Literature can be anachronistic and prophetic at once.
I read in “Rambla triste” [Sad Rambla], one of the tales in the first book of short stories by Mariana Enriquez, Los peligros de fumar en la cama [The dangers of smoking in bed] (2009): “It was possible that the stuffy nose brought on by her cold—she always picked up some sort of virus on airplanes—distorted her sense of smell.”
In a write-up in the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Enriquez is categorized as “the princess of terror.” Three years later, in the same newspaper, she is classified as “the queen of gothic realism.” Add to this various photos (especially the most recent examples) and, almost inadvertently, or perhaps very advertently, we have the self-fashioning of a writer through her involvement in a cultural scene that goes beyond her own fiction. The literary field has changed in recent decades—in terms of circulation, sales, prizes, social relevance, and, of course, in terms of reading—but we also accept that, as Ricardo Piglia would say, writers who think of their own literature as a “body of work” try in various ways to prepare such a field for the reception of their texts.
As a seasoned short story writer, Enriquez shows an undeniable and obsessive interest in death. This is definitively proven in a book of chronicles that is not often discussed (and whose reprinting has now been announced): Alguien camina sobre mi tumba: Mis viajes a cementerios [Someone walks on my grave: my trips to cemeteries] (2013). The volume’s back cover defines the author as a “graveyard fancier.” This stamp helps draw attention to the other genres Enriquez engages in, like journalism and biography, as in the case of La hermana menor: Un retrato de Silvina Ocampo [The younger sister: a portrait of Silvina Ocampo] (2014). It is also significant that she chose to write about the life of an author who was, without a doubt, the best Argentine woman short story writer of the twentieth century. While in this brief essay I comment mainly on her short story collections, a broader reading of Enriquez’s texts is necessary, perhaps including her journalistic writing. The author’s own mentions of her affinity for writers who have shared some of her paths—Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Quiroga, Cortázar, and Stephen King—help us understand the space where Enriquez feels most comfortable: the combination of fear/horror with the gothic/fantastic and generic polygraphy. “I write because I read Stephen King,” she once said in an interview.
Enriquez’s narrators like to scare us.
In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” from Things We Lost in the Fire (2016), I read: “It was the boy from the neighbor’s house. He had marks from the chain on his ankle. In some places they were bleeding and in others they oozed with infection. When he heard her voice, the boy smiled and she saw his teeth. They’d been filed into triangular shapes, like arrowheads, or like a saw. The boy brought the cat to his mouth with a lightning-fast motion and clamped the saw into her belly.”
Many reviews and readings of Enriquez’s work have followed the valid and unavoidable line I mentioned earlier. For an approach that combines the gothic, feminism, and necropolitics, I invite you to read the essay by Ana Gallego Cuiñas in this dossier for LALT.
Elvio Gandolfo stated in the introduction to a 2002 anthology of Argentine horror: “At its most primitive, in the horror story, there is an emotion as basic as sex: fear, or dread, often pushed to a fever pitch.” Six decades before, Adolfo Bioy Casares began the highly cited 1940 Book of Fantasy with these words: “As old as fear itself, fictions of fantasy predate the written word.” We are talking about similar things, but they are not the same: : Fear/horror/terror is a emotion that can be cultivated through literature, and is associated with a typically “popular” genre (as in the case of science fiction and detective fiction, this “popularity” allows for endless permutations and parodies). By contrast, fantastic literature—not to be confused with English-language “fantasy,” nor with what Tzvetan Todorov called the “marvelous,” nor with the abused and largely misunderstood “magical realism”—in spite of sharing certain codes, is, as Rosemary Jackson points out, a mode, or as Rosalba Campra has said, a discourse: that is, a use of literary language, even while the category of the fantastic continues to go through constant evolution and debate. Critics have now begun to prefer the term “literature of the unusual” to speak of recent manifestations of Hispanic literatures linked to the gothic, science fiction, and the fantastic.
Among Spanish-language critics, David Roas has championed the association between fear and the fantastic based on the effect on the reader. In Teorías de lo fantástico [Theories of the fantastic] (2001), he spoke of the “threat of the fantastic” and of fear as the fundamental effect of the transgression that this type of literature provokes. In Tras los límites de lo real [Behind the limits of the real] (2011), he put this proposal in more explicit terms and, following Jean Delemeau, differentiated between fear and distress, explaining that fear is an emotion preceded by surprise, with a determined object, while distress is a feeling of uncertainty that has no defined object. Roas emphasizes that the fantastic is connected to the “metaphysical fear” that, in contrast to fear as a physical or mortal threat, emerges upon our understanding of an alienation from the real that makes us see reality in a different way. These statements relate to the ideas put forth by Terry Heller in The Delights of Terror (1987) and Leo Brady in Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds (2016). Heller, like Roas, emphasizes the function of the reader in the horror story, and distinguishes between terror—the fear that something will happen to oneself—and horror—the emotion one feels when anticipating harm done to others. For Heller, the fantastic, as a term that encompasses both variants, lies in the ambiguity with which the story’s events are presented. Meanwhile, Brady comments that in our era, the collective culture of fear is intensified by the communications network manipulated by politicians and mass media. He advocates, therefore, for “a cultural shaping of the history of emotions.”
There is, more than a movement, a sort of diffuse magma in which various Latin American women fiction writers born in the seventies and eighties—Enriquez and Samanta Schweblin of Argentina, Solange Rodríguez Pappe of Ecuador, and Liliana Colanzi of Bolivia, among others—problematize reality, starting from a non-mimetic pact that fluctuates constantly, making use of multiple resources, strategies, and genres. What do they have in common? They lead terror/horror/fear, the fantastic and the feminine, to intersect.
Without a doubt, Enriquez learned the best of Cortázar. In “Adela’s House,” from Things We Lost in the Fire, we read:
“The house tells us stories. You don’t hear it?”
“Poor thing,” said Pablo. “She doesn’t hear the house’s voice.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Adela. “We’ll tell her.”
“House Taken Over,” part deux. Let’s be clear: there is nothing new in the subject matter of Enriquez’s fiction. The difference is in the language used by her protagonists, almost always young or working class, never “elevated,” and in the voice of her narrators, almost always women, often teenagers. But the subjects—related to the gothic, to terror, to mystery—recall the legacy of the fantastic passed down from the nineteenth century onwards: ghosts, necrophilia, apparitions, “haunted” environments, “abnormal” characters. In “El mirador” [The overlook], from Los peligros de fumar en la cama, we read a couple of sentences that give us a clear example of what I am saying: “And even stranger was the story told by the people, the guests, the owner himself. The story of the worker who died during construction and was built into the walls, as if the hotel were a gothic cathedral.”
Enriquez learned from Cortázar—and from other writers; I would add Silvina Ocampo—this passage from the everyday to the monstrous, without the obsequious filter of certain types of fantastic. So, what is Enriquez’s “brand”? First , she achieves this transition with a certain style , phrases as sharp as razors. In her first book, we find “the little angel who doesn’t look like a ghost. She doesn’t float and she’s not pale and she doesn’t have a white dress on” in “El desentierro de la angelita” [The little angel’s disinterment]; or the folk healer from “El aljibe” [The cistern] who tells the protagonist: “There’s nothing you can do about it, babe. When they brought you here, it was already done.” And, from her second book, we have the woman who “was laughing and in the light you could see her bleeding gums” in “The Dirty Kid”; or the friendship between three children, explained thusly: “we made friends with her, my brother and I, because Adela had only one arm” in “Adela’s House.
Secondly, Enriquez’s characters are young and mobile (there are almost no old people in her stories), and they are always on the margins—“al mango,” as they say in Argentina. In Los peligros de fumar en la cama we find a young woman narrator with a lost ghost on her back; a trap laid out of jealousy over a boy; a neighborhood cursed by a car left behind by an old homeless man; a relationship between two sisters and a curse on the family; Barcelona as a place inhabited by lost youth and ghost children; groupies of a dark rockstar who form a cult; chat room dwellers who meet up in search of the bizarre; a journalist and a bureaucrat who bear witness to the return of disappeared children; a single woman who experiments with smoking in bed; and five young girls who get together to play with a Ouija board and start talking with those disappeared by the Argentine military dictatorship of the seventies. In Things We Lost in the Fire, we meet drug addicts and residents of the impoverished neighborhood of Constitución; youth who grow up surrounded by drugs, alcohol, and rock in the Argentina of Carlos Menem; protagonists “haunted” by houses, inns, and courtyards; the ghost of a famous murderer—“el Petiso Orejudo,” or “the Big-Eared Runt”; a (love?) triangle sketched over the “Mesopotamian Gothic,” as the author calls the geographic area of Argentina bordering on Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay; a school inhabited by a “Chinese dwarf” and a woman obsessed with a skull; a boyfriend gradually consumed in an apartment, living on the deep web; and swarms of women lit aflame across Argentina. Readers can choose their own way into Enriquez’s world.
Lastly, certain obsessions abound from one story to the next: urban legends and popular, cryptic cults—San La Muerte is an obsession that reappears in the long novel Nuestra parte de noche [Our share of night] (2019); the use of drugs and alcohol, given that all of her characters were or are either smoking or on pills (an obvious trick to underline the normality of this “abnormality”); the mentions of an era dominated by the audiovisual—chat sessions, videos, cell phones, the Internet; and plunges into the invisible depths of official discourse—regardless of the government in power—that connect the marginality of the characters to the marginality of a social context always ready to blow. And, of course, the gender war—a matter that must be dealt with in greater detail another time— to which I’ll refer back at the end of this note.
Enriquez always puts forth the body, be it deformed, mutilated, sexual, etc. In “Under the Black Water” from Things We Lost in the Fire, I read: “It was a procession. A line of people playing the same loud snare drums as in the murga, led by deformed children with their skinny arms and mollusk fingers, followed by women, most of them fat, their bodies disfigured by a diet based on carbs.”
Perhaps writers who deal in horror are afraid of something and seek to confront this fear in their writing. What might Enriquez be afraid of? One possible answer: the disappearance of the body, the nucleus of her formal and thematic concerns.
The “disappearance matrix” feeds into almost all of Enriquez’s stories. What is death but a body disappeared, made absent? It would be interesting to draw up a cartography of what happens to each body in all twenty-four stories. Sometimes, the connection to the material and symbolic scraps left behind by the National Reorganization Process is clear: the aforementioned Ouija board that summons spirits in “Cuando hablábamos con los muertos” [When we talked to the dead] in Los peligros de fumar en la cama, or the men who come in search of the “disappeared,” reincarnated in Florencia and Rocío, in “The Inn,” from Things We Lost in the Fire. Other times, the link is more tenuous, more social than political, as if inviting the reader to make the connection: such is the case of the investigation in “Chicos que faltan” [Missing children] from her first book (a piece that, it must be said, owes a great deal to a story by Ray Bradbury), or the Riachuelo that hides an army of zombies as she toys with the detective genre in “Under the Black Water,” from the second volume.
The matrix of disappearance not only functions as the thematic nucleus of the books; it is also articulated as a principle of its composition. In these stories of oppressive atmospheres, disturbing characters, and extreme situations, Enriquez does not suppress certain parts of the story, in the most orthodox style of the fantastic. Rather, she fills up her tales with details that, even still, do not go so far as to explain the mystery. This is where Enriquez “uses” genres like detective fiction or horror, but appeals to the “metaphysical fear” mentioned by Roas, and this is “her” fantastic. Thus, the body of a text that promises some meaning, in terms of closure, also somehow disappears. For example, “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt,” a story intertextually related to a real police case, and the only one in Things We Lost in the Fire narrated from a male perspective, ends with the image of its protagonist, “the nail still clutched in his hand.” The tension is neither resolved nor dissolved.
Enriquez and the gender war. A tactic, a strategy, the state of things?
I see and read the final image of Enriquez’s “crazy Argentine women” who swarm through “Things We Lost in the Fire,” from the book of the same name: “The infection would carry them off in a second, but Silvina, oh, when Silvina burned, it would be beautiful, she’d be a true flower of fire.”
The story that both closes the book and provides its title—which should be read in counterpoint to Schweblin’s “Headlights”—proposes female self-immolation as a sort of antidote to gendered violence, and in its structure, like that of a moralistic fable, it perpetuates the plot , the conversion into this flower of fire for the sake of a “longed-for world of men and monsters.” Her male characters are depressive, useless, stupid; her females are intelligent, cruel, Machiavellian; both seem equally confused. There are few moments of complicity—perhaps in “Ni cumpleaños ni bautismos” [Neither birthdays nor baptisms] or “Chicos que faltan,” even in “Carne” [Meat], although the fans end up devouring their idol. But the figure of the male character who comes and does harm is repeated again and again. And, if it is as Marcela says (“I don’t hurt myself. He hurts me. When I sleep”) in “Ni cumpleaños ni bautismos,” then the man must be made to disappear as well, like in “Spiderweb,” the best story from Things We Lost in the Fire (and the least horrific). As Brady said, we are at an inflection point in the cultural shaping of the history of emotions.”
The profound connections between fantastic literature, women’s literature, and a possible rhetoric of fear remain to be drawn. We need studies that, broadening the sample and proposing hypotheses, prove or disprove the specificity of a feminine/feminist (?) fantastic, gothic, horror, or weird fiction. Enriquez stresses turbid interpersonal relationships and works with sensationalistic effect on her images of violence (see “Dónde estás corazón” [Where are you, darling] and “Carne” from her first book, and “The Dirty Kid” and “Under the Black Water” from her second). The naturalizing of horror, disappearance, displacement, and taboo or transgressive sexuality demonstrate that the fantastic is the most valid option for achieving her objectives as a writer. For Enriquez, coming down is the worst, it’s true, but it has to be done. This is not a bookish fantastic, nor an intellectual fantastic, nor a fantastic marked by ambiguity (not “did it happen or didn’t it?” but rather “what happened?”). This option could be associated, on the one hand, with the “traditional motifs of collective imaginaries linked to the experience of the supernatural” of which Pampa Olga Arán speaks in El fantástico literario: Aportes teóricos [The literary fantastic: theoretical contributions] (1999), and on the other, with the discourse of psychoanalysis, related to the “hidden side” of the human psyche. Her stories inspect the Freudian notion of the ominous: that which is, at the same time, recognizable and unexpected, visible and hidden. The individual and the collective come together, and thus the horrors of our realities emerge.
The function of fantastic literature in these times—year one of the pandemic, year one of this virus that someone picked up on an airplane—is perhaps to interrogate “the natural” in worlds where nothing, or everything, seems to be so.
Translated by Arthur Dixon