Obituary: Silvina Ocampo

Silvina Ocampo, poet, short-story writer, translator: born Buenos Aires 1903; died Buenos Aires 14 December 1993.

ARGENTINIAN literature has suffered one of its greatest losses since the death of Jorge Luis Borges. Silvina Ocampo was one of that writer's most devoted friends, and her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares, was a close collaborator with him in stories satirising Argentine society. Silvina was one of the leaders of the progressive group of young writers devoted to English and French literary models, whom they translated extensively.

She was the younger sister of Victoria Ocampo, who in 1931 founded the renowned literary magazine Sur. It ran until her death in 1979, and Silvina was a notable contributor to its pages. From the age of four, she spent most of her childhood and youth in France, and throughout her long life made many returns to Paris. She was a gifted artist, and received instruction from Giorgio de Chirico and Fernand Leger.

Ocampo wrote poetry as well as prose, and published eight collections of verse, among them Poemas de amor desesperado (1949) and the long work in praise of her native city and her native land, Amarillo celeste ('Celestial Yellow', 1972).

Like her friend Julio Cortazar, she wrote with fascinated horror of Argentinian petty bourgeois society, whose banality and kitsch settings she used in a masterly way to depict strange, surreal atmospheres sometimes verging on the supernatural. She could reproduce with devastating accuracy the intonations and the peculiar idiom of the Buenos Aires middle classes. Yet her irony was always so subtle and restrained, it could produce effects of unexpected illumination on the life of her times.

Many of Ocampo's contemporaries were obsessed by the form of the literary detective novel and tales of the uncanny, as exemplified by Chesterton, Wells, Conan Doyle and later the hard-boiled school of Chandler, David Goodis and Derek Raymond. The metaphysical lyricism of her poetry sometimes surfaced with poignancy in these tales. Among the best collections of her stories are Autobiografia de Irene (1959), La furia (1961), El Destino en las ventanas ('Destiny in the Windows', 1987). Gallimard has recently begun publishing her stories in excellent translations.

Ocampo was also a prolific translator - of Emily Dickinson, Poe, Melville, Swedenborg. She edited an important Antologia poetic argentina in 1940. She collaborated with her husband on the stories in Los que aman, odian ('Those who Love Hate', 1948).

Her husband held back the news of her death in order to allow for a strictly private funeral in the Recoleta cemetery, which she could see from the windows of her apartment, and where she had hoped to be buried with Borges. Her friend and literary master wrote praising 'the oblique lucidity and cruel innocence' of her writing.

She often wrote about death, even in her tales for children, which, like her adult stories, were charged with a sense of unease, of ordinary lives traversed by obscure, detached, demoniac forces. Yet she treated death with a playful humour: 'Coming to life again is not as pleasant as one might suppose - but it's interesting.'

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