Aamer Hussein reviews Silvina Ocampo's Thus Were Their Faces

Translated from the Spanish by Daniel Balderston (NYRB Classics, 2015)

In the year 2000, I came upon Silvina Ocampo's Cuentos Completos II (1999) on a public library shelf and was immediately drawn to her terse prose style. I had never heard of her before. The collection contained all the stories she had written between 1970 and 1988. Spanish is my fifth reading language, but I went rapidly through story after story on the bus to work—particularly since several of them were very short—and it was the fierce brevity of her narratives that captivated me.

The preeminent literary fashion at the time was the novel; when short stories were mentioned at all, they tended to be about thirty pages long. Paley had long been silent, Barthelme was dead, and the doyenne of the short story, Alice Munro, was producing stories that were twice that length. It seemed that the classic form—eight to fifteen pages—was now practiced only on the pages of Sunday supplements by writers who were better known for other genres. Ocampo, I discovered, dedicated herself to, and excelled at, the shorter form; I had almost never seen, however, a writer who could convey so much and so significantly in just three pages.

It was a shock to find she wasn't available in English. But in the years that followed I found other collections, in Spanish, on my travels. There was Antología Esencial (2001), for example, which presented thirty stories from her entire career, in a mere 197 pages. It also included a selection of her poems, which illustrated why Ocampo excelled at brevity, though her poetry lacks the ferocity and iconoclasm of her prose. There was La Furia (1959), which was in some ways the most satisfying of the collections I found, as it presented her work in a sequence she chose herself at the peak of her career. Among its stories, 'Azabache,' a stunning three-page tale of a man who watches his wife sink into a swamp in pursuit of a black stallion, prefigures later works. In 'The Objects,' Camila Ersky's love of things—statues, brooches, dolls—leads her to perdition: 'she lost track of day and night. She saw that the objects had faces, the horrible faces they acquire when we have stared at them too long.' In 'Mimoso,' a woman poisons a predatory guest with the cooked-up remains of her embalmed pet dog. And in one of her cruellest tales, 'The Fury,' the narrator commits a murder merely to avoid a scandal.

Over the years, I became aware, too, of Ocampo's legend. She was born in 1903 to a privileged family in Buenos Aires, the younger sister of the famed Victoria. After a stint in Paris as a student of De Chirico, she returned to Argentina where she lived until her death in 1993. She published her first book in 1937 and married three years later: her husband was another writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, a crony of Borges's who was a lifelong champion of Ocampo's work. It was Borges who commented, in a piece that prefaces Those Were Their Faces, a panoramic new volume of her work in translation, on 'her strange taste for a certain kind of an innocent and oblique cruelty. I attribute this to the interest, the astonished interest, that evil inspires in a noble soul.' Calling her the greatest living poet of the Spanish language and praising the influence of her poetic virtues on her prose, Borges nevertheless distances himself from her tastes for the lyric, the elegiac, and the psychological novel. (His 'reticence' in the preface is no surprise: Borges was, after all, internationally acknowledged as the genius of the Latin American short story.)

Why, then, has Ocampo remained a hidden treasure to English readers? She was not, on the evidence of her published work, a natural novelist. Oddly, however, only two of her novellas have been made available to Anglophone readers since her death. Finally, this year, we have in English a comprehensive selection of about forty stories, long and short, written over fifty years of Ocampo's career; Thus Were Their Faces includes all the fictions cited above and many others, making it possible for us to assess her place in the international pantheon of short story writers.

The title story is taken from The Guests, the collection that immediately followed The Fury. It's an unusual performance: forty children from an institution of the deaf who, when the plane they're on suffers a terrible accident, throw themselves into the void and actually take wing in 'some kind of celestial vision' observed by the survivors of the disaster. 'The Expiation' treads familiar Ocampo terrain: a wife reflects on her mysterious 'Indian' husband's identity, his obsession with his performing canaries, and with his friend who dreams he's been blinded by the birds. 'The Mortal Sin' touches on a girl child's loss of innocence under the tutelage of a male servant; the perfect crime returns to a mise-en-scène familiar from 'Mimoso,' the poisoned banquet, with customary panache.

The collection's translator/editor Daniel Balderston mentions that The Fury and The Guests are his own favourites among Ocampo's eight collections. These were the two collections I remembered best, in which she seemed to have definitively crafted her own distinctive storytelling idiom. It's always hard to remember the first story you read in a volume of fictions, and when the book is one you read fifteen years ago, it's harder still. But, remembering that I'd read her books in reverse order, I revisited some of those examples of Ocampo's late work. In 'Livio Roca,' the eponymous protagonist replaces his lost beloved with a mare: 'he hesitated to bring her into his shack at night to sleep, under cover, in the winter. He hesitated because he feared what would later in fact happen: people said he was crazy, completely crazy.' The story ends with a death and a shock, in the late style Ocampo had perfected by then; it's three pages long, and the last three lines deliver the shock. In 'Men Animals Vines,' the survivor of an airplane crash lands in a jungle with enough packed provisions for three weeks, and finds himself the cynosure of a pair of mysterious eyes, and eventually ends up in the sensuous embrace of a vine. This was reminiscent of the vintage fantasies children of my generation read, but Ocampo transforms the pulp material by interweaving memories with visceral experience, just as the vine entangles her male narrator.

The stories of her penultimate collection are more graceful and less fierce. In 'The Music of the Rain,' a pianist occasionally plays his instrument with one of his big toes, interpreting the compositions of Ravel, Fauré, and Debussy to the accompaniment of the rain outside and 'a thousand beautiful eyes with tears, or tears with eyes.' Like many of her fictions, this too centres on a male protagonist, and is very rooted in a real world of concert halls, recognisable names, and bourgeois audiences. And there's the beautiful title story 'And So Forth,' about a boy's love for a sea-creature: 'the conversation they had was so similar to the previous one that it doesn't bear repeating, but their love was growing. And the brilliant blue and green of her eyes had taken possession of him.'

The novella Cornelia Before the Mirror, one of Ocampo's final published pieces, is entirely told in dialogue and works less well than her more succinct fictions. But the collection concludes with a brief poignant story—a good example of Ocampo's late style—about a husband who discovers, in a drawer, the letter his sick wife wrote to Father Christmas when she was seven. Tellingly, the story is called 'Com/passion', the punning translated title embodying a quality that, though rarely mentioned in connection with her, often underlies her writings.

Does Ocampo's style transcend linguistic barriers? In Spanish her prose is uncharacteristically stripped down; in English, essentially a less ornate language, Ocampo's precision isn't as remarkable, though her deft use of bizarre and poetic imagery is ably captured by Balderston, who also provides an afterword in which he mentions her wild, odd syntax. What he conveys even more effectively than the irregularities of her grammar is the ferocity of her narrative method; his selection often displays Ocampo's paradoxical ability to rework similar material from different angles and yet be versatile and, as Borges noted, wide-ranging.

To accompany this volume, Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems is also published by New York Review Books. Was Ocampo the greatest Hispanic poet of her time? I don't believe so, not in comparison with her contemporaries Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, or Dulce Loynaz. Where, then, does she stand as a storyteller? She doesn't fit easily into the category of Latin American women writers who have made it into English translation: for example, her contemporary María Luisa Bombal, whose tiny oeuvre is lush and romantic, qualities most often associated with feminine writing of their generation. Is it the much-vaunted cruelty of her vision that sets her apart? Mexican Inés Arredondo was equally cruel and somewhat more self-consciously decadent.

Compared to her most celebrated compatriots, Ocampo is neither as cerebrally ludic as Borges, nor as postmodern or elliptical as Cortázar. She's deeply rooted in her Latin American milieu, but can't in any way be compared to the magic realists who followed in Márquez's wake. But in the fifteen years I've been reading her, I've come to think she stands alongside Tanizaki, Dinesen, and others as one of the most imaginative and innovative short story writers of the twentieth century, and among the finest practitioners of the genre in any language.