Silvina Ocampo was the youngest of six sisters who grew up in Argentina when it was one of the richest countries in the world, and when the Ocampo family was one of the richest families in Argentina.
Silvina was part of a magical circle whose nucleus was formed by Jorge Luis Borges and, among others, the younger man who would become her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Each member of this circle created his or her own works, and also worked in collaboration. While each writer had his or her own style, as the Sur group—around the important journal Sur, founded by Silvina’s eldest sister, Victoria, in consultation with the New York writer Waldo Frank—they shaped a literary cultural identity and a new literary genre. In their collaborative work, the trio of Silvina Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, and Adolfo Bioy Casares became a quartet with the creation of yet another writerly persona (or personae). For example, Bioy and Silvina (married in 1940; he was eleven years younger) wrote with four hands a detective thriller spoof, literally Those Who Love, Hate. In 1940, Borges, Bioy, and Silvina published a famous anthology of fantastic literature, and when Bioy and Borges wrote together, the writer they created had various pseudonyms (taken from the names of their ancestors) like “Bustos Domecq” or “Benito Suarez Lynch.” Silvina contributed to those literary ventures and inventions as well, but she didn’t sign on as an official contributor, perhaps because her collaboration was exclusively oral.
For many years, Victoria was the only famous Ocampo sister, a celebrity in the intellectual circle coalescing in the thirties and forties, known as much for her elegant beauty as for her intelligence. Among the illuminati whose friendship she cultivated were José Ortega y Gasset, Virginia Woolf, Paul Valéry, Lawrence of Arabia, Federico García Lorca, Gabriela Mistral, and Rabindranath Tagore; she had passionate affairs with a number of distinguished writers (including Roger Caillois and Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who, unlike Victoria and most of those close to her, was pro-Axis and committed suicide at the end of World War II); she commissioned Borges to translate Woolf’s Orlando and other works (we readers in Spanish have read that version for generations, and are familiar with the legend that Borges crafted it with his mother, another four-handed duet). In addition to being an editor in chief and a cultural entrepreneur, Victoria was a self-styled patroness, and her generosity was legendary, as when, for example, Tagore visited Buenos Aires in 1924, and Victoria sold a diamond tiara to put him up in a luxury hotel for two months.
In contrast with her sister’s flamboyant life, Silvina wanted to go unnoticed, to be invisible. She believed she was ugly and refused to go to parties most of the time, saying, “Where would I be going with a face like this?” She would also claim “I am the etcetera of the family” and “I do not like to socialize, I prefer intimacy.” According to Mariana Enriquez (a member of the Ocampo family and author of Silvina’s biography The Kid Sister), “She preferred dim, shadowy places, especially in her damp apartment in the Recoleta Quarter.”
But Silvina was no hermit. She was a seductive woman who enjoyed the company of her male friends (great writers, of course), though her intimate world was very different from her older sister’s. While Victoria wrote her memoirs in several volumes, Silvina shied away from the public eye, and perhaps nothing damaged Silvina’s prestige more than the first review of her first book, written by Victoria, in which the latter defines her stories as “autobiographical” and classes her narratives as awkward (totally not true, I must add, because Silvina’s first book, Forgotten Journey, is masterful). The fact is that Forgotten Journey has nothing to do with “memoirs”: the author is not telling us the story of her life here, although, like all writers, she has pillaged the trunk filled with her memories.
She has often been compared with Julio Cortázar, famous for his imaginative tales of fantasy, but the road she took as a short story writer was different. While in his fabulous stories Cortázar discovered the unreal in everyday life, Silvina enters real, detailed, intimate spaces, which she observes with an eye that is intimate, real, and detailed, and yet an eye from another world. That other, singular, untranslatable world is Silvina Ocampo’s.
Silvina was, besides being a poet and fiction writer, an artist who studied painting with Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Léger—and she shared with Bioy a passion for photography, though she herself did not like to be photographed.
In the stories of Forgotten Journey (1937), as in the rest of her fiction, one notes a trace of the gothic novel, an affinity for fantastical tales, her De Chirico training (“There is more mystery in the shadow of a man walking on a sunny day than in all the religions of the world,” De Chirico wrote), as well as the photographic instinct to escape time by capturing it, and the vertigo of cinema.
But there is another Silvina Ocampo who molds all of these ingredients: a cruelty unconscious of itself, with no self-restraint, uncontrollable, and without the slightest remorse. About this side of her Borges wrote: “There is an aspect that I have yet to understand, a strange love for a kind of innocent or oblique cruelty.” That “yet to understand” Borges speaks of is part of the charm of Silvina Ocampo’s stories: there is always something unresolved, the inevitability of a plot or scheme transcending the narrative itself, announcing an unexpected vision. What escapes our grasp is what is actually being represented, and what gives the author’s stories their power.
But the aspect Borges focuses on, this “yet to understand,” is, however, quite understandable, and not only from a woman reader’s point of view. What Silvina feels and expresses in her stories is the need to be cruel in order to pull an inner trigger, as Blas Matamoro explains: “The children of the upper class bourgeoisie do not have any fundamental motivation to oppose their social order, thus their familiar situation on the sidelines as it were, engenders a partial opposition to a fundamental institution of that order, that is, the family. Rather than taking on Revolution, the enfants terribles take on Evil.”
In an interview with novelist Mempo Giardinelli, Silvina Ocampo said: “I wrote all my life. Ever since I was very little. And I wrote so much that the teachers I had, when I’d show them what I had written, would tell me: ‘Come on, don’t write so much, you’re wasting all the paper in the house.’ It’s a ‘lack of economy,’ they said.”
But it’s not to contest a “lack of economy” that her stories are brief. We actually have before us long, complex stories that make no effort to be efficient or concise: each one of them indulges excess, filled with subterranean literary implications. They gain impact by not seeking efficiency. They are tremendously powerful because they delight in excess unpretentiously, with a fresh air of spontaneity. The short story for Silvina is a “natural” genre, as she remarked in the same interview: “I don’t like when I write expansively. Because when I do so, when my writing is lengthy it is too effusive and seems superfluous. ‘Look,’ I say to myself, ‘I think this is too much … ’ ”
The poetic geometry of her stories is illustrated in these words from Silvina: “I think the short story is music.”
—Translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine
Carmen Boullosa is one of Mexico’s leading novelists, poets, and playwrights. She has published fifteen novels. Her works in English translation include They’re Cows, We’re Pigs; Leaving Tabasco; Cleopatra Dismounts; Jump of the Manta Ray, with illustrations by Philip Hughes; and Texas: The Great Theft.
Suzanne Jill Levine is a noted translator of Latin American prose and poetry by distinguished writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Jose Donoso, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. Her most recent published translation is Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome.
“Silvina, Faithful to the Imagination,” by Carmen Boullosa, from Forgotten Journey, by Silvina Ocampo. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Boullosa. Translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Katie Lateef-Jan, reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books.