I Believe In The Good Fairy Of Your Native Land: Correspondences between Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo
There developed a curious and lasting friendship between two supremely talented people: Gabriela Mistral/ Lucila Godoy Alcayaga (1889-1957) of Chile and Victoria Ocampo (1890-1979) of Argentina. It would be difﬁcult to imagine two writers more dissimilar in background and upbringing, appearance and habit, not to mention literary careers. Yet because of their accomplishments, they shared an anomalous status as celebrities in their own countries and internationally.
Despite their differences, they had more than a little in common. Both Mistral and Ocampo lived their adult lives as single women. While their public worlds were principally male, they lived in predominantly female households. They both claimed pride in their Basque heritage, and they took an unorthodox approach to religion. Both were physically imposing women in societies that prized petiteness. In their letters and visits, they shared their love of the open countryside and seashore. Because they led unconventional lives, they were controversial ﬁgures, subject to false rumors and mythologies that plagued them all their lives. And to their mutual surprise and delight, they had the same birthday, April seventh, one year apart. This became a touchstone in their letters; no matter where they were living, they sent affectionate messages to one another on that date.
Stubborn and nonconforming, both women described themselves as having “violent” dispositions, which Ocampo would express in explosive bursts of temper and Mistral by reciting accusations of real and imagined wrongs. Both women, above all, felt passionately about distinct aspects of their American condition, which they perceived from a transnational, Latin American perspective. They both cared deeply about fostering spiritual unity and moral purpose among fellow Americans in the context of the continent’s truncated modernity.
Yet their priorities did not always mesh: Mistral’s emotional defense of indigenous America seemed excessive to Ocampo, and Ocampo’s predilection for European culture struck Mistral as misguided. They also shared a penchant for letter writing.Each cultivated hundreds of correspondents, writing up to a dozen letters a day. Within weeks of their ﬁrst meeting, Mistral and Ocampo discovered one another as women charged with writing, exploring, and deﬁning the American (read Latin American) condition.That absorption in and engagement with America,expressed throughout their correspondence, arises from the unsettling political, social, and literary events of their era. The letters reveal two women who contributed in many ways to Latin America’s emergence onto the world stage.
Here is a very short selection from the final and mature phase of their friendship and mutual affection:
February 21. 1954
My very dear Gabriela:
I’ll draw up the list of books for you right away. But I warn you that the majority of the books that are published in B.A. are translations. Please tell me if they interest you as well. For the time being I’ll send you my translation of The Living Room by Graham Greene. I still don’t have any news about my passport. The worst part is that my petition has gotten no response. I’ve heard that they gave Borges his passport and certificate of good conduct. He hadn’t received them until now. I don’t know by what means he obtained them (he didn’t want to visit the minister of the interior either). But Borges wasn’t in prison for twenty-seven days, as I was. And the twenty-seven days of unjust punishment appear to be a powerful reason for not excusing the evil that one has suffered. I don’t know if I told you in my last letter that I gave up my trip to Turin, where Stravinsky had invited me to do the recitation of “Persé- phone,”as I had done before under his direction in B.A., Rio, and Florence. This sacrifice wasn’t easy. But now it doesn’t matter to me. I won’t say I’m happy, but I do have a clear conscience and the assurance of having done the only thing that my sense of dignity allowed. Many people think that I’m an idiot and no more. Well it seems that few people think twice about going to the minister to ask for a passport if they can’t get it through the police department (which is the usual place). But since I don’t consider myself a criminal or a political conspirator, but rather a person who has kept her freedom of thought, I don’t choose to act (under pressure from the dictatorship) as if I really were a criminal political conspirator. If you want to, or if you can make inquiries as to why they aren’t giving me my passport and certificate of good conduct to travel, it would be good, even if only out of curiosity: just to see what they’re going to invent to justify an attitude that is totally arbitrary, unjust, and infuriating. I see in the newspapers that my old friend, now the French ambassador to Washington and influential ex-minister from the Coopération Intellectuelle (do you remember those days?), is lunching with our ambassador to Washington, the representative of a government that physically and morally tortures innocent people . . . Ainsi va le monde.
I no longer believe in the good faith of any politician, any diplomat, or any person tied to monetary interests. Amen! I’m living quite alone. I don’t see María Rosa as I did before (although I’ve invited her to come here, to bathe in the sea, because I know that otherwise she’d have no summer vacation). This is because her blind Communism (disguised as pacifism) gets on my nerves. Since I don’t want to broach political subjects in her presence, and since politics is truly her passion these days, we are inhibited in our conversation. I understand that her mission (pacifism) will be taking her to Europe again soon. The government doesn’t seem to have an eye on her as it does on me. I think that her Communist faith fills her life, which is fortunate in her case. It’s a pity, for those of us who don’t think like her, that that is her faith. I regret that I don’t have a sufficient amount of meekness and Christian charity to not get angry when she brings up, with a religious tone, her preferred topic: the marvels of the Communist system and how maligned that party’s leaders are, since they’re really incapable of cruelty. Well, dear Gabriela, I’ll continue another day. Tell Doris that I send her a hug and thank her for her note.
Another hug for you and the true affection of
P.S. I’m sorry to tell you that the María Rosa business is painful for me: It’s best to write always to Sur. My address is: Sur, San Martin, Buenos Aires. And until April: Villa Victoria, Matheu, Mar del Plata, Argentina. The rest of the time I’m at: Av. del Libertador General San Martín, San Isidro, Prov. de Buenos Aires, Argentina.
March 14. 1954
I’m still expecting the long letter that you’ve been promising to send me. That’s why I kept quiet. Doris and I have been expecting you all this time, and it’s because of this waiting that we haven’t written you. I’m a curious animal who becomes discouraged when there’s a lot to say. I send out nothing but short things, straightaway. It’s an absurdity that resembles “all or nothing.” But I feed on absurdities, my dear. These days I haven’t had bad things, just not knowing “nothing about nothing” in Chile. (You know that the American press scarcely notices our peoples unless we have an earthquake there.) I believe that I told you about something that strikes me as a kind of fable: I know nothing of my people except for the letters from my good friend Congressman Tomic, a Yugoslav. My godson [Tomic’s son] is named Gabriel. I don’t know how to thank his father for taking care of me.
Do you understand the loss of all my people? Sometimes a letter arrives from a saintly woman, Blanca Subercaseaux de Valdés. Now she gives me nothing but news of her household because she’s gone off to the countryside with all her people. It’s a good thing: if I were living in Chile, I’d go off to the last mountain in the Valley of Elqui. My Montegrande mountains number more than a hundred. I’ll only go if they make me retire, because people must retire at half pay and one can’t live here on that. It makes me very sad to think you’re so far away, Vic. I don’t know if I’ve told you that when I believed that I could or should leave this job, my good friend Ester de Cáceres, Uruguayan, found me a supervisory post for rural schools, something ideal for my situation. Since they let me be, I didn’t take it. I had doubts about not taking a job from such good, personable people as those. Here, I depend on a boss who’s married to a wonderful American woman. He asks nothing from me, work-wise. I don’t like it, but I don’t argue with him about it: it seems that his care for me is sincere. It’s been nearly two months, at least one and a half, since I’ve written. That poem — geographical and . . . vegetal — about Chile has worn me out. It occurred to me to put it together using a single rhyme. Craziness. I’ve never made poetry that’s straight description; I have to correct it a great deal, and in order to do this, I’m taking a rest. Dearest: I learned this a long time ago: it’s very restful and even healthy to write things that are absolutely objective. (Try doing it yourself: to rest the soul is almost a form of hygiene; in any event, it works (or uses) only the memory that is called objective, merely objective. It rests me from my cares to water Doris’ plants, a few of them that face the street. In addition, there’s a little forest inside the house. This does me even more good, but it doesn’t need me . . . Some six or ten minutes from the house is a semi-sea, a sea that’s small but pleasant to look at, almost without hearing it. Because of having almost everything that I really need here, I’m feeling more and more peace. I owe to Buddhism, dear, a certain ability to concentrate, that is, to plant a single thing, a single pleasant thing, in the center — if there is one — of my being. I can stay like this for hours and hours: it brings me to life again, like something that eliminates all the rest: everything disappears and only that thing remains. Try this. What’s more, dear, Buddhism gave me the power to cut out, as if slicing away, what was injuring me. I can be thinking about something and suddenly I let go and pass everything by, the tree-lined street or the pretty female cat or the record that’s playing.
Forgive me for telling you these things. They’re commonplace and important at the same time; they are a true power of the mind. If they’re forgotten for a day, they should be recovered quickly. It’s a great truth that our mental life “is in diapers.” One can make of it a living far from all obsession and much sadness. Now, the poet [Pablo Neruda]. I will never understand how that woman [Delia del Carril] got to the point of not defending her women friends in front of her husband, of not making him see clearly those with whom he spent time, and above all, not defending them. She’s gone gaga with pure love. It’s a love resembling those ailments that take over the entire body, leaving nothing for life’s normal things. I remember, dear, an “ugly face” that you once made at me, just because I alluded to this: to the fact that it’s one’s duty not to surrender oneself, as with all of one’s being and especially all one’s conscience and one’s past. I don’t know that book.
I don’t recall Pablo [Neruda] ever giving me a book of his. I know that he dislikes me, but listen, much less than his wife does. She’s given me advice about intelligent life — that is, about blowing one’s own horn or something similar. The love of old women is like that. She seems more Com[munist] than he. That’s how she wants it to appear, but I still don’t believe that about her: the part about her ideas. She’s come to the point of a kind of ultra “theater” of her political convictions. I’ve stopped liking her because I’m not convinced by her pseudo-insanity and even less by her Com[munist] theater. Sorry, Vict. Doris and I think about you a lot. If she weren’t enslaved by her work — she does “treatments,” plots for film projects. She has a very sane soul, and not just pretty, but a healthy soul that does good to her women friends, which is very rare in our people, Vict. I don’t want to tire you more; tell us what books from here interest you … A hug from Doris and one from me. We think about you very much. Your not coming has hurt us a great deal.
Very dear and very silent Vict.:
Your silence grieves me, Vic., and I don’t believe I deserve it, no! I’ve had no news from you for more than half a month. Now I’m writing you to complain about your forgetfulness and to tell you that it seems that next month, that is in September, I’ll be traveling to Chile. A very lengthy cablegram has come to me. It has a politeness that I have never encountered in official cables. It’s an invitation from the ministry of foreign relations to go to Chile — without my remaining there, it’s understood. This gentleman is a grandson of our hero Arturo Prat, and he’s not a politician. I can’t manage to comprehend that my country’s situation (economically) could be so grave that they’re now resorting to nonpolitical persons who have moral value sufficient to save the regime and the country itself. The author of our economic debacle isn’t the current president, but the previous one, Vict., the crazy and stupid González Videla, who gave me such hard times. (He’s . . . a zero, and the Freemasons are trying to reelect him.) You should know that the Freemasons have been governing us for more than seventy years. Perhaps I hadn’t told you that I live a life of wandering because of them.1 I decided to resign from official teaching because of this “Precious Creature” [Freemasonry]. One day, a gentleman, a stranger, came on foot to my high school to tell me this, at the door of my office, with a scowl and an officious voice:“I’ve come to advise you that, being a person displeasing to Freemasonry, you will have to leave the directorship of this high school.” Following that came the break with the sub-secretary of education, another Freemason, a friend of mine, who showed up, not at the high school but at my very house, to declare that he was bringing his friendship to an end. After this, I was no longer heard by the minister regarding the needs of the school that I governed: a public high school, a Liceo. In the same week as these swindles, Vict., the invitation from the Mexican government arrived. I accepted it. I returned from Mexico to Chile and there came that offer from the League of Nations: a directorship in the Institute of Intellectual Cooperation.
There, I worked under the precious and, to me, saintly — [Henri] Bergson: I worked there under him, such a marvelous soul, words can’t say. Then, Madame Curie came to us. (I don’t believe I’ve told you these things.) I don’t know the reason for this call for me to return — I’m sending you a copy. I can’t understand it. (I don’t know the minister of foreign relations). I hope to go to my Valley of Elqui if they don’t keep me in that capital city that I never loved, and I hope not to remain in it for more than a month and a half. I’ll go by boat, not by air. That is, I’ll go down to Chile from the Panama Canal, toward Valparaíso. (Oh, at this very moment an Italian-Chilean visitor reminds me that there’s no way to avoid our cordillera, either coming or going. What a pity, Vict., what a pity!) All heights, even medium-sized ones, are prohibited to me, because my heart is damaged. I’m going to ask you a favor: Give a little thought, for me and on my behalf, to the matter of us seeing each other. I don’t yet know what ship I’ll take.
A faithful hug
May 9. 1955
Yesterday was the conclusion of the second year since I entered Buen Pastor prison. I’ve asked again for my passport from the Central Police Department, as does every citizen who is entitled to receive a certificate of good conduct. I made the request seven months ago (normally they give a passport in five days). Up to now they haven’t given me anything, and each time I go to ask for my papers, they answer:“Being processed.” This process can last a lifetime, I suspect. My friend suggested to me that you should write to the minister of foreign relations, Remorino. You might say that I haven’t gotten my passport and that it surprises you a great deal. That you would like something to be done to settle the matter, which mystifies you; and what’s more, you’re very interested in seeing me (as soon as I can travel) . . . or something like that. But please, don’t make it look like I’m asking to be pardoned for crimes I didn’t commit. In that case, I’d prefer never to have a passport. Do you understand? I’m sending this letter only to explain that to you. Evidently, the letter you sent didn’t produce any effect. Which doesn’t surprise me. It would be better to send your letter to Remorino (if you write him) through the Chilean embassy. How are you and where are you? I’m working on things for Sur more than on my own things. I’ve translated several books for my publishing house.1 A big hug for you and another for Doris.
May 31. 1955
Dear and remembered Gabriela,
No. I don’t think it’s worth the trouble to write to Ibáñez, and moreover I think it could even be counterproductive. I don’t think our president would pay any attention to you in regard to this matter. The reasons, I have no idea. And as you well know, I’ve never had a role in or interest in politics of any sort. My only sin is speaking out freely and saying: this is black, when I see it’s black, and this is white, when I see it’s white. And for this, I will not ask forgiveness, nor will I ever, as long as I have my wits about me, God willing. I’ve gone five times to the police department to see if my passport was ready: NOTHING. They always reply:“It’s being processed.” Last night I went back in order to speak with a commissioner who deals with what they call here “social cases.” I knew that this gentleman had received men and women who had been prisoners, like me, and that he had given them their passports. He didn’t even receive me. He had his deputy tell me (I was waiting outside) that my case has been in the Security Council since May thirteenth . . .(security of the Argentine nation, which evidently would be threatened if I left the country . . . do you believe it?). It’s madness.
And so there’s not even any point in trying to obtain a passport that way. If there’s another way, I don’t know it. It would seem not. Dear Gabriela, you don’t understand the mechanics of what is happening here, nor does Victoria Kent. Here, justice and truth have no weight. At least, that’s my personal experience. I can’t tell you more. Do you remember? . . . how many times you told me that I had to stay here. That this was my place. Well, I’ve stayed, Gabriela, and this is the result. If it had done some good, I wouldn’t complain. But I’m afraid it didn’t. In addition, here I can’t do anything in public. Not the most innocent and least political thing. One example: Stravinsky invited me to do “Perséphone” with him in Turin. They didn’t give me a passport (this was last year). Now they’re going to do “Perséphone” (with another director, naturally) in Buenos Aires. But of course they’re not going to do it with me but with a French woman who will do it very badly. I am the person Stravinsky chose personally to do the recitation. I’ve already done “Perséphone,” not only at the Colón in Buenos Aires, but in Rio and in Florence in May. I am Argentine (here they say nationalist). But none of that counts, dear Gabriela. No institution would dare to ask me to do “Perséphone,” because they know I am not in favor with the government. That’s my situation. I don’t know if you got a letter in which I asked you to write to the minister of foreign relations, who seems more or less well disposed toward me. You could simply tell him that you don’t understand what’s happening with my passport and, as you would like to see me, could he clear up the matter, since you gather that it could only be due to error that they’re not giving it to me. A hug for you and for Doris Victoria P.S. I’m sending you this letter through a friend.
June 3. 1955
Dearest and much remembered:
We received your cable, which has made us very content. Now comes the waiting. I would like to know if there is someone, or some friends of yours in that department,1 in case of difficulties, that is, so that we can turn to them. I mentioned something of this in my earlier letter. It wouldn’t be too much to give me the name of the Chilean ambassador in B[uenos] A[ires]. Doris tells me that there’s no need to take any kind of steps right now because you already have your passport. (I’m the one who’s anxious, because of that phenomenon that I told you about before, Vict.) I’ve seen so many twisted things in the world today that I’ve fallen into a kind of massive pessimism and I don’t believe that anything good will happen to me, that is to say, anything happy, and your visit is a precious joy for us. If on receiving this letter your trip plans are going well, send us a line to reassure us so that I don’t rave nonsense, something habitual with me, I repeat. (Remember that we live in New York now.[)] God watch over you Gabriela. In this house, Vict., you’re remembered every day. Our sorrow is not being able to be near you. The information from the newspapers strikes us as very brief, not enough to understand the facts or what might happen.“But that things will pass on to a normal level is certain.” Doris and I understand your reasons, although we’re both very saddened not to see you soon. I believe in the Good Fairy of your native land. Don’t you believe, Vict, in a spirit or Power that nations have? Even so, we say that if something were to happen, you can and must send us a cablegram about your tickets. It’s not too much to ask you not to wait for something to happen for you to send a letter: send a brief cable. For example: It’s time now. Or better, another phrase. The winter, like every year, makes my bones ache; but D[oris] doesn’t have rheumatism.
August 31. 1957
I don’t understand how you can ask me about Sur. I thought they were sending you the magazine, which continues to be published, and which just celebrated its silver anniversary at the beginning of the year. UNESCO published a very nice note of praise on the occasion of the anniversary. In addition, the November–December issue was an extraordinary one, dedicated to the outcomes we hope will be achieved by the change of government. Evidently, I haven’t written you that this past year was fatal for the sale of quality magazines and books. The review had an 84,000 peso deficit. And given the state of economic misfortune in which we find ourselves in Argentina on account of the devaluation of the peso (we anti-Peronists, who put up with the consequences of so much thievery), this amount is really terrible for my deflated pocketbook (the pocketbooks of the anti-Peronists were the only ones that didn’t inflate under justicialismo). To sum up: I’m making a supreme effort to carry on. Twenty-five years of existence for a review (and of those twenty-five, ten of a dictatorship determined to demolish culture and freedom of thought) is no small thing. Generally, the magazines that are lucky survive in conditions that are normal for a dog — in France there are exceptions to this. Now, as you see from the paper, I am in Mar del Plata resting. I’ll try to obtain the information that you’re interested in, but I don’t know anyone here at the beach who can give it to me. Argentine magazines? Although it may seem boastful, I don’t see any of real literary importance being published at the moment. But I’ll send you a list of the ones that are serious, or try to be. One is Criterio, the Catholic review (which has been published for years also). It has the defects of Hispanic American Catholicism, although it’s the best we have in that vein. I think another review, the primarily philosophical ( José Luis Romero’s) Imago Mundi, is no longer appearing. Please, if you can’t answer me right away, tell Doris to write me a few lines answering me about Sur. Because in the issue about the revolution there were two articles of mine in which I told things about my stay in jail that will perhaps interest you. I would have liked those articles to be published in the United States, but I have the impression that it’s useless to try to get into the magazines of that country. Only Vogue has published my things on two occasions. And if I hope to travel, it would be very helpful for me to earn a few dollars . . . If you don’t have the November–December issue, I’ll send you a copy of my articles, as the issue has sold out. A very loving hug for you and another for Doris
PS: I’m going to dedicate the July–August issue of Sur to women. The antifeminism of the Argentines is a lamentable sickness, aggravated by the false feminism of the Peronists and the disastrous models of womanhood that Peronism used for its political ends. In this issue, we’ll talk about the problems of women in all kinds of situations, according to what the contributors choose. I’d very much like you to send us something — whatever you like.