In a 1984 interview in the Paris Review, novelist Julio Cortázar likened the art of writing fiction to playing a game: “For me, literature is a form of play,” he said. “But I’ve always added that there are two forms of play: football, for example, which is basically a game, and then games that are very profound and serious. … Literature is like that — it’s a game, but it’s a game one can put one’s life into.”
In “The Houseguest and Other Stories,” Amparo Dávila seems to hold to a similar ethos and tradition. It is the first collection by the 90-year-old Mexican writer to appear in English. Translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, Dávila’s stories contain a playfulness that, not unlike the work of Cortázar, can be intense and deeply unsettling in the best ways.
This is a book of beautifully wrought nightmares, one that frequently leaves you searching for breath and looking over your shoulder. To read these 12 stories is to inhabit a world of strange and oftentimes gruesome ideas, all of which blur the lines of fantasy and reality. In Dávila’s fiction, ambiguity reigns supreme. Some of her most evocative stories, in fact, possess such a psychological vigor that the imagined feels hauntingly real and urgent. They often begin with some sort of disruption that threatens to alter a character’s life forever.
“Moses and Gaspar,” the first story in the book, introduces us to José. After the tragic death of his brother, José inherits his two animals, which, admittedly, he was never very fond of. “I felt uncomfortable in their presence,” he says, “as though I were always being watched.” What kind of creatures they are is never made clear; are they cats, dogs, something else? Demons? We don’t know exactly, but gradually these demanding and grisly companions take to ruining José’s life, causing him to make unimaginable compromises that get more disturbing as time passes.
Dávila is a master at playing, and preying, on her characters’ fears, as well as their disillusionment with the world around them. There’s a certain brutality to it, how she puts them in situations where they’re made to either continue enduring whatever madness they find themselves in or break free from it.
In the title story, a husband invites a man he met on a trip to move into his home, against his wife’s wishes. “I begged my husband not to condemn me to the torture of his company … he filled me with mistrust and horror.” This houseguest — “grim, sinister, with large yellowish eyes” — begins to stalk the wife, the children and the maid; he terrorizes them to the point of violence. After the maid’s son is badly beaten by the man, the husband, with cutting indifference, accuses his wife of being hysterical, arguing that their guest is harmless. But when the husband leaves for a business trip, the wife and maid, anguished and fearing for their lives and the lives of their children, resort to taking matters into their own hands. What follows is the stuff of Hitchcock-level suspense, of victims choosing retribution and escape — though in Dávila’s world no one can ever truly escape — in the presence of a towering threat.
It becomes apparent that one of Dávila’s greatest gifts is conjuring up images so engrossing that you’re immediately invested in whatever dilemma her characters face. In “End of a Struggle,” a man crosses paths with not a twin or a look-alike, but himself. The resemblance is so clear and so tormenting that he questions his own humanity in the process, desperately wondering whether he is the real man or the living shadow of the man. In “The Breakfast,” a troubled young woman sits at the table with her family recounting a lucid dream about her lover’s terrible murder. The tale takes a sharp and unexpected turn toward the end, leaving one ultimately struck by what the author was able to invoke in just a few short pages. These stories, originally published from 1959 to 1977, linger long after you’ve set the book down.
In the final story, “The Funeral,” which is dedicated to Cortázar and his first wife, Aurora, a man awakes in a hospital, confused and unsure as to how he got there. After being discharged a month later and placed in the care of his wife and children, he is forced to confront himself — lonely, dejected and, quite possibly, already dead. Even when Dávila’s characters try to do everything in their power to resist an inevitable fate, they cannot escape the page. And neither can the reader. We are trapped, held captive at the mercy of the very real and raw world of the mind — ours and the author’s. Dávila is a marvel, and this book casts a delightful and disconcerting spell.
Vidal, a writer and critic, is author of the memoir “Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.”
New Directions: 144 pp., $14.95 paper