A Review of Silvina Ocampo’s
Originally published in the
Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2015
Thus Were Their Faces
By Silvina Ocampo
Translated by Daniel Balderston
Preface by Jorge Luis Borges
New York Review Books ($17.95)
As a short-story writer, poet, and translator in twentieth-century Argentina, Silvina Ocampo lived and wrote within several long shadows. Virtually synonymous with that time and place, Jorge Luis Borges loomed large over every aspect of its literature and left little for anyone else to do or even think of. Ocampo’s oldest sister, Victoria—the founder and editor of Sur, the journal and publishing house that brought South American Modernism to the fore—was also a domineering figure of her era. Married to Borges’ friend and occasional collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, the youngest Ocampo sister was surrounded by the giants of her milieu, and if Bioy Casares and Victoria Ocampo worked in Borges’ penumbra, Silvina Ocampo worked within his centermost umbra. Time has not reversed these relationships, but as Borges’ apotheosis has transformed him into a fixed star in the literary firmament, his spreading radiance has brought even some of his lesser-known colleagues’ faces to light. New York Review Books’ recent compendium of Ocampo’s fiction, Thus Were Their Faces, collects more than forty of her short stories from the 1930s to the 1980s and attempts to distinguish her as a unique voice while very clearly illustrating her tertiary position during those Borgesian decades.
Ocampo originally trained as a painter, studying with de Chirico and Fernand Legér in Paris when she was a young woman, and when she returned to Buenos Aires and dedicated herself entirely to writing, she brought a visual sensibility and an eye for detail to her work that fills its pages with a teeming and tactile mass. In her long story “The Impostor,” which presents itself as the journal of a young man who may or may not be the imagined alter ego of another young man who ends up killing himself, she recounts an almost senselessly meticulous progression of occurrences among the densely object-rich summer estate where the two distrustfully circle each other. Ocampo describes every room and every object on the shelves and in the closets, overloading the reader with front-end details while very slowly allowing the characters’ background realities to warp into bizarrely repeating patterns. It’s an interesting idea, and there’s a lot to look at and notice in it, but despite her visual sharpness, Ocampo has a very dull writing hand. The key Borgesian influence here is Henry James, who often comes up with ingeniously twisted ideas but ends up larding them with the most tedious narrative textures and very quickly loses interest in their meat as he dutifully draws out their flesh. Borges had the magic ability to extract all the best influences from his masters while discarding all their chaff, and in his hands James mixes with Kafka and Chesterton and countless others to bloom into works that were as beautiful as objects as they were interesting as concepts. In Ocampo’s fiction, the influences are largely untransformed, and her often fascinating ideas don’t ever rise up into self-realized flowers that the reader can savor.
Ocampo translated Poe, Melville, Swedenborg, and Dickenson—a thoroughly Borgesian grouping of authors—and she very closely follows her more illustrious colleague in how she absorbs them into her own work, but to much less effect. She loves the obsession and intricacy of Poe, attempting in her story “The Perfect Crime” to create a water-tight murder plot in much the same way that Borges did in his story “Emma Zunz,” but she merely produces a trick while Borges’ story mirrors Poe’s true psychosexual grotesquerie. Transforming Melville’s overwhelming prolix, Borges creates “The Library of Babel” and “The Aleph,” in which he crafts endless Melvillian enumeration into tiny, dazzling snowglobes, while Ocampo merely lists everything in a child’s bedroom, without stacking it into any kind of artfully composed arrangement. Reflecting Swedenborg’s inspired mysticism, Borges creates “The Writing of the God,” in which an imprisoned Mayan priest discerns in the patterns of a jaguar the secret divine words that can set him free, while in “Report on Heaven and Hell” Ocampo explains how angels and demons will try to entice and trick the dying into following in their respective directions, the two-page story serving more as a brief musing than as a miniature world. Ocampo attempts to channel Dickinson’s interior weirdness more overtly than does Borges, but while Borges reflects her Shakespearean fireworks with his own dazzling and densely inventive thrills, Ocampo merely seems sadly downbeat, with her stories’ weirdness merely described and implied rather than surreally conveyed.
While much of Ocampo’s imagination and style exists as a kind of Borgesian subset, there are several key differences between the two that may entice readers who are interested in a different perspective on the emerging magical realism of the period. Ocampo is a much more domestic writer than Borges, focusing on interior drama and development rather than on paradoxes and theoretical imaginings, and her Dickensonian isolation is much more traditionally personal than his. Ocampo also dispenses almost entirely with displays of erudition, allowing her characters’ consciousness to fix the stories’ parameters rather than having it all sifted through the infinite Borgesian kaleidoscope, making her more appealing to readers who are alienated by Borges’ dizzying library of Babel. Yet while Ocampo is more interested in characters exploring the limits of their sanity than in cosmic librarians exploring the limits of the known universe, her work is paradoxically much colder and much less emotionally engaging. Borges isn’t at all a character writer, but he gives a lot of himself in his work and centers it all with his own generous and vulnerable humanity, while Ocampo’s characters are more like sad, distant zombies. Entirely lacking Borges’ vivacious shimmer, Ocampo’s world and voice are ruminative rather than exploratory, seeming to exemplify Cynthia Ozick’s lament that, “after Kafka, after Borges, what is there to do but mope?” If Borges’ infinitesimal labyrinths can be likened to Bach’s endlessly inventive Goldberg Variations, Ocampo’s fictions are more like sad, slow, minor-key dirges, with an emphasis on the word minor.