The Promise By Silvina Ocampo
Forgotten Journey By Silvina Ocampo
Reviewed by Ana Castillo

Forgotten Journey and The Promise by late Argentine writer Silvina Ocampo are cornucopias, outpourings of words with the same concision we ascribe to nature. Descriptions pour forth not like water but sap, ensuring the reader will pause and savor, not just in a portrait but every paragraph, each word. Sunsets leave “dirty fruit stains in the sky.” A girlfriend’s tenderness is “the bed you sleep in when you’re tired.” And pillows are “white seashells through which you [can] hear the sound of the sea at night…” Both slender volumes are dense with metaphor, reminding the reader that the great gift of literature is to trigger our imaginations, bringing us into the writer’s world—even if it is a world that exists only in her own mind. In this case, it is likely equal parts observation, memoir, and made-up stuff, but above all, the skill of a born poet.

There is ample material in the pages to ground us sensorially—succulent Cling peaches in summer, the sight of rotting meat as a potential charity to gypsy women (the fortune telling women in long skirts and hoop earring who still roam plazas in Argentina). There are the seduction and revulsion produced by the combined smells of perfumes and chemicals filling a beauty parlor where women got perms or a doctor ’s home office, crowded with bulky furniture he inherited with the house from his mother. In a single vignette we are given vivid scenes of daily life decades ago, as with teens dancing to rock and roll on a phonograph in the country and who later catch a taxi carriage.

Descriptions of animals are rendered such as to consider them characters—in the circus, at the zoo, on abandoned haciendas, and as pets. Often, they are the victims of the cruelty bestowed upon them by inferior humans. Children, too, give and receive pleasure and pain often without their awareness. In The Promise, a character reflects, “for every small dose of happiness they give us, we have to swallow the bitterness in the entire world.”

In the story Esperanza in Flores, Esperanza, a spinster boarder, is enthralled by Florián, a beautiful boy who lives in the house and must go out to beg. He’ll cross his eyes to gain more pity from strangers, but the writer tells us he’d get more when not marring his perfect gaze. Ocampo’s relentless metaphors cause us to catch our breath. “Sleep placed its holy hands over Florián’s eyes,” she tells us, and we are reminded in that moment there remains grace on our planet.

The animals are limited for their inability to be independent and to speak, but children may be precocious while at the mercy of anyone who’ll take them in, anxious about the forthcoming punishment that may lie behind gifts of toys.

Although they are usually not traditional stories, replete with conventions taught today to aspiring creatives, in both texts, Ocampo’s short fiction skills are showcased. Don’t look for arcs, and reserve judgment of their absence. It is a choice made by the writer, not an oversight. Yet, occasionally, complete stories arise. For example, “The Backwater,” a vignette in Forgotten Journey, is about a caretaker who takes his young family to tend a summer home for an intergenerational family. Upon arrival, they are delighted by his adorable little girl whom he carries when stepping out to greet them and who looked more like “a tiny monkey dressed in red.” Each summer, over the years, the girl and her sister continue to charm the family when they descend upon the summer home. Eventually, the marked disparities between their classes rear an ugly head. The owners stop coming to the summer house. Either the city is preferred or the grown kids have lost interest in the country, with its rural detachments from their exciting lives. The caretaker’s daughters stop receiving hand-medowns and soon, they too, flee, only to meet the fate awaiting their status in society.

The Promise—a novel about flashbacks a young woman experiences while drowning in the ocean—was promised to her readership for a long time, while the writer continued to age and suffer from illness until her death at ninety, though was most likely unfinished. Like Scheherazade, Ocampo kept herself alive refining her written stories. At one hundred fifty-two pages, the novella was her longest work. Even so, length is of less importance here. Like ceramic miniatures, each vignette is marvelously crafted. Courtships and dark marriages make cameo appearances, as do modern young women who contemplate taking a lover or have orgasms while drowning in the sea. Then, exhausted and destined to die in the ocean, she (Ocampo as herself or the narrator) writes, “Face up, I am by own bed.”

In the novella, among the few characters that is brought back is Leandro. The young man becomes a physician, and, in his melancholy personal life, he desperately hopes for true love. The narrator is his confidante, and, perhaps unbeknownst to Leandro, also in love with him. In her own words, he is her obsession. “It was as if he were several men,” the narrator tells us as a disembodied character.

It is also possible that the author herself was writing a memoir in a veiled context. The narrator is a young woman who has fallen off a ship without anyone noticing. She is going to drown. Meanwhile, she recollects people she encountered throughout her life. Upon this novelistic scaffolding, Ocampo delivers fully fleshed lives, many of which make brief appearances. We don’t need more, however. She delivers backstory with a few brushstrokes. In the way Andrew Wyeth gave us Christina’s World, all the yearnings contained in a single human and made obvious to the naked eye in the painting appear in each character. Due to a genetic disease, the subject of Wyeth’s masterpiece was crawling across the field. It is also the case with Ocampo’s cast. “Children’s dreams, rise like a white night gown.” A suffering woman falls on her knees like “two wounded hearts.” Humans and the natural world are arresting with depth and yet, even if in the most obscure way, still tragic.

Such images are the grist for the mill of the poet, surrealist, and writer influenced by the prevalence of existentialism, spiritualism, and unconventional structures—all popular beliefs and styles in the late nineteenth century through to the era of the Latin American Boom. In the hands of this masterful poet, short fiction writer, and artist, they are rich, literary droplets designed to reach the soul.

The Promise, the only novel known to be attempted by Ocampo, over which she worked for more than twenty-five years and was published posthumously from a file left on her desk, complies with her belief that fiction required no plot and no endings. Suitably, the novella stops with, “The ears of the tree continue to wait for her… but the man keeps waiting for her in the ears of the tree, as neither the Indian nor the beloved will return.” The pacará, or “elephant ear tree,” appears to absorb the abandoned lover through some form of osmosis. Similarly, we may approach the translated editions. Neither may we worry about caution or surrender in Forgotten Journey. Ocampo has done all the work.

In an interview published in 1978, Ocampo was asked about her ongoing work-in-progress—at that time still untitled. “Something is making this woman talk on and on,” she reports. In the end, what she left us in The Promise was not an unwieldy, diarrheic project, but—to use her own word— “phantasmagorical.” It is a gem.

Ana Castillo is the author of two works of nonfiction (most recently the Lambda award-winning Black Dove: Mamá, Mijo, and Me), seven poetry collections, and eight novels. A teacher and independent scholar, she divides her time between New York City and New Mexico.

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