The Topless Tower
by Silvina Ocampo
Hesperus Worldwide is a new imprint from the independent publisher that reflects more accurately than ever their motto Et Remotissima Prope" or "bringing near what is far." Of their initial titles I was intrigued by this slim novella, in no small part because of Ocampo's relationship with Adolfo Bioy Casares who wrote one of my reading finds (thanks to Trevor) since starting this blog - The Invention of Morel. The thirty-year-old Ocampo caused something of a scandal amongst the Argentinian literati when she took Casares as her lover when he was only 19. They were later married and she even adopted Casares' lovechild, the couple remaining together until Ocampo's death at the age of 90 (followed tragically three weeks later by the death of that daughter in a car accident). Ocampo was a writer of both poetry and stories famed more for her children's work (and association with Borges) but translator James Womack in his introduction is keen to point out that 'Ocampo never really drew a distinction between writing for children and for adults.' The best children's writing has always had something for the adult reader, long before the concept of crossover fiction was coined and marketed. This novella has a child narrator and recalls writers like Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak but didn't strike me as really being aimed at children. Those who enjoy the nonsense of Lear, absurdity of Carroll, or magical realism of much South American writing will find themselves in familiar territory (which is itself an absurd way of describing the completely fantastical premise of the book)
A long time ago, or else not so very long ago, I couldn't say, summer held out its green leaves, its mirrors of sky-blue water, the fruits in the trees. The days were not long enough: I could never finish swimming, or rowing, or eating chocolate, or painting with the watercolours from my black paintbox. I'd got prizes from school, but I am disobedient. I imitate people, like monkeys do. I even imitate the way people write. Like some famous writers, I use the first and third persons simultaneously. My parents have a lot of books. Sometimes I can't understand what I write, it's so well written, but I can always guess what I wanted to say. I'll underline the words I don't understand. Someone once said to me, and I suspect it was the Devil, 'The great writers are those who don't understand what they write; the others are worthless.'
And so begins the story of nine-year-old Leandro, a precocious youngster who one day laughs at the wrong man, a wealthy-looking chap selling paintings (the aforementioned Devil?), and finds himself instantly transported into the tower that features in one of them, a prisoner. In one of the rooms of this tower he finds an easel set up with a canvas and a table of paints, brushes, paper and more canvas. He begins to paint picture after picture, trying to imagine a landscape that is denied him by this windowless room, and is amazed at one stage when he finds that a branch he has painted not only looks real, but is real. With new hope he paints more and more pictures, confident that they too will become real but he has little control over what he ends up painting. First a spider, then a snake cause terror by moving from the canvas to his room, thankfully shut on the other side of the door eventually. Like any lost boy what he wants to paint most of all is his mother but it never seems to be her that appears on the canvas. A bird and a monkey called Bamboo and Iris, a wizard with a hyena's face that might be the Devil, even a double of himself will all come and go, each brief encounter bringing a small excitement in creation and a little loss when they depart.
This fantastical set up acts as a metaphor for any act of artistic creation. There is fear before he puts brush to canvas; lack of control over what he might paint; there is the almost dreamlike state of creating so that what he often sees is the confusing end result, pictures he has no memory of painting; and with a clear aim of what he wants to paint - a portrait of his mother as he last remembers her, knitting underneath a tree - the confusion about how to realise it.
There was no one to tell him what he wanted to know: whether it was practice which led to pictures being like their subjects, and if the look in his mother's eyes would appear into the drawing as an untimely gift which he himself would not be able to explain. What he did understand, as surely as if someone had told him straight out, was that he would eventually manage to draw the exact expression in her eyes, and as he drew the delicate line in her eyelids he felt what great artists feel, the inexplicable happiness that comes from drawing the line that you have hunted for so long and which is only just recognisable as you draw it.
His concentrated attempts actually result in the portrait of a young girl who comes to join Leandro and with whom he falls instantly in love. When he eventually loses her too then his first letter to her hints at the frustration of trying to recreate artistic success and the new fear that comes with it.
I've thought about you so much that I can't imagine anything apart from your face. I draw it desperately, but instead of your eyes I draw other eyes, and I am scared that you will come out of the painting transformed into a different person.
I mentioned Sendak at the beginning so you may have an idea what the conclusion might be, no boy goes on a journey like that without learning something, and this adult fairytale may help the reader learn something too as well as having a particular resonance for those with any kind of artistic bent.