The Fern Cat


Inside the Issue

On Translating Amparo Dávila’s “Moses and Gaspar.”

Remedios Varo, El gato helecho (The fern cat) (detail), 1957, oil on Masonite.


Amparo Dávila was born in 1928—a fated year in Mexican letters, it also heralded the arrival of Carlos Fuentes, Jorge Ibarguëngoitia, Inés Arredondo, Enriqueta Ochoa, and Carlos Valdés—in the poetically named town of Pinos, in the state of Zacatecas. In interviews, Dávila has stressed the importance of her childhood in her formation as a writer, particularly the loss of her younger brother, who died in infancy. Her earliest memories are of her father’s library; she harbors a special fondness for his leather-bound copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by Gustave Doré, which she read and reread even though its images of the infernal circles of hell and fearsome demons terrified her. She also recalls watching dead bodies driven in carts past her house; the surrounding towns had no cemeteries, and the dead had to be transported to her town for burial. The sight of the corpses, sometimes barely covered by sheets, left an indelible impression in her mind and, in turn, her fiction, which visits frequently with the specter of death.

For someone like me, who grew up delighting in the ghost stories of Edith Wharton and the gothic illustrations of Edward Gorey, translating Dávila offers a delicious challenge. Entering the world of one of her stories is like walking back in time to the dark and lonely world of Pinos, a semideserted mining town “filled with wind and shadows,” as she described it to Elena Poniatowska in a 1957 interview; it is to witness the corpse-laden carts rattling by and to feel the yawning absence of a lost brother. It is also to experience a golden day in a garden in Guanajuato, when, as a young woman, Dávila quoted a passage from Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince to the exalted Mexican novelist Alfonso Reyes; enchanted, he invited her to visit him in the capital, where she became his assistant. Dávila still resides in Mexico City. She writes in a library whose shelves brim with books by her favorite authors, among them Kafka, Hesse, Paz, and Rulfo, as well as by those with whom she most identifies: Borges, Bioy Casares, Quiroga, and Cortázar (with whom she kept up a literary correspondence and friendship for many years).

Like Quiroga’s or Kafka’s, Dávila’s writing is filled with small but sharp instances of violence, often expressed metaphorically so that her stories resemble contemporary fables. She parses loneliness and uncertainty and acutely illustrates the brutality of impending madness or an inconsiderate act. In “Moses and Gaspar,” she explores what happens to someone when these small violences overlap; here, misfortune assumes the form of two pets, abandoned by the death of their owner, who wreak havoc in the life of the unassuming narrator.

Dávila illustrates daily transgressions with silences, registered through ellipses: the abashed quiet following a beating, the calm leading up to a looming squall, the complicit secrecy of the abuser and the abused, of the dead and of those who are left behind to mourn them. Beyond silence, her work is characterized by an ambiguity so marked that the only thing one knows when entering her fictional world is the impossibility of knowing anything for certain. In “Moses and Gaspar,” the theme of unknowingness is evident from the second sentence: “The fog was so thick one could hardly see.” Soon after, when José, the narrator, enters his dead brother’s apartment, he describes the entire building as having been invaded by fog, signaling an entry into an unknowable and compromised world. Already, one’s senses are challenged; in this opening paragraph, Dávila erects a signpost for the reader: low visibility ahead.

The mystery in “Moses and Gaspar” centers on the nature of the two titular creatures, whether characters’ perceptions of them are accurate, and why the two brothers, their successive owners, allow them to spark the calamitous chain of events that takes place over the course of the story. Dávila’s deliberate omission of any description of the creatures’ likenesses leaves a lacuna at the heart of the story, a gap that grows as the plot advances and that troubles the reader’s ability to gauge the precise strangeness of the story. Was the dead brother insane? Has José’s mental state been compromised by grief? Is the reader tainted by association?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, when final edits were wrapping on “Moses and Gaspar” for the Winter issue of The Paris Review, I visited an exhibition of paintings by the Spanish Mexican Surrealist Remedios Varo (1908–63) at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM), in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park. I was trying to think of images to associate with the two pets: I had thought of them as dogs, perhaps pit bulls or some other powerful shorthair breed, but when I mentioned the translation of “Moses and Gaspar” to the Mexican novelist Isaura Contreras, she recalled it fondly as the story about los gatitos (“the little cats”). One of the paintings in the Varo show, El gato helecho (The fern cat, 1957), depicts two cats made of ferns, in the middle of a forest. One stares mischievously at the viewer as he claws a tree whose branches brush the clouds, causing rain to shower down; the other sniffs the ground, tail alert in a curiously canine pose. A label affixed to the side of the painting explains its origins (translation from the Spanish mine):

In 1987 Beatriz Varo, niece of Remedios, interviewed Eva Sulzer, the original proprietor of this work, who related the following:

“One day I had a dream and I told it to Remedios, I dreamt that some cats which had turned into ferns walked through the garden, but the ferns were not stuck to the cats in the same form, rather it was as if they grew out of them. Remedios painted this painting ‘The Fern Cat’ and gave it to me, it was not exactly as I had seen it, but it doesn’t matter, it is very beautiful.”

Reading this account, I realized that translating “Moses and Gaspar” had felt like painting someone else’s dream. Like a dream, Dávila’s fictional realm is filled with signs and symbols, with hybrid creatures who appear to defy the laws of nature, and with characters who do not act according to logic or reason. Dávila has said in interviews that one of her favorite subjects is the mysterious, the unknown, that which is not within our grasp. Her writing is intentionally opaque and allows readers to draw a number of different interpretations; it is this intriguing, elusive quality that has perhaps led to her enduring popularity in Mexico.

The goal in translating her work is to bring these qualities fully alive for English-language readers—no small task. My cotranslator, Matthew Gleeson, Lorin Stein, and I debated numerous translation decisions. Matthew and I wrestled particularly with interpreting the ambiguous nature of Dávila’s descriptions of the two pets. For example, in one scene she describes Moses as “parado,” or “on the stove.” Parado can mean either “standing,” “stationed,” or “stopped.” Although we originally rendered the phrase as “standing on the stove,” we decided that this translation provided a more limited visual image than the original text intends: Moses could be standing up on his hind legs or on all fours or crouched, or arranged in any number of other positions. We finally settled on “Moses was on top of the stove,” leaving his bodily configuration entirely up to the reader’s imagination, as Dávila does in the original. This openness seemed especially important given the complete absence of description of Moses’s physicality, which invites the reader to supply his or her own image.

Although Dávila did not affiliate with Surrealism as Remedios Varo did, seeing parallels between her dark, gemlike stories and Varo’s brilliant and enigmatic canvases is unavoidable: their mutual interest in animals and hybrid creatures, their use of dreams as creative raw material, their startling images of domestic scenes that challenge preconceived notions about the hierarchies and customs that rule everyday bourgeois life in mid-twentieth-century Mexico (and beyond, as both of their bodies of work can be said to traffic in universal rather than regional themes). A brush with their work also leaves the slightly troubling, yet thrilling, sense that invisible currents and patterns of meaning course all around us and that we might be able to grasp them, if only we knew how to decipher them.


Audrey Harris teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles. More of her recent writing can be found here.