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Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo
Thus Were Their Faces, by Silvina Ocampo

Beyond language: The strange, miraculous stories of Argentina’s Silvina Ocampo Add to ...

  • Title Thus Were Their Faces
  • Author Silvina Ocampo
  • Genre fiction
  • Publisher New York Review Books
  • Pages 354
  • Price $21.50
  • Year 2014

Don’t trust what follows – all book reviews are lies!

Well, not exactly. But since the reviewer reads in incongruous ways – developing an argument, taking notes, doubling back – few reviews capture the average reader’s experience of a book. Book-reviewing necessitates reading with an agenda, and while we all approach fiction with biases, those are mostly private, rather than strategies for communication. And unlike the ideal, focused reader, reviewers move through books with a portion of their attention directed elsewhere – away from the page, but also away from their own subjectivity, to the eventual audience for whom they will write.

So it’s enough of a challenge to distill, interpret and evaluate any book, let alone to explain what is compelling about those that resist easy summation. And it can be especially difficult to write about unconventional work to which one also develops a personal, non-objective relationship, yet which might not correspond to an accepted rubric of what makes a “good” book. Reviewing Silvina Ocampo’s stories strikes me as an especially futile project, since they affect me, for lack of a better word, intimately.

Though her friend Jorge Luis Borges claimed that she was “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” Ocampo has long lingered in the shadows of her more famous Argentine contemporaries: Borges, but also her sister Victoria, who ran the influential literary magazine Sur, and her husband, novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares. Thus Were Their Faces, published in 1988 by Penguin under a different title and revamped for its New York Review Books publication with some additions and tweaks, collects work from 1937 to 1988 (Ocampo died in 1993), and will, let’s hope, garner her the attention she rightfully deserves.

But, again, these stories don’t offer straightforward reading. In And So Forth we are told: “And if you go in search of a world without memories in order to forget, there is nothing that will block our eyes or our ears. Our skin is wide awake and covered with eyes, although others think that we only have two eyes, and ears, although others think we only have two ears.” This loses me about a quarter of the way through; and yet, for reasons I don’t understand – or perhaps even care to understand – in the context of the story it’s utterly compelling anyway.

Trying to write about Thus Were Their Faces reminds me of being asked what I like about a new romantic partner. My default response is to oblige this invasive, irritating question with a list of characteristics and qualifications, which seems more like enumerating a personal CV than offering insights into a union of souls. Without resorting to clichés, which are so generic as to preclude meaning, it’s almost impossible to express how another person has awoken that strange mix of joy, desire, melancholy and fear particular to the first stages of love.

This might sound maudlin, but it’s the closest analogy I’ve got for my feelings about Silvina Ocampo’s stories – that is, if I even “like” them all. As translator Daniel Balderston explains, “Ocampo insisted that we choose her cruellest stories,” so Thus Were Their Faces isn’t exactly a book to be enjoyed. Instead, the stories demand a witness, varying as they do from the malice of childhood to the various indignities of the adult world. The Clock House, for example, chillingly ironizes a young boy’s perspective to detail the brutal abuse – and murder – of a neighbourhood hunchback, while The Objects, a seemingly hopeful story about the recovery of all the personal items a woman has lost in her lifetime, concludes: “The objects had faces, the horrible faces they acquire when we stare at things too long. Through a long series of joys, Camila Ersky had finally entered hell.”

Almost all of these stories trouble the binary between fantasy and reality, be they about a soothsayer’s discovery of her talents or a girl wishing an imaginary dog into existence; another of Ocampo’s obsessions is false or invented memory. The narrator of The Impostor, for example, who conjures reality from his dreams, notes, “I had the certainty of having watched a tiger fight a jaguar [but] that memory did not exist,” claiming, “my whole existence was made up of memories older than my life.”

The suggestion, I think, is that self-definition is impossible, rooted as our lives are in subconscious experiences beyond our understanding – and certainly beyond language. “He who defines personal identity,” Borges wrote, “as the private possession of some depository of memories is mistaken. … Moreover, if I root personality in remembrance, what claim of ownership can be made on the elapsed instants that, because they were quotidian or stale, did not stamp a lasting mark?”

When it comes to books, an equivalent might be the elusive spaces between words and explicit meaning, be they tonal, rhythmic or even phantasmagoric. Ocampo’s stories abound in these spaces, and the cumulative effect of Thus Were Their Faces is more experiential than literal. And I believe that each reader will experience this strange, miraculous collection uniquely and develop a personal relationship with it in his or her own intimate way.

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