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The Promise

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Kirkus Reviews calls The Promise one of the Best Books of Fiction, and of Literature in Translation, of the year!

* Voted one of the Big Fall Books from Indies by Publishers Weekly & LitHub's Most Anticipated Books of 2019

"The world is ready for her blend of insane Angela Carter with the originality of Clarice Lispector."—Mariana Enriquez, LitHub

"Both her debut story collection, Forgotten Journey, and her only novel, The Promise, are strikingly 20th-century texts, written in a high-modernist mode rarely found in contemporary fiction."—Lily Meyer, NPR

"Silvina Ocampo is the next writer you should be reading."—Michael Silverblatt

A dying woman's attempt to recount the story of her life reveals the fragility of memory and the illusion of identity.

"Of all the words that could define her, the most accurate is, I think, ingenious."—Jorge Luis Borges

"I don't know of another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don't show us."—Italo Calvino

"Few writers have an eye for the small horrors of everyday life; fewer still see the everyday marvelous. Other than Silvina Ocampo, I cannot think of a single writer who, at any time in any language, has chronicled both with such wise and elegant humor."—Alberto Manguel

"Art is the cure for death. A seminal work by an underread master. Required for all students of the human condition."—Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews

"This haunting and vital final work from Ocampo, her only novel, is about a woman's life flashing before her eyes when she's stranded in the ocean. . . . the book’s true power is its depiction of the strength of the mind and the necessity of storytelling, which for the narrator is literally staving off death. Ocampo’s portrait of one woman’s interior life is forceful and full of hope."—Gabe Habash, Starred Review, Publishers Weekly

"Ocampo is beyond great—she is necessary."—Hernan Diaz, author of In the Distance

"I don't know of another writer who better captures the magic inside everyday rituals, the forbidden or hidden face that our mirrors don't show us."—Italo Calvino

"These two newly translated books could make her a rediscovery on par with Clarice Lispector. . . . there has never been another voice like hers."—John Freeman, Executive Editor, LitHub

"Like William Blake, Ocampo's first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it."—Helen Oyeyemi, author of Gingerbread

A woman traveling on a transatlantic ship has fallen overboard. Adrift at sea, she makes a promise to Saint Rita, "arbiter of the impossible," that if she survives, she will write her life story. As she drifts, she wonders what she might include in the story of her life—a repertoire of miracles, threats, and people parade tumultuously through her mind. Little by little, her imagination begins to commandeer her memories, escaping the strictures of realism.

Translated into English for the very first time, The Promise showcases Silvina Ocampo at her most feminist, idiosyncratic and subversive. Ocampo worked quietly to perfect this novella over the course of twenty-five years, nearly up until the time of her death in 1993.

ISBN-13: 9780872867710

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: City Lights Books

Publication Date: 11-05-2019

Pages: 120

Product Dimensions: 4.90(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.50(d)

Silvina Ocampo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1903. A central figure of Argentine literary circles, Ocampo's accolades include Argentina’s National Poetry Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. She was an early contributor to Argentina’s Sur magazine, where she worked closely with its founder, her sister; Adolfo Bioy Casares, her husband; and Jorge Luis Borges. In 1937, Sur published Ocampo’s first book, Viaje olvidado. She went on to publish thirteen volumes of fiction and poetry during a long and much-lauded career. Ocampo died in Buenos Aires in 1993. La promesa, her only novel, was posthumously published in 2011.Suzanne Jill Levine is the General Editor of Penguin’s paperback classics of Jorge Luis Borges’ poetry and essays (2010) and a noted translator, since 1971, of Latin American prose and poetry by distinguished writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Manuel Puig, Severo Sarduy, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. She has published over 40 booklength translations not to mention hundreds of poetry and prose translations in anthologies and journals such as the New Yorker (including one of Ocampo’s stories in their recent flash fiction issue). Levine has received many honors, among them PEN awards, several NEA and NEH grants, Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and more recently the PEN USA Translation prize for José Donoso’s posthumous novel The Lizard’s Tale. Founder of Translation Studies at UCSB, she has mentored students throughout her academic career (including Jessica Powell and Katie Lateef Jan). Levine is author of several books including the poetry chapbook Reckoning (2012); The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction (1991; 2009); Manuel Puig and the Spiderwoman: His Life and Fictions (FSG, 2000, 2002). Her most recent translation is Guadalupe Nettel’s Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories (2020) for Seven Stories Press.Jessica Powell has published dozens of translations of literary works by a wide variety of Latin American writers. She was the recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship in support of her translation of Antonio Benítez Rojo's novel, Woman in Battle Dress(City Lights, 2015), which was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Her translation of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016), was named a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award and made the longlist for the 2017 National Translation Award. Her translation of Pablo Neruda’s book-length poem, venture of the infinite man, was published by City Lights Books in October 2017. Her most recent translation, of Edna Iturralde’s award-winning book, Green Was My Forest, was published by Mandel Vilar Press in September, 2018.

Read an Excerpt

I’m such an ignoramus. How could I publish this text! What publisher would accept it? I think it would be impossible, unless a miracle occurs. I believe in miracles.

“I love you and I promise to be good,” I used to tell her, to gain her sympathy when I was a child and for a long time afterwards whenever I’d ask her for a favor, until I learned she was famous for being an “arbiter of the impossible.” There are people who don’t understand that you speak to a saint as you would to anybody. If they’d known all my prayers they would have said they were sacrilegious and that I am not a devout believer in Saint Rita.

The statues or statuettes usually depict this saint holding a mysterious wooden book in her hand, which she presses against her heart. I never forgot the detail of this pose when I made her the promise that, if I were saved, I would write this book and finish it by the time my next birthday came around. That date is almost a year away. I’ve begun to feel anxious. I thought it would be a big sacrifice to keep my promise. To make this dictionary of memories that are at times shameful, even humiliating, would mean giving over my intimacy to anyone. (Perhaps this anxiety was unfounded.)

I don’t have a life of my own; I only have feelings. My experiences were of no importance, neither throughout my life, nor even on the threshold of death, but rather the lives of others become mine.

Copying these pages on the typewriter would be a thankless task, as I don’t have the money to pay a typist to make the copies (neither do I have altruistic friends who know how to type). Presenting the manuscript to editors, to any publisher in the world who might refuse to publish the book, so that I would have to pay for it inevitably with the sale of objects I value or with some menial work, the only work of which I’d be capable, would mean sacrificing my sense of pride.

How distant are those happy days when I would eat the chocolates in the Keystone Cop wrappers or the chewy white candies with my little nephews in Palermo, swinging on the swings, or sliding down the slide. Those times when I felt unhappy, now seem to me so joyful, when my nephews would get their hands so filthy playing in the dirt, that when we’d go back home to my sister’s house, instead of taking a bath or going to the movies, I would have to clean their nails with Carpincho saddle soap as if they had been in the Police Department Headquarters after leaving fateful fingerprints.

I, who always considered it useless to write a book, find myself committed to doing this today in order to keep a sacred promise to myself.

Three months ago, I boarded the Anacreonte bound for Cape Town, to visit the less tedious side of my family: a consul and his wife, cousins who always looked out for me. Everything we want too much turns out badly, or never happens at all. I got sick and had to return as soon as I arrived, because of an accident I had during the trip over there. I fell into the ocean. I slipped on the deck where they store the lifeboats when I leaned over the handrail to catch a brooch that hung from my scarf and had fallen off. How? I don’t know. Nobody saw me fall. Maybe I fainted. I came to in the water dazed by the blow. I couldn’t even remember my name. The ship was calmly moving away. I shouted. Nobody heard me. The ship seemed more immense than the sea. Fortunately, I’m a good swimmer, though my form is quite deficient. After the first shock of cold and fear had passed, I glided slowly through the water. The heat, the noonday light helped me along. I almost forgot my fearful predicament because I love sports and I tried all the styles of strokes. At the same time I thought of the dangers the water could inflict upon me: sharks, sea serpents, jellyfish, waterspouts. The ebb and flow of the waves had a calming effect on me. I swam or floated on my back eight straight hours, waiting for the ship to return to pick me up. I sometimes wonder how I managed to nurture that hope, and honestly I don’t know. At first I felt so much fear I couldn’t think, then thoughts came to my mind haphazardly: I thought of schoolteachers, noodles, movies, prices, theater productions, the names of writers, titles of books, buildings, gardens, a cat, an unhappy love affair, a chair, a flower whose name I couldn’t remember, a perfume, a toothpaste, etc. Memory: how you made me suffer! I suspected that I was about to die or that I had already died in the confusion of my memories. Then I noticed, upon feeling a sharp burning in my eyes caused by the salt water, that I was alive and far from dying since those who are drowning, it is known, are happy and I was not. After getting undressed, or being undressed by the sea in that way the sea undresses people as if with a lover’s hands, there came a moment when sleep or the craving to sleep took hold of me. In order not to sleep, I imposed an order on my thoughts, a kind of mental journey or itinerary I now recommend to prisoners or patients who cannot move, or to the desperate who are on the verge of suicide.