Amparo Dávila’s translator discovers the truth behind her fiction.
The stories of the Mexican author Amparo Dávila intrude on “external reality” in unnerving ways. To illustrate, I’ll offer a personal tale: my brush with her story “Moses and Gaspar,” which appears in the Winter issue of The Paris Review. Last fall, when Audrey Harris and I were at work on the translation, I visited a friend who was moving house in Oaxaca. We’d packed some of her books into boxes and paused, at twilight, to sit down for dinner at a table in a large half-covered patio. My friend said that her two cats sensed the upcoming move and had become agitated. At that moment, we saw that one of them—a big marmalade cat, an intelligent and communicative fellow—was crouched at the far end of the tabletop. In the meager glow of the single bulb that lit the growing gloom, the cat began to cry soundlessly: tears filled his eyes and dripped onto the edge of the table and the floor below, while he stared into space. “See?” said my friend. “He knows we’re moving.” It was an uncanny, inexplicable scene. Cats are emotionally sensitive to changes, I know—I’ve heard cats cry, moan, yowl in distress—but never had I seen one mourn in a way that seemed so peculiarly, exclusively, jarringly human. I went home that night to find a new round of corrections on “Moses and Gaspar” in my inbox.
Those who have read Dávila’s story know that a scene seemed to have leaped from it straight into my personal life. Without spoiling the tale, I will say that I experienced a manifestation of the ambiguous, uneasy continuum between the animal and the human (or the animal and the human and something else), an instability of borders that lies at the heart of Dávila’s story and makes it linger, disquietingly, in the reader’s mind. In “Moses and Gaspar,” I read silently weeping pets as a clear narrative signal of things out of the ordinary. But now, faced with my friend’s cat, I found that it was entirely true to the world I live in.
This play between fantasy and reality is a fitting introduction to Dávila’s place in Mexican letters. Essentially unheard-of in the English language, Dávila is often known in Mexico as a writer of short stories touching on the fantastic and the uncanny. (The latter, ironically, has no good translation into Spanish that I’m aware of: sometimes I’ve seen it called lo siniestro, “the sinister,” which doesn’t quite get at the strange relationship with the familiar that is embedded in the English word uncanny or the German unheimlich.) A prize bearing her name in Mexico, the Premio Nacional de Cuento Fantástico Amparo Dávila, is awarded explicitly to stories of the fantastic by emerging writers. Yet Dávila herself has said that she writes “la literatura vivencial”—that is to say, experiential, always taking what she has lived and known as a seed or starting point—and her literary reputation rests squarely on how she deals with the psychological stuff of real life.
Born in the town of Pinos in the state of Zacatecas, Dávila published her first book of stories, Tiempo destrozado—from which “Moses and Gaspar” is taken—with the prestigious Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1959. During the previous decade, she had published several volumes of poetry, but it was fiction that made her name. Her stories immediately commanded respect, and it’s hard to overstate how grudgingly such respect was granted to women in that era: Tiempo destrozado was published barely six years after women in Mexico were granted suffrage. The 1950s were a rich decade of Mexican literature only peppered with female names, such as Rosario Castellanos and Elena Garro—heavyweights who nevertheless had to fight against being overshadowed by male colleagues and partners. Dávila herself was secretary to the great Mexican writer Alfonso Reyes, and Reyes opened literary circles to her and encouraged her to publish her stories. At the same time, we shouldn’t reduce Dávila’s history to the male figures who helped smooth her access to the patriarchal milieu: she built herself a literary career in willful defiance of both peers and parents who believed that it was absurd for a woman to move to Mexico City from the provinces in hopes of pursuing such a vocation.
Tiempo destrozado was followed by the story collection Música concreta, in 1964; her third collection, Árboles petrificados, arrived thirteen years later, in 1977, and won the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize. That was all until 2009, when a collection of five new tales, Con los ojos abiertos, was included in her volume of collected stories, also published by Fondo de Cultura Económica. By then, she had been neglected for years by the reading public in Mexico, and the collected stories coincided with a long-overdue resurgence of interest in her work. Her output is scant in pages: Dávila has professed to being an undisciplined writer who produces a story only when it insists on being written, through the surfacing of some compellingly powerful memory or feeling. But with this small body of work, she has garnered a reputation for the precision and fineness of her writing; her skill at snapping off the end of a narrative with a sharp and concise twist; her powerful expression of fatalism, fear, and a sense of entrapment; and her destabilizing use of ambiguity.
Dávila has always declined to associate herself with any movement or group. Some of her stories employ the supernatural, but perhaps a greater number of them have no fantastic elements whatsoever. You might say that her stories, whether “fantastic” or “realistic,” tend to revolve around characters gripped by extreme states of mind, psyches stoked with an uncertain mix of imagination and fact. Dávila herself simply says she writes about the three fundamental mysteries of life: love, madness, and death. She names Kafka and D. H. Lawrence as primary influences, but not Poe, whom she didn’t read until after the publication of her first two story collections (his tales were apparently such a wrenching experience that they left her with nervous colitis). She has also said, in an interview, that “what I do in literature is come and go from reality to fantasy, from fantasy to reality, the way life itself is.”
One effect of this coming and going is that it’s often impossible to be sure whether the events in her tales are supernatural or imagined, leaving the work carefully poised between contradictory interpretations. A woman in one story from Música concreta is being stalked by a malevolent toad, unless the toad is actually a paranoid fantasy about the lover who is destroying her relationship with her husband. In a tale from Tiempo destrozado, a woman is unhinged by insomnia caused by hearing rats in the walls of her house, yet the reader can never be sure of the source of the noises or whether they are the product of the woman’s anxieties. Again and again, Dávila’s characters are menaced by phantoms or assailants, are trapped in enclosed spaces or enclosed lives. The “real causes” may be ambiguous, but the mental states manifested—fear, desperation, and nervous obsession—are familiar, only heightened to an excruciating intensity.
Dávila grounds these mental states in concrete scenarios true to the world we inhabit: the anxiety that infuses the life of a young woman from the provinces trying to eke out a living in the Mexican capital, perhaps, or the pressures and suspicions directed toward an older woman who hasn’t married. When unusual or exaggerated events disrupt her characters’ routine existences, those events seem to arrive not from outside but from inside, to express the underlying power dynamics present in their lives. In “The Guest,” one of her very few stories translated into English (published in the 2011 anthology Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic), a woman is driven to murder by a strange and malevolent houseguest; the guest is seen as a threat, however, because of the prisonlike domesticity to which she has been confined by her cold, controlling husband. It’s no accident that many of Dávila’s protagonists or sufferers are women: their entrapment, lack of agency in the face of violence, and explosive responses to the pressure to be dependent, deferential, and controlled form a disturbingly accurate reflection of Dávila’s real world. But not all are women, as “Moses and Gaspar” demonstrates, nor is Dávila’s work, which she resolutely labels “universal,” intended to have a feminist or gender-specific slant.
What has kept readers in Mexico enthralled and troubled by Dávila is that even her most fantastic or morbid stories offer no escape. Instead, they relentlessly turn the reader back toward the real, toward aspects of our lives we know to be true even if we relegate them to the realm of the not-talked-about. Some we don’t want to see directly—that, for instance, we may be subject to violence and terror within our own homes or that our emotions and perceptions can cross the fine line into what is defined, always in culturally fraught terms, as insanity. Others we have a hard time seeing because they are strange and complex and interfere with the stable categories on which our daily lives are dependent. I think of my friend’s cat silently crying, so clearly illustrating that the border between human and animal is less distinct than we might believe.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Dávila, who is fascinated by cats, knew, when she wrote “Moses and Gaspar,” that animals can weep this way. I only learned this after being attuned to it—primed to notice it—by her story. And, reoriented to see the real-world stuff her fiction is made of, I look at the eerie way in which José Kraus is thoroughly dominated by his pets in “Moses and Gaspar” and find this unlikely power dynamic, too, more plausible than I had first thought. What other unsettling elements in Dávila’s stories might, in fact, be observations made from life? Her stories wait—quietly, modestly—not to be unlocked but to pry open the minds of their readers.
Matthew Gleeson is a writer, editor, and translator based in Oaxaca, Mexico.