By Ivonne Bordelois

From 1933 to 1971 (when regular publication ceased) the review Sur, along with the publishing house of the same name, was a witness to and an elite stage for the most notable intellectual avatars of the twentieth century, and still stands as a reminder of the hope and daring vision of the woman whose talent and extrodinary taste led her to detect and fix in place some of the most significant movements and questions of her time.

With the help of a group of hand-picked literary lights, Victoria Ocampo unfurled Sur as a foray into liberal thinking in the tumultuous years before and after World War II. Loosing herself from the aped tradition of the times, Victoria was not only the channel for the translation and diffusion of European and North American ideas, but also a fiery emissary of Argentine and Latin American writing in a world that was globalized long before any such denomination was coined.

Sur was, above all, an international meeting-place and a forum for writings and readings of the highest order, which aimed to pin down “the spirit of the times.” From Rabindranath Tagore to André Malraux, from Graham Greene to André Gide via Aldous Huxley, from Jules Supervielle to Alfonso Reyes via Dylan Thomas, a whole constellation of indispensable names illuminated the pages of this exceptionally long-lived review. Gabriela Mistral was correct in her letter to Victoria: “You have changed in the course of reading throughout much of South America.”

Though Sur has at times been called, erroneously, “a translation factory,” it is important to remember that the majority of the short stories that would comprise Borges’ Ficciones first appeared in Sur in the original Spanish. The names of authors like Paz, Lorca, Alberti, Mistral, Neruda, and Cortázar line the pages – a collection seldom brought together in other publications of the era. In the same way that Victoria was not merely a reader or listener, but also a speaker and a writer, Sur not only accumulated ideas, but generated them as well.

Another prejudice, without grounding, paints Sur as a platform for certain pre-established values. When they assumed their positions at Sur, Sábato and Bianco were unknown figures; the same can be said of Murena and Pezzoni. Borges, exaggerating, claimed he, too, was unheard of before Sur; in reality the name ‘Borges’ was brought into the international arena by Caillois and Drieu La Rochelle, both contributors to Sur and friends of Victoria who popularized the author’s works in France. Sur helped launch the renown of writers of other nationalities as well: Michaux practically didn’t exist before Victoria published his work in Sur, and Caillois was just one bright young Parisian among many when she met him, eventually making him the editor who would have his books dropped from airplanes as France was liberated at the end of World War II.

In truth, Sur faced rocky beginnings as skeptical authors were uncertain about sticking with a risky enterprise. It was only when the ship, agilely steering through reef-filled waters, began to sail smoothly and to garner unexpected praise from all quarters that the adventure grew into a fervent project: the most reticent found cover, incorporating themselves into the wake of the national and international success so tirelessly sown and harvested by Victoria. It was not without justification that Octavio Paz was able to say that Sur represented the freedom of literature before authority.

Today the wake of Sur’s successors persists, bearing testament to the publication’s irrefutable message. It is a unique door, left ajar to the richness and the contradictions of the twentieth century, and a key that allows us to “inscribe our own enigma in the universe and begin a conversation with it.” Hopefully, this key can also help unlock the enigma of Victoria Ocampo –who was, in the words of Paz, not so much a figure of mythology as a woman endowed with generosity, fury, and imagination – and prolong her mysterious energy for the universe.

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