An Indecipherable Design
J.S. DeYoung reviews Amparo Dávila’s The Houseguest (trans. Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson)
There’s no escape in Amparo Dávila’s fiction. None. Even when characters do escape trouble in a physical sense, well, events shatter them psychologically. In Dávila’s world, ordinary people are trapped with demonic children, confronted by doppelgängers, stalked by murderous creatures, and, most insidiously, warped by their own ginned-up, misguided beliefs: those unsettling beliefs that assert, menacingly, You’re in danger. Dávila is an expert at conjuring up the sorts of disturbances that feel real even though you know, consciously, they’re not. As she has said of her work: “What I do in literature is come and go from reality to fantasy, from fantasy to reality, the way life itself does.”
The stories in The Houseguest are primarily unnerving tales of horror. But they are horror stories in a classic vein, as Dávila limits her use of blood and gore while heightening the spooky, the uncanny, and extreme states of mind, until she snaps off each story to leave her reader dangling, lingering in the disquiet of the events. Although Dávila claims she didn’t read Edgar Allan Poe until well after publishing her first collections of short fiction, it’s impossible not to compare her to the master.
Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1928, Dávila learned to love literature in her father’s library, poring over a handsome edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Gustave Doré’s famous, grim illustrations of hell, torture, and rapacious demons undoubtedly frightened and fascinated her — and, along with reading Dante, the death of her younger brother and the morbid happenstance of her hometown having the only cemetery in the area left a certain impression on her about our fleeting, ineluctably diminishing timespan. As she began to write fiction, she was influenced by writers with an interest in the uncanny, such as Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Juan Rulfo, and especially Alfonso Reyes, with whom she had close, personal relationship as his secretary. Reyes encouraged Dávila to publish her work at a time when women in Mexico didn’t often circulate their writings. Her first book of stories, Tiempo destrozado, was published in 1959, just six years after women in Mexico gained suffrage.
By her own admission, Dávila is an undisciplined writer, writing only when ideas come to her and nag to be transformed into stories. Because of this practice, her body of work unfortunately pales in comparison to the writers of her generation (eg. Borges) with whom critics have generally associated her. But her reputation isn’t slight. She has deep roots in her native Mexico, where an award for young writers, the Premio Nacional de Cuento Fantástico Amparo Dávila, was named after her, and her profile seems likely to expand internationally with the publication of The Houseguest.
Full of wickedness and unpleasant events, The Houseguest comprises a career-spanning selection of twelve of Dávila’s short stories, edited and translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson. The collection opens with the fog-rich ‘Moses and Gaspar’. As with most of the stories in this collection, a domestic gloom hovers over the story, and although things begin on familiar enough territory, a succession of ambiguities and lacunae slowly ratchet up the tension. The setup: Leonidas has died and it falls to the narrator, Leonidas’ closest living relative, to arrange his burial and continue to care for Moses and Gaspar. But who or what are Moses and Gaspar? It’s hard to say. Leonidas’ pets? Perhaps. Demons? Conceivably. Creatures of some ghastly pedigree? Most likely.
When the narrator returns from Leonidas’ funeral, he finds the skin-and-bone creatures, with their terrible gazes, crouching in the shadows, “silently weeping” for their deceased master. Reluctantly, the narrator takes responsibility for caring for them, but his decision ends up ruining his life. Their feeding schedule is precise and onerous. Their appetites are fussy. The woman he is seeing runs from them in terror and refuses to return to his apartment. While he is out at work, Moses and Gaspar cause such a clamorous uproar that the building manager evicts all three of them. Eventually, the narrator loses his job because of how dedicated he has become — must become! — to Leonidas’s demanding companions. Ultimately, they all flee to the countryside. “There the three of us will live,” the narrator says in a poetic yet doom-laden monologue, “far from everything but safe from ambush and assault, tightly joined by an invisible bond, by a stark, cold hatred and an indecipherable design.”
What makes ‘Moses and Gaspar’ and many of the other stories in The Houseguest compelling is the sympathy and empathy that Dávila renders so vibrantly. Despite the narrator’s clear hatred for his two wards, he still looks upon Moses and Gaspar with compassion, acknowledging they are both ensnared in the turmoil of losing Leonidas:
[W]hat tortured me the most was their hopeless grief. The way they searched for Leonidas and stood waiting for him at the door. Sometimes, when I came home from work, they ran jubilantly to greet me, but as soon as they saw it was me, they put on such disappointed, suffering faces that I broke down and wept along with them. This was the only thing we shared.
In this anguishing tale, we can see the push and pull between fantasy and reality that Dávila often works with. In the interplay between the vaguely defined manifestations of duty and obligation, and the reality of the characters’ collective sadness, we get something honest, something that speaks to the human condition despite the strangeness of the situation. Who hasn’t felt duty-bound to breaking point? Who hasn’t grieved?
Like the authors of the best classic horror, Dávila also explores unrequited love as the emotional state that most easily twists our sensibilities and blackens our hearts. In ‘The Cell’, we are placed in the company of a dark entity that will stop at nothing to lay claim to the woman it desires. In ‘Musique Concrète’, a wife is certain that she is being stalked by a murderous toad woman — no, you didn’t read that wrong — who is also having an affair with her husband. The narrator tries to reason with her, to which she responds, chillingly, “It’s her there beneath my window every night, that croaking and croaking and croaking all night long…” And in the ‘The Breakfast’, a young woman’s vivid dream of murdering her lover becomes all too real.
It is, however, in ‘Tina Reyes’ — perhaps the best story in the book — that Dávila takes the psychology of unrequited love and loneliness to its most torturous extreme. Poor Tina is jealous of a friend’s good fortune. Whereas her friend is happily married and has an enviable job, Tina works a job she hates, lives in a bad neighbourhood, and feels lonesome — so lonesome that she convinces herself it’s her “destiny to be left alone in the world.” While commuting to visit her friend, a stranger sees her and tries to talk to her. He comes on a bit strong, but he does nothing physically untoward. Still, Tina is unnerved by the man’s presence and quickens her pace, nearly to a run, until she safely reaches her friend’s apartment. Later, upon returning home, she sees the man again, and again he pursues her, wanting just to talk, to introduce himself more thoughtfully, to ask for a little of her time, to get to know her better. “Is this where you live?” he wonders. Tina sinks deeper and deeper into paranoia, convinced that the man intends to rape or kill her, that he undoubtedly has an accomplice in a nearby taxi ready to drive them both away. And for nine pages of this sixteen-page story, Dávila turns the screws on Tina through the presence of a man who is rather ineffectual. He, too, is lonesome. He suffers from heartbreak. He actually starts to seem like a sweet guy. But Tina’s imagination goes wild, imprisoning her in suspicions of peril. The story crescendos with one of the few strokes of stylistically experimental writing in The Houseguest:
She had crossed the threshold of her destiny had passed through the door of a sordid hotel room and went running down the street in a frantic desperate race crashing into people running into them all like bodies alone in the dark that meet intertwine join together separate join together again panting voracious insatiable possessing and possessed rising and falling riding in a blind race to the end with a collapse a sudden fall into nothingness outside of time and space.
It’s a fantastic suspense story, masterfully told, and with this streak of unpunctuated prose it quickens the pace for its final jolt.
Otherwise, though, Dávila takes experimental risks sparingly, and in general she uses experimentalism only to serve the psychology of her characters. For the most part, the stories in The Houseguest are what a teacher I once had would call “well-made”: they follow a standard story arc, with clear iterations of conflict, written in prose as uncomplicated and unadorned as a children’s reader. They are structurally tame accounts of wildly untamed events. Not all of them will hold you to your seat, but many will: ‘End of a Struggle’ continues to haunt me, as I ponder which doppelganger survived, and the imagery in ‘Haute Cuisine’ has changed the way I’ll look at lobsters in tanks of water from here on out.
Also unforgettable is the brutality of the title story. Like all skilful horror writers, in this story Dávila draws the reader in to become a participant in the action. The screams, the pounding at the door, the clawing and scratching as a character starves to death — these things will somehow feel partly your doing, too. As evil is met with evil, you’ll sympathise with the boy in the room even though you hate him, you’ll understand the woman who put him away in there because she felt vulnerable, and you’ll sense yourself being placed in a nerve-jangling, participatory role, waiting those long two weeks, as the boy’s moans grow quieter, his pounding weaker, and then, finally, silence. There’s no escape, you see. Not for Dávila’s characters, and, in her best stories, not for her readers either.