Free Women in the Pampas: a Novel About Victoria Ocampo by María Rosa Lojo, Edited and Translated by Norman Cheadle

A Laboratory of Critique and Creation”

Maria Rosa Lojo’s Free Women in the Pampas: a Novel about Victoria Ocampo, originally titled Las libres del Sur (2004), was intended for general, contemporary readers interested in the influence of Argentinian writer, philanthropist, and publisher Victoria Ocampo.  As the book leaves Argentinian shores, the translated novel’s readership may fluctuate from the strictly academic, to readers of world literature in translation, or those of us who have left the country a long time ago. Ocampo became patroness to an international host of writers such as Waldo Frank, Gabriela Mistral, and Rabindranath Tagore, who called her Vijaya. She founded the literary magazine Sur, inserting Argentina in the map of World literature.

Lojo defines the novel as a “laboratory of critique and creation.” The narrative opens with Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s visits to Argentina in 1924 at the invitation of Ocampo. Rather than a protagonist, she is a monad, anchorless, elusive, flat, mirror-like. Lojo sprinkles copious epithets throughout. Ocampo is in turn “overwhelming at times,” “exalted and aflame,” and “capricious.” We read that “Victoria behaved exactly the same with everyone, seductive or imperious, and to universally devastating effect.” (31) too much tell, not enough show. By the middle of the novel, we realize that Victoria’s real life was by far more riveting than Lojo’s “laboratory,” deliberately focused on the fictitious character Carmen Brey.

Ocampo hires Brey to host and translate for poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore during his visit to Buenos Aires. She is, according to Lojo, the “deuteragonist,” rather than antagonist to Victoria. Carmen is a Galician-born educated woman, amidst the intellectual milieu of early twentieth-century Buenos Aires. The character steeps the novel in a compounded nostalgia for Galicia, and Spanish literature and culture as she searches for her brother Francisco, who left Spain for Argentina, where he disappears.

The novel’s biggest shortcoming is its overwriting, describing in tedious detail the movements across a room of each of the characters as if they were marionettes clumsily inhabiting a theatre stage. We read how Carmen Brey is getting settled with the help of the Spanish-born butler and maid at the house she will stay with Tagore and his assistant “Your luggage is here…here are the suitcases…I ‘ll leave you here with your luggage…,” and as she “sat down at her desk, by the window, suitcases opened…she looked outside…looking out from the enormous balcony” (10-11). Brey seems “overwhelmed by Victoria’s questions” (62) or finds a conversation with Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset “draining.” (64) A restless mind is always thinking, even while being vacuous, a feat Victoria Ocampo herself undoubtedly performed effortlessly every minute of her waking life, Brey, not so much. The novel literally loses the plot with the haphazard deployment of the character Evita Ibarguren, an illegitimate child from a small Pampas town where Brey goes in search of her brother. That girl would later become controversial First Lady Eva Perón, a future political rival of Victoria Ocampo.

See also  White Lightning by Melissa Yi

Lojo is at her strongest when introducing the reader to the canon of Argentinian literature from the long nineteenth century, displaying a knowledge befitting of her impeccable academic credentials. There are casual mentions to specific books by amongst them Enrique Rodriguez Larreta (La Gloria de Don Ramiro), as Carmen writes to her Galician stepmother, Adela, when describing the mansions of wealthy Argentinians (14), an alchemic exercise that transforms those authors into friendly, albeit ghostly visitations. Reading Free Women on the Pampas, certainly woke in me ghosts I thought buried long ago.

About the Author

María Rosa Lojo is professor at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires and a prize-winning poet and novelist.

Norman Cheadle is professor emeritus of Hispanic studies, Laurentian University, and translator of Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McGill-Queen’s University Press (Nov. 15 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 280 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0228008611
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0228008613

Luciana Erregue-Sacchi is a writer, translator, editor, and advocate for diverse literature in translation in Canada. She is a Banff Centre Alumni, and outreach coordinator for the Writers Guild of Alberta. In 2020 she launched Laberinto Press, Western Canada’s press for hyphened Canadians and world literature in translation. Her work has been published in the anthologies Looking Back, Moving Forward (Mawenzi House, 2018) and Beyond the Food Court (Laberinto Press, 2020) and literary magazines like The Polyglot (Canada), AGNI (US), and The Selkie (UK). Luciana maintains her blog Spectator Curator, and lives in Edmonton, AB. 

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