Mariana Enríquez melds the personal, political and horror in a new collection of Argentine ghost stories.
Pablo, the protagonist of Mariana Enríquez’s short story ‘Pablito Nails a Nail’, notes that, with the exception of the military dictators, Argentina wants for interesting serial killers. Apart from Petiso Orejudo, the son of Italian migrants who buried, stabbed and set alight babies and children in 1920s Buenos Aires (a man who, when asked why he murdered, responded ‘because I liked it’), the country is notably short on Jeffrey Dahmers and Ted Bundys.
For Enríquez, author of the new collection Things We Lost in the Fire, this shortage is no barrier to terror. She knows that terror lurks in the most familiar of places: the street, the family home, the family, the self. And that anything good and innocent, when viewed from the right (or wrong) angle, can take on an evil or twisted form. The ties that bind families and friends are as much a noose as a safety net; and romantic love has a terminus that is often its opposite. Sanity, at all times, is in question.
In ‘The Dirty Kid’, a middle-class web designer finds freedom in gritty, marginalised Constitución. She likes it here: life is close and intense, and her knowledge of the streets – obtained at risk to her personal safety – gives her a sense of pride.
As the story culminates, however, it emerges she is capable of an act of surprising violence, almost against her own will. Could it be that she’s not actually a brave princess in a castle but a deranged mad woman howling at the moon? Here, the source of her identity and pride – the fact of living in this ‘dangerous’ neighbourhood – is also the root of her madness. Or, to cite the Anne Sexton quote that is reproduced at the beginning of the collection, she is a ‘stranger’ in her own house.
There are twelve stories in Things We Lost in the Fire, which was published to much acclaim in Argentina last year, and is due to be published in translation in just about every European language in 2017. The stories are almost all set in Argentina’s beautiful, bulging heart, Buenos Aires, and in the humid northern states of Corrientes and La Rioja, where you can hardly breathe, ‘as if a brutal arm were wound around your chest.’
The stories are populated by girls and women; when men do appear, they are peripheral, denied even the right of being particularly villainous. Instead Enríquez reserves the power of evil for the female characters. Here, women look at other women as idol or enemy, but rarely with indifference, and often with the self trained on the other, like a gun.
Enríquez is a well-known writer and journalist in Argentina. She came to prominence as a 21-year-old after writing an ‘urban realist novel, a little Bret Easton Ellis, but [with] elements of fantasy and Gothicism’ (her words), called Bajar es lo peor (Coming Down is the Worst). She was promptly titled ‘the youngest writer in Argentina’, and became a celebrity.
Following Coming Down is the Worst was a series of novels and short story collections, each with a name more deliciously sinister than the next: How to Disappear Completely (2004), The Dangers of Smoking In Bed (2009), and Kids Who Come Back (2011); as well as essay collections, a travelogue about cemeteries, and a biography of Argentine writer, Silvina Ocampo, famous for her short stories and poems that evoke a dark feminine fantastic. A foray into the horror genre was perhaps inevitable.
In interviews, Enríquez states her love of horror for its mass appeal and its ability to produce a physical effect in the reader. If they miss a meal or their legs grow numb from absorption, then she’s succeeded. For her, ‘popular’ is not a dirty word (though in Argentina, birthplace of Juan Domingo Perón and mass social protest as a weekly thing, ‘popular’ is not a dirty word for most). Why not write books that people can’t put down? It’s this melding of body and mind in the act of reading that so excites her. On this note, it is perhaps unsurprising that she writes her stories in a single sitting, as though she too succumbs to them, body and soul.
Enríquez did face a challenge, though. While conditions were certainly ripe for a collection of ghost stories, the Latin American tradition for the genre is not especially developed. Apart from the stray example (Enríquez names Julio Cortazar’s La Puerta Condenada and the work of Uruguayan oddball, Horacio Quiroga; I can also think of a short story by modernist poet, Rubén Darío), ghost stories were always left to the anglosajones, what Argentines call the Brits and the Americans.
For Enríquez, who is an obsessive reader of horror and gothic fiction, the challenge with Things We Lost in The Fire was to write a book that spoke to Argentine fears and Argentine monsters, while still retaining the conventions of the horror genre.
Has she succeeded? Wildly.
One of the greatest pleasures in Things We Lost In The Fire is her transformation of Argentina and its people into an at once familiar but also gothic landscape, with a cast of local monsters.
Take ‘The Intoxicated Years’, in which the symbiotic relationship between three teenage girls is captured against the economic ruin of the 1980s and the fat ‘neoliberal’ 1990s (which also famously ended in ruin, with the then largest sovereign debt default in history in 2001). There are constant blackouts, drug dens, hyperinflation and half abandoned state parks, but this trio doesn’t care; the desire here is to be alone forever, fucked-up on drugs in front of a hazy mirror that reflects only them.
It’s impossible to say what came first: this feral female triad or the broken-down society in which they float. Reading the story, you are awakened to a certain economic and social reality within Argentina, and yet you are entirely within the sealed, suggestive world of fiction.
There is much raw material for Enríquez to work with. For many, time seemed to unwind backwards here, as Argentina went from the glory and optimism of the late 19th century, when a steady flow of European immigration and agricultural exports saw it become one of the world’s wealthiest countries, to the violence and decay of the 20th century. Terror, though not a literary genre, was certainly a state one: in the late 1970s and 1980s, a military junta systemically disappeared between 10,000 and 30,000 people (the indeterminacy of the number is part of the cruelty) in an attempt to stamp out political opposition.
As Enríquez pointed out to me in a recent interview, disappearing people is ingenious in terms of the terror and trauma it induces; neither dead nor alive, the disappeared becomes a ghost: ‘It’s a kind of elegant evil that leaves a real impression on you because it seems the result of a sophisticated mind.’ Which is to say, the most disturbing part of this cruelty, for her, is not its anarchy, nor is it its mechanical efficacy, but rather its carefully constructed aesthetics. It is the human twist or flourish, so evil in its superfluity, that most unnerves her. Perhaps it’s no wonder she writes ghost stories.
‘Underneath the Black Water’ is based on the true story of a three shantytown teenagers who were tossed by local policeman into the toxic Matanza River and told to ‘swim’. It is a ‘twist’ or detail so cruel it belongs to literature, says Enríquez, and one that she takes up for herself. What she does with it, however, is entirely unexpected. It would be perverse of me to reveal the results, but I will say that Enríquez senses a kind of dark vitality in the lost bodies of the marginalized, the oppressed and the tortured. When revenge comes, it will be total.
After finishing this collection, I looked at Buenos Aires differently. Suddenly the dirtied legs of bodies twisted and sleeping on side streets, the wasted mattresses, the begging children and urban decay, were not details so familiar they disappear as landscape, but specific, surprising and alive.
The ‘monsters’ here are frequently those who fall outside society’s net. This is Enríquez’s great success: melding the personal, political, intimate and historical into a self-contained world that simultaneously reflects ours back at us. This is a collection at once distinctly Argentine and yet universal in appeal. Borges would be proud. Or he’s rolling in his grave with jealousy.