BORN: 1903, Buenos Aires, Argentina
DIED: 1993, Buenos Aires, Argentina
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
The Book of Fantasy (1940)
Extraordinary Tales (1955)
Leopoldina's Dream (1988)
Although not well known outside her homeland, Silvina Ocampo was a highly regarded artist, poet, and shortstory writer in her native Argentina. In general, Englishspeaking readers are most familiar with her collaborations with husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, an Argentine novelist, as well as with Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges. She and Borges worked as editors on The Book of Fantasy, an anthology of fantastic tales that exemplify the magic realism evident in modern Latin American fiction. In those short stories written independently by Ocampo, the probable and the improbable are fused so effortlessly that readers are challenged to question what they think they know about the world and their place in it.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Artistic Pursuits in Paris and Buenos Aires Born in 1903 to a privileged family in Buenos Aires, Ocampo was the youngest of six daughters, including Victoria Ocampo, editor of the highly respected Sur magazine. Because of her family's social position, Ocampo received an education in both European and Argentine culture and early on lived in Paris, where she studied painting. In 1934, she met fellow Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, an association that helped her establish a reputation among Argentine literary circles.
An artist as well as a writer, Ocampo published drawings based on the early poems of Jorge Luis Borges, the renowned poet and short-story writer who remained Ocampo's lifelong friend, before publishing Forgotten Travel, her first collection of short stories, in 1937. In 1940, the same year she debuted her paintings in Buenos Aires, Ocampo married Bioy Casares, and the couple began hosting a weekly open house for Borges and other writers, including Chilean novelist Maria Luisa Bombal and Argentine poet Ezequiel Martínez Estrada.
An Artist in Argentina In 1946, the military-led government of Argentina came under the control of Juan Perón, a leader beloved by many lower-class Argentineans but viewed as an anti-intellectual dictator by those skeptical of his policies. This turmoil continued throughout Ocampo's life, with Perón and his cohorts returning to power frequently; democracy finally returned to Argentina in 1983, and efforts were made to foster improved relations between the government and the country's creative communities. Unlike some artists, Ocampo worked relatively free from the pressures of government hostility.
Although Ocampo's second collection of short stories did not appear until eleven years after her first, those years were not idle ones for the writer. Ocampo collaborated with Bioy Casares and Borges on two anthologies, The Book of Fantasy, a collection of fantastical stories published in 1940, and Anthology of Argentine Poetry, published in 1941. At the same time, Ocampo worked with her two partners, and she published her own stories, paintings, and poetry, producing a substantial body of work throughout her lifetime. Among several other national literary awards, Ocampo received the National Prize for Poetry in 1962. In December 1993, Ocampo died in Buenos Aires.
Works in Literary Context
As an illustrator of Borges's poetry and his collaborator on The Book of Fantasy as well, Ocampo was inspired by Borges throughout her writing and artistic career. Borges himself referred to Ocampo as one of the greatest Spanish poets of all time. In regard to her fiction—which draws from myth, fairy tale, and popular romances—Borges, writing in the preface to Leopodina's Dream, points out the paradox within: “[Her short fictions have] a strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty.”
Indeed, much of Ocampo's fiction draws its energy and power from this paradox, along with her refusal to solve it. Ocampo's style, the very way she uses words and sentences, conveys something both innocent and cruel. She writes in a voice that is purposely sporadic and free of literary devices, almost as if the narrators were not accustomed to expressing themselves. As a result of gaps between sentences, the reader senses that something is missing, that something is not being told, perhaps the very something that would help give sense and order to events or help explain why the characters do what they do. That order or explanation, however, is never to come, as Ocampo's stories typically end ambiguously, requiring readers to draw their own conclusions about the fate of the characters.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ocampo's famous contemporaries include:
Flannery O'Connor (1925–1964): O'Connor's short stories combine realism with monstrous situations, and violence strikes seemingly without reason.
George Orwell (1903–1950): Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm address social conditions and totalitarian political systems.
Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974): President of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and 1973 to 1974, Perón led a new political group backed by the most neglected factions of the agricultural and working classes.
Stephen Spender (1909–1995): Believing poets need to be politically engaged, Spender joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, though he later renounced that affiliation in The God That Failed.
Salvatore Quasímodo (1901–1968): The work of this Italian poet is personal, nonpolitical, and filled with striking imagery.
Cruel Children In Ocampo's short stories, the cruelest characters are often children who narrate or participate in brutal acts, though whether they are aware of what they are doing is unclear. Sometimes, the children have magical or supernatural powers. For instance, in “The Velvet Dress,” a story narrated by a little girl who accompanies a seamstress to the home of an arrogant wealthy woman, Ocampo vaguely hints that the story's tragedy is either predicted by or caused by the girl. A story more disturbing in its depiction of cruelty by a child is “The Prayer.” In this work, a woman who hates her husband witnesses two young boys fighting over a kite. One of the boys pushes the other's face into a ditch filled with water and holds him there until he drowns. Swept by the emotion of watching “a crime in the midst of games that looked so innocent,” she wants to protect the boy, so she takes the murderous child into her home. The boy quickly comes to despise the woman's husband, who insists on disciplining him. Then she leaves the boy and her husband alone in the house while she goes to church, where she thinks, “I don't know why I am afraid that something has happened in my house.” Whether a crime is committed is never revealed. What is certain, however, is that the boy has demonstrated a propensity for cruelty.
Works in Critical Context
Borges was one of the first to praise his colleague: “Silvina Ocampo is one of our best writers. Her stories have no equal in our literature.” Nevertheless, she has remained an obscure literary figure. Some critics regard Ocampo as overshadowed by the more famous members of her literary circle and, therefore, underrated. Other scholars have offered the possibility that Ocampo's relative obscurity during her lifetime may have been a result of her unwillingness to be touched by fame, preferring, instead, the dark depths of her fantasy worlds. According to the Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ocampo has said, “What matters is what we write: that is what we are, not some puppet made up by those who talk and enclose us in a prison so different from our dream.”
The Book of Fantasy In The Book of Fantasy, Ocampo, Bioy Casares, and Borges combined their creative intelligence to compile what they judged to be the best stories from fantastic literature. In addition to stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Saki, Ray Bradbury, and Julio Cortazar, the collection, according to Laurence Coven in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “provides a woodshed of tales, parables and fragments to rekindle the fire of our imagination.” Appearing in English more than forty years after its original Spanish edition, the volume provides an early look at the fantastic element evident in many of the works of Latin American writers in recent years. Scholar Alberto Manguel comments on the importance of The Book of Fantasy in literary history: “The Antologia was an extraordinary success, not as much in the actual number of copies sold … but in the influence it had on its select public. It provided readers with a guide to realms that had until then belonged to either campfire talks or to the psychological novel, and it showed to writers vast areas of fiction that demanded neither the journalistic constraints of Sinclair Lewis nor the fancies of children's fairy tales.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The author of stories suffused with surreal, mystical elements, Silvina Ocampo was a key figure in the conception of magic realism that led to the Latin American boom of the 1960s. Listed below are other works of magic realism:
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a novel by Gabriel Garcí Márquez. The epitome of Latin American boom literature, One Hundred Years of Solitude reflects reality and fantasy from multiple perspectives.
The Famished Road (1993), a novel by Ben Okri. In this book, Azaro is a spirit child who lives in the real world yet remains tied to the supernatural realm by visions of demons and witches.
Kingdom of This World (1949), a novel by Alejo Carpentier. Amid an atmosphere in which elements of the fantastic appear without seeming unnatural, Carpentier's work portrays the contradictions between political reality and mythical belief.
Responses to Literature
- Ocampo, Borges, and Bioy Casares selected almost eighty pieces for The Book of Fantasy. Consider the fact that they were choosing stories for a collection of magic and fantasy. With a group of your classmates, discuss what criteria they might have used in their selection process. If you were compiling short stories for an anthology of American sports stories, what criteria would you use to determine which works to include?
- Research the career of Silvina Ocampo's sister, Victoria Ocampo, who was an editor for the famous magazine Sur. Based on what you learn about Victoria's career, determine to what extent, if at all, Silvina's career was affected by her sister. Write a paragraph about whether you think Silvina's obscurity during her lifetime could be a result of her sister's success.
- Ocampo often drew sketches to accompany not only her own poetry, but also that of other Argentine writers. Think about how her artistic talents could enhance her poetry, as well as how her poetic talent could enhance her art. With another classmate, research other writers who illustrated their own works. What were their motivations for doing so? Report your findings to the class.
- Write a paragraph about what you think happens to the woman's husband in “The Prayer” when she leaves him alone with a murderous child. Is she really unaware of what the boy is going to do to her husband? Would she or the child be guilty if a crime is committed? How does the title of the story relate to the woman?
Klingenberg, Patricia Nisbet. Fantasies of the Feminine: The Short Stories of Silvina Ocampo. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.
Mackintosh, Fiona J. Childhood in the Works of Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik. Suffolk, England: Tamesis Books, 2003.
Manguel, Alberto. Other Fires: Short Fiction by Latin American Women. New York: C. N. Potter, 1986.
Ocampo, Silvina. Leopoldina's Dream. New York: Penguin, 1988.
Watson, Noelle, ed. Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Saint James Press, 1994.
Coven, Laurence. “Fantasy Classics: The Book of Fantasy edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Campo, and A. Bioy Casares.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (March 26, 1989): 6.
University of Notre Dame. Southern Cone Literature: Silvina Ocampo (1903–1993). Retrieved May 30, 2008, from http://www.library.nd.edu/rarebooks/collections/rarebooks/hispanic/southern_cone/ocampo/index.shtml.