The Promise

“Can one write a novel without a plot?” asks a character in Silvina Ocampo’s only novel, The Promise, now translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell.

“Naturally. One could write forever about their feelings.”

The Promise is not, of course, entirely without a plot, but neither is it a novel for those who long for the fast pace of narrative events. Its central conceit is that its narrator, en route to Capetown, falls into the ocean and can only watch the ship “calmly moving away.” If she survives, she promises to write what she calls “this dictionary of memories” while at the same time admitting:

“I don’t have a life of my own: I have only feelings. My experiences were never important – not during the course of my life or even on the threshold of death. Instead the lives of others have become mine.”

Just as she is left floating on the ocean, an observer of the ship’s continuing voyage beyond the horizon, so too she characterises herself as an observer of others, floating through events she bears little influence on. What she remembers instead are the people she has known:

“I began my itinerary of memories with names and even biographical descriptions, down to the last detail, of people I had known in my life. Naturally, they didn’t emerge from my memory in chronological order or in the pecking order of my feelings for them, but instead appeared in a capricious way…”

What follows is a series of character vignettes, generally headed by the name of the character. Some are only mentioned once, while others reappear. Of most importance are Irene, her daughter Gabriela, and Irene (and the narrator’s) lover, Leandro. Irene and Gabriela’s characters are very different: Irene is a romantic, at the mercy of her emotions; Gabriela is analytical, forensic. Whereas Irene “upon discovery of love…believed in its fleeting salvation,” “what [Gabriela] desired most in the universe of her curiosity was to see a man and a woman doing it.” We first meet Gabriela left waiting in the street while Irene and Leandro make love. This distance between them is also echoed in Gabriela’s feelings for her mother:

“Gabriela loved Irene more than anyone else in the world. Nevertheless, she had spent the happiest days of her life far away from her…”

The narrator’s relationship to these characters remains undefined. At points, as she remembers them, she becomes them:

“I felt Irene’s heartbeat through Gabriela’s breast; I felt the sweat from Gabriela’s hair on Irene’s breast.”

As she later says:

“I’m inhabited now by infinite people who disturb my memory.”

We find a similar situation with Leandro, the character who most often recurs:

“Everything he told me now feels like it happened to me.”

Leandro is a trainee doctor – and a womaniser: “Everyone fell in love with him.” He may even be a composite character: “Leandro has infinite faces,” and “It was as if he were several men” suggest as much. In his relationship with Irene it is clear he does not return her love quite as enthusiastically as she might hope. Later he falls for another woman, Victoria, when he finds pages from her novel on the street. Interestingly, the word ‘promise’ is also used with reference to this writing too:

“These pages were the promise of something new.”

Stories of Leandro ensure that much of the novel is focused on the theme of love, but it is primarily about memory. Ocampo continued to write the novel (begun in the sixties) until the years before her death in 1993, and it is difficult not to see elements of it as a response to approaching mortality. The disappearing ship is the sense that life is leaving her behind, the stories an attempt to ward off death, as she admits:

“I told stories to death so that it would spare my life…”

which later becomes:

“I don’t know what to do so as not to die, so as not to fall apart, lose my identity completely and forget everything else.”

This gives the novel a poignancy which goes beyond the memories collected:

“Now I just float on top of the water, my name, my face, my identity forgotten.”

There is perhaps a certain irony that only now is Ocampo being recognised as the important writer she is.

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4 Responses to “The Promise”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    The availability of more Ocampo in translation can only be a good thing. Your post reminds me that I ought to track down a copy of the Topless Tower, a book you reviewed a few years ago. Fingers crossed it’s still available in one form or another.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    How fascinating. I’ve read her short stories and Topless Tower, but not this (not even sure I knew it was available). Definitely one to look out for!

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