JUNE 26, 2020
Oftentimes during the day I cried with the cold, and at night with cold and fear. […] A woman dressed in white, holding a lighted candle, pale and eyeless, searched for something throughout the long night, the doors and windows and furniture creaked, shapes and shadows moved past, there came voices, whispers, moans, and the sound of a man with a wooden leg thumping dully by, amid the howling wind, the phonograph music, and the laughter of the prostitutes in the alley. So the night would go by; many nights of my childhood went by this way.
— “Notes Toward an Autobiographical Essay”
[A] cold and sticky sweat trickles down my forehead, my heart beats loudly, and a thousand shadows stir. I shrink into my bed until I’m curled into a ball and pull the blankets up to my nose. I try to think about Christmas or my birthday, about school prizes, but it’s useless, nothing can distract me or calm my fears. […] Time slows down, and the nights are eternal. Shadows coming and going, murmurs, footsteps, the rustle of monks’ habits, flutterings, dragging chains, whispered prayers, low moans, an icy wind cutting me to the bone, and then the bishop without a face before me, his face gone, his eyes gone, empty …
— “The Tomb Garden”
AMPARO DÁVILA’S CHILDHOOD, as she describes it, was freighted with death and fear. Pinos, in the cold, foggy heights of Zacatecas state in Mexico, was a mining town whose mines had fallen into dereliction by the time she was born, in 1928. Her brother died as a child, and in the disorder caused by her mother’s grief, she was left to wander the hills and play at being an alchemist. The sight of corpses brought from nearby towns that had no cemeteries, “sprawled in the bed of a cart, draped over the back of a mule, or in a rough-hewn box,” left a lifelong impression on her. She was often housebound with sickness and terrorized by nocturnal parades of phantoms and frights. These night terrors didn’t dissipate when she grew up: she credits a Spanish psychiatrist named Federico Pascual del Roncal, to whom the author Alfonso Reyes introduced her in Mexico City, with helping her deal with them. Both Reyes and Roncal were “Virgils” to her, leading her like Dante through and out of the circles of hell.
She made a name for herself as a writer in Mexico in the 1950s and 1960s, then fell out of sight sometime after the 1970s, only to be rediscovered and lauded, at the beginning of the new millennium, as one of the country’s great masters of the short story. Now, this past April 18, at the age of 92, she passed away, less than a month after adding the Jorge Ibargüengoitia Prize to her list of literary awards. It was scarcely two years ago that she had her book-length debut in English, when Audrey Harris and I translated, for New Directions Press, a selection of stories from across her career, The Houseguest and Other Stories.
Dávila’s eerie childhood, steeped in death and morbidity, is congruent with the way people tend to cite her as a writer of the “fantastic,” even sometimes of “horror.” Still, to describe her work that way is to evoke genre definitions that are irrelevant to what she saw herself doing with her writing. True, her stories are full of supernatural presences, uncanny creatures, and hauntings — the sinister toad that stalks a woman in “Musique Concrète,” the man who sees his own self walk by with a possibly familiar woman on his arm in “End of a Struggle.” In many cases, however, these things might possibly be imagined. Moreover, half of her stories don’t involve the supernatural at all. When she was asked what she wrote about, Dávila would repeatedly say that she had three “fundamental concerns” — love, madness, and death — and that she wasn’t really interested in imagination or cerebral invention but rather in lived experience.
Dávila’s stories sometimes strike me as being like houses with prominent windows. The edifice itself, the larger framing, is cool, solid, controlled: a spare, skillful placement of materials. Subtle details build up the characters and setting, in a precise language that never shows off. But at some point, we get a peek through the window — or perhaps we’re grabbed by the shoulders and yanked inside. And suddenly things are panicked and anxious, with molten sentences breaking down into fragments sewn together with commas or ellipses. This desperate subjectivity can have a bit of the flavor of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”: beyond the window lies a mind in a state of extremity, unmoored and alone. These extreme states include sudden breakdowns, like the inexplicable one experienced by the daughter in “The Breakfast,” or the age-old fear of ghosts and the dark, as in “The Tomb Garden.” Dávila slips dexterously between these two modes, her clean narrative formality giving way persistently to hysteria and madness, until the reader can no longer be sure which mode more accurately represents “reality.”
Hysteria isn’t gendered in Dávila’s work: her male characters, too, are often desperate, frightened, and distraught. The night terrors of the protagonist of “The Tomb Garden” vividly echo Dávila’s descriptions of her own experiences as a child. But, in that story, her deeply personal fears are displaced onto a womanizing, alcoholic male writer, transfigured into a remarkable study of how this man became who he is. Her stories often give voice to fear, but they master it at the same time. She can end a narrative with succinct, devastating control: “When my husband returned, we greeted him with the news of his guest’s sudden and disconcerting death” — this closing sentence, from “The Houseguest,” transforms the narrator from someone victimized by fear to someone who can cool-headedly dissemble dismay for her own purposes. Despite her reputation as a Gothicist, Dávila deserves to be better known for her dry wit and humor; indeed, for all their darkness, many of her stories are written in a comic mode.
The Mexico Dávila shows us seems more true-to-life and less fantastic to me with every day I live here: the sleepy pueblos with their big houses ranged around square patios; young men working gray office jobs or young women from the provinces scraping by in sweater factories in the capital; the comfortable lives of a lady breakfasting in Sanborns or a businessman flush enough with capital to install a young French lover in her own apartment. And also, the fog and the mist; the threat of persecution by strange creatures, whether toads or things less recognizable; the shrieks of small animals boiled alive to be served as a delicacy; and, most of all, the desperation of confinement in a home that’s no safe place at all.
In Dávila’s stories, the home is a site of danger, oppression, and sinister possibilities, especially for women. A quintessential example is “The Cell,” in which a young woman is trapped between a secret abuser and a suffocating life, fleeing to one to escape the other, then disturbingly reversing, yet with real freedom never an option. When Audrey Harris and I interviewed Dávila in 2017, as we prepared our translations of her stories for publication, we asked her about the violence experienced by women in her work. She simply said, “Ah, well, that’s just daily life.” However hard you try to glue the label “fantastic fiction” on her work, the heat of the real burns it away. In the days of pandemic and lockdown in which I’m writing this, as domestic violence shoots up, it has become distressingly clear that many people, particularly women, are living the frightening “no way out” of a Dávila story. To celebrate her, and entertain people sheltering in place, they’ve been reading her stories over the radio here. I don’t know what to think. Will the more traumatic of her tales cut too close to the bone right now? Or will they give people a feeling of liberation?
In nearly all of Dávila’s stories, her protagonists seem fundamentally alone: there is rarely anyone in their world to whom they can explain themselves or with whom they can find a connection. This is true not only of her confined women but also of both male and female characters facing alienation, crushing romantic disappointment, eerie goings-on, or illness and death. They vent themselves in speech without an interlocutor, as if at the bottom of a well. Yet this vulnerable solitude is precisely what lets them communicate so powerfully to us, beyond the page, in the solitude of our own reading.
Dávila’s companions when she was a child were animals: her dogs, who rambled the hills with her; her cats, who crept into her bed on cold nights. Also, as she told Audrey and me in conversation, there was a pair of deer who lived on the hacienda, one of whom would tap on her door with his hooves to invite her out to play. Other companions, during the days she spent sick indoors, were the books in her father’s library, most notably an edition of Dante’s Inferno with engravings by Gustave Doré.
In her 20s, Dávila moved to Mexico City to be a writer, after swimming in the smaller pond of San Luis Potosí. Her father found this career unthinkable for a girl and told her that she didn’t have the talent to write. Her desire to study had been frustrated before this: promises made by her parents to continue her education past secondary school had been laid aside and forgotten. Eventually, Amparo prevailed; according to her, her father finally said, “Fine, do what you like, but just don’t make me look ridiculous.” When her first book of stories, Tiempo destrozado [Shattered Time], came out in 1959, she dedicated it to him, gently vindicating herself.
She began with poetry. Her first book, Salmos bajo la luna [Psalms Beneath the Moon], was published in 1950, while she was still in San Luis Potosí. It conveys the voice of a young writer under the influence of the Psalms and the Song of Songs — she has called these poems a “profane” version of religious poetry — but one who also earnestly declares very personal anguish, rapture, and nostalgia. Two other books of poems, Perfil de soledades [Contours of Solitude] and Meditaciones a la orilla del sueño [Meditations on the Edge of Sleep], appeared in 1954, the same year she moved to Mexico City; both are full of moody laments expressing loneliness, loss, and sadness, written in a stately free verse. I wonder if I’m the only one who detects a Whitmanesque blending into nature — but a melancholy, frail counter-Whitman — in lines like these (from “Perfil de soledades”):
Who would read me,
lower your eyes to the moss,
the very root of weeping,
where the lineaments of anguish
are nourished and given shape.
It’s useless to look for me in the green tree
that sings its prodigal summer,
its noontime of birds
and the girlish agility of a hope.
It was Alfonso Reyes who encouraged Dávila to try her hand at prose. The word “writer” doesn’t quite do it when describing the magisterial Reyes, a monumental figure in Mexican literature throughout the first half of the 20th century and an erudite man of letters of the all-encompassing sort one seldom encounters in the United States. He wrote poetry, plays, fiction, works of philosophy, translations of classical and medieval literature, essays on pre-Hispanic history, literary criticism, and more; the home he worked from is today a library known as La Capilla Alfonsina: the Alfonsine Chapel. He was also known for encouraging and mentoring writers such as Carlos Fuentes.
The young Dávila met Reyes in a class he gave in San Luis Potosí, then fortuitously ran into him in a public plaza in Guanajuato, where they struck up a conversation and bonded over a shared appreciation for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In Mexico City, she became his secretary for several years. According to Dávila, Reyes considered prose to be a necessary part of the writer’s toolkit, and when she began writing stories, he loved the results and pushed her to publish them in prestigious literary journals. This eventually led to the publication of her first two story collections by Fondo de Cultura Económica, originally founded in the 1930s as a state-sponsored press publishing works of economic theory but which transformed itself into a much broader publisher with an important literary line. By the 1960s and ’70s, she was embedded in circles of Mexican writers including Juan José Arreola, Guadalupe Dueñas, and Homero Aridjis, and for a few years she was married to the Zacatecan painter Pedro Coronel. She speaks fondly too about her friendship with Julio Cortázar, who wrote to her praising her first book of stories and whom she later came to know in Paris.
But in another way her path was quite solitary: as Reyes apparently advised her to do, she eschewed all literary schools and isms, in order to follow her own personal aesthetic ideas and impulses. Each of her books of stories is remarkable, and though she mines certain themes repeatedly, there is a definite evolution. The stories in her first collection, Tiempo destrozado, have a jarring strangeness that’s never explained or apologized for and that feels like icy water tossed in the reader’s face. The style is stark, sharp-edged. Many of these early stories remain her most iconic because of how purely they’re distilled: “The Houseguest” (which was in fact the very first story she published, in 1956), “Moses and Gaspar,” “La Señorita Julia.”
Música concreta (1964) feels more expansive, the stories giving themselves room to delve into their characters’ psyches and histories with greater complexity and mastery: “Tina Reyes,” “Musique Concrète,” “The Tomb Garden.” Árboles petrificados [Petrified Trees] came 13 years later, in 1977, and it’s probably her most celebrated book in Mexico, likely because it won the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize (an award also won by Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes). But I can’t single this book out as her absolute best, not because of any defect but simply because the ones that came before are so good, so full of indelible, haunting images. Árboles petrificados splits in multiple directions: some stories (“The Last Summer,” “Oscar”) are masterful character studies, while others (“El patio cuadrado”) are sinuous oneiric journeys; still others are lyrical monologues that explore pure emotion more than the concrete circumstance of plot.
And then, after 1977, her output slowed to a trickle: five more stories published under the title Con los ojos abiertos [With Open Eyes] in 2008, and a few dozen pages of short, spare poems written between 1965 and 2007. All of Dávila’s work has been compiled in two volumes by Fondo de Cultura Económica: one of stories (37 in all) and one of poems (104 pages in total). It’s the density of her artistry rather than the extent of her oeuvre that has made her famous.
Unlike her mentor Reyes, Dávila proved that you don’t have to pronounce on every subject or produce an unceasing flow of work to truly take on the mantle of writer. She described writing as her vocation, as a need … but not a profession. “For me,” she wrote, “literature has been like a long and stubborn love affair in which, as I’ve always admitted, I’ve been an inconstant lover, but not an unfaithful one; and whenever life allows me, I return to it.” She often liked to say that her stories were each sparked by something and simply emerged, mysteriously. (The spark was sometimes dramatic, though: she has said that one story in Música concreta was inspired by a cruel practical joke played by a boyfriend of hers, a doctor, who pretended to have her locked in a psychiatric institution.) She wrote when she had something urgent to express, and she put all of herself into it when she did.
In “Notes Toward an Autobiographical Essay,” she remarked: “I’ve had a complicated, difficult life that has kept me from writing more, though I would have liked to.” In the period after Música concreta was published, she divorced the painter Pedro Coronel and found herself with two daughters to raise, one of whom required greater care and lived with her for many years. I never heard Dávila say that her domestic duties were a hindrance to her career, but the fact of being a woman in Mexican society certainly affected her writing. Lists of household chores appear again and again in her stories, sometimes described in profuse detail. These tasks can at times feel oppressive, even overwhelming, part of a stifling entrapment in the home (I think of the woman in “The Last Summer” who guiltily feels that she can’t handle the burden of yet another child). But other times Dávila’s tone is uninflected by complaint, enumerating her characters’ domestic obligations with meticulous objectivity and a somehow satisfying feeling of being in contact with the basic ground of material life. How often do we imagine artists — almost always men — rising above the inconvenient tasks of mundane existence, including the profound job of caring for small and still-forming human beings? Dávila not only wrote Árboles petrificados during this busy time in her life (thanks to the help of a grant), but also won a major literary award for it. Her daughters appear as characters in one beautiful story in that book.
Translating Dávila, spending time with her words, has been for me a master class in how to read, which essentially means how to listen. She asks you to do it carefully, sensitively, with both rigor and wonder. This is partly because she understands the force that silence has, and knows how to choose with precision not just the words she uses but also the ones she leaves out. Who else could write a story about a man charged with caring for two pets, or wards, without ever revealing just what type of creatures they are? What does it mean that, in “Oscar,” the other members of the household are called “brother” or “sister” or “father,” identified as kin, but Oscar never is? This quiet elision more poignantly enacts the family dynamic than any overt description could possibly do. Why is it simply “they” who are coming for the woman at the end of “The Last Summer”? What does it mean that the father in “The Cell” is essentially an absence, mentioned once in the most glancing way and otherwise ignored? It’s a lacuna that becomes more glaring, and potentially disturbing, the more I think about it, yet it remains an uneasy resonance, not a definable plot point.
The more you read Dávila, the more you notice these gaps and silences, the ones that seem to say, “I’m not going to spell out for you what this story’s about, or even necessarily what’s really happening in it. That’s for you to decide.”
I met Amparo Dávila twice in person. The first time was when Audrey and I visited her in 2017, joined by her daughter Luisa Jaina Coronel. High in the Delegación Magdalena Contreras, in what had once been a pueblo that was now swallowed up in the expanding urban stain of Mexico City, she seemed to live in a bubble of tranquility and suspended time, in a house where the noise of the street didn’t penetrate, full of exquisite paintings and decorations, with an old Olympia typewriter she called her “contemporary” and “only a few” (nine) cats. She had recently come out of the hospital. She was gracious, good-humored, even sparkling, despite her weakened hearing, full of chuckles and pleasant reminiscences.
Her elegant, affectionate personality in no way fulfilled some mythologized version of the dark, morbid, antisocial writer. But I did come away with the impression of someone who understood quite well what pain was, even if she preferred to allude to it lightly rather than discuss it in detail. And why should we pry? Her noninvasive touch with her own characters was a compelling model: letting them gush when they want to or else hold their silence or trail off in ellipses.
I next saw Dávila at her 90th birthday homage in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. She was almost lost in the cushions of the couch onstage. In a frail voice, using a magnifying glass to read from a paper in her hand, she spoke a few brief words that kept everyone riveted. Disarmingly, she said, “I’ve always been fragile and in poor health, and I never imagined I would make it to this age.”
It’s glorious that she did. Now that she’s gone, I’ll miss her deeply. But it pleases me to know that she lived long enough to see the resounding appreciation of her work. As she told me and Audrey, “There are others who leave this world, and no one talks about them.” Kafka, one of her touchstones, died assuming such a fate, even asking for his manuscripts to be burned. By contrast, Dávila had the fortune to watch the world catch up with her after having seemed to forget her for a while, and to meet the new generations who were reading her. It clearly gave her great pleasure to be awarded prizes, to be able to say that so many young people had lined up for her autograph at one event that she had a cramp in her hand for days afterward, to be told that the stories she’d written decades before had a still-fresh something about them, and to see her work appear in other languages (she proudly gave Audrey and me a book of her stories in Slovak). Let’s celebrate these satisfactions as signs of a life well-lived and complete, now that its full, final shape is visible.
I have the sense that Dávila was pleased with the work she’d done. She had troubled and disturbed us; had quietly subverted what the world asks of a writer; had offered us mysteries and gaps we must fill in for ourselves. These are the generous gifts she has left us.
All translations of Dávila’s prose are by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson. The translation from “Perfil de soledades” is by Matthew Gleeson.
Matthew Gleeson is based in Oaxaca, Mexico. He co-translated (with Audrey Harris) Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest and Other Stories (New Directions, 2018), and they are currently working together on translating the rest of Dávila’s stories.