A brief survey of the short story part 66:
While her collaborator and fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges created fantastical worlds, Ocampo infected the recognisable with strangeness and cruelty
Monday 2 November 2015 16.28 GMT
In 1940 a book was published in Buenos Aires that drew together a vast array of fantastic tales, from Petronius and Pu Songling to Edgar Allan Poe and Kafka. Its editors were three Argentinian bibliophiles: Silvina Ocampo, her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and their best friend, Jorge Luis Borges. All three were gifted creators, as well as aficionados, of the fantastic. The extraordinary worlds Borges created are famous, and Bioy’s mysterious islands, particularly the one described in his novel The Invention of Morel, are relatively well known. Far less trodden, however, are the forking pathways of Silvina Ocampo’s fiction.
The stories collected in The Book of Fantasy, in Daniel Balderston’s translation, range from ghost and horror stories to mysteries with twist revelations, to the more deeply and less explicably strange. Similarly, Ocampo’s stories – 154 of them across seven collections published between 1937 and 1988 – describe a line that begins in 19th-century-style horror and moves through a phase of formal inventiveness, before entering the unique, disturbing fantastical atmosphere of her mature period: a world where strange events overwhelm mundane bourgeois reality, where motives are obscure, and where a great cruelty presides over life. Ocampo, by all accounts a pleasant, playful person, and despite possessing a gift for humour, nevertheless enjoyed her work’s reputation for cruelty. In 1980 she told an interviewer that her work had been denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature because it was “too cruel”. Later in that decade, when she was working with the translator Daniel Balderston on her first collection in English (a language into which two-thirds of her stories remain untranslated), she insisted, he writes, “that we choose her cruelest stories”.
If Ocampo’s earlier work is more conventional than what came later, it is still often remarkable. The long story The Impostor is a brilliant mystery in which an 18-year-old student, Luis Maidana, travels to an isolated ranch to spy on the son of a friend of his father. The two grow close, but the narrator’s essential treachery adds tension to the development of their relationship, as does the growing sense that an unpleasant secret lies at the story’s heart; “I felt as if I were blind”, Luis writes in his journal: “During the day, the intense light, and at night, the darkness, both obscured my vision.” Like a painter (she studied with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger), Ocampo understands the power of distortion, as when Luis notices his friend Armando’s bedroom: “all of the room’s angles were askew and it was far too long”, while at one point, playing detective in the nearest town to the ranch, he takes a walk that describes the quintessential Ocampo transition: a journey from normality into strangeness that might be the work of external or internal forces.
Ashamed, I slunk like a shadow through the streets of the town following that horrid woman. The streets seemed more twisting and ominous to me, infinite and at every step filthier, as if winding through a swamp.
The Impostor is, in a sense, Poe’s William Wilson stood on its head: that is, the doppelgänger’s side of the story. But, ingenious as it is, its epilogue rounds off the narrative in a way Ocampo’s later work would reject. In her finest collections, The Fury (1959) and The Guests (1961), she develops systems of reticence and mystery that prove, beyond any doubt, how willing she is to build the structure alone: we can supply the meaning ourselves, if we crave it. This is perhaps one of the reasons why she so strongly favours child narrators, who can report the most unusual events in a sort of moral and relational deadpan. “The child”, as the academic Patricia N Klingenberg writes in a study of Ocampo, “provides an ideal vantage from which to project the estranged world”.
Consider The Clock House, which takes the form of a “what I did on my holidays” exercise written by a schoolboy. He describes a baptism party at which a local watchmaker, a hunchback, is first patronised by the guests, and then, seemingly, violently assaulted. The narrator misses precisely what happens because, having got drunk at the party (he is nine), he starts throwing up. At the end of the story the watchmaker is missing and the contents of his shop have been driven away in a van. Certainly he has been humiliated, but has he also been hurt, or even murdered?
In The Photographs we attend another party, this time the birthday celebration of a paralysed 14-year-old girl. Ocampo’s embittered, gossipy narrator creates an unpleasant portrait of the event, during which the girl is arranged in various poses as a photographer commemorates the occasion:
She should stand up,” the guests said.An aunt objected: “And if her feet come out wrong?”“Don’t worry,” responded the friendly Spirito. “If her feet come out wrong, I’ll cut them off later.”
The party reaches its grotesque nadir when the paralysed girl turns out not to be sleeping, but dead, her “head [hanging] down from her neck like a melon”. As the horrific discovery is made, the final, chilling image is that of some of the guests slipping cakes into their pockets “on the sly”.
Part of the pleasure of reading Ocampo – or rather the thrill, as some of her work is far from pleasurable – is never knowing what the next sentence will bring. As the writer Welch D Everman has observed: “What happens at any given point in an Ocampo story is not necessarily the result of what has come before, nor does it necessarily determine what will follow. Often what happens is simply what happens, beyond accounting, beyond explanation”.
Illogic and paradox shoot from the strange soil of her fiction, where dark, perturbing situations thrive: a basement-dwelling outcast who, when she is thirsty, drinks her own sweat; a murderous dressmaker; one woman here who bites off her own body parts; another there with a face in the palm of her hand; a housebreaker’s death-stalked encounter with a fortune-telling child; a gardener, arms stuck in the earth, transforming into vegetable matter; a group of children who gleefully lock their mothers in a room (“‘That’s better, that way they’ll leave us alone’”) and burn them to death.
The range of Ocampo’s invention is impressive, but she frequently returns to two themes. The first is the ability to see the future, which she complicates by making its nature uncertain: can these characters predict the future, or in fact will it into being? Their powers cause them anxiety, and also rob life of its interest. Lacking the unpredictability that Ocampo’s fiction habitually revels in, life becomes a drab procession. In Autobiography of Irene (1948) the narrator regrets that “I’ll never arrive anywhere for the first time. I recognise everything,” while in Magush the windows of a building show the narrator glimpses of his future life:
In one of the windows I saw, for my sins, the woman who later became my fiancée embracing my rival … Later, when I lived through these events, the reality seemed a little faded to me, and my fiancée perhaps less beautiful.After these experiences, my interest in living what was destined for me diminished.
If there is one story where Ocampo’s obsessions intersect, where, in Klingenberg’s description, “several of Ocampo’s fantastic themes, the magic object, the prediction of the future, the idea of transformation or reincarnation, as well as the theme of the double, come together”, it is in The House Made of Sugar(1959). It is a compact enigma of a story, one that ensnares the reader in uncertainty from the first. It appears to be a tale of possession: a woman called Cristina, who insists on living only in properties where no one has lived before, moves into a house she thinks is brand new, and is slowly taken over by the personality of its previous occupant. Her husband, who lied to her about the history of the house because he thinks her fears are delusional, narrates the story, and from its opening lines creates an opposition between his rationality and her irrationality. But no sooner does this voice of reason make its case, than he lists another set of apparently acceptable superstitions.
I tried to combat these absurd manias. I made her see that she had a broken mirror in her room, yet she insisted on keeping it, no matter how I insisted that it was better to throw broken mirrors into water on a moonlit night to get rid of bad luck. She was never afraid if the lamps in the house went out all of a sudden; despite the fact that it was definitely an omen of death, she would light any number of candles without thinking twice. She always left her hat on the bed, a mistake nobody else made.
That he neglects to acknowledge the paradox is telling. On the surface of the story we are given an account of the doubling of Cristina and Violeta, the mysterious previous resident, but hidden in plain view is another doubling: that of the caring husband, appalled by what is happening to his wife, and the same man as paranoid jailer, lying to and imprisoning his wife to, so he claims, protect her.
Soon he is eavesdropping on Cristina’s conversations and following her in the streets, and although he presents evidence of a sort that some sort of supernatural transference is taking place, the possibility also exists that he is completely delusional, and that he and Cristina have simply grown apart. Ocampo makes none of these doubts explicit in the text, but she invests the story with enough negative space and uncertainty that it makes sense to question the husband’s account.
Unlike her contemporaries Bioy and Borges, whose fictions tended to operate in their own fantastical zones, deep in the past, or in an alternate reality altogether, Ocampo creates recognisable domestic settings that she then infects with strangeness. In her world a birthday party can become a funeral, objects collected in dreams can be brought into the waking world, and lovers flirt by exchanging stories of death. Even children’s play is an occasion on which a darker reality can be revealed, as in The Prayer (1959), where boys’ play-fighting turns out to be a struggle to the death. “Then they scattered”, the narrator remarks. “The boys ran away. I discovered that I had watched a crime, a crime in the midst of what at first seemed an innocent game”.
Only, this being Ocampo, by the time the story ends we are left with the suspicion, impalpable but present, that the narrator is herself a murderer. “Every story is two stories”, Grace Paley once said, “the one on the surface and the one bubbling beneath. The climax is when they collide”. Ocampo, in her final act of cruelty, defers that climax.
042 Danilo Kiš
043 Flannery O'Connor
044 Frank O'Connor
045 John Cheever
046 Roberto Bolaño
047 Machado de Assis
048 Angela Carter
049 Guy de Maupassant
050 Ivan Turgenev