The Houseguest

The Mexican writer Amparo Davila first came to my attention when she appeared as a character (or two characters) in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest. At that time none of her work was easily available in English but, luckily, only a few months later we have a collection of her short stories, The Houseguest, translated by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson.

‘The Houseguest’ is one of twelve stories in the collection, but the title is aptly chosen as so many of them allude to a strange, often threatening, presence in a domestic setting. The title story opens with:

“I’ll never forget the day he came to live with us. My husband brought him home from a trip.”

The ‘he’ of the story remains unexplained and only vaguely defined, but from the first moment the narrator reacts with disgust:

“I couldn’t suppress a cry of horror the first time I saw him. He was grim, sinister, with large yellowish eyes, unblinking and almost circular, that seemed to pierce through things and people.”

The horror continues until one might the narrator wakes up to find him standing next to her bed, “staring at me with his piercing gaze” and decides to take matters into her own hands. The first story, ‘Moses and Gasper’, also focuses on the unwanted guests of the title, who are inherited by the narrator when his brother dies:

“The only things he left me in charge of were his burial and the care of Moses and Gaspar.”

Again, their humanity is left in doubt, though the horror they inspire is not, as we discover when the narrator’s occasional lover arrives at his apartment:

“When Susy entered the bedroom, she saw Moses and Gaspar there, cornered in fright under the sofa. She turned so pale that I thought she was going to faint, then screamed like a lunatic and dashed down the stairs.”

Eventually the pair disrupt the narrator’s life entirely, but even then he is “afraid to plumb the shadowy mystery of their being.” In ‘Oscar’ a young woman, Monica, returns home with a sense of apprehension: “Her fear of facing the rest of the family had made her extremely tense and nervous.” Although pleased to see her parents, sister and brother, there is another presence in the house – Oscar:

“From the cellar, Oscar directed their lives; so it had always been, and so it would continue to be.”

The story charts the effect of Oscar’s destructive tendencies on the family, the “never-ending nightmare” that Monica has returned to.

It is easy to see why Davila so often choses domestic spaces for these nightmarish creatures who come to inhabit the one place we cannot escape from. For her characters, running away is not an option. Even without unwanted guests, her stories often have a domestic setting. In ‘Fragment of a Diary’ the narrator exposes her suffering to her neighbours on the communal stair:

“I’ve always liked stairways, with their people who go dragging their breath up them and fall dully down them in a shapeless mass. Maybe that’s why I chose the stairs to suffer on.”

Here the unwanted presence is the kindness of a neighbour, unwanted as the narrator has devoted themselves to suffering:

“It happened again. Just as the last rays of the afternoon sun bathed the steps. I still feel her hand in mine, which fled from her touch.”

In ‘Musique Concrete’, a typical love triangle is given a surreal makeover. It begins when Sergio encounters an old friend, Marcela, and is surprised by her “wilted face and obvious self-neglect.” It transpires that she believes that her husband is having an affair, but goes on to claim that the woman enters her house at night as a toad:

“I got up and ran to the door of my room, and there she was in the hall a few steps from my door, just one hop away from entering – staring at me with her huge eyes which seemed to be popping out of their sockets – about to leap on top of me.”

Sergio, of course, dismisses this as “worked-up nerves”, before going to visit the woman in question himself.

The Houseguest is a wonderfully eerie collection of stories. Davila does not shy away from such classic tropes as the double in ‘End of a Struggle’ (’The Funeral’ contains another but to say which would spoil it). She is also not afraid to play on the expectations her work raises, as she does in ‘Tina Reyes’. All of these rightly suggest a writer at the height of their craft, and one, it is to be hoped, we shall hear a lot more of.

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6 Responses to “The Houseguest”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oooh, sounds most unusual Grant! Very unsettling!

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    I love the sound of these – the domestic setting lends itself so well to a sense of threat.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    At first I thought these pieces sounded a little like the work of Silvina Ocampo, but then Yoko Ogawa’s unsettling stories came to mind. Either way, them seen very effective. There is something terribly unnerving about the use of a domestic setting in this type of fiction, a sense of the home being invaded by unnatural forces.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I’ve read some of Ogawa’s stories and they definitely have something in common. I suspect the domestic setting allows writers to echo the way in which people feel trapped in their lives.

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