Sunday, September 20, 2009

Victoria Ocampo – Argentine writer and feminist

¨Victoria Ocampo – writer, feminist and woman of the world¨ is the book I have just finished reading. It is a 170 -page summary of the autobiography ( which runs into six volumes ) of Victoria, written and annotated in English by the American translator Patricia Owen Steiner.

Victoria wanted to be a writer in her youth. She sent her first writing to two authors for their comments. Both of them threw cold water and discouraged her. She found herself constrained by the censorship on her reading and writing imposed by the family and the society in the beginning of the twentieth century. Victoria was ahead of her times in the patriarchal society of Argentina. She rebelled against the restrictions and later flourished on her own when she got independence from her parents and husband. She became a writer and a patron of letters. Besides contributing to Argentine literature, She went beyond her country and built bridges with the cultural and literary world of Latin America, Europe, US and India. She became the first woman to be admitted to the Argentine Academy of Letters in 1977. This was a special satisfaction to this Queen of Letters, who had suffered discouragement from writing when she was a young woman.

Victoria founded, funded, published and edited a literary magazine ¨Sur¨ which had poems, stories, essays and social commentary of authors from around the world. Sur was the foremost literary and cultural journal of Latin America in the twentieth century. It gave voice to the Argentine and Latin American writers and exposed them to the outside world. It was also her revenge on men who stifled her writing aspiration in the early part of her life. She got the men to write for her magazine. It lasted for an impressive forty years from 1931.

Victoria established a publishing house ¨Sur¨, which published the works of eminent writers like Lorca, Borges, Bioy Casares, Sabato, Onetti, Octavio paz, Cortazar and Vargas Llosa. Sur also brought out spanish translations of North American and European writers. Victoria herself undertook translations of some books. She was more fluent in French than Spanish and she was proficient in English too.

Victoria became a grand patron of literature and culture in Argentina and even outside. She financed the trips of some European writers and artists to Argentina. She hosted the visits of foreign writers and organised literary gatherings. Her friends included Borges, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Jose Ortega y Gasset and Virginia Woolf.

Victoria wrote ten volumes of essays, several books of non-fiction, short stories and literary criticism. Her lengthy six-volume autobiography is useful to understand the Argentina of her times. She is candid and provocative in her commentaries.

She was a victim of the discrimination against women , as was the norm in the early part of the twentieth century. She rebelled against the oppressions of her family, the church and the society and became a feminist leader. She quit her unhappy marriage early on and lived independently for the rest of her life. She had many lovers, affairs and friends. She travelled around the world and moved in the artistic, literary and social circles of Europe especially in France.

Victoria was an iconoclast in a patriarchal society, a woman, who chose not to follow the easy path offered by her wealthy family. She used her money, charm and brain to do something extraordinary with her life from 1890 to 1979.

As happened to many other Argentine writers she also became a victim of politics. She was imprisoned for three weeks by the government of Peron for her criticism of his regime. Her passport was confiscated for two years untill the overthrow of Peron.

Two Indians had been inspiration to her; Gandhi and Tagore. Victoria was impressed by the idea of non-violence, spiritual energy and moral courage of Gandhi, who succeeded in translating his conviction into action. Gandhi became one of the most important influences on her thinking. She was moved after reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924 and her meeting with him in Paris in 1931. This is what she wrote after hearing Gandhi’s speech in Paris.
¨Gandhi spoke with extreme simplicity, without eloquence or tricks of an orator. His physical appearance seemed scarcely suited to impress anyone and especially a Parisian audience. But his spiritual energy dominated and galvanized the audience¨.
She wrote an essay on Gandhi in La Nacion newspaper in 1924 and later wrote a number of articles on him.

Victoria read Gitanjali in 1914 and said ¨it fell like a celestial dew on my anguishing twenty four year old heart¨. She described Tagore´s poetry as ¨magical mysticism¨. She felt powerful echoes in Tagore´s personal loving God, radiating happiness and serenity, unlike the demanding and vengeful God imposed on her in childhood. She was very excited when Tagore came to Buenos Aires in 1924. In her own words, it was one of the great events of her life. She wrote an article in La Nacion, welcoming Tagore. She hosted him for two months in Buenos Aires. There is talk of a platonic love between the sixty three year - old Tagore and the thirty four year- old Victoria. More on this in my earlier blog story

Tagore was rejuvenated by the beautiful Victoria on the flower-filled garden of the mansion overlooking the scenic bank of the immense Plata river. She was the muse of his Purabi poems in which she called her as Vijaya and dedicated the poems to her.

Victoria had a spiritual awakening from the encounter with Tagore. She was overawed by his intellect and serenity and she felt like a child before him. She listened to him mostly and did not dare to express herself as she would have liked to do.

The Tagore- Victoria encounter opened an intellectual, literary, cultural and spiritual bridge between India and Argentina. Since then, there has been a strong Argentine tradition of spiritual and cultural interest in India.

Nehru was one of the world leaders who appealed to the Argentine government to release her from jail.

Indira Gandhi was special for Victoria. She was the successful example of emancipation and fulfillment of the dreams of Victoria for women. Victoria received a honorary doctorate from Vishwabharathi University and this was personally handed over to her by Mrs Gandhi during her trip to Buenos Aires in 1968.

Ever since reading Gandhi´s biography in 1924, Victoria had a continuing interest in India. As a feminist she admired the participation of Indian women in the independence struggle under the leadership of Gandhi.

This short summary of the autobiography of Victoria and reproduction of some of her essays gives a glimpse of the cultural history of Argentina. Particia, the author of this book has been ¨reading, translating and thinking about Ocampo¨for almost twenty years. Patricia has interpreted the autobiography of Ocampo in an objective and balanced manner.
After reading this book, I am now inspired to read more about Ocampo. I have already started reading ¨In your blossoming flower garden¨ by Ketari Kushari Dyson.

The Tagore- Victoria story is fantastic material for a film. I am glad I have been able to interest Pablo Cesar, the Argentine director on this. I liked his preliminary script and the title ¨Thinking of Him¨, he has chosen for the film.

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