Review: 'The Promise' And 'Forgotten Journey,' By Silvina OcampoSurrealist writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has been called "the best kept secret of Argentine letters," and two new translations have beautifully captured her evocative prose style for new readers.
The Argentine poet and fiction writer Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) led a truly enviable artistic life. She studied painting with Modernists Giorgio de Chirico and Férnand Leger, then imported their bright, dreamlike techniques into a Surrealist literary style driven by vibrant description. Her sister Victoria Ocampo ran the seminal literary magazine Sur, whose star writers included Ocampo's husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and the couple's friend Jorge Luis Borges. Unlike Bioy Casares and Borges, Ocampo never found a wide readership; in a 2003 remembrance, the writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky called her "the best kept secret of Argentine letters," describing her as "a writer detached from her time."
Two new translations of Ocampo's fiction call the latter claim into question. Both her debut story collection, Forgotten Journey, and her only novel, The Promise, are strikingly 20th-century texts, written in a high-modernist mode rarely found in contemporary fiction. The translator Suzanne Jill Levine worked on both books, collaborating with Katie Lateef-Jan on Forgotten Journey and Jessica Powell on The Promise. Together, the three have captured Ocampo's Surrealist style beautifully, creating translations powered by image and mood rather than character or plot.
Ocampo cares little for plot and its logic. Evocation is more important to her than action, and she never combines the two. Now, this is unusual; contemporary writers who reject plot still tend to ground their work in clear, detailed realities. In The Promise, Ocampo couldn't care less. She barely describes the book's setting — which is the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The protagonist has fallen off an ocean liner, and will certainly drown. To create hope, she makes a "dictionary of memories," picking painful ones to distract herself from the "immensity" of the ocean, and of death.
In no realist world is this a reasonable plot. Ocampo does not pretend it is. She barely describes the ocean; the protagonist mentions salt a few times, but not temperature or current, let alone the utter bodily exhaustion of treading water or swimming for hours on end. In The Promise, the ocean is less setting than pretext. The novel works as a thought experiment: What happens in the head of a woman who's completely helpless and adrift?
The resulting novel is an inversion of Borges's famous story "The South," in which a Buenos Aires librarian, dying of an infection in bed, dreams he dies dramatically in a bar fight. Ocampo asks the reader to accept that her protagonist is dying dramatically in the Atlantic, but the story's real drama happens in memories set in Buenos Aires, where the narrator was embroiled in a sad affair with a philandering jerk named Leandro. Much of the novel's surrealism, and its sadness, comes from her habit of sliding from her memories into Leandro's. In one scene, a prostitute approaches him in a park; he refuses sex only because her hair "smelled a dirty brush smell that emanated with the heat, like the heads of those people from his childhood who kneeled in the confessionals, a smell of cheap perfume and powders." How could the narrator know this? Technically, she can't, but Ocampo writes simply, "Leandro managed to make this memory mine."
Ocampo employs this memory-sharing technique often. Remembering a physical fight between a mother and daughter she knew, the narrator thinks, "Irene stuck her nails into Gabriela's wrists, making her bleed ... I felt Irene's heart beat on top of Gabriela's breast; I felt on Irene's breast the sweat from Gabriela's hair." This fight does not move the story forward in any way; nor could the narrator have truly felt Irene's heartbeat or Gabriela's sweat. But by placing herself bodily in the memory, the narrator moves herself away from her approaching death. She's about to either drown or freeze, but that hard fact matters less to the narrator — and to Ocampo — than her ability to remember this fight.
Ocampo worked on The Promise for 25 years. For the last several, she was battling dementia, and it would be possible to read the ocean exclusively as a metaphoric representation of her own memory loss were her interest in memory not apparent in her very first works. Nearly all the 28 stories in Forgotten Journey center on a single, all-important memory. In the title story, the narrator tries "to remember the day she was born." In "Saint's Day," a little girl forgets her own birthday. In "Eladio Rada and the Sleeping House," perhaps the collection's most moving story, the eponymous protagonist keeps a former girlfriend's photograph in a "big box full of nails, newspaper cuttings and old pieces of wire ... They had gone out together several times, which was the only memory in his life."
The stories in Forgotten Journey are vignettes, for the most part. Rather than tracing a full narrative arc, they offer snapshots of "the only memory" in a character's life, or color in the space around a memory that's gone missing. This briefness lends them the dreamlike quality of Surrealist paintings, or of childhood memories. Ocampo was fascinated with childhood, which she treats unsentimentally, often with an Edward Gorey-ish form of brusque violence: Children leap out windows pretending to be acrobats, or get murdered by their family's housekeepers without warning.
Ocampo's desire to decouple emotion from action is most apparent in these death scenes. She's always swift, never sentimental. For Ocampo, emotion resides only in memory. Even death in the present is impossible to reach, as in "Siesta in the Cedar Tree," in which a little girl visits the family of a friend who has died. On the way, she's "too nervous to feel sadness as she tried in vain to reach her previous state of suffering," but when she arrives, the family is chattering happily, "as if nothing had happened." In Ocampo's world, grief in real time is impossible. Like so much else in Forgotten Journeys and The Promise, real sorrow can only take place in memory.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.