I'll admit it was the Remedios Varo painting on the front that initially attracted me to Thus Were Their Faces, NYRB Classics' new collection of short stories by Argentine fabulist writer, Silvina Ocampo. And am I ever glad I judged this book by its cover! It is truly one of the most marvelous things I've read in a long while, and Ocampo has become a literary heroine of mine.
These 42 stories are anthologized from her writings between 1937 and 1988, and each is a remarkable study in specificity and imaginal thinking. The protagonists of her tales are often children or adolescents or the very elderly wrestling with big questions about love, religion, and death. Magical goings-on are frequent, though are grounded in a world (usually Buenos Aires) that feels steely-eyed and true. There are birthday parties, courtships, marriages, friendships, and crimes, each embroidered by elements of clairvoyance or supernatural interactions that heighten the drama, albeit with a deliciously slow build.
My three favorite stories appear in succession, all originally published in 1959 as part of her collection, "The Fury." "Azabache" is a tale about a man who marries his equine-obsessed servant, Aurelia, whose fate is bound inextricably with that of her beloved horse. In "The Velvet Dress," a tailor creates a black, dragon-sequined dress for a client, and they both have to reconcile its beauty with its heaviness and dark powers that threaten to overwhelm them. And in perhaps my very favorite story, "Leopoldina's Dreams," two sisters try to trick their crone grandmother into conjuring jewels and gold as she sleeps, rather than the usual far more humble feathers and stones that tend to appear upon her waking. Ocampo's description of Leopoldina alone made me swoon:
"In the kitchen, sitting on a high-backed wicker chair, Leopoldina was smoking. She was so old that she looked like a scribble; you couldn't see her eyes or her mouth. She smelled like earth, grass, dry leaves: not like a person. She announced storms and bad weather like a barometer; even before I did she could smell the mountain lion coming down from the hills to eat the young goats or twist the necks of the colts. Despite not having left the house for thirty years, she knew, as birds know, where there were ripe nuts, figs, and peaches, in what valley, beside which stream. Even the crispin bird, with its sad song, shy as a fox, came down one day to eat bread crumbs dipped in milk out of her hands, surely believing that she was a bush."
Here's another favorite section, from her story, "Autobiography of Irene," about a melancholic young seer who falls in love for the first time:
"A silence of cloisters and roses was in our hearts. No one could guess the mystery that linked us. Not even those colored pencils or the jujube candies or the flowers he bestowed on me gave us away. He would write my name on the trunks of trees with his penknife, and when he was being punished, he would write it with chalk on the wall."
I love the clarity of her writing with its short sentences and vivid images. Naturally, some credit must go to the translator, Daniel Balderston. But I appreciate that Ocampo's voice is lush without being flowery, and unapologetically straightforward as it enthralls. Each line shines like a blade.
It's no wonder she had a background in painting, having studied with de Chirico and Leger in Paris, as she is a master picture painter in her writing. But she felt she had far more freedom expressing herself in words, as she states in her author's introduction also included in this collection. Her life was filled with - some might say eclipsed by - other luminaries. She was married to Bioy Casares, author of cult favorite, The Invention of Morel. And they were both dear friends and collaborators with Borges, whose preface to one of her books is republished at the beginning of "Thus Were Their Faces" as well. As he wrote,
"It is strange that it should be I, for whom telling a story is the attempt to capture only its essential elements, who should present to readers a work as wise, as changeable, as complex, and at the same time as simple as this collection. I thank the gods for this happy fate."
I share his sentiment, and I hope that you, too, will discover Ocampo's exquisite storycraft for yourself.