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“Everything we want too much turns out badly or never happens at all” #silvinaocampo #thepromise

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Bookish serendipity and unexpected kindness can bring wonderful results; and a case in point is the book featuring on the Ramblings today. The work in question is “The Promise” by Silvina Ocampo, an author who’s appeared on the blog on a couple of previous occasions. Best known, perhaps, for her association with Jorge Luis Borges and also with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, she’s seen a recent resurgence of interest in her work and happily seems to be stepping out of their shadows.

“The Promise” (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell) made its way to the Ramblings via the lovely JacquiWine who kindly sent it as a Christmas gift. It was an inspired choice, as I love Ocampo’s writing but hadn’t come across this book before. And after finishing the Perec I felt like spending time with another slim volume, so this seemed the ideal book to pick up next!

Intriguingly, “The Promise” was never really finished, as Ocampo worked on the novella for 25 years or so, right up until her death in 1993. At 103 pages, it’s possibly the longest piece I’ve read by her, and it’s completely absorbing. The book is narrated by a woman adrift at sea; having fallen overboard in the middle of the Atlantic, she makes the titular promise to St. Rita that if she survives, she will write her life story. Bobbing through the ocean, unsure if she is actually dead or alive, the woman looks back through her life, remembering people and events – in effect, writing her life story through her memories and through the narrative we’re reading. However, as the story continues, it begins to be unclear whether the memories are reality or fiction – and whether, indeed, that actually matters…

The only advantage of being a child is that time is doubly wide, like upholstery fabric.

“The Promise” is a really compelling read; written in hypnotic prose, with characters moving in and out of the woman’s memories, it’s an often unsettling experience to follow her thoughts. At times, it seems as if the act of remembering is staving off an inevitable death, although in truth the situation the narrator is in is not really one you can accept as real. However, it allows Ocampo the chance to explore the woman’s life as well as many other lives; in fact, she often seems to be slipping through others’ thoughts and experiences like a ghost , inheriting their memories, which makes you think she may already have sunk under the waves.

As you might have guessed, I absolutely loved “The Promise”; it was fascinating from start to finish, one of those books which lingers in the mind and still has you trying to work it out long after you’ve finished reading it – which may well be what Ocampo intended! If you’re looking for plotted, logical and straightforward narratives, then she’s definitely not the author for you. But if you want to be challenged, provoked, transported somewhere else and have your perspectives a little skewed, I can really recommend reading Ocampo – and “The Promise” would be a wonderful place to start!

#NovellaNov – A South American fable

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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!

topless tower

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.

ocampo

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… 🙂

Dreams and Illusions

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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.

thus

“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…

Author Ocampo

Author Ocampo

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)

Spoofing the classic crime novel!

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Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

One of the constant joys of reading book blogs is the recommendations for works and authors you’ve never encountered before. So when I read about this book on Jacquiwine’s excellent blog recently, I knew it sounded exactly like the kind of thing I’d enjoy, and promptly tracked down a copy!

And really, I feel very silly not having registered the authors before! Wikipedia says of them:

Adolfo Bioy Casares (September 15, 1914 – March 8, 1999) was an Argentine fiction writer, journalist, and translator. He was a friend and frequent collaborator with his fellow countryman Jorge Luis Borges, and wrote what many consider one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction, the novella “The Invention of Morel”.

Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (July 28, 1903 – December 14, 1993) was an Argentine poet and short-fiction writer.

Both were associated with Borges, who I’ve read in the past and whose Collected Fictions lurks on Mount TBR. So I should have been well aware of them, and read them before – but better late than never!

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-

WTLTH opens with the narrator, one Dr. Humberto Huberman, travelling through Argentina on his way to a vacation by the sea at a hotel run by his cousin. As well as being a medical man, the doctor also has literary pretensions and plans a working holiday, writing a book on Petronius. His arrival at the hotel is a little unusual as the town is deserted, the functionaries uninterested and the ambience less than enjoyable. However, the doctor is unsinkable and eventually after hours traversing the sands he arrives at the hotel. On the beach he encounters some of his fellow guests, including Mary, her sister Emelia, another Doctor, Cornejo, and Emilia’s fiance Atuel. They’re an odd bunch, somehow, and Mary has a narrow escape in the water, nearly drowning.

Back at the hotel we meet the other guests, including yet another Doctor, Pickering, and a very strange secretary wandering round the building with a fly swatter. As the weather takes a turn for the worse and the hotel becomes locked down in a sandstorm, there are murders and confusion. Can Doctor Huberman solve the mystery?

“Atuel was looking out of the window. He called us over. Engulfed in a furious cyclone of sand, we saw the Rickenbacker. For the first time all day, I laughed. I confess: the absurdity of the scene unfolding with cinematic diligence was quite compelling. Out of the car emerged one, two, three, four, six people in all. They huddled against one of the car’s rear doors. Laboriously, they extracted a large, darkly coloured object. I watched them – my eyes tearing with laughter – as they approached the hotel, tripping blindly in the sand, as thought it were the dark of night, struggling and knocking about in the wind, their faces misshapen by the oblique effect of the windowpane. They were bringing the coffin.”

I have to say that WTLTH was an unexpectedly wonderful delight of a book! It was published in 1946, when the Golden Age of detective fiction was well established, and the authors are obviously hell-bent on sending up the genre as much as they can. Dr. Huberman comes across as a blend of Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot; he’s obsessed with routine and his meals, and often gives them much more importance than the actual investigation!

The landscape and weather are important too, as the sandstorms in the area are obviously an issue – hotel owner Andrea, Dr. Huberman’s cousin, comments that:

“Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s in the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.”

and it does seem that the hotel is somewhat threatened by the climate. This also allows for the typical closed-community setting so often seen in classic mysteries and also for some wonderful set pieces when various characters run into the storm and are lost and found at various points. The atmosphere is full of existential angst which you wouldn’t normally find in an Agatha Christie, and I think there’s a lot of symbolism here, some of which I picked up but some of which I’m sure I missed. Not for nothing is the local shipwreck called the Joseph K!

The authors looking very cool!

The authors looking very cool!

WTLTH is an affectionate homage to crime novels which is also extremely funny in places; Dr. H himself, pompous and self-absorbed, can’t see how ridiculous he is. Nothing is as it seems as one twist follows another, our perceptions are constantly challenged and changed, identities shift along with our suspicions, and the final resolution is certainly rather unexpected. The wonderful deadpan style is very readable and the authors can deliver killer punch lines – for example, of Dr. Montes, who’s always drunk, Huberman comments:

“The gods, who are not ignorant of the future, usually speak through the means of children and madmen. I also understand that they favour alcoholics.”

I absolutely loved this novella and really wished it had been longer! As it was, I raced through it, probably missing some of the allusions, but I shall definitely revisit WTLTH and also explore more of the authors’ works. I’m so glad Jacqui reviewed it or it might not have come across it – thanks Jacqui!! 🙂

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