Thus were their faces by Silvina Ocampo
Until recently, the name of Silvina Ocampo was one that was not that well-known amongst Anglophone readers – well, certainly I had never heard of her, until I started reading about her on the book blogs I follow. Simon at Stuck In A Book had reviewed books by her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares (here and here), but it was Jacqui’s piece on the book the couple co-authored, “Where There’s Love, There’s Hate” that impelled me towards reading this wonderful Argentinian author.
“Love…” was a fabulous read, one of my favourites of the year, and I went on to read “The Invention of Morel”, Bioy Casares’ wonderfully clever novella. Both authors tend to have been overshadowed by their famous friend Borges; however, they seem to be stepping into the limelight now, which is great. NYRB have been at the forefront of this revival, publishing novels by Bioy Casares, and now this wonderful collection of stories by Ocampo which takes its title from one of the tales.
Ocampo had a long and prolific career, and “Thus..” draws from several of her works. An afterword by friend and translator Daniel Balderston explains that Ocampo to told him to choose the stories that were “cruelest” and that’s certainly a word that could be applied here. Ranging from longer works that could almost be called novellas to shorter pieces of less than two pages, this collection contains a breathtaking array of work.
It’s necessary to suspend disbelief and take a step outside your own world when reading Ocampo as the stories range far and wide. The novella-length work “The Imposter” deals with shifting perceptions, an isolated location and odd visions; “Autobiography of Irene” features a seer who knows her own death is coming, and the story slips into metafiction; “The House Made of Sugar” shows the extremes to which jealousy can take people (and not in the way you might expect). Identity is fluid; reality unimportant; dogs can record dreams, reflections have their own personality, and in the title story children can behave as a single unit in a very unsettling way…
Ocampo’s world is a strange, dark and haunting one, full of mysterious doubles, mystical seers and visions of past and present. The stories skew your expectations constantly, in a way that takes your breath away, and her skill as a teller of tales is consummate. If I had any kind of minor niggle with this wonderful collection it would be that the very richness of it is almost too much to take in during one reading, and I wondered how it would be to have read Ocampo’s works in the original collections.
But that’s by the by; “Thus Were Their Faces” is a quite wonderful book, full of strange delights that end up haunting you for ages afterwards. Highly recommended, and I’m now even more keen to read more Ocampo, Bioy Casares and Borges!
(Jacqui’s excellent piece on this book can be read here)