In Silvina Ocampo’s The Promise, a dying woman’s attempt to recount the story of her life reveals the fragility of memory and the illusion of identity. This essential voice from one of the great voices of twentieth-century Latin American literature is forthcoming in English translation by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell from City Lights.
“Only a masterful storyteller could pull off what Silvina Ocampo does in The Promise; a woman lost at sea drowns in her memories, while the water—never threatening—cradles her with echoes of the past. A novel that is not a novel; a hypnosis, really.” — Gabriela Alemán, author of Poso Wells.
Just as when I was sick and, after being in bed for forty days, I missed my bed, now I miss the sea. Ah, the sea. “The sea full of masculine urgency.” Whose line was that? Gabriela, oh how beautiful she was! Her eyes were the color of the sea.
In a mosaic inside the Basilica of Saint Apollinaris, in Ravenna, the archangel Gabriel has big astonished eyes, gently curling hair parted down the middle, a small and slender nose, a well-defined mouth with the corner of the lips turning downward on the right side, a mild expression and a saintly halo over a rounded and not very long oval face, a white tunic and two large wings. Poor Irene had clipped the photograph of that mosaic from a magazine, first to jot down an address on the other side of the page, then, because she liked it, she kept it under glass for eight years in her single room. She used to say that she had looked at that image absent-mindedly many times during her pregnancy, never thinking that her daughter would look so much like him. She was frequently surprised that Gabriela wasn’t a boy, didn’t have wings or a strange frock like the one in the image. It became her habit to call her Gabriel, to shorten the name a bit and because she liked saying Gabriel better than Gabriela. She recalled the years of her own childhood in Spain, so different from Gabriel’s. That she’d been born in Spain seemed like a dream to her. She wasn’t aware of the feeling of neglect that she sometimes inflicted on her daughter, and believed that she herself had been the most neglected girl in the world. She was three or four years old when her mother re-married, to a man who didn’t want to endure the presence of someone else’s children. They lived in Ginzo de Limia, a poor and isolated village. In less than nine months, her mother abandoned Irene and her sister, who was older. They begged in the street. They were given shelter in the attic of a brothel and received the leftover food at the end of each day.
It was sometime later, when she found out those women were prostitutes, that she appreciated the kindness (it had seemed natural to her then) that they had shown her and her sister. She vividly remembered a particular woman who would always step out on the balcony to take the fresh air, even in winter when snow was falling. She held Irene in her arms when she cried, as if she were her mother. When she had to leave that house (which she had already felt was her own) because her repentant stepfather had sent for them, she cried for that woman as she’d never cried for anyone. The time she spent in her stepfather’s house before sailing for Argentina was brief. One day, the most memorable, her drunken stepfather tied a rope around her waist and swung her from the first-floor balcony until a crowd of villagers gathered, none of them daring to say a thing for fear that the man would drop her. Entertained by the game, she didn’t realize the danger she had been in.
Everything else was erased from her memory and came back as memories of baby teeth, the first day of school, Buenos Aires, the different people, the flat landscape, the river everywhere, the difficulties of life in the home of the aunt who had taken her in, the changes of childhood, her clothing becoming too small, life’s many lessons (how to wash your face, brush your teeth, get dressed, eat, urinate and defecate correctly), adolescence, coming of age. Upon discovering love, she believed in its fleeting salvation. News of the death of her mother (a death that was never explained), who had lain for twelve hours in the snowy woods and, by some miracle, had not been devoured by wolves, tormented her. As if that weren’t enough, sometime later, her husband abandoned her to run off with another woman, and then there was Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel and Leandro . . . but Gabriel most of all.
I glimpsed a flash of lightning in the sky, then another and yet another. If I were brave, how I would have loved to see a violent storm. I closed my eyes. It rained a little. I opened my eyes again. The clouds were going away. Why won’t they take me with them?
Irene was not at all like her daughter. Irene had a joyful nature. Her even features made one think of a faded porcelain doll. Gabriela was waiting for Irene in Plaza Las Heras. She had followed her that day, which I remember now, as Irene’s face comes back to me. She was so pretty dressed in green with that necklace of tiny pearls, and a pair of white gloves she carried in her hand like a bouquet! Gabriela lost sight of her in a moment of distraction, in front of a tobacco shop where they sold marbles. I saw her sitting pitifully on a green wooden bench eating an orange and staring, without realizing it, at the door her mother had entered.
What do women do when they’re not at home? When they were pure like her mother they devoted themselves to serious tasks, Gabriela might think. Then she’d think, as usual, about the sex act. What she desired most in the universe of her curiosity was to see a man and a woman doing it. She had seen cats, dogs, pigeons, guanacos, monkeys commit that act, but never human beings. Juancha, a schoolmate, had told her that it was lots of fun.
To make her way into that disorderly room, with books on the floor, socks over the chairs, half-opened packages of bread on a table, shirts thrown on the floor, Irene had crossed a vestibule with an interior door whose glass panes were red and blue, blue like the color of the ocean I am looking at, then a courtyard with plants, birdcages and a lemon tree in the center. I knew that room. But how different was the place Gabriela imagined her in, engaged in mysterious occupations!
What was her mother doing? She thought of nothing else. Irene told her that in the house she was visiting there was a mechanical bird that sang inside a glass cage with gold trim. Liar. How she lied to her. That glass and gold cage occupied a predominant place in Gabriela’s imagination. It had turned into a palace illuminated by a thousand chandeliers, a palace where her mother wove beautiful cloth with her perfumed and kind-hearted friends.
She crossed many rooms and gardens before reaching the place where he was waiting for her. There, in a kind of cloister, was an enormous fishbowl with fish covered with purple fins and tails. This was Valentín Masini’s drycleaners, where they never took Gabriela because the fumes of ammonium and other acids were not good for her health.
The sun lit up the mirror of a wardrobe, the face of a faun, bunches of grapes, and leaves sculpted into the wood; a tiger-striped cat slept on a simple bed with a peeling iron frame, while torn, dirty curtains waved in the breeze. I liked that room! Irene did too. Sitting on the floor, her elbow leaning on the bed, she would occasionally glance at the disorder, as if it bothered her, then she’d return again to the book she was reading. Sometimes one of her brassieres or handkerchiefs would be left on the floor. I looked at them with such hatred the first time I found them, without knowing to whom they belonged. She, Irene, was part of that disorder, one of its makers and also one of its martyrs. Stretching like an idiot, she’d call out to Leandro in a shrill voice. Did she love him? Was that what love looked like?
Often I imagined this scene that tortured me so. He had told me about it. Not even the sea makes me forget it.
Leandro’s muffled voice, from under the shower, would respond as usual:
“What do you want?”
He’d tell me in detail the silly things they’d say.
“I can’t be a minute without you, my love,” she’d always say to him.
“I’m coming,” he’d answer, annoyed.
“Could you explain that matter of the synapses of the nervous system or about the extra-systolic pathways of the respiratory system?
“It would be better if they didn’t exist,” Leandro would reply, drying his face with a towel; none of it mattered to him and he would add vehemently: “It would be better if humanity didn’t exist, human beings are utter crap.” As he entered the room his body gleamed like the body of the bronze statue in the museum that Irene had sketched in her adolescence. How well I could imagine him! He always seemed happy.
“Don’t ask me to explain anything to you today. I have to go to the hospital. I don’t have time for anything. I’ve got to leave right now.”
“So early? Who are you going to see?”
“Nobody. Don’t pester me with questions. I have to feel free, don’t you understand? I can’t be tied down,” Leandro would answer as he dressed.
Sometimes when I have a fever I hear this conversation, with their voices buzzing like bees. How salty the sea is!
“Idiot,” Irene would say. She was the idiot and she knew it. She’d think that “nobody” is worse than if it were somebody.
Nino, purring, would come over and rub against Leandro’s legs. He was a dreadful cat, with his face split by a black stripe, which Gabriela would have liked because he looked like a tiger, and he adored me.
“Not tied down,” Irene would continue, “as if you could live without ties. You even carry on a relationship with that ridiculous cat. You never go to bed without saying ‘Good night, Mr. Cat,’ as if you were a little boy. This rug is full of fleas.”
As he did with me, Leandro paid no attention, whistling as he looked at himself in the mirror. Irene’s words seemed ridiculous to him, and her attitude, unpleasant. Pathetically, Irene would suddenly go over to hug him. The sensual voice has meaning beyond the words uttered, but she seemed so disagreeably human to him, there in the mirror.
“Won’t you explain about nerve synapses or the urinary tract? If you don’t explain it, I’ll never understand, not with the help of pictures or textbooks or even with hands-on practice,” she’d say to him every day, playing the doctor. It was always the same, always the same.
“Irene, don’t you think we’re letting life slip through our fingers studying together like this? You’ll never understand that there’s not enough time to go sneaking around.”
“Let’s not start that eternal argument again. You’ve changed in the last two months, ever since you’ve been living here. I want to graduate, I want to have a profession. I want to study. I’m doing it for Gabriela. She’s the only person who loves me. The only one!”
“Which do you prefer: to love or to be loved?” Leandro interrupted her.
He’d say the same to me, but I’d just smile.
“To love,” Irene would answer.
“Love me, then.”
Lying on the bed, Irene would embrace Leandro once again. He would kiss her passionately, the way he kissed me. The same thing would happen whenever she mentioned Gabriela. Leandro needed Irene to love another being that wasn’t him in order to feel any interest in her. It is so overwhelming to be loved exclusively.
“Does she always follow you?”
“She’s probably on the corner. I don’t dare to go out,” Irene would remark. “She’s so young, but she understands so many things! She’s not like other little girls. Look at her, isn’t she lovely?”
Leandro would adjust his tie and finish dressing, looking out the window at the girl passing by.
“Lovely,” he’d say, thinking of something else.
For him, children weren’t as marvelous as they were for me, they were a concoction smelling of milk and oranges, they were creatures from another planet — especially that Gabriela, or Gabriel, whose name, constantly changing back and forth from feminine to masculine like a hermaphrodite, was always on Irene’s lips.
“Poor Gabriel,” Irene would murmur, “sometimes I feel guilty.”
“About everything,” Irene would answer.
“Don’t forget to lock the door and leave the key in the big planter in the courtyard. I have to go.”
That was how it was, every day always the same, always the same.
“You’re not even going to give me a kiss?” Irene would sigh.
“Didn’t I kiss you enough?”
“Each of your kisses is a dream. Nothing seems real. It’s as if I’m embracing you at the bottom of the sea and cease to exist. Later, when I’m alone, I still don’t exist, but now it’s unpleasant.”
Uttering this sentence, Irene would feel that she had destroyed the importance of her feelings, and she had. Why explain them? Bitterly, she would hear Leandro’s voice.
“You’re always so sentimental. What a pity!”
After kissing Irene again impatiently, mussing her hair, hurting her lips, Leandro would pick up the books that lay on the table.
These unpleasant scenes repeat over and over again. He’s going to hate me, Irene would think. When a man doesn’t love you, his embraces become awkward. He has too many arms and legs, too many bones, elbows and knees. It’s almost impossible for him to produce an orgasm. He used to slide over me like water, now he hurts me.
She was right. Poor Irene, I alone understood her: alone as I am now, on a sea of relentless doubts. Dying is the only sure thing. Now I can finally die. But how? It’s as impossible as before.
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell