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Dictionary of memories: Silvina Ocampo’s ‘Forgotten Journey’ reviewed

Jorge Luis Borges once remarked about the Argentinian poet and novelist Silvina Ocampo that she has “a virtue usually attributed to the Ancients or the people of the Orient and not to our contemporaries: that is clairvoyance.” Her “condition as a poet” and artist fashioned her unique prose style, which was to make her one of the great modernist writers of the 20th century.

Translated from Spanish into English for the first time, Ocampo’s collection of short stories brings out life’s harsh imbalance through the visual representation of emotional life reaching back to early childhood. Here emotions supersede the physical world. One recalls in this context her novel, The Promise, where a woman falls overboard and is adrift at sea, fighting for life. What seems more important to her is not her impending death but her escape from the real world into the fabulist land of her imagination, made up of sensations, visions and horrors of everyday life. In Ocampo’s fiction, the real drama usually takes place in the past or overlaps with memories of other characters. The ability to remember matters more than the inevitability of death.

For Ocampo, the act of writing becomes an exercise in fighting the dementia that she battled for so long. A moment, signifying a single recollection of a place or an incident, forms the crux. The brevity of the snapshots gives her stories the flavour of modernist paintings.

For instance, in the short story, ‘The Enmity of Things,’ an apparition of

Dictionary of memories: Silvina Ocampo’s ‘Forgotten Journey’ reviewed

windows in a long-forgotten house filled with secret rooms weighs on the mind “like an unpredictable destiny”. The narrator begins to feel “accountably apprehensive about the things around him”. Even his cardigan, his tie, his suit “seem to provoke his misery”. His return to his country estate awakens in him a consciousness of the countryside: “...until then he had been deaf to the silence of the trees, deaf to the brilliance of the sky, deaf to everything except the anxiety that had taken hold of him”.

Terrible beauty

The terrible beauty of Ocampo’s sentences is apparent in ‘The Olive Green Dress,’ which follows the life of Miss Hilton, a teacher, who has travelled across the world with “sailors and black smoke”, meeting on one of her voyages an Indian in Ceylon living in the company of snakes. She bathes in a warm sea “where one could look for the water and never find it, because it was always the same temperature as the air”. Her last pupil is scandalised when Miss Hilton takes her to a painter’s studio to pose for a portrait in her velvet dress and she discovers there a nude study of Miss Hilton among the paintings. The next day Miss Hilton receives a note saying “We don’t want teachers with so little modesty”.

In another story, ‘The Lost Passport,’ a 14-year-old girl and a streetwalker board a ship for Liverpool, but die when the ship wrecks. The little girl had been safeguarding her passport, afraid she may become incognito without it. Then all is lost at sea. Her last thought is, “The ship would sink forever, carrying her name and irreplaceable face to the bottom of the sea.”

Excruciating reminders

A child’s realisation of death, remembering clothes that make you miserable, or the freezing ocean are the kind of things that make up Ocampo’s landscape. A bathing suit becomes a reminder of the sea as “a device of endless torture”. In ‘Forgotten Journey,’ the little girl imagines babies born in parcels and when unpacked, emerging red in the face owing to the heat inside the packet. To create hope, Ocampo compiles a “dictionary of memories” — like the protagonist of her novel, The Promise, picking excruciating memories to distract herself from the “immensity” of death and bodily suffering. Though idiosyncratic, the response to life is inherently subversive.

Ocampo concerns herself not with the tangible but with the evocative, combining it with the magic realist style of her contemporaries like Adolfo Bioy Casares or Borges. Memory mixes with desire, the hyper real with the mundane, always to slide into the bizarre and the cruel. The delicacy of Ocampo’s craft springs from the pain of her personal journey, and she brings her terror of living to the reader with an unsettling immediacy.

Forgotten Journey; Silvina Ocampo, trs Suzanne Jill Levine, Katie Lateef-Jan, City Lights Publishers, ₹720

The writer is Professor Emeritus and Fellow, Panjab University.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 1:42:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/dictionary-of-memories/article30356424.ece

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