fascinating tales for the first time. This reviewer highly recommends this volume for the lover of fantastic short fiction or world literature in general. Within is a strange world all its own, with memorable characters and elegant prose. It is worthy of becoming a popular classic and not just a forgotten footnote in Argentinian literature. - Kenyon Ellefson 

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. - Jonathan Diaz 

The work of Argentinian writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has largely been overshadowed by that of three other figures: her sister, Victoria, a publisher and critic; her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friend, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. These four luminaries formed a tight circle, promoting and influencing one another. In 1931, Victoria Ocampo established Sur, a significant literary journal of the modernist movement in Latin America. The journal published the work of Casares and Borges, along with other important writers such as José Ortega Y Gasset, Ernesto Sabato, and Julio Cortázar. Victoria was also, not incidentally, the first publisher of her younger sister’s literary work.
Ocampo, whom Borges describes as “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” came to writing after having studied as a visual artist with Giorgio de Chirico. “I came to know the trials of artists, and the joys,” she wrote in 1987. “I submerged myself in colors that reflected my soul or the state of my spirit.” She claimed to have grown “disillusioned” with painting, and turned to writing as a means to reconcile concepts of colour and form. “Writing is like 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 tensions involved in this assessment – between sprite and demon, happiness and a “wish to die” – are strikingly prevalent in Ocampo’s fiction, which is not in the realist mode, but operates rather in the realm of fabulism. In her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a newly released compendium of Ocampo’s selected stories (some appearing in translation for the first time), Helen Oyeyemi refers to Ocampo as “a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school.” This might make her stories appear unfamiliar to North American readers; they may appear less so to Latin American readers steeped in a tradition of magic realism.
“Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry,” Oyeyemi writes, “where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses.” If an encounter with Ocampo’s fiction on the part of a reader weaned on the subtle epiphanies of Chekhov and Joyce proves initially disjunctive, the writing is nevertheless entrancing, calling the reader back or driving her forward, notwithstanding the unfamiliarity and sense of discontinuity. In Oyeyemi’s words, “there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray.”
“The House Made of Sugar” is typical in this regard. Originally collected in Ocampo’s 1959 volume The Fury, the story is a bitter fable about a failed marriage, full of uncanny happenings and weirdness. It begins in a manner that is straightforward enough, with the unnamed male narrator meeting and marrying Cristina. The new bride is highly superstitious, and refuses to live anywhere there has been a previous tenant who might have left psychic scars on the property. When the narrator finds the titular house, he lies to his wife about its former occupant, a woman named Violeta. In short order, visitors begin arriving at the property and mistaking Cristina for Violeta; as the events of the story become stranger, Cristina’s identity blurs into that of the other woman.
Ocampo plants the seeds for what is to come from her opening sentences, which refer to the superstitions Cristina suffers from. The second sentence makes reference to a “coin with a blurry face” and “the moon seen through two panes of glass” – images of distortion and elision that will be actualized by the story’s end. These details immediately place the reader off kilter, nodding at a sense of unreality and creeping unease that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds.
The house itself contributes to this sense of disturbance. “Its whiteness gleamed with extraordinary brilliance,” Ocampo writes, hinting at notions of innocence and purity that will be systematically dismantled by the story’s close. The appearance of the house as being made of sugar lends it an otherworldly aspect, like the magical castle in a fairy tale, but this also proves chimerical. “It seemed our tranquillity would never be broken in that house of sugar,” the narrator says, “until a phone call destroyed my illusion.” In this story, as elsewhere in Ocampo’s work, domestic bliss is illusory, a condition the narrator testifies to, albeit unconsciously, by his admission that in the early days of their marriage he and Cristina were “so happy that it sometimes frightened” him. “We loved each other madly,” the narrator claims, and the attentive reader will note the thud of foreboding in the final adverb.
Of course, the marriage is doomed from the start, based as it is on a lie. The narrator is so paranoid about the possibility that Cristina might discover the truth about the house’s previous tenant that he begins to spy on her and follow her on her travels. For her part, Cristina takes in a stray dog, is visited by a mysterious man dressed as a woman who accuses her of dallying with someone named Daniel, and begins to sing spontaneously and incessantly. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life,” Cristina says, “her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes. I’m bewitched.”
The narrator’s lie becomes manifest in his wife, whose identity – and, perhaps, even her actual person – gets subsumed by Violeta. By the story’s end, the wife has fled and the pristine white house stands empty. “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar,” laments the narrator.
Oyeyemi points to an interview from 1980 in which Ocampo suggested that she had been passed over for a national literary prize because her fiction is too cruel. “The House Made of Sugar” does not read as a cruel story; in its uncanny aspects and the central doubling motif (not to mention the manse at its centre that serves as a locus for the characters’ dissolution) it resembles Poe, but the overall feeling is one not of malignancy but sadness. It is a fable about the ineffability of personality and the ultimate inability of anyone to truly know anyone else. It leaves its readers, like its characters, gutted and empty, as empty as the titular house – “the ideal place, the house of our dreams.” -

"Thus Were Their Faces," an anthology of Silvina Ocampo's short works published by the New York Review of Books, brings the Argentine writer, who died in 1993, long overdue recognition for her fiction. This stunning body of work illuminates what her friend and sometime collaborator Jorge Luis Borges called "an imagination granted the fullest freedom."
Ocampo's prodigious output included seven volumes of poetry; children's stories; plays; translations of Dickinson, Poe, Melville and Swedenborg; and collaborations with Borges and her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. She won numerous awards for her poetry, but her fiction (seven volumes of short works) remained for years in the shadows of the literary greats whose company she kept. With this collection of stories written from 1937 to 1988 and translated from Spanish by Daniel Balderston, readers now have a chance to discover this remarkable writer.
Such was Ocampo's imagination that to impose any literary boundaries on these stories is to limit the depth and power of her writing. In elegant, precise prose, she navigates the waters of the surreal, fantastic and macabre, revealing the fragility of the mind, deception of memory, mutability of time and what Borges called "innocent and oblique cruelty," often inflicted by family, friends or neighbors of the victim. From story to story, you never know what you will encounter.
In "The Clock House," a child writes a letter to his teacher as a way to practice his composition. He describes ordinary events: Joaquina is snoring; Julia, the puppy, is sleeping under the bed; and Ana María Sausa gave a party for "little Rusito's baptism" the night before — a festive occasion with dancing, drinking and eating. As he tells of the arrival of the town's "hunchbacked watchmaker" in a rumpled suit and the local laundryman's offer to iron it for him, the story shifts with subtle ease into a frenzy of shocking violence. The child's matter-of-fact account of the horror makes it all the more chilling.
An ordinary dress fitting becomes fatal in "The Velvet Dress," when Mrs. Cornelia Catalpina cannot be freed from a heavy, lush black dress laden with an embroidered dragon. As the dressmaker struggles to get the garment off, the distressed woman cries, "It's a prison. How to escape it?" and the narrator looks on with amusement.
A strange, haunting solitary world of childhood emerges in "Thus Were Their Faces," when 40 deaf children are visited by an angel who arrives with a "shining mirror held on high," revealing that their faces are identical. Their teachers fail to grasp the "closed world" of these children, who dreamed the same dreams and made the same mistakes in their notebooks. In art class they "drew wings of various forms and dimensions," which plays into a fantastic miracle, or depending on your views of inexplicable events, the tragedy that follows.
"The Imposter," a twisted tale of obsession and madness, brings to mind the page-turning psychological thrillers of Patricia Highsmith and the clever mind-bending episodes of "The Twilight Zone." Luis, a student on break, is asked by the friend of his father to spend time on an abandoned ranch, where his son Armando has secluded himself, and to report on his activities. Foreshadowing disturbing events, a stranger in Luis' train car tells him, that Armando is "somewhat crazy" and is said to have blinded a horse "because it didn't obey him." An unreliable narrator, the volatile, mysterious Armando, an elusive girl named Maria, diabolical mind games and Luis' distressing dreams that mirror reality — or are they recollections? — create an exquisite tension that held me in its grasp until the last word.
Reading these extraordinary tales, I found myself at times disoriented, horrified or unsettled, but always completely absorbed. With subversive humor and unflinching nerve Ocampo never averts her gaze from the dark side of human behavior.
Not an easy read, these stories, but certainly they are unforgettable. - Elfrieda Abbe

Silvina Ocampo, born in 1903, walked the same Argentine streets as Jorge Luis Borges, although she saw them differently. Borges, if you were to ask him, consulting his preface to Thus Were Their Faces, the new collection of Ocampo's short stories published by NYRB Classics, would cite his own failing eyesight, and contrast it to Ocampo's eye, trained as a painter in Europe under cubists, as an explanation. Ocampo's own take on the instruction she received, offered in her own introduction, points elsewhere.
I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color. He would answer, "What else is there besides color?" "You're right. But color disturbs me. You can't see the forms amidst so many colors."
I have as yet been unable to turn up an example of what exactly Ocampo's paintings looked like. Unlike the in-print editions of Leonora Carrington's books, that is not one of the author's own pieces upon her front cover. Rather, a Remedios Varo piece situates the stories within a container appropriately female, Spanish speaking, and surrealist.
Although De Chirico is the founder of the "scuola metafisica" ("metaphysical school") art movement considered a predecessor to surrealism, "surrealist" sits slightly uneasily as a term to describe the sort of writer Ocampo is. There is no shortage of twentieth-century artists who would actively claim that affiliation, but the group she selected as her peers is historically broader minded. Her closest affiliates, those she dined beside for many years, would be Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, with whom she coedited Antología de la Literatura Fantástica, including examples of their own work alongside that of Poe and Swedenborg, whom I mention specifically for those were authors Ocampo herself translated.
A prospective reader might see the association with Borges, and read the Calvino blurb on the back of the collection of her poetry, published by NYRB Poets, and think that this might be a similar writer to the two of them. A writer prone to abstractions, gently fabulist in the world postulated, that feels larger than the one we live in, through the invention of impossibilities to the physics that we know. Such thought experiments seem almost holy in their light, that, while lost in thought of theoretical abstractions, they've come across something that could illuminate the world. The magic in Ocampo's stories is less unique to her. Instead, she chooses as subject matter phenomena talked about widely, such as psychic abilities, divination, angels, and dreams. She does not need to invent books of infinite pages, for the world of what we know already contains things as strange as mirrors.
If you are thinking, "Mirrors aren't that weird," then congratulations on your no doubt hard-won rationality. For the rest of us, and I'm including my brothers and sisters in the animal kingdom here, mirrors are fucking bonkers. I understand the premise of realism to be that there are certain things all adults can take for granted. Ocampo takes us away from that mooring as soon as she can, and she severs the tether tied around the core of us. The book begins with a story called "Forgotten Journey," referring to the one taken en route to being born. We are reminded then that, from our memory's perspective, the question of how we arrived where we are, in existence at all, begins with a blank space. Let us remember now that, were it not for the mirror, included on the list of blank spaces would be our own faces.
Let us then humor reason to be a kind of light akin to God, that our existence might begin to be explained. This allows me to make mention of an idea Ocampo posits in her poetry: "I believe the light blinds you at times / and the darkness is a lamp." This is followed, in the next stanza, with the equally incredible "If your existence is different from your death, / why do you always kill yourself while alive." But let us retreat from that inquiry in realization that here we find the forms that Ocampo sought in painting. They appear much more readily, it turns out, in the black and white of text upon a page. In darkness we find the human, in all her irrational psychology and cruelty; we see a shading that defines our features, in the soul sitting unlit inside a head.
Ocampo is uninterested in seeking out some sort of objective Aleph. The supernatural strangeness that suffuses her stories is rooted in a fascination with characters whose psychology is inscrutable, elsewhere shown as capable of cruelty. While some of the stories here carry a gothic tone reminiscent of those Daphne Du Maurier stories NYRB collected under the title Don't Look Now, others, such as a story called "Mimoso," about an old woman who feeds her belovedly embalmed dog to a man she assumes suspected her of fucking it, circumvent this territory entirely to have the dark humor of a Flannery O'Connor, were she unbeholden to any deity. Such a story might not contain any outwardly fantastic elements, but through it we understand what people are like, and how they use the power they possess. Psychic abilities might enable one to perceive the world differently, but that might not necessarily redeem them so much as it further alienates from those nearby.
The story "Leopoldina's Dreams," the title story of a 1988 collection, Thus Were Their Faces, is essentially an expanded version of, tells of a girl who can summon the objects she dreams of to appear next to her upon waking. Her sisters are irritated at the meagerness of what this ability brings to her, and encourage her to dream of the treasures of wealth that could change their lives; but these, unknown to the life she's lived, are beyond her imaginings. The true joy of this story is not contained within that plot summary's set of cozy ironies, but rather in a frame the narration creates, foreshadowed in an early line, setting up a perfect punch line, which, if I were to summarize, I would do a disservice to how deeply delightful I found it to be. But I suppose I have to say it: One of her dreams is that her dog is writing her life story, and it is her dreaming this that allows her dog to write the pages we are reading. This frame of whimsy, contrasted against the gothic stylings of the narrative, allows the shape of the world to show itself with a palpable depth.
This brightness of tone is elsewhere created by a child's narrating. When such children witness violent actions, the question of how disturbed they are is left unanswered. Instead we are left to deal with the fact that the innocence of their worldview can exist within the same world as these acts of sadism. The violence is not more "true," it does not necessarily corrupt what it encounters. Ocampo does not view darkness as a stain that spreads, but merely as a shadow being cast, that spreads and diffuses depending on where the light is situated. In a story called "The Velvet Dress," the narrator interjects "How amusing!" often. That story ends in a woman's dying strangled by the garment that she wears. The fact that Ocampo wrote the story is a reminder that she does not necessarily mean "How amusing!" to be taken ironically, there is amusement to be found in such grotesquery.
Another way to phrase this codependent relationship between light and darkness inside the human soul would be Where There's Love, There's Hate, the title of the parodic mystery novel Ocampo coauthored with Bioy Casares, her husband, published in 2013 by Melville House. Rather than attempt to single out passages I suspect Ocampo authored, I will instead only say that giving a title like that to a collaboration with one's spouse, and to possess the goal of writing a book that both functions as an effective mystery novel even as it parodies the form, strike me as indicative of the sort of clear-sighted humor that she had.
Borges, in his introduction originally intended for the 1988 collection, writes of Ocampo's ability to see through people like glass, and attributes to her the mystic virtue of clairvoyance. It seems funny, then, that one of the stories not included in that collection, but appearing now, "The Impostor," has its narrator worry, "What if Maria Gismondi had the power of second sight so frequent among women?" as if mocking the male tendency to ascribe such qualities to the women they romanticize.
That novella stretches out enough to reveal strengths to her writing not otherwise evident, as the imagery-describing apparatus goes into overdrive to make things feel more vivid than they do in her more economical tales. That story contains the sentence that gives this essay its title, for instance, among other startling truths. Here the tendency for her stories' narration to create a frame for itself that changes the quality of light in which we read it mutates multiple times, allowing for digressions where characters attempt to recall their previous lives, while we as readers struggle to make sense of what the story is even about, waiting for the titular impostor to reveal himself amongst the various psychological and romantic intrigues. It offers enough wisdom to seem to comment on her other work, reminding us again that the world in everyday life is deeply strange, in ways easily taken for granted. One character, unable to dream, wishes deeply that he could. Another character sees a blind horse and prepares these words to say:
"A person who is capable of talking, of understanding, of reasoning, even if he was born blind, can come to know the world of forms and colors through words, through thought; but a blind animal, what secret labyrinths can it know, a prisoner of its movements, like an automaton? What hands, what kind voice will reveal the world to it?" I said, "Animals are the dreams of nature."
The strengths of that extended story are exemplary of the skillset that sets the prose Ocampo writes apart from her poetry. At least from the perspective of one who only has English-language translations to go by, the poetry is supplementary, and functions primarily to show her spirit as straightforwardly as possible. Her poetry is at its best in her later metaphysical mode, and those who feel at home in her stories' strangenesses and self-abnegating contradictions will find these pieces borderline anthemic. "I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine," she writes at the conclusion of her poem "Song." The things she has seen and taken in have become her, but none of it belongs to her, for everything is elusive and temporary, and any claim she might stake will mean nothing after her death.
A world where Ocampo is dead is the world we exist in currently, and the stories and poetry she brought into it while alive are now allowed to be made into parts of an English-literate audience's being. We can ingest the decency of her, that all who knew her spoke of, before admitting in their next breath how befuddled they were by her fiction's cruelty. One of the poems now in print is one whose title translates to "Act of Contrition," where she writes:
I think: smoke and foliage look alike,
but only the leaves come back to life.
Of evil and good, shall I say the same?
No. Evil comes back to life in the abyss.

Alive as we are, we sit outside the abyss, and here in our strange world of shadowy forms and overwhelming color, her stories are alive, and unbelievably good. - Brian Nicholson

Before 2013, finding a copy of anything written by the Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo in an English translation wasn’t easy. Although her contemporary Jorge Luis Borges wrote admiringly of her writing, Ocampo’s own contributions to the world of fiction weren’t widely recognized in international circles. That’s a shame: whether overtly weird or focusing more on her characters’ tortured, surreal inner lives, Ocampo’s work inhabits a singular space: dense and haunting, and dangerously unpredictable. In 2013, Melville House released a translation of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate as part of their Neversink series of short books. While the book is a compelling, often surreal read, it may not be the best indication of Ocampo’s work as a whole. First and foremost, it’s a collaboration with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares; second, it’s a kind of detective-novel pastiche, albeit one that bent and twisted the tropes of the genre in an assortment of memorable ways. It’s an impressive demonstration of the abilities of both writers, but it isn’t necessarily the ideal starting point for either. NYRB Classics has taken steps to rectify this, releasing two books (one collection of stories, and one of poems) earlier this year to provide a good survey of Ocampo’s work.
“Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it,” wrote Helen Oyeyemi (a writer who knows a thing or two about work that eludes easy classification) in her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a collection of Ocampo’s short fiction released by NYRB Classics earlier this year. It was released alongside a volume of her poetry translated by Jason Weiss. (Thus Were Their Faces was translated by Daniel Balderston.) Weiss’s introduction to the poetry collection, part of which appeared in Granta, also provides a good overview of Ocampo’s life. He’s also part of an impressive lineage of translators of Ocampo’s poetry into English: William Carlos Williams translated one of her poems in 1958. Weiss began translating Ocampo’s poetry in the 1970s, and hoped to find a publisher a collection of her poems and a collection of her stories, a task at which he was initially unsuccessful. He noted in his introduction to the current poetry collection that “by the late 1970s three editions of her stories were available in Italian and French.” English-language publishers proved harder to convince of Ocampo’s merits as a writer.
When asked about the selection process for the new collection, Weiss described a broad approach. “I figured if it was going to be a book of her selected poems, I should choose some from each of her books, of course,” he wrote in an email. “The criteria then and since was, first, which poems I most responded to and thought I could do some justice to in translating, and second, which poems seemed like there were particularly important to her, in the context of her work and her own history.  So, in terms of my own tastes, that included all the epitaph poems, some of the sonnets that treated personal history, emotions, and even classical themes, and some of the animal & metaphysical poems of later books.”
The poetry in the collection is wide-ranging, from the same surreal and dream-like imagery that populates her fiction to more straightforward and evocative passages. Her early poem “Irremissable Memory” has the dedication “for no one,” and veers from the cosmic–”Within me dwells that infinite impenetrable space”–to the everyday. But its closing lines, in Weiss’s translation, are haunting in their terse uncertainty, holding any potential for joy at a distance.
in that place I could love you still,
passing through barely glimpsed hallways,
among streets stained by time and without travails,
among pale garlands of uncertain joy.
Along with Blake, Ocampo’s writing shares a number of qualities with surrealist painter and author Leonora Carrington. It’s not coincidental that both worked with both visual art and with words. In the work of both, the underlying logic within a given story is malleable, dreams taking on their own reality, mythological conditions suddenly becoming all too tangible. Her 1968 novella The Topless Tower, in particular, moves along the lines of a subconscious logic, from the tangible to the imaginary and back again. Its opening line, in James Womack’s translation, gets to some of the inherent narrative contradictions early, along with images that are both pastoral and slightly off. “A long time ago, or else not so very long ago, I couldn’t say, summer held out its green leaves, its mirrors of sky-blue water, the fruits in the trees.”
Elsewhere in Ocampo’s fiction, borders between categories shift mercilessly; the delineations that many readers come to rely on are rendered ineffective. In “Icera,” the title character seeks out the life of a doll she observes in a store window: “Icera considered the dolls as rivals; she wouldn’t accept them even as presents; she only wanted to occupy their places.” Doubles and shifts in identity play a significant role in her early story “The Imposter,” in which mental and physical maladies in increasingly delirious ways. And one character in the brief “Carl Herst” appears to dissolve into a collection of aphorisms hanging from a wall. It’s memorably evocative stuff; one can see why critic José Teodoro, writing in the National Post, posited her as a literary forebear to writers like Julio Cortázar and César Aira.
The question of Ocampo’s work not receiving its due isn’t quite as cut-and-dried as the familiar “international author is under-appreciated in the United States” narrative leads us to believe. Though that does seem to be the case here as well. Weiss recalled that “one well-known American translator told me by letter, erroneously, in the late ’70s, that Silvina was [her sister] Victoria’s daughter.” Though there was also resistance to her work closer to home. Oyeyemi’s introduction begins with a trip into literary history: in 1979, her work did not receive the National Prize for Literature in Argentina, on the grounds of perceived cruelty in her work.
There’s also a dig at her in Witold Gombrowicz’s Diary: “Sylvina was a ‘poetess,’ and published a volume every so often.” He describes a dinner with Ocampo and Bioy Casares, using it as emblematic of his daily interactions in Argentina. “This is how the supper at the Casareses’s: nowhere. Like all suppers consumed by me with Argentine literature.” It’s certainly an observation that can be taken with many grains of salt: to read Diary is to grapple with the intimate life of a particularly thorny international literary figure. But it’s also a frustrating experience, reading a withering opinion of one cult writer delivered by the other.
Thankfully, Ocampo’s memorably disorienting fiction has aged well–or perhaps, like some of her landscapes, it exists in its own mesmerizingly timeless place.
Weiss commented, “By now, I think she is considered fairly important and rather unique in Argentine literature. In the past decade or so, her collected poems and collected stories have been reissued in two volumes each, plus all the unpublished work that has appeared posthumously, some half a dozen books.” He added that, in recent years, she has become more widely read, and has been the subject of numerous dissertations. “The US, or the anglophone world in general, just got the news last, as usual,” he said. Thankfully, Ocampo’s memorably disorienting fiction has aged well–or perhaps, like some of her landscapes, it exists in its own mesmerizingly timeless place. - Tobias Carroll

Silvina Ocampo, Silvina Ocampo, Trans. by Jason Weiss, NYRB Classics, 2015.
Song (Granta)

Silvina Ocampo possessed her own special enchantment as a poet, and only now is her extraordinary poetic achievement becoming more widely recognized beyond Latin America.
Remarkably, this is the first collection of Ocampo’s poetry to appear in English. From her early sonnets on the native Argentine landscape, to her meditations on love’s travails, to her explorations of the kinship between plant and animal realms, to her clairvoyant inquiries into history and myth and memory, readers will find the full range of Ocampo’s “metaphysical lyricism” (The Independent) represented in this groundbreaking edition.

It is Ocampo’s position as a poet which exalts her prose… . Of all the words that could define her, the most accurate is, I think, ingenious.—Jorge Luis Borges

Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it.—Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t know of another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.—Italo Calvino

Like her friend Julio Cortázar, [Ocampo] wrote with fascinated horror of Argentinian petty bourgeois society, whose banality and kitsch settings she used in a masterly way to depict strange, surreal atmospheres sometimes verging on the supernatural. She could reproduce with devastating accuracy the intonations and the peculiar idiom of the Buenos Aires middle classes. Yet her irony was always so subtle and restrained, it could produce effects of unexpected illumination on the life of her times.
The Independent

Silvina Ocampo is, together with Borges and García Márquez, the leading writer in Spanish.
Jorge Amado

Few writers have an eye for the small horrors of everyday life; fewer still see the everyday marvelous. Other than Silvina Ocampo, I cannot think of a single writer who, at any time or in any language, has chronicled both with such wise and elegant humour.—Alberto Manguel

Every story [evokes] a fantastic atmosphere – at once creepy and inviting. Ocampo is a literary angler, drawing her piscine audience closer to the hook with every mysterious sentence until we bite at the bait and she reels us in….Within is a strange world all its own, with memorable characters and elegant prose. It is worthy of becoming a popular classic and not just a forgotten footnote in Argentinian literature.—Kenyon Ellefson         

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, which Melville House released in its first English translation in May. Written collaboratively by the husband and wife duo of Adolfo Bioy Casares and the hugely underrated Silvina Ocampo, published in Spanish in 1946, the novel is a parody of a detective story set at a beach-side hotel, and one of the most charming, purely enjoyable books I’ve ever read. Part of the pleasure, for me at least, is in imagining the authors trading off pages and cracking each other up; there’s joy in the storytelling that feels like a window into the best parts of their marriage. (One assumes the “hate” parts got excised in edits.) - Pasha Malla

“[An] unsung jewel of a novella…Bioy Casares and Ocampo save a final subversive wink for their utterly perfect last line: an elegant reminder that, inevitably, reality contains mysteries more unfathomable than any detective plot.” —Words Without Borders

“Of all the words that could define [Silvina Ocampo], the most accurate is, I think, ingenious.”— Jorge Luis Borges

“I think Silvina Ocampo is a genius, one of the greatest. She lived a little in the shadow of her sister Victoria on the one hand and of her husband Bioy Casares and Borges on the other. She was an extravagant woman when writing her stories, short and crystalline, she was perfect.”— César Aira

“Silvina’s impressive literary production at least equals that of her husband Bioy in terms of quantity and possibly even far exceeds him in terms of quality, linguistic ability, and influence.”— Kate Bowen

“Ocampa’s readers will participate in an unforgettable banquet. Luckily for many of us, Ocampo’s universe is constantly expanding.”Página/12

In the first English translation of their 1946 novella, husband and wife Casares and Ocampo send up the conventions of the detective novel. A vacationing doctor, who insists, "may nobody call me an un-reliable narrator," weasels his way into solving a murder at a seaside Argentinian resort. When a young woman, Mary, is found dead at the hotel, Dr. Huberman, presuming himself to be "the domi-nant intellect" on the scene, takes the lead in an investigation that at points turns on each of the book's characters. No one is immune from blame; anyone—including Mary's sister Emilia and Emilia's fian-cée—could plausibly be the killer. The sinuous mystery is further complicated by Huberman's narra-tion, which is colored by his arrogance and is far less reliable than he believes. Casares and Ocampo drolly mock the genre itself as Huberman claims "complicated crimes were the province of literature; reality was more banal." The pair's only collaboration turns out to be a witty and erudite take on the clichéd mystery. - Publishers Weekly

In describing his collaborations with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges said, “we have created between us a kind of third person; we have somehow begotten a third person that is quite unlike us.” That working relationship between Borges and Bioy Casares has emerged as a kind of platonic ideal of collaboration: in a recent onstage interview, the composer Osvaldo Golijov used their model to describe his work with fellow composer Gustavo Santaolalla. Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, a short 1946 novel by Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo, offers an opportunity to see a very different collaboration between two talented writers and critics — some of whom may be less known to American audiences. It’s both a meditation on a genre and an almost archetypal example of that genre, but within those confines, it contains surreal imagery and literary playfulness. Its mood is comedic, but that comedy may conceal a starker philosophical inquiry. The third writer created out of Bioy Casares and Ocampo’s collaboration has much to reveal; that they may bring renewed attention to two underrated writers and critics is an added delight.
If Bioy Casares’s name rings a bell, it’s likely due to his short novel The Invention of Morel, in which a man arrives on a seemingly deserted island, only to find it occupied by what appears to be a group of occupants reliving the same actions on a cyclical basis. Eventually, he sublimates himself into a sort of virtual environment; the novella was the inspiration for the film Last Year at Marienbad, and its influence can be be seen on works as recent as Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, in which Douglas Gordon’s art installation 24 Hour Psycho appears to unnaturally draw in two of the books’ characters. Silvina Ocampo’s name may be less familiar to American readers. In their introduction to a 2010 translation of her short novel The Topless Tower, James and Marian Womack note that “[t]here seems to be no clear reason for Silvina Ocampo to be less well known in the English-speaking world than the other two Argentinian writers with whom she is most often associated” — namely, Borges and Bioy Casares.
Reading this short novel, one can quickly find a blend of the two collaborators’ sensibilities. The obliviousness of narrator Humberto Huberman echoes Bioy Casares’s later novel Asleep in the Sun, in which the residents of an urban neighborhood remain largely oblivious to a series of covert experiments, involving madness, sanity, and body-swapping. And the isolation of the setting — a hotel where the sands are slowly and inexorably rising — has its precedent in Ocampo’s work. The Topless Tower focuses on a nine-year-old boy named Leandro who is magically transported into a prison-like tower, where his only companionship comes from stylized characters summoned through his paintings. Here as well, solitude and the surreal comfortably coexist.
Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is, at its core, a whodunit. But it’s also self-aware from its opening pages. “When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel, and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre is fed by unreality?” So declares Huberman in the novel’s first chapter. Huberman immediately emerges as someone with a need to be the smartest person in the room and a fondness for arsenic. “May nobody call me an unreliable narrator,” Huberman will declare late in the book — though it seems a bit late for that. His indifference towards middlebrow culture is palatable throughout; he’s also fond of making observations like the following:
…once again I had to concur with so many an impartial observer that the likeness between my facial features and Goethe’s was authentic.
Huberman is less an unreliable narrator than a frustratingly pompous one; he’s the person who you’d hate to be trapped in a conversation with at a party, who’d talk your ear off even as you knew he held you in utter contempt.
“[I]n this encapsulated paradise,” Huberman writes in the book’s first chapter, “I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.” At an isolated hotel, Huberman is at work on an adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon, with the setting updated to contemporary Argentina. At the Hotel Central, Huberman learns of the shifting geography around him — the first indication that reality, in this work, has a touch of surrealism present.
Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.
Later, Huberman will describe the weather in language normally used to convey the mythological, or otherwise supernatural:
[I]t was as if a gigantic, supernatural dog, out on the deserted beaches, were grieving all the world’s sorrow. The wind had come up.
The name of a nearby shipwrecked sailboat hammers the point home: the unfortunate vessel, whose isolation will become a plot point later in the story, was christened the Joseph K.
Bioy Casares and Ocampo are not exactly subtle with their nods towards their influences. Establishing one satirical novel of society and one master of the oblique and surreal as reference points early in the book helps establish the tone. The literary nods continue as Huberman meets two young women also staying at the hotel: Emilia, a “dangerous music-lover,” and Mary, a translator and editor of mystery novels for “a prestigious publishing house.” Huberman’s sympathies are largely with her; later, upon discovering numerous books in her quarters, Huberman will observe that “a warm burst of sympathy throbbed in my chest.”
This is not, however, the tale of an unlikely connection between bibliophiles. Soon enough, Mary will be found dead; the guests’ attempts to discover her killer will serve as the bulk of the novel’s plot. Huberman acts as both narrator and would-be detective for what follows, treating his fellow guests as suspects, then noting that he “found this amusing as well.”
The second half of the novel largely follows Huberman’s own suspicions and theories about possible motives and opportunities, contrasting them with the official investigation also underway. The comic gulf between the two leads to much of the book’s spark; Huberman’s fondness for literary references also powers through a good chunk of it. He describes one character as “an escapee from a Russian novel, and discusses The Man Who Laughs and The Magic Mountain with one of the officials investigating the crime. And while Huberman never breaks the fourth wall, some of his observations wink a bit too knowingly. “Like a benevolent crime novelist,” he notes, “I restricted myself to dispensing appropriate emphasis.” And later he observes that “[c]omplicated crimes were the province of literature; reality was more banal.”
For a novel with murder at its center, the tone of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is surprisingly light. Much of this comes from Huberman’s own voice: the position of an aspiring omniscient narrator. And Bioy Casares and Ocampo are able to mine abundant comedy from that eternally useful comic figure: the person who believes themselves to be far smarter than they are. Huberman’s intake of arsenic also leads to questions — specifically, why he seems to be taking poison recreationally. Historically, arsenic has been used as a treatment for syphillis, psoriasis, and cancer — given Huberman’s tone throughout, one of the first two seems most likely.
There’s a different spin that could also be taken on Where There’s Love, There’s Hate — and it’s one that gives this brief, breezy book a grimmer tone. For all his pompous tendencies, Huberman’s intellect is never really in question. And yet, when faced with a murder, his first instinct is to become more aloof rather than to participate in the investigation. Can Where There’s Love, There’s Hate be read as a parable of intellectual paralysis? It’s tempting, but that may go too far in the allegorical direction. Regardless, however, it does suggest darker currents below the otherwise comic surface of this work. And, like the surreal landscapes that the guests of the Hotel Central observe and traverse, it’s a nagging reminder of the world’s more uncontrollable elements, suggesting that this deftly constructed collaboration offers more riddles than one might expect. -  

The narrator of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, like so many of his fellow writers, is continually seeking out “pretexts” to avoid getting down to work. “How solicitously doth reality provide those pretexts,” he laments, “and with what delicate devotion does it conspire with our indolence!” In this instance, the distraction inconveniently supplied by reality is a murder, and moreover one whose investigation Humberto Huberman, a doctor summering in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar, feels duty-bound to supervise—even if that means neglecting the precious purpose of his sojourn: a screenplay adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon.
Originally published in 1946 and now translated into English for the first time by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, this unsung jewel of a novella by the decorated couple Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo is a stylish, postmodern-inflected pastiche of an Agatha Christie mystery. No sooner has Dr. Huberman settled in among the well-heeled guests of the Hotel Central than a young woman of his acquaintance, a former patient named Mary Gutiérrez, is found dead in her room. Clearly a man with an admirable sense of proportion, Huberman receives this news with a sense of “melancholy premonition.” “I thought of my promised vacation,” he writes, “my literary endeavors. I murmured, ‘Farewell, Petronius.’”
Of course, Huberman could choose to leave the clue-sifting to the official detectives, Commissioner Aubry and police physician Dr. Montes. But as far as he can tell, the latter is an incompetent drunk, and the former’s “modest intelligence” required the guidance of a superior intellect such as his own, especially because this is a nettlesome case; in classic whodunit fashion, nearly everyone is a suspect. The dead girl was last seen kissing her sister’s fiancé, putting both the betrayed Emilia and the errant Enrique in the frame, as well as lending credence to the theory that emotional turmoil caused Mary to take her own life. Then there’s the suspicious behavior of hotelier Andrea’s nephew, who liked killing birds and might have been in love with Mary. And while Huberman quickly ensures that he himself is “shifted from the group of suspects to the group of investigators,” the reader can’t help but recall how, occasionally, the killer in a Christie tale is the unreliable narrator himself. Huberman certainly had the means: the murder weapon was strychnine, a substance commonly used in his specialty of homeopathy.
Huberman enjoys even greater influence over his portrayal than a traditional narrator: as he tells us on the very first page, he is actually writing the account. And, as if to declare his commitment to the facts, he explicitly renounces “the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality.” Yet the scenario into which he is thrust is so conventional that it couldn’t possibly exist outside of literature—this is one of Bioy Casares and Ocampo’s many playful ironies. (Another is their cameo appearance in the book’s opening pages, where Huberman dines with them, talks about his plans for a modern-day Argentine version of Satyricon, then worries about having “handed, to that amateur couple, all the necessary elements to steal my ideas.”) But although mystery aficionados may find the routine mechanics of the mildly suspenseful plot less than thrilling, the masterfully conceived voice of Huberman—pompous, erudite, enviably conceited—is a rare pleasure, calibrated with absolute precision in Levine and Ernst Powell’s immensely satisfying translation.
Keen to outline his various admirable qualities and relieved when his exemplariness is recognized—asked to accompany Emilia to her sister’s coffin, Huberman remarks that it is “always a comfort to encounter individuals capable of valuing my qualities as a spiritual guide”—the good doctor’s heroic stance does tend to falter slightly whenever anything gets between him and his food. On the morning the dead body is discovered, he goes to the kitchen to request his “habitual broth with toast points,” only to be “met with a disagreeable sight: Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable.” Bad enough that Mary’s untimely demise is interfering with his writing, for it to disrupt his meals is scarcely tolerable.
Near the end of the story, Huberman has to concede yet another foible: since he is more familiar with art than life, his investigative reasoning alights on what literary convention dictates, rather than the messier possibilities of reality itself. Despite his condemnation of detective novels, he is taken aback when a detail of the case fails to play out as he, aware of the genre’s rules, had predicted—unless, of course, the mistake is a ploy to demonstrate his innocence. He insists:
I will always register my defeats and my victories with equanimity. May nobody call me an unreliable narrator. My error—if this can be called an error—does not offend me. An ignorant person wouldn’t have committed it. I am a literato, a reader, and as often occurs with men of my class, I confused reality with a book.
In the end, however, the logic of the genre prevails: a culprit confesses and order is restored at the Hotel Central. But Bioy Casares and Ocampo save a final subversive wink for their utterly perfect last line: an elegant reminder that, inevitably, reality contains mysteries more unfathomable than any detective plot. - Emma Garman

One of my favorite books is Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel (here) (if you haven’t read that wonderful book about loneliness and love, you should correct that immediately). I was ecstatic, then, when I saw that Melville House was publishing, as part of their Neversink Library, a collaboration between Bioy Casares and his wife, Silvina Ocampo, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (Los Que Aman, Odian, 1946 ; tr. from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine & Jessica Ernst Powell, 2013).
The story begins gravely, as Doctor Huberto Huberman prepares to tell us about a murder at the hotel Bosque del Mar:
The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly.
Proud Doctor Huberman takes himself very seriously, in stark contrast to the book itself, which is a lot of fun.
Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is a classic English murder mystery set in a seaside hotel. When the book opens, Doctor Huberman says he went to the hotel to work on a screen adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon. It’s nearly night, he’s studying his beloved Petronius by the window, and he comes across a paragraph that demands reality in fiction. Yes, Doctor Huberman agrees:
When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality?
But, before he knows it, the lovely Mary Gutiérrez is dead, apparently of strychnine poisoning, and Doctor Huberman himself begins to fill the role of the classic third-party detective, stating for all to to hear: “The dilemma is clear: suicide or murder.”
It’s a funny line that says nothing that is not obvious, but it has that tone; if we were watching a movie, the camera would linger for a moment of gravity before cutting away to another scene. The man who claims to want “reality” begins to treat this murder a classic piece of literature, casting himself as the rational, intelligent member of the group condescending to assist:
I had a melancholy premonition. I thought of my promised vacation, my literary endeavors. I murmured, “Farewell, Petronius,” and delved into the room of the tragedy.
As a conventional mystery, it works quite well, even if this aspect is not the book’s strength. There are several suspects, and the plot twists and turns as we get closer to yet another seemingly false lead. Each guest at the hotel seems to have some reason for committing the crime and some means of ensuring they get away with it. It’ a playful, self-conscious approach to the genre, gracious, respectful, and sarcastic.
For me, the real strength and the source of the greatest fun is the characterization of Huberman, our narrator who hesitates to show himself as anything other than the magnanimous, albeit inconvenienced, hero. There is really only one moment when he begins to admit he was scared and stressed: during much of the book, a sandstorm rages outside, and Huberman gets lost in it at one point, completely unsure where he is or what he knows. He quickly recovers, though, and, despite making what appears to be a blunder later, says:
I will always register my defeats and my victories with equanimity. May nobody call me an ureliable narrator.
My error — if this can be called an error — does not offend me. An ignorant person wouldn’t have committed it. I am a literato, a reader, and as often happens with men of my class, I confused reality with a book.
He got sucked in. Despite his warnings early on, he cannot help but be invigorated by the chase, thinking all along that the mystery would be solvable because, hey, real life is actually less complicated than a mystery plot.
All of this leads to the book’s final line, probably the only line in the book that reminded me tonally of The Invention of Morel. I don’t want to put it here. It may spoil the book, but besides that, it’s a line that’s worth all the build-up. It’s the true mystery. -

Where There's Love, There's Hate is a Gilbert Adair-like murder mystery, poking fun at the conventions of the genre even as its narrator takes himself all too seriously. The narrator is Doctor Humberto Huberman, who journeys to the very isolated seaside resort of Bosque del Mar with the intention of working on his screenplay-adaptation of Petronius' Satyricon, set in present-day Argentina. While the goings-on in creepy Bosque del Mar aren't quite of the same order as in "Pertronius' tumultuous book", murder and the subsequent investigation soon dash his plans and ambitions, as he instead finds himself in a typically convoluted English-style murder-mystery à la Michael Innes (one of whose novels, as it happens, the murder victim was in the process of translating ...).
       A physician who dabbles in screenwriting on the side -- and who opens his story with his daily dose of arsenic dissolving in his mouth (he's a devotee of homoeopathy) -- Huberman is quite the character. He doesn't lack in self-confidence, and has an opinion about everything and everyone, but, of course, he repeatedly doesn't get or see things quite right, and eventually admits (by way of excuse):
I am a literato, a reader, and as often occurs with men of my class, I confused reality with a book.
       Of course, the reality of Where There's Love, There's Hate is entirely literary: a murder-mystery-pastiche that Huberman finds himself sucked into, even as he already early on implored:
When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality ? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color ?
       Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo are, of course, best known for their fantastical fiction, never returning 'to the path of the salubrious picaresque' in their work, and so there's no doubt from the first that Huberman will find himself disappointed in this respect (with the local color at Bosque del Mar -- all sand and storm -- presented as decidedly unpleasant, just to rub it in).
       The murder mystery is fairly unremarkable but agreeably complicated (helped by the way various characters react and interfere, confusing the situation further), and between would-be know-it-all Huberman, Commissioner Aubry, who leads the investigation, and the official doctor called in for the case, the well-pickled Doctor Montes, the investigation stumbles forward in best English-murder-mystery fashion. The tension and mutual suspicion among the various suspects of course adds to the fun (and confusion), while the many literary allusions (right down to the foundered sailboat named the Joseph K) give the feel of a bit more depth to the story.
       Much depends on the narrator here, and Huberman's tone and attitude, as he worries just as much about his immediate creature comforts and insignificant details as he does the fact that there has been a murder, are amusingly effective. Blowhard he may be, but his expression is stylish and (inadvertently) comic. Diminutive in size, he can (and constantly does) still puff himself up -- noting, for example:
I tilted my head and, with barefaced admiration, studied my protruding thinking-man's forehead: once again I had to concur with so many an impartial observer that the likeness between my facial features and Goethe's was authentic.
       Style is all-important here, and translators Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell capture Huberman's bombastic brio nicely. It makes for an amusing light piece of entertainment with a bit of murder-mystery suspense. Good fun. - M.A.Orthofer

A witty yet gripping pastiche of murder mysteries set in an Argentine seaside resort, peppered with literary allusions.
In seaside Bosque de Mar, guests at the Hotel Central are struck by double misfortune: the mysterious death of one of their party, and an investigation headed by the physician, writer and insufferable busybody, Dr. Humberto Huberman. When quiet, young translator Mary is found dead on the first night of Huberman's stay, he quickly appoints himself leader of an inquiry that will see blame apportioned in turn to each and every guest--including Mary's own sister--and culminating in a wild, wind-blown reconnaissance mission to the nearby shipwreck, the Joseph K.
Never before translated into English, Where There's Love, There's Hate is both genuinely suspenseful mystery fiction and an ingenious pastiche of the genre, the only novel co-written by two towering figures of Latin American literature. Famously friends and collaborators of Jorge Luis Borges, husband and wife Bioy Casares and Ocampo combine their gifts to produce a novel that's captivating, unashamedly erudite and gloriously witty.
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. -

Silvina Ocampo, The Topless Tower, Hesperus Press, 1995.

When a mysterious stranger arrives laden with paintings, Leandro finds his quiet life instantly and mysteriously disrupted. Awakening locked in a windowless room in a topless tower, he finds himself trapped—the subject in one of the stranger’s eerie paintings. Heavily influenced by nonsense literature such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and the surrealist movement in South America, The Topless Tower features all the typical hallmarks of Silvina Ocampo’s fantastical writing. With subtle inflections of language and tremendous displays of imagination running riot, Ocampo’s writing is beautifully translated here by James Womack.

Silvina Ocampo,
Leopoldina's Dream, Penguin, 1988.

This collection by the Argentine author contains stories written in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. All 32 pieces reflect Ocampo's emphasis on style over plot and characterization, and her predilection for the surreal and mystical. Manifest throughout and always voiced in Ocampo's subtle, understated tones are themes of sin and forgiveness, of love and infidelity, of illness, death and murder.


Patricia Nisbet Klingenberg, Fantasies of the Feminine: The Short Stories of Silvina Ocampo, Bucknell Univ Press, 1999.  
           read it at Google Books


Silvina Ocampo + Adolfo Bioy Casares
Silvina Ocampo (1903–1993) was born to an old and prosperous family in Buenos Aires, the youngest of six sisters. After studying painting with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger in Paris, she returned to her native city—she would live there for the rest of her life—and devoted herself to writing. Her eldest sister, Victoria, was the founder of the seminal modernist journal and publishing house Sur, which championed the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, and in 1940 Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo were married. The first of Ocampo’s seven collections of stories, Viaje olvidado (Forgotten Journey), appeared in 1937; the first of her seven volumes of poems, Enumeración de la patria (Enumeration of My Country) in 1942. She was also a prolific translator —of Dickinson, Poe, Melville, and Swedenborg—and wrote plays and tales for children. The writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky once wrote, “For decades, Silvina Ocampo was the best kept secret of Argentine letters.” Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems is published by NYRB/Poets.


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