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Ghosts Embodied: The Visions of Amparo Davila

By Darren Huang.


Amparo Dávila, The Houseguest and Other Stories, trans.by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, New Directions, 2018

Vladimir Nabokov once took interest in a philosophical theory that time was non-linear and that dreams could contain premonitions of the future. The insomniac writer famously argued against any interpretation of dreams, but in his notebooks, he meticulously described dream sequences, some of which he suggested might have been prophetic of later events. In an extension of this tradition, dreamed ghosts and phantoms from the past violently intrude into the nightmarish fictions of Mexican short story writer Amparo Dávila. The author has recently received overdue critical acclaim for her psychological intensity and her precise examination of loneliness, fear and delusion. Her first collection to appear in English, The Houseguest and Other Stories, published this year by New Directions and translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, traps its characters within their obsessive desires. They either succumb, or they escape through a form of retribution against the ghosts that have haunted them.

Dávila embodies the shapeless terrors of the mind in bedrooms, basements and kitchen corners. Her inescapably bleak worlds are reminiscent of European fabulists such as Kafka and Schulz. In her fiction, the imagined can become terrifyingly real, and the real can seem imagined. She is a poet of dread and brilliantly articulates the ways it congeals and suffocates us until we are immobilised in its claws.

The typical arc of the Dávila story describes a violent disturbance of an ordinary state of affairs. It begins with a disruptive visit, one in which a menacing and hostile visitor starts to oppress the protagonist. The visitor becomes pestilential, as if a storm that broods over every hour of the protagonist’s life. The protagonist becomes a victim of the visitor’s form of tyrannical control, from which the protagonist attempts to liberate himself. In ‘Moses and Gaspar’, an accountant, Jose, inherits two shadowy creatures from his recently deceased brother, Leonidas. They start to terrorise him with their mischief and their uncompromising demands for food and space. Jose is evicted from a series of apartments for the creatures’ shrieking and loses both his job and his only romantic relationship. Essentially, the arc develops as the creatures tighten their grip on Jose. The creatures have forced him into a cell and continue to erect bars that limit any possibility of escape. They have crowded out his old life and become his only reality. Jose can never return to the placid, unremarkable life prior to the disturbance because Moses and Gaspar have become permanent residents in his household.

Dávila’s stories are unique for their sense of finality. These characters can only travel on a single inevitable path. One never feels they have much agency in their dark, phantasmorgic worlds. They are conveyed to their conclusions at a high, accelerating velocity. In the case of Jose, his only options are to either murder the creatures or submit to their desires. He realises the former option is just a fantasy, not an option at all, because destroying them would be destroying a part of his brother’s legacy. In this fashion, Dávila’s stories cage their characters by showing the impossibility of alternate paths. They suggest and then pummel into their characters the fatalism of their lives. They are reminiscent of works by Garcia Marquez, particularly Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which a character is aware of his fateful end, seeks to escape that fate, but realises that it is completely immutable. By the conclusion of the story, Jose resigns himself to living within the shadow cast by his brother’s legacy: “I don’t blame you, Leonidas: even if this is your doing, it was meant to be; ‘we could have circled around a thousand times, and always ended up where we began.’”

Dávila consistently returns to the idea of an unsettled legacy that insists itself on the present. In the cleverly inventive ‘End of a Struggle’, Duran encounters a double who is identical in appearance and travels with a beautiful woman who resembles a former lover, Lilia. As Duran obsessively pursues his double, he starts to reminisce about his passionate relationship with Lilia. He remembers that he had been deeply enamoured with the girl, who had been cold, calculating, and commanding. At the end of their fitful romance, he had been humiliated. He suffered a long period of time grieving his loss until he had met Flora, his present wife, who he married without passion and more for the reason of extinguishing any desire for Lilia. Duran’s double is another variation of Dávila’s framing with an unwelcome visit. It represents a recrudescence of the past, a haunting by a trauma that has been inadequately suppressed. But if the double seems at first like a ghost or a delusion, it rapidly becomes an undeniable part of Duran’s reality. Like many of Dávila’s phantoms, it starts as a shadow but quickly assumes flesh and blood. The life of the double becomes substantial. Duran feels as if he is living two lives, one with his wife and the other with his former lover. He cannot coexist with his double because it threatens his independence and his unity of self. Dávila describes Duran’s sense of disorientation as he realises that his double’s life with Lilia is as real as his own: “He lived there with Lilia. He couldn’t go on like this. He had to talk to them, to know everything. To put an end to this double life. He didn’t want to keep living with his wife and with Lilia at the same time. He loved Flora in a tranquil, serene way. He had loved Lilia desperately, agonisingly, always humiliated by her. He had them both, he caressed them, he enjoyed them at the same time.” The double is not an independent soul, “not a twin or a lookalike”, but an extension of Duran’s consciousness to which he has access. It is like the corporeal form of the Freudian id, a physical secretion from the mind. The double is able to commit the vengeful violence, of which Duran was never capable. It is an aggregate of old desire, humiliation and hatred.

Amparo Dávila

For Duran, the double is an object of fear because it threatens his autonomy. But it is also an object of envy because it represents the fulfilment of desire. It is both fantasy and nightmare, both angel and demon. Predictably, ‘End of a Struggle’ concludes with the destruction of one of the Durans. But we are uncertain which of them has been vanquished. Dávila is deliberate about this ambiguity: “He had to make it to the end, keep going until only Duran remained, or the other one…” The uncertainty makes manifest the question that has been gathering in the reader’s mind since the beginning of the story: Who is the real Duran? Perhaps the Duran who has lived more passionately and in accordance with his will and desire is more real than the one who has suppressed himself. Arguably, the first Duran is the actual double, only a shadow of the other. 

Once Dávila’s ghosts make their appearance, they become permanently tethered to their victims, as if they were the shadows of the characters they stalk. Their visits are regular rather than sporadic. They are omnipresent and often omniscient. The ghost becomes most indistinct from a lover in the story, ‘The Cell’, another variation on the plot in which a character attempts to extricate herself from a long-standing demonic presence. Maria starts receiving visits from a vaguely described ghost, one that torments her nightly in her bedroom. The appearance of a suitor, Jose Juan, suggests to Maria the possibility of an escape. The speedy courtship results in an engagement, and she is poised to leave her house and the ghost behind. Just when Maria seems to have found her salvation, she becomes disenchanted with both Juan and the idea of marriage. Dávila shows that Juan and married life have become as oppressive as the ghost once was: “She only wanted a rest from this tremendous sense of fatigue, from going all day from one place to another, speaking with a hundred people, giving her opinion, choosing things, hearing Jose Juan’s voice… She wanted to stay in her room, alone, without seeing anyone, not even her mother and Clara, to be alone, close her eyes, forget everything, not hear a single word, nothing, ‘the house, furniture, the rugs, the white clothing, the curtains, the house, the dressmaker, the furniture, the tableware…”’ Maria cannot tolerate the fatigue of ordinary married life. Maria realises that she has deluded herself into thinking that marriage would offer her freedom. She has simply moved herself from one prison cell to another. Jose Juan has become another captor. Ironically, once Maria has committed herself to Juan, she finds refuge in returning back to her bedroom and the ghost. Like Jose in ‘Moses and Gaspar’, Maria circles around and around but she can only return to the beginning. In Dávila’s fiction, once characters start living their dreams of freedom, they realise they have had freedom all along. Dávila allows Maria to experience her fantasy only to have her suffer the sobering reality. In this sense, all of Dávila’s stories can be read as arcs of disenchantment—her characters discover that their imagined freedoms are actually more suffocating forms of captivity.

In ‘The Cell’, Maria is really moving from one form of submission to another. The story implies that Maria can only find happiness when she is in the arms of a lover. Dávila shows us that she is at her happiest when she thinks Jose Juan will be away and she can be alone with the presence in her bedroom: “Maria understood everything in that moment. And she knew why she was so happy. She had been claimed for ever. Nothing else would matter now. She was like ivy attached to a gigantic tree, submissive and trusting.” There is an unsettling degree of submissiveness in the obsessive way that Maria clings to the ghost. It is troubling that she is willing to accept a masochistic arrangement in which she remains dependent on another individual, whether human or otherwise. She is unusual in the collection because most of Dávila’s characters continue to resist their fates until they either annihilate the oppressor or are annihilated themselves.

In ‘Moses and Gaspar’, Jose resists Moses and Gaspar until they have destroyed his romantic relationships, his finances and, essentially, his entire life. In ‘Oscar’, the creature terrorises the family until its children manage a way to leave the creature behind forever. In the title story, ‘The Houseguest’, the protagonist permanently banishes her husband’s guest after she suffers a period of violent abuse. Dávila’s characters are always seizing back agency over their lives. They are engaged in life or death struggles because the ghosts intend on pursuing the characters until their destruction. But Dávila’s characters are not heroic so much as desperate. They are like caged animals motivated primarily by instinct, fear and the will to survive.

Though these characters act instinctually, they are still dithering, calculating their every move, and considering and reconsidering their limited options. Dávila’s stories are tightly compressed and highly linear, but her character psychology is expansive and tortuous. The ghost becomes an embodiment of a latent fear or desire. In ‘Tina Reyes’, Christina is a spinster who pines for a husband and children to save her from her loneliness. Dávila maps out her character fully. She is a romantic who disapproves of the licentiousness of the girls from a nearby bar and believes “she was so different, she believed in love, in holding hands, in moonlit nights, in tender words and gazes…” On a trip to her friend’s house, a strange young man, interested in courting her, aggressively pursues her until she begrudgingly accepts his invitation to have a soda. Christina becomes possessed by the idea that the strange man will rape and murder her. Instead, the man is surprisingly gracious and shows himself to be similarly romantic. The young man represents a perversion of her foremost desire—that is, to fall in love. He enacts precisely what Christina has dreamed: he presses her hand tightly between his, he praises her tenderly, and he gazes into her eyes. When her dream has manifested itself in reality, it pursues her like a nightmare. Like in ‘The Cell’, the dream, when actually lived, is corrupted, shown to be an empty promise. What both characters fervently desired was actually what they feared the most.

Dávila’s highly focused collection is primarily concerned with the ways that delusions can transcend the constraints of the mind and embody themselves in reality. Her intense and terrifying vision is confining—her stories darken, snuffing out hope rather than illuminating. Her characters agonise in rooms whose long, circuitous exits lead only into the same rooms. They are carried from the land of the real to that of fantasy and then back. In this collection, dreaming becomes a self-endangering act. Dreams imprison rather than liberate, they paralyse rather than mobilise, and they make us go mad with our longing to be free of them.


Darren Huang

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, and The Margins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 6th, 2018.