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Thus Were Their Faces

REVIEW Thus Were Their Faces

An NYRB Classics OriginalSilvina 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 Ocamp. Silvina Ocampo 1903 1993 poet and extraordinary teller of tales from ArgentinaMore than 30 stories collected here as dark Gothic fantastic imaginative and disturbing as any tales you will ever read And for those who are not familiar with Silvina Ocampo this NYRB Classic includes an insightful introductory essay by contemporary British novelist Helen Oyeyemi and also a preface by Jorge Luis Borges To share a specific taste for the author’s world class storytelling here is my write up of one of the many memorable tale from the collectionThe House Made Out of SugarTerror All Around “Superstitions kept Cristina from living” Our first person narrator begins by elaborating on how the love of his life a young lady he will soon marry Cristina is made mad by fear over such objects as a coin with a blurry face a spot of ink or the moon seen through two panes of glass; and not only with such as coins or ink but Cristina refuses to cross certain streets to see certain people listen to certain pieces of music or eat strawberries in summer Harsh Judgement Back at the time when her tales were first published many literary critics judged Silvina Ocampo’s treatment of her characters as “far too cruel” With Cristina we are given a sense of just how cruel – to be in terror of much of ordinary everyday life to the point of acute paranoia was according to those critics cruelty in the extreme entirely unacceptable for an author of literary fiction Dream House Once engaged to be married our narrator must find a new place to live one where no one has lived previously since according to Cristina the fate of any former occupant would exert an influence on her own life not on his life or their joint lives he notes somewhat sourly but only on her life Finally he finds such a house an absolutely perfect house with a phone inside and garden in front a house so white and gleaming it’s as if it’s made of sugar Unfortunate Fact He discovers a family once did occupy the house many years ago No big deal he thinks and proceeds to convince Cristina no one has ever lived there and this house of sugar is the house of their dreams Cristina believes him cries out with joy once she takes a tour “Here it smells clean Nobody will be able to influence our lives or soil them with thoughts that corrupt the air” So a few days later they wed and move in Do you sense a trace of Gothic horror brewingChinks in The Armor Their happiness runneth over; their tranuility seems like it will never be broken Then it happened one day he answered the phone and someone asked for Mrs Violeta the person he surmised to be the previous tenant Ah if Cristina answered that phone call that would spell the end of their happy marriage forever Precautionary measures must be taken he makes sure the phone remains off the hook and places a mailbox out by the gate and keeps for himself the one and only mailbox key Mysterious Gift Then early one morning there’s a knock at the door – someone has left a package He races downstairs but Cristina has already ripped open the package and is holding a velvet dress “When did you order the dress Cristina and how did you pay for it” She replies “I ordered it some time ago and Mother gave me a few pesos” This seems strange but he doesn’t say anything so as to offend her Shortly thereafter he notices Cristina’s character change she has become sad reserved and nervous; she has lost her appetite and no longer wants to go to the theater or movies Something is definitely amiss Gnawing Suspicion A dog enters their garden; Cristina names the dog Love and takes the dog in as her own Then one afternoon he comes home unexpectedly and discovers a bicycle lying in the yard Cristina is speaking with a young woman He hides behind the door to overhear their conversation The woman says she always wanted to meet her ever since she was eight years old girl and calls Cristina by the name of Violeta The young girl insists Violeta Cristina keep her lost dog and she will visit occasionally Cristina replies how visits would be impossible since her husband doesn’t like strangers The young girl in turn proposes they meet every Monday evening at seven at Columbia Suare on one of the bridges Cristina tells her that her name is not Violeta to which the young lady says how she has always been mysterious At this point she leaves Meanwhile the narrator begins to feel a gnawing suspicion since it was as if he had just witnessed a theatrical rehearsal but he says nothing to Cristina Violeta Every day the narrator walks to the bridge to check to see if Cristina will come He doesn’t see her but one day at home Cristina is hugging the dog and asks him if he would like it if she change her name to Violeta He tells Cristina he wants her to keep her own name Then on a Saturday night he finally sees her on the bridge She shows no surprise when he approaches They exchange words and Cristina says how she dreams about trips leaving without ever leaving leaving and staying and by staying leaving Probing uestion Then one fateful day when he sees her again on the bridge he ventures to ask “If we were to discover that this house was once inhabited by other people what would you do Cristina Would you move away Cristina replies “If other people lived in this house they must have been like those sugar figurines on desserts or birthday cakes sweet as sugar This house makes me feel secure It is the little garden by the entrance that makes me feel so calm I don’t know I wouldn’t move for all the money in the world Besides we don’t have anywhere to go You yourself said that some time ago” Ominous Visitor One morning he watches from an upstairs window as a stranger arrives and threatens Cristina saying if she Violeta sees Daniel again she will pay dearly Cristina replies she doesn’t know Daniel and her name isn’t Violeta The stranger accuses Cristina of lying Cristina says she doesn’t want to listen Hearing this the narrator rushes downstairs and tells the intruder to get out He looks closely at the stranger’s feet hands and neck and realizes it’s a man in woman’s clothing He doesn’t exchange words with Cristina on this episode but it was around this time that Cristina began singing spontaneously Her voice was pleasant enough but it felt like a secret world that drew her away Why Identity Theft Then one day Cristina says “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life her joys and sorrows mistakes and successes I’m bewitched” This startling revelation propels the narrator on a search for Violeta and the story takes a few mysterious and eerily disturbing turns leading up to the concluding short paragraph “From then on Cristina had become Violeta at least as far as I was concerned I tried following her day and night to find her in the arms of her lovers I became so estranged from her that I viewed her as a complete stranger One winter night she fled I searched for her until dawn I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar which now stands empty”

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O’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 womanJorge Luis Borges wrote tha. This is what Edgar Allan Poe would sound like if he were a woman living in a posh part of Buenos Aires in the first half of the 20th century A creepy abandoned house a knife a gun melancholy madness At the same time grassy plains flamingos a silver mate gourd alfajores The Argentine literary canon is exclusively male Let's hope this English language translation of Silvina Ocampo's short fiction starts to change that

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T 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 grotesue these haunting stories are among the world’s fines. Silvina Ocampo Aguirre is one of the most important Latin American writers of the 20th century and you paradoxically probably never heard of her This is the problem with translations writers slipping through the cracks and never making it into English This volume solves this issue and hopefully reveals Ocampo to an English speaking audience which had never sampled her stories Her fiction could be termed Weird literature and will interest the people who lean lit when they read their spec fiction Strange dark and often cruel her stories are a wonderful example of what Latin American literature that amorphous category is


10 thoughts on “Thus Were Their Faces

  1. says:

    Silvina Ocampo 1903 1993 poet and extraordinary teller of tales from ArgentinaMore than 30 stories collected here as dark Gothic fantastic imaginative and disturbing as any tales you will ever read And for those who are not familiar with Silvina Ocampo this NYRB Classic includes an insightful introductory essay by contemporary British novelist Helen Oyeyemi and also a preface by Jorge Luis Borges To share a specific taste for the author’s world class storytelling here is my write up of one of the many memorable tale from the collectionThe House Made Out of SugarTerror All Around “Superstitions kept Cristina from living” Our first person narrator begins by elaborating on how the love of his life a young lady he will soon marry Cristina is made mad by fear over such objects as a coin with a blurry face a spot of ink or the moon seen through two panes of glass; and not only with such as coins or ink but Cristina refuses to cross certain streets to see certain people listen to certain pieces of music or eat strawberries in summer Harsh Judgement Back at the time when her tales were first published many literary critics judged Silvina Ocampo’s treatment of her characters as “far too cruel” With Cristina we are given a sense of just how cruel – to be in terror of much of ordinary everyday life to the point of acute paranoia was according to those critics cruelty in the extreme entirely unacceptable for an author of literary fiction Dream House Once engaged to be married our narrator must find a new place to live one where no one has lived previously since according to Cristina the fate of any former occupant would exert an influence on her own life not on his life or their joint lives he notes somewhat sourly but only on her life Finally he finds such a house an absolutely perfect house with a phone inside and garden in front a house so white and gleaming it’s as if it’s made of sugar Unfortunate Fact He discovers a family once did occupy the house many years ago No big deal he thinks and proceeds to convince Cristina no one has ever lived there and this house of sugar is the house of their dreams Cristina believes him cries out with joy once she takes a tour “Here it smells clean Nobody will be able to influence our lives or soil them with thoughts that corrupt the air” So a few days later they wed and move in Do you sense a trace of Gothic horror brewing?Chinks in The Armor Their happiness runneth over; their tranuility seems like it will never be broken Then it happened one day he answered the phone and someone asked for Mrs Violeta the person he surmised to be the previous tenant Ah if Cristina answered that phone call that would spell the end of their happy marriage forever Precautionary measures must be taken he makes sure the phone remains off the hook and places a mailbox out by the gate and keeps for himself the one and only mailbox key Mysterious Gift Then early one morning there’s a knock at the door – someone has left a package He races downstairs but Cristina has already ripped open the package and is holding a velvet dress “When did you order the dress Cristina and how did you pay for it?” She replies “I ordered it some time ago and Mother gave me a few pesos” This seems strange but he doesn’t say anything so as to offend her Shortly thereafter he notices Cristina’s character change she has become sad reserved and nervous; she has lost her appetite and no longer wants to go to the theater or movies Something is definitely amiss Gnawing Suspicion A dog enters their garden; Cristina names the dog Love and takes the dog in as her own Then one afternoon he comes home unexpectedly and discovers a bicycle lying in the yard Cristina is speaking with a young woman He hides behind the door to overhear their conversation The woman says she always wanted to meet her ever since she was eight years old girl and calls Cristina by the name of Violeta The young girl insists Violeta Cristina keep her lost dog and she will visit occasionally Cristina replies how visits would be impossible since her husband doesn’t like strangers The young girl in turn proposes they meet every Monday evening at seven at Columbia Suare on one of the bridges Cristina tells her that her name is not Violeta to which the young lady says how she has always been mysterious At this point she leaves Meanwhile the narrator begins to feel a gnawing suspicion since it was as if he had just witnessed a theatrical rehearsal but he says nothing to Cristina Violeta Every day the narrator walks to the bridge to check to see if Cristina will come He doesn’t see her but one day at home Cristina is hugging the dog and asks him if he would like it if she change her name to Violeta He tells Cristina he wants her to keep her own name Then on a Saturday night he finally sees her on the bridge She shows no surprise when he approaches They exchange words and Cristina says how she dreams about trips leaving without ever leaving leaving and staying and by staying leaving Probing uestion Then one fateful day when he sees her again on the bridge he ventures to ask “If we were to discover that this house was once inhabited by other people what would you do Cristina? Would you move away? Cristina replies “If other people lived in this house they must have been like those sugar figurines on desserts or birthday cakes sweet as sugar This house makes me feel secure It is the little garden by the entrance that makes me feel so calm? I don’t know I wouldn’t move for all the money in the world Besides we don’t have anywhere to go You yourself said that some time ago” Ominous Visitor One morning he watches from an upstairs window as a stranger arrives and threatens Cristina saying if she Violeta sees Daniel again she will pay dearly Cristina replies she doesn’t know Daniel and her name isn’t Violeta The stranger accuses Cristina of lying Cristina says she doesn’t want to listen Hearing this the narrator rushes downstairs and tells the intruder to get out He looks closely at the stranger’s feet hands and neck and realizes it’s a man in woman’s clothing He doesn’t exchange words with Cristina on this episode but it was around this time that Cristina began singing spontaneously Her voice was pleasant enough but it felt like a secret world that drew her away Why? Identity Theft Then one day Cristina says “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life her joys and sorrows mistakes and successes I’m bewitched” This startling revelation propels the narrator on a search for Violeta and the story takes a few mysterious and eerily disturbing turns leading up to the concluding short paragraph “From then on Cristina had become Violeta at least as far as I was concerned I tried following her day and night to find her in the arms of her lovers I became so estranged from her that I viewed her as a complete stranger One winter night she fled I searched for her until dawn I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar which now stands empty”


  2. says:

    ”I feel such sorrow when I think how horror imitates beauty” In this collection of sinister short stories Silvina Ocampo masterfully summons up a nebulously dark eerie atmosphere full of malice anguish and dread Playfully vicious and grotesue these pages are suffused with a childlike cruelty that distinctive breed of heartlessness specific to the young and “innocent” And there is a potently haunting uality to many of the tales; I thoroughly enjoyed uite a few of them most notably The Impostor which I highly recommend reading on its own first to see if you like her styleThe reason I can’t rate the book any higher is that many of the same plot elements and themes were trotted out over and over again albeit in slightly different guises However it’s entirely possible that the editors who collected these stories are to blame than Ocampo herself for this unfortunate lack of variety As I’ve never read any of her other work I can’t say whether the rest of it is diverse or not At any rate while I found this selection far too repetitive it was certainly not without genuine artistic merit and some strikingly memorable—and exuisitely unnerving—imagery Perhaps if I’d read the stories slower I finished these in just under a month the homogeneity wouldn’t have bothered me uite as much


  3. says:

    This is a book that is going to stick with me for a very very long time mainly because of the beauty intense originality and strangeness of Silvina Ocampo's writing The stories in this book are certainly bizarre and have a way of unexpectedly creeping up on you as you are reading Here you will find an abundance of tales of murder and death in many different bizarre forms; long term resentments that turn into breaking points which materialize in different guises and there are also stories that focus on prophecy and dreams that are also not without their deeper darker edges Reading strictly for plot here is kind of beyond the point so readers who have to have every single thing explained are probably going to be lost and will probably not like this book It is yet another work that is a mind stretching experience for people who want to move beyond the norm and who are looking for something that demands uite a bit out of themselves as readers challenging yes but the payoff comes from immersing yourself in some of the best writing ever On the back cover of my book there's a brief statement from Borges in which he says that Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers Her stories have no eual in our literature and he's absolutely correct While he was referring to writers from Latin America I think what he says about her stories having no eual is absolutely spot on at least in my experience


  4. says:

    What this gains as a reference work from its scope and depth in drawing from Ocampo's many collections it loses somewhat as a cohesive reading experience as a single book Or this may be because my copy came from the library meaning I couldn't leave as much space to breath between stories as they may deserve In any event she really hit her stride in content and style with the collection The Guests from which the eerie and mysterious title story was drawn Here the menace of earlier stories the vicious little melodramas of The Fury gains the fateful ambience of the classically weird tale set into a wider surrealist resonance with the world I'd actually love to read just The Guests as a since cohesive collection Instead we get part of it with lesser examples of Ocampo's craft stretching before and after though the stories of The Fury also seem to form a powerful and cohesive set here incomplete and earlier novella The Imposter is a Cortazar prefiguring masterpiece of a certain unrelenting narrative pull of another world until reader and subjective reality cross over into a new understanding Simultaneously incomplete and overwhelming yet essential


  5. says:

    This is what Edgar Allan Poe would sound like if he were a woman living in a posh part of Buenos Aires in the first half of the 20th century A creepy abandoned house a knife a gun melancholy madness At the same time grassy plains flamingos a silver mate gourd alfajores The Argentine literary canon is exclusively male Let's hope this English language translation of Silvina Ocampo's short fiction starts to change that


  6. says:

    355Those inclined towards decadence and less towards roughage will like this collection than I The last time I ran through such thickened ichor of narrative was in Ada or Ardor and mostly forgotten readings of Poe both of them engaged with during a time when I was bowled over by prose and fancy musings Things probably would have gone better had I taken this slow but there is a difference between giving the author a measured chance and putting enough space between singular stories to let the overt thematic similarities drain to a tolerable level I believe Report on Heaven and Hell to be one of the best short stories of all time but when one is talking seven collections and forty two pieces all together it's difficult for two pages to make up for the other three hundred and fiftyI know she said she didn't read much but I'm getting to get a sense of where Lispector came from Yes yes wrong country of Latin America and different language altogether but the introspection into threats of violence and glittering view of grotesueries has a similar feel Ocampo reuires a far solid grasp on the material level of things but in return she has mastered a metamorphosis that draws you in till it's much too late the best example of this being Men Animals Vines The problem with a scope of this collection's sort is the sheer amount blurring everything together piling cruelty upon poisoned dark chocolate truffle upon cruelty until even the talk of suicide grows old Cruel in and of itself but you can only cry wolf in front of gilt edged mirrors in the midst of petite bourgeoisie finery so oftenI'm counting on someone far familiar with Buenos Aires and Argentina and co to fill me on the many things I must have glazed over some time in the future The richness is something I can enjoy on an instinctual level but an amount such as this reuires a scaffold when the swamp gets especially fertile Translation of course must also be a consideration The world is not magical We make it magical all of as sudden inside us and nobody finds out until many years later


  7. says:

    I truly think that the only sad part about death about the idea of death is knowing that it cannot be remembered by the person who has died but solely and sadly by those who watched that person die From Autobiograpy of IreneI saw an apt description of Ocampo's work awhile back and it rang in my ears as I read this large translated compilation of stories from the 1930s 1980s Ocampo is very much the spider in the picnic basket kind of writer That is open to interpretation but hits pretty close What did the spider DO in your basket before you discovered it? Is there just one?Ocampo relished her strange and cruel reputation Her work was denied an Argentine literary honor because it was deemed far too cruel Of course that was in 1942 and cruelty has gotten much cruel in that interim Cruel may be described as gothic strange or surreal now but there is some cruelty too Similar writers that come to mind are Lispector and Schweblin weird sometimes grotesue but altogether addictive to readI took my time with this collection It started very strong with the novella The Imposter which was a fantastic story and the highlight for me followed by Autobiography of Irene There were several okay stories which is to be expected when the volume contains 42 stories from 50 years of work One of my favorites was a micro just one page long Report from Heaven and Hell Brilliant little discourse I also liked the addition of her late stories The Music of the Rain and And So ForthIn the Translator Notes Balderston states that he become close friends with Ocampo and attended a few dinner parties with the little Buenos Aires cadre of writers that included her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares her sister Victoria and the legendary Jorge Luis Borges When this compilation was discussed with Ocampo she discussed with Balderston that she wanted her cruelest stories to be included I bet she did it with a smile on her face


  8. says:

    Redemption through evilOcampo and the translator set out to collect her cruelest stories in this volume thus you will find it unsurprising that these mostly brief vignettes are downright disturbing sometimes hilarious and probably contributing to the decline of someone's morals somewhereBrief as I said with most 2 3 pages these scurrilous tales focus largely on death and children two things people don't usually like to see together especially when it is the latter that is responsible for the former so shit don't come into this with any illusions of innocence Jealous covetous children off other children who are sometimes pious satanic sorcerers; children covet and desire doll like things; truncate their growth to remain children; spouses metamorph into other people or are they the other people?; identity gets smeared and blurred over love hate or bad parenting; bakers are assassinated And so onI can't really compare Ocampo to anyone else Her evil singularity is his charm I can liken her to a kind of David Lynch infested Mr Rogers show She has a fine off kilter style that probably reads better in the original but the translation seems fine since she had a hand in it


  9. says:

    Silvina Ocampo Aguirre is one of the most important Latin American writers of the 20th century and you paradoxically probably never heard of her This is the problem with translations writers slipping through the cracks and never making it into English This volume solves this issue and hopefully reveals Ocampo to an English speaking audience which had never sampled her stories Her fiction could be termed Weird literature and will interest the people who lean lit when they read their spec fiction Strange dark and often cruel her stories are a wonderful example of what Latin American literature that amorphous category is


  10. says:

    Sweet baby Jesus on a piece of toast Borges wasn't kidding Silvina Ocampo man This collection of short stories is absolutely incredible Beautiful surreal and fantastically gothic what's not to love?