Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo

Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories (NYRB Classics) BY Silvina Ocampo. edited by Daniel Balderston, Jorge Luis Borges, Helen Oyeyemi. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 384 pages. $17.
The cover of Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories (NYRB Classics)

The work of Argentine author Silvina Ocampo is rife with unlikely marriages, deadly weddings, and botched birthdays. Ocampo’s funerals are cheerful, her fêtes funereal. “The cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest,” she writes of a funeral procession in “Friends,” one of the stories in the newly translated collection Thus Were Their Faces. The mourners “were so enraged they looked happy. On [the] white coffin they had put bright flowers, which were constantly praised by the women…. I don’t think anyone cried.” In another story, “The Photographs,” a convalescent birthday girl dies in the frenzy of her overcrowded party, smothered by relatives and friends taking pictures. For Ocampo, there is something sinister about the hypocrisy of celebration, and Thus Were Their Faces comprises a vengeful series of happy occasions gone wrong.

A sometime student of the proto-surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, Ocampo (1903–1993) was steeped in an artistic tradition that sought to expose the primitive urges behind our restrained facades. In dreams, visions, and hallucinations, her characters are stripped of their inhibitions and afforded access to the more vital—and violent—parts of themselves. Ocampo’s children are especially resistant to the contrivance of celebratory ritual. In Thus Were Their Faces, they are Satanists, murderers, and arsonists, setting houses on fire and planting poisonous spiders in a bride’s hairpiece. Transfixed by a bleak painting in her childhood home, one young narrator discovers “a frightening, dark world,” only to report, unperturbed, that “children sometimes find pleasure in such worlds.”

Most of Ocampo’s characters strive to find their way back to the sinister but beguiling landscape of childhood savagery. In the stories, memory overshadows experience, and life is no more than the trivial enactment of more vibrant imaginings and reminiscences. “I lived, waiting for life’s limit that would draw me closer to memory,” one character reflects. In the sprawling tale “Autobiography of Irene,” a girl with the gift of supernatural foresight prefers to prophesy events than to live them. For her, life is “extremely brief, indeed almost nonexistent, for one who foresees [it] and then merely experiences [it].” Like several of Ocampo’s characters, Irene lives backwards, returning at the end of her story to a renewed sort of youth: “Trembling, I was coming closer to the past,” she concludes.

Irene’s life is inverted, beginning at the end and ending at the beginning. Other characters in Thus Were Their Faces take matters a step further, adopting lives entirely prior to their own. In the haunting story “The House Made of Sugar,” a woman gradually takes on the persona of her house’s previous owner, dressing and speaking like her predecessor and ultimately answering to the other woman’s name. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life, her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes,” she mutters to herself. “I’m bewitched.” The lives that Ocampo’s characters lead in their dreams have an urgency and permanence that elsewhere elude them, and their imagined selves both predate and outlive their actual selves. In the dark world of Ocampo’s fiction, the familiar yet unsettling imagery of fantasy has a sense of reality that reality itself often lacks.

Throughout the book, fantasy and physicality converge in sexual encounters as vicious as they are passionate. Like her children, Ocampo’s lovers are selfish and sadistic, intent on disarming and wounding one another. Their perverse brand of eroticism hinges on confrontation: “When two people fight it seems as if they are embracing.” For Ocampo, attraction is a close correlate of ambivalence. In the story “The Velvet Dress,” a garment that will ultimately suffocate and kill its wearer nonetheless magnetizes her. “Velvet sets my teeth on edge, gives me goose bumps . . . and yet for me there’s no other fabric like it in the whole world,” she tells her dressmaker. “Feeling its softness with my hand attracts me even if it sometimes repels me.”

In “Lovers,” another tale of dangerous over-indulgence, a man and woman rendezvous not to go to bed but to gorge themselves with cake. “With loving greed and greater intimacy they took the second pieces…. Without hesitating, squinting their eyes, they lifted them up to mouths agape, … with greater energy and speed, but with identical pleasure, they began chewing and swallowing once more, like two gymnasts exercising at the same time.” When the meal is over, “abundant whipped cream dripped on the grass.” “Lovers” is repellent: It boils the sex act down to its gross essentials. Both lovers look on with trepidation as their feast dwindles to a few sparse crumbs, leaving them drearily glutted. For the lovers in question, romance is no more than an act of parallel consumption—and parallel satiation.

Ocampo can be cruel and cynical, but her spitefulness is clever, and, at her best moments, something tender lurks beneath the sadism. The punishments she cooks up for her characters are presented with unmistakable irony, and the results are frequently comedic and not infrequently touching. If her protagonists are callous and vindictive, they are also damaged, reacting almost reasonably to a world of treachery.

In “Mimoso,” perhaps the book’s best story, a woman slavishly devoted to her dog taxidermies the animal after its death. When one of her neighbors ridicules her, dismissing her dedication as insanity, she kills him by serving the taxidermied pet, replete with toxic embalming chemicals, for dinner. “Won’t people say you’re crazy?” her husband asks when she first decides to preserve her beloved dog. “So much the worse for them,” she responds. “They are heartless, and life is very sad for the heartless.”

The woman is a murderer, yet her statement rings true. There is something inhuman about her neighbor’s trivialization of her immense passion, and something sympathetic about her own outsized—if misguided—caring. Like so many of Ocampo’s ill-fated characters, she takes her love to its harsh but inevitable conclusion. Thus Were Their Faces does not gloss over the jealousies, excesses, and frenzies that characterize, in some form or another, all relationships important enough to matter. And in a world where fantasy and reality converge, the logic of our dreams guides our actions: Madness is transformed into a sort of sanity, cruelty into a sort of heroism, passion into a sort of religion.

Becca Rothfeld is an intern at n+1 and a freelance writer based in Brooklyn