Tag Archives: Italo Calvino

Silvina Ocampo’s “The Imposter”

17 Aug

ocampoSilvina Ocampo, an Argentine author who was a contemporary of Borges, writes with a strangeness that alternates between a delicious sensuality and a deep, deep creepiness. For my second Women In Translation Month installment, I decided to tackle “The Imposter” in her posthumous collection Thus Were Their Faces, translated by Daniel Balderston. In this novella from 1948, Luis Maidaina is a young man who sets off from Buenos Aires to the more-or-less abandoned Swans Ranch taken up by another young man,  Armando Heredia, who is troubled.  Luis is to pretend to befriend Armando and keep an eye on him, reporting back to Armando’s father, who owns the ranch and is a friend of Luis’s father.

The train ride from the city to the country is ripe with color and texture: “The burning light of day was resting in all its blue brilliance on the glass, on the metal handles, on the motionless fans, on the leather seats.” A woman in white muslin covering “voluminous breasts,” daintily eating alfajores with her daughter, asks Luis about his destination and seems to know of the Heredia family as well as well Luis’s father. The town where Luis must debark is her hometown, Cacharí, apparently haunted by “a terrible Indian chief” murdered by the army a century ago, who for three days and nights yelled “Cacharí! Cacharí! Cacharí!” as he died and no one dared approach him. The woman continues: “They say that even today, when the wind blows at midnight in the winter, you can hear Cacharí’s cry.” She warns that the Swans Ranch is infested with bats and frogs and that Armando burned his horse’s eyes out with “Turkish cigarettes” because it disobeyed. Meanwhile, “the horizon made the sun look squat and almost purple” and they pass “an endless lagoon in which some sleepy flamingos were resting like flowers” and  later “a llama and…rhea lit up by the monstrous light of the train.”

The woman’s gossipy warnings set the tone for the remainder the story. Off the train a “hoarse” ranch hand who picks Luis up recalls Cacharí. In the landscape bird cries also recall that slain chief. The house is dark, dusty, leaky, crumbling. The heavy wooden furniture is adorned with mermaid tails. Armando tells Luis the Swans Ranch has no swans–his grandfather had them all killed when his Aunt Celina, swimming in their lagoon, fell ill and eventually died. After that, the family left the ranch to decay.

Despite Armando clearly posing a danger, Luis grows close to him. They talk about dreams–Armando doesn’t dream while Luis has many dreams which trouble is waking life with serious bouts of déjà vu. Armando claims he would commit a crime just to dream, that a lack of dreams feels like a lack of memory. Luis tries to uncover whether Armando has a girlfriend, whether that girlfriend really exists (or has been dead for four years), and whether to write to Armando’s father for help. Each time Armando suspects Luis of spying, he threatens to kill him. And Luis worries if he tries to escape the ranch, he will also be killed.

The story is rife with birds, strange dogs and cats, abandoned rotting spaces, and talk of tigers, doppelgängers, and frightening mirrors. The questioning of reality, memory, and imagination builds more and more, taking the story into the realm of the truly fantastic (at least, by Todorov’s definition)–where reader and character alike question reality.

Italo Calvino wrote that Ocampo “captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don’t show us” better than anyone. Borges said “her stories have no equal in our literature.” I can’t wait to devour the rest of this collection and I hope if Calvino and Borges are up your alley, you’ll read up all of Ocampo too.

Upcoming Classes

1 Dec
Strange trinkets and doo-dads on display in Astoria, Oregon.

Objects galore, courtesy a storefront in Astoria, Oregon. An image-based writing prompt for you.

There are still some spots in my 30-minute, $10 online class Powerful Objects, meeting December 9 at 7 pm.  This micro-class is via OneRoom, an online platform designed specifically for creative writing classes allowing real-time interaction via video. The format of the micro-class is a great way to sneak in some writing in this busy time of year, if I do say so myself. Here is the class description:
Italo Calvino wrote that “the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships.” We’ll read Kate Bernheimer’s short-short story “Pink Horse” to see how she uses imagery and detail to bring out the psychic power of a particular object. Then we’ll do a writing exercise exploring a character’s relationship with an object. Register here.
In 2016, I’m teaching 1000 Words a Week, a six-week class in which–you guessed it–we will write 1000 words a week. It’s like NaNoWriMo but at a more merciful pace. Class meets Thursdays 7-9 pm, starting January 14. General registration opens December 8; if you’re a Hugo House member you can register today. Scholarships are available! Apply by December 14. Class description here:
Each week we’ll write 1000 words using big-picture and fine-grain prompts. In class, we’ll lightly workshop pieces, focusing on questions like “What creates energy in this story?” and “What do you want to know more about?” Stories may be part of a larger work or stand alone. We’ll also discuss writers’ thoughts on writing, from classics like Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts” to newer essays like Rikki Ducornet’s “The Deep Zoo.” Students will leave class with 5000 new words. Register here.
Finally, I am teaching a mini-lesson called The Priceless Detail at Hugo House’s Write-O-Rama, this Saturday at 12 pm & 1 pm.  Here is the class description:
Good liars know that selective detail, not a pile of facts, make a more convincing story. In discussing Chekhov’s exceptional use of detail, Francine Prose notes that we live in detail, remember in detail, identify, recognize, and recreate in detail. But finding the right detail in fiction takes a lot of sifting. We’ll look to excerpts from Chekhov for inspiration, then immerse ourselves in an exercise drawing on keen observations of our own experiences. Register here.
Wishing you a writing-full season & 2016!

The Magic of Objects

3 Apr

My fourth set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog takes inspiration from objects, with wisdom from Italo Calvino, Elizabeth Kostova, Cynthia Ozick, Charles Baxter, Kate Bernheimer, RT Smith, and more.

In other news, an excerpt from my student Amber Murray’s intriguing essay “Thoughts on Abstract Thought and the Practice of Moving Things Around Until They Sit Just Right,” from this winter’s Visual Inspiration class, is up on the Henry Art Gallery’s blog! Exciting!

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