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). Read More