Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo is undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great masters of the short story. Italo Calvino once said about her, “I don’t know another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us.” Thus Were Their Faces collects a wide range of Ocampo’s best short fiction and novella-length stories from her whole writing life. Stories about creepy doubles, a marble statue of a winged horse that speaks to a girl, a house of sugar that is the site of an eerie possession, children who lock their perverse mothers in a room and burn it, a lapdog who records the dreams of an old woman.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote that the cruelty of Ocampo’s stories was the result of her nobility of soul, a judgment as paradoxical as much of her own writing. For her whole life Ocampo avoided the public eye, though since her death in 1993 her reputation has only continued to grow, like a magical forest. Dark, gothic, fantastic, and grotesque, these haunting stories are among the world’s finest.
Goodreads description.

With a description like that you can see why I asked Silvina Ocampo's publisher, New York Review of Books, for a review copy. And I can tell you the book lived up to the description.

Ocampo's style is sometimes demanding on the reader and I found myself putting down the book between stories to muse over what I had just read.  But the book is all the better for that.

Even though I read the stories several days ago, they have stayed with me like a dark shadow somewhere on the periphery of my vision.  The word "dark" is rightly used of Ocampo's stories. At times they reminded me of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl in the way they would jolt me with a sudden dark turn. But then Ocampo also  shows that the dark is only seen in the context of light. As she writes in the preface, Writing is having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die. 

English: Photo taken by Bioy Casares in Posada...
English: Photo taken by Bioy Casares in Posadas, published at the magazine Pajaro de fuego (Bird of fire) Español: Foto sacada por Bioy Casares en Posadas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Ocampo is probably better known as a poet  and it shows in her prose, which is at times sublime.  I could fill this review with quotations. But let us just take this one, which ends  probably my favourite story in the collection: Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it. But where is my bed, where can I wait in comfort? I'm not lying down: I'm unable to lie down. A bed is not always a bed. There is the birthing bed, the bed of love, the deathbed, the riverbed. But not a real bed... How perfect is that! The short sentences, the repetition, the symbolism, all could be translated into poetry, all you have to do is add line-breaks. And the poetical form is also appropriate for the story and the voice of the narrator - a woman, who with these words is slipping into death.

Ocampo is masterly in her use of narrative voices. As well as the dying, she is capable of speaking as a child. Sometimes the innocence of the child's voice contrasts with the story the child is unwittingly telling. Sometimes the child narrator is far from innocent. Nor is Ocampo's skill in the use of voices restricted to children. In The Prayer the female narrator is unable to confront the horror of what might/will happen as a result of her action and so the horror is left unstated and yet can clearly be read between the lines, leaving us with a sense of impending doom.

Magic realism appears in many of the stories, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly.  In one story a gardener's hand digs into the earth only to take root there. In the short story which lends its title to the collection a group of deaf children dream the same dreams, make the same mistakes in their notebooks and when asked to draw all draw pictures of wings. The story culminates with children jumping from a plane. When interviewed, their teacher asserts that when the children threw themselves into the void they had wings.  

I commend this magical, dark and wonderful book and its remarkable author to you.

I received this book free from the publisher in return for a fair review.

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