Amparo Dávila (b. 1928) is a Mexican author from Zacatecas who wrote a classic short story, “El huésped,” in which the female protagonist must endure the abuse and torture of a mysterious ‘guest’ until she musters the courage to kill him. Rosario Ferré is a Puerto Rican author (b. 1938) who creates a brilliant symbol for female rage in “La muñeca menor”, perhaps the most famous of her short stories. Horacio Quiroga, perhaps Uruguay’s most famous author (1878—1937), populates his stories with murderous ‘idiot’ children, deadly snakes, carnivorous ants and a huge, blood-sucking parasite that kills off his female protagonist in “El almohadón de plumas.”
These apparently disparate stories and authors from around Latin America and Mexico engage in a similar display of anxiety-provoking imagery; these monsters appear designed to express suppressed emotions of rage and fear through the exploration of the supernatural and imagined other worlds. A common reaction or response to each of these texts and their wild creatures is to ask how ‘real’ they are; is the “huésped” ‘really’ the husband? Are the ‘idiot’ children suffering from autism? Can parasites ‘truly’ achieve such spectacular size? What, exactly, is a ‘chágara’? For the student of literature those questions can dominate; typically, the interpretative work guides the reader towards a symbolic understanding of the monsters. However, I would argue that this is not simply an ‘imagined’ discursive space, a purely symbolic realm of Freudian neurosis or the result of repression.
These monsters are real.
When one talks about “real” in works of literature, a cadre of literary theorists rolls over in their graves. We could easily argue that nothing is materially real in a text. It’s all empty or mutating signifiers. The stories are void of or filled with meaning depending on the interpretive gymnastics of the reader. We could talk about signifiers, memes, neurotic projections, the space between words and lines, the signs, the transgressive boundaries and historicity divorced from history; but let’s not.
Let’s talk about the emotional effect on the reader when she sees the blood seeping under the door after ‘los idiotas’ have slit their sister’s throat; when she watches the ‘furious antennae’ of a strange river creature emerge from the dead eyes of a vengeful doll; or her reaction to the dying screams of a monster nailed into his coffin-like room. We know, out here in the ‘real’ world, that monsters most certainly do exist. Abuse and alcohol turn bad husbands into demons from another world. Neglect and hypocrisy create murderous children, bent on revenge. Emotional abandonment sucks the life out of you, somewhat like those ‘parásitos de aves’ that populate feather pillows. When Pardo Bazán created a sallow, leathery and sadistic “Tío Clodio,” she knew that the worst monsters react from fear, poverty, ignorance and desperation.
One way to gauge the effectiveness of a short story is to pay close attention to one’s emotional response. When discussing monsters, one either fears or pities them, and that requires taking these creatures at face value. How they are created is as important as their symbolic function; what they do, the world they inhabit, and their skill at invading our separate space determines their impact in the ‘real’ world. Borges understood this; it’s that feeling you experience on that train, heading to “El Sur,” and wondering if the end of your story is somehow the beginning of another life or the seed for the appearance of an alternate universe. What is ‘real’ in Borges? What is fictional creation? Although many would argue that everything is creation and there is no point of origin—no God—in Borges, I would argue the opposite. It’s about discernment; knowing when fiction has disguised a truth, understanding that between the lines exists something as real as anything any human being is capable of experiencing.
We learn from Borges—the author, the character, the narrator–that history is real and will destroy us unless we recognize that books and theory are effective distractions from political engagement; scholarship means little when holocausts are unfolding in the street outside your window. For many women writers, political engagement is impossible, as they are cut off from the outside world entirely; only through their texts can they begin to express the devastating effects of enforced solitude and distance from the world. Dávila and Ferré understand and masterfully express that to be a woman is to suffer isolation, neglect and either active or passive abuse; women inherit generations of silence and immobility. Like Ferré’s sad-eyed doll, staring down from her patio, our perspective is narrowed by monsters in the guise of doctors who rip out the diamonds from our pupils, destroying our vision(s). Is this not real?
“Imaginary space” is simply a place where monsters can be created and thrive, but they are quite authentic: they impact our emotions, upset the status quo, destroy our complacency and urge us to engage in history, both the larger ebb and flow of world events and our own, personal history. It requires some courage to look textual monsters in the face and give them back their power. Hermeneutics has, of late, tended to strip texts of their nightmarish, gut-wrenching emotional power. For women writers especially, these stories must retain their visceral punch. As Adrienne Rich states in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an a t of survival. (35)
There are many “acts of survival” in the contemporary Spanish and Latin American short story, and usually a marginalized character is fighting a monster. The battle is often lost, as in Fuentes’ “Chac Mool” when Filiberto drowns due to a degraded god’s curse or when Tío Clodio beats Ildara so badly she loses vision in one eye and lives with a permanently disfigured face and the loss of any possible future. There are some victories as well, such as the youngest niece escaping the oppression of marriage to an amoral doctor in “La muñeca menor” through her aunt’s brilliant and frightening incarnation of female rage in the guise of the ‘chágara’. Win or lose, the textual impact of the battle remains with the reader, changing her vision of the ‘real’ battles in a world that requires action and sacrifice.
We can displace the textual fiends from their rightful place in our nightmares, but at a cost: literature becomes less about the struggle for freedom and more of a solitary exercise that keeps our worst fears at an artificial distance. Every horror fan knows that ignoring the power of monster will bring it back larger and stronger, until eventually, like the lone reader in Cortazar’s “Continuidad de los parques,” the assassin plunges the knife into our flesh just when we thought we had escaped history, the world, and our responsibilities as protagonists in the story of our lives.