Archive for the ‘Silvina Ocampo’ Category

The Promise

April 6, 2020

“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.

The Topless Tower

August 12, 2014

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During Spanish Lit Month I reviewed Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by husband and wife Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo This collaboration was my first acquaintance with Silvina Ocampo (who was a prolific writer but notoriously unavailable in English) and may well have been my last if I hadn’t fortuitously discovered that only a few years ago Hesperus Press had published a translation by James Womack of The Topless Tower. It is referred to in the introduction (co-authored by Marion Womack, hopefully another marital co-production) as “one of only two novels published during Ocampo’s lifetime” (the other being the, at that time, untranslated Where There’s Love, There’s Hate) but this is a rather generous description as, at 56 pages, I would be reluctant to call it a novella.

Ocampo edited The Book of Fantasy with Borges and Casares (it includes one of her stories) and most of her fiction was of that genre, including her children’s fiction. The Topless Tower uses many of the tropes of children’s literature from the fairy tale tower of the title to an appearance from Alice in Wonderland. James and Marion Womack suggest this is one reason why she is not better known:

“But one more answer to the question of why Silvina Ocampo is not better known is that large parts of her activity, her imaginative stories and plays and poetry, has to be filtered, or so it seems, through the unfairly marginalising label of ‘children’s writing’.”

It is certainly true that, although The Topless Tower contains many elements of a children’s fable, one senses a darker intelligence behind it. Consider, for example:

“Will the images we’ve seen through our lives remain in our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film; of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed? If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother who I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?”

The idea and voice here are childlike but there is a gothic imagination behind the image.

In the story a young boy, Leandro, laughs at the paintings of a man who appears at the garden gate offering them for sale, particularly one of a yellow, windowless tower. He immediately finds himself trapped in just such a tower where he finds a room with an easel and paints. He soon discovers that whatever he paints becomes reality. Initially he struggles to control this ability: branches become spiders; creepers become snakes. Above all he wants to paint his mother, which he feels will unlock his imprisonment and allow his return home, but this proves most difficult of all.

The story becomes a fable about growing up. He paints a bird and monkey as companions but loses them carelessly. Next he attempts a self-portrait (showing increasing self-awareness) which gives him another perspective, dismissing his lost pets: “You were talking about those two as if they were humans.” In his pursuit of his mother’s face he creates a young girl:

“It wasn’t his mother, but he didn’t feel much disappointment about this. He had fallen in love with the little girl he had painted by accident.”

His maturing is also seen in the way that underlined words, those he doesn’t understand (“I’ll underline the words I don’t understand” he says at the beginning), increasingly disappear from the narrative.

The Topless Tower is a strange story, flickering between light and shade, but one that does haunt the memory. It does seem very slight for stand-alone publication, and would be better as part of a selected stories – one can only hope that might one day appear.