Tertulia, vol. 29
Hola. This is Barbara, your news curator of everything remotely Hispanic. I have three topics for you this time from Argentina. First, I’ll introduce you to a biography about Silvina Ocampo. Second, I’ll take you back to the Golden Age of Argentine and the brutal history of forced sex work in Buenos Aires. Third, I review the film Fever Dreams, based on the novel with the same title by Samanta Schweblin.
Silvina Ocampo, La hermana menor
I recently read parts of the autobiography and some of the correspondence of Victoria Ocampo, la grande dame of Argentina’s literary scene of the 20th century. It is fascinating to learn about her vast and global network with other intellectuals and artists in her own words. I admire her for her commitment which had a huge impact on all of Latin American literature, especially for her work as an editor of the literary magazine Sur. As much as I admire her for her cultural activities, I have to admit she never got to my heart.
If you feel the same, I would recommend to turn to her youngest sister, Silvina. The two sisters had a complicated relationship, which attracted my interest in the first place. Well, in the second place, because I got to know her through a dedication. Borges dedicated his famous short story «Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote» (Pierre Menard, author of the Quijote”) to Silvina Ocampo. Well, relationships seem to have dominated Silvina’s life anyway. Critic Jorge Carrión nails it when he writes:
Hermana de. Esposa de. Amiga de. En su caso la escritora llega casi siempre en cuarto lugar.
Translation: Sister of. Wife of. Friend of. In her case the writer almost always comes fourth. She was the little sister of the dominant cultural icon of her time, Victoria Ocampo. She was the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, a pioneer of fantastic literature in Argentina, and both together close friends and collaborators of Jorge Luis Borges.
I was curious to find out if a biography could explain why Silvina preferred so much to stay in the background. I ordered Mariana Enríquez’s biography La hermana menor. Un retrato de Silvina Ocampo (2014) which portrays the Argentinian writer through her relationships and her stories and poems. Of course, the book also deals with all the gossip about her bisexuality and love affairs with other women because these rumours mark her public perception to this day. Unlike her sister Victoria, she was never eager to play an important role in public life. She preferred to live a discreet life. In this sense, the biography is a valuable introduction into this behavioural pattern of her life.
However, I’d like to mention two minor critical points: I sometimes struggled with the structure of the book. In some passages, it is hard to distinguish between Enríquez’s own research, the summaries and analyses of Ocampo’s stories and references to other sources, such as the interviews she is quoting from. I understand the book is not an academic work, but pointers in the text to a list of references to give the reader some more orientation would have been helpful. Also, I wish Ocampo’s work as such would have played a more prominent role in assessing her life, not just the assumed autobiographical links.
Ocampo’s writings are very difficult to classify. If you are interested in reading them, I recommend her story «La liebre dorada» (The Golden Hare, published in the collection La Furia, 1959) as entry point. It is a short story well told and structured, it is typical of some of Ocampo’s literary techniques and topoi, and there is an English translation freely available. One of her most popular and unnerving stories is perhaps «La casa de azúcar» (also from La Furia) or in its English translation «The house made of sugar». Give it a try!
Sex trafficking in Golden Age Argentina
Well, Victoria and Silvina Ocampo grew up as ultrarich daughters of landowners during a time that is considered the Golden Age of Argentina (which is btw a lovely pun because Argentina is the land of silver, but that would be another story). While they and their siblings were educated by private nannies, in both French and English, often travelled to Paris and stayed at luxury hotels, others, less favoured, were coming to their country in search of a bolder future. Some of them were prepared to use criminal energy to make their way, others became brutally exploited.
The historian Mir Yarfitz (Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.) published a book about the social history of the prostitution cartel Zvi Migdal in Buenos Aires: Impure Migration. Jews and Sex Work in Golden Age Argentina (2019). He investigates the period from the 1890s until the 1930s, when prostitution was a legal institution in Argentina. Yarfitz examines how thousands of Eastern European Jewish women and men migrated to Latin America and engaged in organised sex work to escape from the difficult conditions in their home countries. The name Zvi Migdal makes reference to one of the organisation’s founders. This name replaced its original name «Varsovia Jewish Mutual Aid Society» (Sociedad Israelita de Socorros Mutuos Varsovia de Barracas al Sud y Buenos Aires) which reveals its intention to hide the infamous crimes behind a charity organisation. The name had to be changed when Polish diplomats complained that the name of their capitol city was getting abused.
Yarfitz offers detailed and careful insights into the interdependencies of migration, sexual exploitation and slavery in his book. If you think this is a story of a remote past with thuggish actors in a far-away country, just look what is happening to vulnerable Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war. When they arrive at our train stations, traffickers are ready to lure them into commercial sex.
But back to the evaluation of the book: I appreciated learning about this historical phase of Argentina’s history because it offers an additional, subaltern perspective to the one as told by its elites. I got to know the book because it was presented in an interesting episode of the podcast New books in Latin American Studies. I especially enjoyed Yarfitz’s answer when he was asked what motivated him to inquire in this specific topic. He said that it was a great opportunity for him to learn both Spanish and Yiddish at the same time 😊.
For the podcast episode, Mir Yarfitz was interviewed by Makena Mezistrano who is the Assistant Director of the Sephardic Studies Program at the University of Washington.
Fever Dreams, by Samanta Schweblin
I’d like to conclude this week’s tertulia with a film recommendation. Fever Dreams (Spanish: Distancia de rescate, which literally translates as «Rescue distance») is an excellent psychological thriller. It is available on Netflix. It is directed by Claudia Llosa (you may know her outstanding film La teta asustada) and based on the novel with the same title by Samanta Schweblin. The plot’s structure is complex and without giving away too much of the story, let me summarise it in its chronological order. Amanda arrives at a quiet rural town in Argentina with her preschool daughter Nina for their holidays. They befriend their neighbours, Carola and her son David. Always concerned for her daughter's welfare, she constantly calculates the "rescue distance" needed to protect her daughter. Soon Amanda realises that things are not as they appear, and she sees herself confronted with the fears of motherhood, invisible environmental threats, and failing trust. I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot compare, but the film is very recommendable.
One last thing…
This week my newsletter gets to you a little later than usual because I have been infected with Covid. You might think that this was an ideal time to binge watch, but I wasn’t in the mood to do much. Now I am feeling much better again and am looking forward to leaving my quarantine soon.
So, let me say «hasta pronto» to you with a photo that I took during my last visit in Buenos Aires (2019). You see Borges and Bioy having a coffee at Café La Biela. The third, invisible person sitting at this table could be Silvina Ocampo. It could also be you or me.