The Topless Tower Silvina Ocampo
Translated by James Womack
Poppy at PoppyPeacockPens is running a wonderful initiative this month to celebrate the art of the novella – and I’m happy to be able to join in with this slim volume from the wonderful Argentinian author, Silvina Ocampo. This is the third of her books I’ve read (I reviewed “Thus Were Their Faces” here, and her collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares here) and it’s a story that wouldn’t have actually been out-of-place in the NYRB collection. At 53 pages it perhaps seems more of a short story than a novella, but it was published separately by Hesperus Press in their “Hesperus Worldwide” imprint, so I guess it qualifies!
And what a strange little tale it is! “The Topless Tower” is narrated by 9-year-old Leandro; one day, while he is playing with his friends, a strange man appears and tries to sell his mother some pictures, of strange rooms and the Topless Tower of the title. As Leandro has a somewhat sassy discourse with the man, his reality suddenly changes and he finds himself inside the Tower, alone and imprisoned in a place with no windows. Soon, he discovers that if he draws something, it immediately comes to life alongside him in the tower; this can go quite well, but often he cannot control his pencil and ends up with spiders and snakes and all sorts. Despite desperately trying to draw his mother, he manages to produce girl companions. But will he ever escape from the Tower itself?
Will the images we’ve seen throughout our lives remain inside our eyes? Will we be like a modern camera, filled with little rolls of film;of course, rolls that don’t require to be developed. If I die before reaching my home, before seeing my mother whom I love so much, will she get to see the photographic film stored inside me?
For such a short work, there’s actually an awful amount to think about, and that short summary barely scratches the surface. Leandro himself is an intriguing narrator – wise beyond his years, he uses words he doesn’t understand, but uses them correctly and they’re underlined in the narrative. He switches from first to third person, and back again, which adds another disconcerting layer to his story and makes you wonder how reliable a narrator he actually is. The lack of control which he has over the drawings is intriguing and the fact that, as the book progresses, his skill improves suggests perhaps that he’s growing up and developing his talents.
In fact, much of this book is probably allegorical (or it may be that I just have the habit of reading too much into books!) But Leandro claims to be fighting against the Devil, there is a strong fairy-tale element present in the story and we all know just how allegorical fairy stories are. The fact that one of the girls drawn by Leandro is called Alice is very probably significant, as the world he’s in seems to have as much logic as Carroll’s masterpiece.
“The Topless Tower” was a fascinating read, and I’m still thinking about the meanings behind the symbols some time after finishing it. As I said, it’s a short work to be printed on its own, and would have fitted well into “Thus Were Their Faces”. However, I’m glad I decided to read it just now, and it certainly does prove just how much meaning you can pack into a short novella… 🙂