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Silvina Ocampo

· ​Women of value ·

The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo is one of the talented and original figures of Spanish literature. This author and precursor of various literary genres was born into an aristocratic family and myths have sprung up round her which concern not only her work, re-evaluated enthusiastically in recent years, but also her private life: the special relationship she had with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, her friendship with Jorge Luis Borges, who had dinner at her home every night, and her disturbing premonitions.

Silvina Ocampo with Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Peyrou

Silvina Ocampo was the youngest of six sisters among whom Victoria, who founded the mythical magazine Sur, stands out.In accordance with the tradition in every good family of that period, Silvina was educated by governesses who taught her first to speak French and then English. Spanish for Silvina was not the language of her affections, of her childhood or of her culture. Her stories usually depict two groups of people with a gulf between them: the strong are set apart from the weak and the dominant from the dominated. Many of her stories take place against the privileged background of a patriarchal house, where children are ranked with servants and the poor. As she used often to repeat, she felt attracted by the freedom of “those at the bottom”, by the lifestyle of the subordinate domestic staff which was less constrained by conventions, and, in her opinion, more spontaneous and genuine than that of her adult relatives. Since her childhood Silvina had studied painting and had done drawing in Paris with Giorgio de Chirico. Thanks to Borges, in 1933 she met an irrepressible young man, nine years younger than her, who was shortly afterwards to publish what is considered the best Argentinian novel of all time, La invencion de Morel [Morel’s Invention]. He was Adolfo Bioy Casares, whom Silvina was to marry in the cold winter of 1940.

For years the magazine Sur gathered together a group of intimate friends and writers of great talent, marking an entire epoch in Argentina and in Spanish-language literature. In particular, Ocampo’s husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, his great friend Jorge Luis Borges, and her own sister Victoria, the magazine’s editor, stood out in this group. Through this group too, Silvina stepped unobserved on to the Argentine literary scene, living in the shadow of these three important figures and relegated to the role of writer-consort, faithful sister and unconditional friend. When in 1937 she published her first book of short stories, Viaje olvidado [The Forgotten Journey], the omnipotent Victoria couldn’t resist the temptation of reviewing it in the magazine Sur. She wanted to be obliging. However instead she was full of complaints; she wanted to show that she eschewed any bias in favour of a family member by avoiding praise, but on the contrary she was unjust and overbearing, demanding of her sister a prose that fitted the group’s aesthetic ideal. Victoria criticized her innovative work on the language and her awkward style, maintaining that in order “to disregard grammar” it was first necessary to master the conventional forms. Silvina suffered the blow – she never forgot it – and even attempted to adapt her writing to the “ought to be” indicated in Victoria’s review. The result of all this was Autobiografia de Irene [the autobiography of Irene] in 1948, which some people consider her most artificial and least daring work.

From that time on in her narrative work, parallel to the poetry which she cultivated almost as a separate activity, she always aimed at finding an original and irreverent expression, developing qualities which she had had within her from the outset and paying no attention to any classification. Like Victoria, Silvina disarticulated discourses on male power and challenged prejudices concerning the female gender. But she did so in a different way, seeking shortcuts, choosing the “cunning of the weak”, pretending not to know, availing herself of Bioy’s protection, camouflaging herself behind her infantile image in order to say indecent things and to speak of her deepest hatreds. Her shyness prevented her from showing herself in public too frequently, she avoided gatherings, she almost never granted interviews and would not let people take photographs of her. Literary criticism ignored her until the end of the 1980s, failing to perceive the complexity, humour and originality of her work. However, this way of life enabled her to construct a universe in which words and images enjoyed a life of their own.

Silvina Ocampo wrote some of the best short stories of Argentinian literature. Above all she aimed to raise fantasy literature and detective stories to a first-rank category. Also abundant was her production of poetry, in which she followed the trend that was trying to recover the classical models of old Castilian poetry. Together with her two “soft spots”, Borges and Bioy, she wrote the very well-known Antologia de la literature fantástica [The Book of Fantasy] and Antologia poética Argentina [Anthology of Argentinian Poetry].

Silvina Pérez

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