31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 4: “The House Made of Sugar” by Silvina Ocampo; Daniel Balderston, trans.

May 4, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Thus Were Their Faces

Thus_Were_Their_Faces_Silvina_OcampoThe work of Argentinian writer and poet Silvina Ocampo has largely been overshadowed by that of three other figures: her sister, Victoria, a publisher and critic; her husband, the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and her friend, the writer Jorge Luis Borges. These four luminaries formed a tight circle, promoting and influencing one another. In 1931, Victoria Ocampo established Sur, a significant literary journal of the modernist movement in Latin America. The journal published the work of Casares and Borges, along with other important writers such as José Ortega Y Gasset, Ernesto Sabato, and Julio Cortázar. Victoria was also, not incidentally, the first publisher of her younger sister’s literary work.

Ocampo, whom Borges describes as “one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language,” came to writing after having studied as a visual artist with Giorgio de Chirico. “I came to know the trials of artists, and the joys,” she wrote in 1987. “I submerged myself in colors that reflected my soul or the state of my spirit.” She claimed to have grown “disillusioned” with painting, and turned to writing as a means to reconcile concepts of colour and form. “Writing is like having a sprite within reach, something we can turn into a demon or a monster, but also something that will give us unexpected happiness or the wish to die.”

The tensions involved in this assessment – between sprite and demon, happiness and a “wish to die” – are strikingly prevalent in Ocampo’s fiction, which is not in the realist mode, but operates rather in the realm of fabulism. In her introduction to Thus Were Their Faces, a newly released compendium of Ocampo’s selected stories (some appearing in translation for the first time), Helen Oyeyemi refers to Ocampo as “a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school.” This might make her stories appear unfamiliar to North American readers; they may appear less so to Latin American readers steeped in a tradition of magic realism.

“Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry,” Oyeyemi writes, “where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses.” If an encounter with Ocampo’s fiction on the part of a reader weaned on the subtle epiphanies of Chekhov and Joyce proves initially disjunctive, the writing is nevertheless entrancing, calling the reader back or driving her forward, notwithstanding the unfamiliarity and sense of discontinuity. In Oyeyemi’s words, “there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray.”

“The House Made of Sugar” is typical in this regard. Originally collected in Ocampo’s 1959 volume The Fury, the story is a bitter fable about a failed marriage, full of uncanny happenings and weirdness. It begins in a manner that is straightforward enough, with the unnamed male narrator meeting and marrying Cristina. The new bride is highly superstitious, and refuses to live anywhere there has been a previous tenant who might have left psychic scars on the property. When the narrator finds the titular house, he lies to his wife about its former occupant, a woman named Violeta. In short order, visitors begin arriving at the property and mistaking Cristina for Violeta; as the events of the story become stranger, Cristina’s identity blurs into that of the other woman.

Ocampo plants the seeds for what is to come from her opening sentences, which refer to the superstitions Cristina suffers from. The second sentence makes reference to a “coin with a blurry face” and “the moon seen through two panes of glass” – images of distortion and elision that will be actualized by the story’s end. These details immediately place the reader off kilter, nodding at a sense of unreality and creeping unease that becomes more apparent as the story unfolds.

The house itself contributes to this sense of disturbance. “Its whiteness gleamed with extraordinary brilliance,” Ocampo writes, hinting at notions of innocence and purity that will be systematically dismantled by the story’s close. The appearance of the house as being made of sugar lends it an otherworldly aspect, like the magical castle in a fairy tale, but this also proves chimerical. “It seemed our tranquillity would never be broken in that house of sugar,” the narrator says, “until a phone call destroyed my illusion.” In this story, as elsewhere in Ocampo’s work, domestic bliss is illusory, a condition the narrator testifies to, albeit unconsciously, by his admission that in the early days of their marriage he and Cristina were “so happy that it sometimes frightened” him. “We loved each other madly,” the narrator claims, and the attentive reader will note the thud of foreboding in the final adverb.

Of course, the marriage is doomed from the start, based as it is on a lie. The narrator is so paranoid about the possibility that Cristina might discover the truth about the house’s previous tenant that he begins to spy on her and follow her on her travels. For her part, Cristina takes in a stray dog, is visited by a mysterious man dressed as a woman who accuses her of dallying with someone named Daniel, and begins to sing spontaneously and incessantly. “I suspect I am inheriting someone’s life,” Cristina says, “her joys and sorrows, mistakes and successes. I’m bewitched.”

The narrator’s lie becomes manifest in his wife, whose identity – and, perhaps, even her actual person – gets subsumed by Violeta. By the story’s end, the wife has fled and the pristine white house stands empty. “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar,” laments the narrator.

Oyeyemi points to an interview from 1980 in which Ocampo suggested that she had been passed over for a national literary prize because her fiction is too cruel. “The House Made of Sugar” does not read as a cruel story; in its uncanny aspects and the central doubling motif (not to mention the manse at its centre that serves as a locus for the characters’ dissolution) it resembles Poe, but the overall feeling is one not of malignancy but sadness. It is a fable about the ineffability of personality and the ultimate inability of anyone to truly know anyone else. It leaves its readers, like its characters, gutted and empty, as empty as the titular house – “the ideal place, the house of our dreams.”