A Fight to Preserve A Literary Legacy

Looking at collections of rare books on the Internet, Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentine writer and filmmaker, was shocked to find two for sale that he recognized from the library of a deceased friend. They were first editions of Jorge Luis Borges’s first two collections of short stories, ”A Universal History of Infamy” (1935) and ”The Garden of the Forking Paths” (1941), inscribed and dedicated to Victoria Ocampo, who published much of Borges’s early and most important work. These unique copies of what many would regard as two of the greatest works of Latin American literature were being offered for $35,000 and $45,000, respectively.

”I was astonished because I remember seeing them in Victoria’s house in the late 1960’s, and I never heard that her library was sold,” Mr. Cozarinsky said in a telephone interview from his home in Paris. Before her death in 1979, Ocampo donated her magnificent villa in San Isidro, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, and its library to Unesco to create a literary and cultural center. But the project has remained a dead letter, the villa has deteriorated into serious disrepair, and as many as a thousand books may have disappeared.

”We are trying to find out what is behind these stories,” said Oskar Klingl, assistant to the deputy general of Unesco. He is in charge of the Ocampo project at the organization’s Paris headquarters. ”We are trying to find out if they disappeared from the villa or were part of the property,” he said. Mr. Klingl added that there was no record of any books being sold, and that Unesco was trying to ascertain what happened. But Dolores Bengolea, Ocampo’s grandniece and the head of a foundation trying to save the villa, said that about a thousand volumes had been pilfered from the estate, based on a list of Ocampo’s books drawn up by Unesco many years ago.

Ocampo’s name is not well known to many Americans, but she was a giant in Latin America’s literary world. ”Victoria Ocampo is an important figure,” said John Wronoski, of Lame Duck Books in Boston, who is selling the Borges books. ”She’s probably one of the most important female Spanish-language writers of the 20th century.”

Mr. Wronoski confirmed that the volumes came from Ocampo’s library but insisted that he obtained them honestly. ”I acquired them, along with a number of other of Ocampo’s books, from a respected Buenos Aires bookseller at a book fair in Paris,” he said. Mr. Wronoski added that he had seen many more of her books on the rare-book market.

At the same time, a historic photograph of Ocampo, taken by Gisèle Freund, who made some of the most famous portraits of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Evita Perón, has turned up for auction in Paris, Mr. Cozarinsky said.

The loss from Ocampo’s library is only the latest episode in a story that dates to 1973, when Ocampo donated the villa to Unesco, thinking that her property would be safer in international hands dedicated to the preservation of culture than under the control of the Argentine government, which at the time was run by the military.

”That money has been wasted and erroneous decisions taken regarding the Villa Ocampo is the least one can say,” states an internal 1988 Unesco memorandum written by Antonio Pasquali, then the regional coordinator for the project. And things have only gotten worse. Along with her villa, Ocampo gave Unesco a second expensive beach home to sell to pay for the upkeep of the cultural center she had planned. Of the $1.5 million generated by that sale and the interest on the endowment, only about $500,000 remains, Mr. Klingl said.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Ocampo and Sur (South), the magazine and publishing house she founded, to the Spanish-speaking world. For most of Sur’s nearly 50 years of existence, literary culture was suppressed in Spain under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco.

”For us, Sur was temple, home, center of meeting and confrontation,” wrote Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, who like many other Latin American authors, published some of his first work in Ocampo’s magazine. ”Sur is literature’s liberty confronting worldly powers,” he continued, adding that Ocampo had ”done what no one else had ever done in the Americas.”

From the 1930’s until the 70’s, Ocampo was at the center of the Argentine equivalent of the Bloomsbury group, which gathered for Sunday tea at her grand family villa, with its eccentric Victorian architecture built above a ravine.

The house, like Ocampo’s magazine and publishing company, brought together these local luminaries and the many foreign authors she drew into her circle. Albert Camus and André Malraux visited the villa, as did Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, the composer Stravinsky and the architect Le Corbusier, as well as major Latin American authors like Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa and the Chilean Gabriela Mistral, who won the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Borges said Ocampo gave him a start as a writer when he was ”a nobody, Wells’s invisible man.” And she encouraged the work of a young Swiss anthropologist, Alfred Métraux, who did ground-breaking work on indigenous Argentine culture at a time when ethnology in South America was in its infancy.

”Victoria Ocampo foresaw the importance of anthropology for Argentina better than the academics of her country, publishing for the first time in Spanish works that were cutting edge at the time,” said Edgardo Krebs, an Argentine anthropologist who works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Ocampo was born in 1890 into one of Argentina’s wealthy families, and spent years of her youth in Europe. She defied her family and culture by separating openly from her husband, Monaco Estrada, in 1922, and by writing for the newspapers, founding her own magazine, smoking and simply driving a car — with the top down, to boot. ”Je m’en fiche de la bonne education!” (”I don’t give a damn about proper manners!”) she wrote in French in a letter to one of her sisters, Ms. Bengolea said.

Helping and protecting writers was Ocampo’s avocation even before she began to publish them. In 1924 she sold a diamond tiara so that she could rent a house for the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in 1913. (Her father had refused to have him stay at the family villa.) Tagore fell hopelessly in love with the young Victoria, wrote about her and dedicated one of his books of poems to her.

Ocampo’s treatment of Tagore was typical of her generosity, impulsiveness and willingness to rebel against convention. This rebellion — and the resentments it sometimes caused — helps explain the neglect of her legacy, said Ms. Bengolea, one of several Ocampo family members struggling to save the villa. ”There are a lot of people who still hate Victoria because they cannot accept that a woman allowed herself to do what she did,” added Ms. Bengolea, who also blamed bureaucratic bungling at Unesco for the villa’s deterioration. She would like to become the director of the cultural center Ocampo planned at the villa.

Eduardo Paz Leston, an Argentine author and editor, called Ocampo ”an incredible cultural entrepreneur who anticipated vogues that would come decades later.”

”She introduced Paul Bowles to the work of Borges in the 1940’s,” he added.

Ocampo’s commitment to culture was part of a larger vision of political freedom and openness. Early on, in the pages of Sur, she and Borges warned against the ”local Übermensch,” referring to the Argentine nationalists who regarded European fascism with varying degrees of sympathy.

Her embrace of democratic principles and of an open, international culture made her a vocal critic of Juan Perón, the Argentine strongman who ruled the country from 1945 to 1955. He had Ocampo thrown in jail in 1953, setting off an international protest that led to her release after several weeks.

Yet her very defiance of patriarchal culture, her opposition to nationalism and her cosmopolitan ways all appear to have contributed to the failure to create a cultural center from the Villa Ocampo. In the mid-1990’s, the Argentine representative to Unesco proposed tearing down the villa and selling the land to build an auditorium in downtown Buenos Aires. Members of the Ocampo family prevented the sale, insisting that it violated the terms of Ocampo’s donation. Another Unesco plan was to construct a building in front of the villa with a movie theater and a food court: an entertainment center far in spirit from the literary culture that Ocampo represented. ”This was the Walt Disney plan,” Mr. Klingl of Unesco said, conceding that it was ill conceived.

In 1983, Unesco sold the second house that Ocampo had donated, for about a million dollars — a large sum at the time. But in his 1988 memorandum, Mr. Pasquali of Unesco described how it had been squandered: ”$68,609 for an administrator who was hardly necessary; $44,502 spent on trips between Paris and Buenos Aires, $49,311 for repairs, given to a phantom company,” and so on. He concluded, ”Our image has greatly suffered with the local population, and many of the decisions are irreversible.”

The Unesco memo also described some of the money as missing. It notes that Ocampo’s second house had sold for $1,035,700 and had then earned $545,660 in interest, and yet the endowment for Villa Ocampo was only $734,520. ”What happened to the difference?” Mr. Pasquali asked.

Mr. Klingl of Unesco agreed that the project had had an unfortunate history but insisted that it was now on better footing. He has helped negotiate an agreement with the Argentine government and three Ocampo family foundations devoted to preserving Villa Ocampo, including Ms. Bengolea’s. ”We want to fulfill Victoria’s vision by creating a center that is a real exchange between different cultures and Latin America,” he said.

The first step, he said, is to select an executive director in February. With only $500,000 left of Ocampo’s original legacy, the new director must raise money for major repairs on the villa. Neither Unesco nor the Argentine government, Mr. Klingl said, has the money. And there is a lot to do. The roof leaks badly, and the walls are wet, water-stained and crumbling.

”They have sold off so many things that I remember there,” said Ronald Christ, an American scholar who was a good friend of Ocampo’s as well as a translator of Borges. ”They sold off the linens and the silver. They sold her beautiful grand piano — music was a very big part of her life — for something like $600. She had an incredible collection of dedicated photographs. All of it was junked, put up for auction. They put her own collection of Sur under plastic, which is terrible for it but very good for the bugs, whom you can see crawling around.”

– December 21, 2002

Published at The New York Times


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