Of Love, Madness, and Death: Notes Toward a Literary Autobiography
Amparo Davila, at 90, Begins to Consider the Life That Was
Pinos, the town where I was born, is the village of Agustín Yáñez’s women in mourning, and it is also Luvina, where from morning to night, from the day you’re born until the day you die, all you hear is the wind. Perched on a mountaintop and always surrounded by clouds, from afar it looks almost unreal, with its high steeples, its sharply sloping streets, and its long, narrow alleys. Pinos is an old and chilly mining town in Zacatecas; its past is gold and silver and its present is an uncertain one of abandoned mines.
I was born in the big house of the village and through the window panes I watched life pass by—that is to say, death, because life had long since come to a halt in that town. Death passed in a daily caravan. There were no cemeteries in many of the nearby ranches, so the people came to Pinos to bury their dead. I would watch the corpses arrive sprawled in the bed of a cart, draped over the back of a mule, or sometimes lying in a rough-hewn box. Behind the window panes there weren’t many hopes of life for me either, but portents of death abounded; my brother Luis Ángel had died, and I was a lonely, sickly girl.
Next to our home stood my paternal grandfather’s house, which had two rooms in it that I’ve never forgotten: a very large living room with wicker furniture, ornamental jars, gold mirrors, vases full of porcelain flowers, paintings, and a life-size sculpture of the Virgin with large blue eyes of glass, who seemed about to suddenly climb down from her altar; and the room at the back with a coffin in the middle of it and four fresh candles. This was the coffin that for years my grandfather kept ready for his death. On the corner by my house was the prostitutes’ alley, and this was the only place in town where there were traces of life and joy—but death roamed there too. Fairly often the miners killed each other and the women were stabbed by the men.
At night the town’s appearance became more dramatic; there was no electricity, and the streets and houses were lit by the weak glow of oil and gas lamps. The chill intensified and the wind blew more forcefully. The men bundled up in thick jorongos and pulled their wide-brimmed sombreros down over their ears, while the women muffled themselves completely, leaving only their eyes uncovered. Beset by the cold, they disappeared down the dark streets like a procession of black crows.
The wind leaked in through the cracks around the doors and windows, freezing us to the bone. I was perpetually cold; neither the fireplace in my room nor my dogs and cats could warm me up; 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.
My first passion was alchemy, perhaps because I was born in a mining town. When it wasn’t too cold and I wasn’t ill, I would escape to the mountain with my dogs. I would pick all kinds of flowers and poisonous herbs, and collect pieces of flint and stones that struck me as unusual. Then I would spend days on end shut inside an empty storeroom we had, filling small bottles with flower petals and grinding up ivy and nettle leaves. I immersed the flints and other stones in water tinted with different colors. I was completely convinced that one day when I least expected it I would produce incredible perfumes, poisons, metals, and precious stones. The bottles full of macerating leaves and flower petals would explode a few days later and the storeroom would fill with pestilent odors; the pieces of flint grew moldy and covered in slime; but I wasn’t discouraged by these failures, and I would go on filling bottle after bottle . . . and to this day I still prepare tinctures and ointments.When I arrived I knew nothing about religion, I only knew about the demons that terrorized me at night, and other kinds of ghosts.
Almost every afternoon after eating I would go to the Parque Juárez, the sunken park with a pond at the bottom of it. The depths of the pond were full of slime and moss, underwater plants and rocks among which the fish slipped out of sight—colorful fish that shone and sparkled like silver and gold when the sunlight touched them. There I spent my childhood afternoons, and I only left when the fish could no longer be seen in the darkening water and the wind was blowing hard.
In Pinos’s little school I first learned to read. When I had a fever I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, and I spent those days in my father’s library looking out the windows at the street, leafing through books and spelling out words. Dante’s Divine Comedy was the book that most fascinated me, perhaps because of its size, its red leather binding, the gold-lettered cantos, and the fearsome engravings by Doré. And this, the first book that fate placed in my hands, has been symbolic in my life, for if indeed it was there I came to know the face of the demons that would pursue me ceaselessly night after night, joining the endless procession of specters that already streamed before my eyes, in its pages I also discovered the face of love in Paolo and Francesca, the lovers driven ceaselessly by a black wind through all eternity, bound tightly by the passion that swept them to death together, and I encountered Virgil—who, in various guises, has led me by the hand throughout my entire life.
Since no one stopped me, I spent whole days in the library leafing through and sticking my nose in all kinds of books, especially ones with illustrations: Cervantes’s The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote de la Mancha, whose plates entertained me immensely, Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Zola, Gustavo Bécquer (I still remember his face and his mane of ringlets on the cover of a Spanish edition of his Rhymes and Legends), Vargas Vila, and I can’t remember how many others passed through my hands.
Despite my precarious health, when I was seven I was sent to San Luis Potosí to be educated in a school taught by nuns, the Colegio Motolinia; when I arrived I knew nothing about religion, I only knew about the demons that terrorized me at night, and other kinds of ghosts. There I learned about the existence of God and his son Jesus, dead on the cross. Deeply moved, around the time of my first communion I began to write little poems to God, which my mother held on to.
The act of writing manifested in me as a natural necessity and an inescapable form of expression. For homework in grammar class they would let us write some description, a brief story, a narrative. Thus at about ten years old I began to write prose—that is to say, stories. I wrote stories with the same natural facility that other children have for molding birds when playing with clay; they were surely bad, but they were stories. In that school I encountered Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa, Cervantes, Quevedo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Fray Luis de León—his translation of Solomon’s Song of Songs—as well as the psalms of Solomon and David. The Song of Songs and the Psalms impressed me deeply and left a profound mark.What began as a simple need to express myself had over the years taken on the sense of a vocation.
When I finished primary school I went on to another school, also run by nuns, an English academy called Welcome. There I discovered Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Henry Longfellow. During the years I spent at secondary school, I didn’t write stories, but I did write plenty of poems, and I dedicated myself with great enthusiasm to studying piano.
When I finished secondary school, another serious relapse of my always delicate health kept me confined for a long time. My ill health and the lack of a private high school in San Luis Potosí, together with the impossibility of going to Mexico City and my family’s indifference, prevented me from continuing my studies as I wished to. All of these physical and moral obstacles forced me to seek the path toward literature on my own and with my own resources. What began as a simple need to express myself had over the years taken on the sense of a vocation. During those years of illness and isolation I read a great deal of contemporary Spanish poetry—García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Emilio Prados, Antonio and Manuel Machado, Luis Cernuda, and Vicente Aleixandre—and I discovered the writers who have fundamentally formed me as an author: Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, and Albert Camus.
In those days, following in the wake of the Song of Songs and the Psalms, I began to write short parallelistic poems and sonnets, but both forms stirred up in me a great inner violence, the violence that anything having to do with prisons and discipline makes me feel, and I fled to free verse.
With my health considerably improved, I started to publish a few of these poems in magazines: my earliest publications were included in the journals Estilo, edited by my dear friend Joaquín Antonio Peñaloso in San Luis Potosí; Letras Potosinas; and Ariel, published in Guadalajara by Emmanuel Carballo and Carlos Valdés. In 1950 I published Salmos bajo la luna in San Luís Potosí, under the imprint of Estilo.
In 1954 I also published Meditaciones a la orilla del sueño in San Luis Potosí, as well as Perfil de soledades, both volumes of poetry.
That year, 1954, I came to live in Mexico City, resolved to dedicate myself to writing. The first year after I arrived, I suffered another serious bout of ill health, to the point that I thought my end had come. Fortunately that wasn’t the case, and I managed to recuperate more fully than I could have ever imagined.
I’d had the good fortune to meet don Alfonso Reyes in San Luis Potosí; when I arrived in Mexico City, he received me with his characteristic generosity, and he was my Virgil, who led me by the hand through Mexico’s literary circles. He also led me by the hand, when he found out about my night terrors, to his friend Dr. Federico Pascual del Roncal, an eminent Spanish psychiatrist, another Virgil who freed me from my terror of the dark and its spectral denizens.
For three years I was don Alfonso’s secretary. By his side in the Alfonsine Chapel I learned many things that have been fundamental to my profession: I learned to be free, never guided by any literary group or circle, and to make no commitment to anything but myself and literature; I also learned that prose is an unavoidable discipline for any writer, and I began practicing it simply as an exercise. I went back to writing stories, stories that don Alfonso wanted to see published in the Revista Mexicana de Literatura, the Revista de la Universidad de México, Estaciones, the Revista de Bellas Artes, and others.I don’t believe in literature made from pure intelligence or imagination alone; I believe in the literature of lived experience.
In 1958 I married the Zacatecan painter Pedro Coronel, and it was don Alfonso Reyes who gave me away, at the main altar of the church of San Agustín. That same year our daughter Luisa Jaina was born, and I stopped working with don Alfonso Reyes.
In 1959 Juana Lorenza was born, and the Fondo de Cultura Económica published my first book of stories, Tiempo destrozado.
In 1964 I was divorced and my second book of stories, Música concreta, came out, also from Fondo de Cultura Económica.
My subject matter is limited, and can be reduced to my fundamental concerns in life: love, madness, and death. My object is always man, his hidden self, and what he has in him of life, enjoyment, suffering, worry, and desperation.
Some critics, with a certain malice, have noted my tendency toward or predilection for mental alienation. Here I’d like to clarify that I don’t touch on the theme of madness because it’s fashionable, or as a pose, and far less by choice, just the way one doesn’t choose to be born a man, a woman, or a bird. I simply speak of the environment that it was my lot to dwell in and observe, the atmosphere I’ve always suffered in. I’ll admit that I’ve never known equilibrium or sanity; I was born and have spent my life surrounded by absurdity and disenchantment; this is the world my characters inevitably come from and return to.
I don’t believe in literature made from pure intelligence or imagination alone; I believe in the literature of lived experience, because this, experience, is what imparts the clear sensation of something known and already lived that makes the work linger in one’s memory and feelings, and this is what its real beauty and its inner force come from.
I also speak frequently of death, which was a constant presence for many years of my life and continues to be a mystery, distressing, terrible, inexplicable, which I still don’t understand. I also speak of love, the best thing that life can give and has given me.
Literature has granted me many satisfactions and spurred me on with gratifying rewards: invitations to attend literary conferences or read my stories, both in Mexico and abroad; honors, medals, unexpected awards, and homages. I must say that the critics have always been extremely generous with me.
I’ve had a complicated, difficult life that has kept me from writing more, though I would have liked to. For me, 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.
–Translated by Matt Gleeson and Audrey Harris
Amparo Davila’s The Houseguest is available now from New Directions.