Review: Silvina Ocampo’s short fiction

photo by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo is a master storyteller every bit as talented and important as more widely recognized Latin American short story writers like Borges. The most commented-on feature of her stories is their “cruelty,” by which people generally mean the frequency of murders and other violent acts. But all of these are narrated as if they were unremarkable, which (I think) is one of the unsettling features of the narratives. Also, the way the narrated cruelty seems both inevitable and irrational gets under the reader’s skin–“Revenge? Fine,” I found myself thinking, “but at least let me understand why the revenge is so necessary, in terms of the character’s emotions.”

That’s when I realized: Ocampo’s refusal to satisfactorily “motivate” cruelty highlights our perverse willingness to “accept” cruelty provided that it’s rationalized in a narrative. That is, she makes us see our desire for digestible cruelty, cruelty packaged in narratives. Her stories upset our expectations and force us to see that the real cruelty, the real moral offense, perhaps, is in our own minds for desiring stories that help us swallow and move beyond misdeeds.

Folks who don’t read Spanish can find the Penguin collection of Ocampo’s stories, Leopoldina’s Dream, which is translated by Daniel Balderston.


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