Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego. Mariana Enríquez. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2016.
In her latest book of short stories, Mariana Enríquez presents an amplitude of characters and spaces, subjects and situation: a mother and her son, drug addicts and slums in the neighborhood of Constitución, which are challenged by an unsettled narrator; youths who grow up among drugs, alcohol, and rock music in Menem’s Argentina of the 1990s; protagonists “haunted” by mysterious places like houses, inns, and courtyards; the ghost of a famous serial killer —el Petiso Orejudo [the Big-Eared Runt]—; a less-than affectionate triangle sketched on the “Gothic Mesopotamian,” as the author calls this geographic area of Argentine, adjacent to Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay; a school inhabited by a Chinese dwarf and a woman obsessed with a skull she names Vera; a husband consumed in an apartment, inhabiting the deep web; and swarms of passionate women throughout all of Argentina.
In the end, this multiplicity is somewhat misleading following a reading that goes beyond plots, which almost always trap the reader. Comments about the book have highlighted the vertices of a unitary weave in the stories that make up Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego [Things We Lost in the Fire]. On the one hand, the inscription appears within the horror genre, which the very author accepts and encourages (Enríquez is named “Princess of Horror” in a note in the daily La Nación), and to which we can add a relationship with other writers who have traveled these paths: Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Quiroga, Cortázar, and Stephen King. It is also worth noting a passage from the quotidian to the monstrous without the servile filter of certain types of the fantastic (Enríquez learned from the best of Cortázar, without doubt), with a taste for mutilations, ghosts, and cryptic and popular cults. Enríquez’s style is constructed by the use of ironic phrases—the woman who “was laughing and in the light you could see her bleeding gums” (32), in “El chico sucio” [The Dirty Kid]; the girl who gets off the bus in the Parque Pereiera and, as the narrator says, “But I know that girl wasn’t anyone’s daughter” (54) in “Los años intoxicados” [The Intoxicated Years]; the friendship between three children explained by the narrator, “we made friends with her, my brother and I, because Adela only had one arm” (66), in “La casa de Adela” [Adela’s House]; the cousin who defines the absence of Natalia’s husband in “Tela de araña” [Spiderweb] as follows: “‘Don’t be silly. If he left, he left,’ she said” (115). To these three corners, we can add much more: the selection of uniform feminine voices, girls and adolescents, in order to narrate, always from within the story, with a combination of sarcasm, coldness, and precision; a certain juvenile air in the atmosphere marked by the consumption of alcohol and drugs (almost all of Enríquez’s characters were or are on pills or smoke, an obvious artifice to underline the normalcy of this “abnormality”); the detailed investigation into the invisible sectors to the official Argentine discourse (regardless of the government in power) that unites the marginality of the characters with the marginality of the always asymmetric social context, at the point of exploding. And the all-out gender war is an aspect worth delving into another time.
As I was saying, this multiplicity can be misleading. If we accept that writers that frequent horror are afraid of something and that in their writing they seek to confront it —a key to reading that would unite fiction and life— there remains the question: What is Enríquez afraid of? A possible response: the disappearance of the body, core condenser of the formal concerns and themes of this book and, perhaps, of this author’s narrative work in progress.
The matrix of disappearance, while significant ideology, nourishes or appears in almost all of the stories. What are death or murders if not disappeared bodies? The mother and boy who disappear in “The Dirty Kid”; the men who come to search for the “desaparecidos” [disappeared], reincarnated in Florencia and Rocío, in “La hostería” [The Inn]; the ghost-girl of “The Intoxicated Years” and the final extermination of the punk boyfriend; Adela who opens the door and enters forever into “Adela’s House;” the hair-raising disappearance without a trace of Juan Martin in “Spiderweb” (the most subtle story and therefore one of the best in the volume); the appearance of the dwarf and the absence of Marcela from the school in “Fin de curso” [End of Term]; the symbol of the skull as a trace of a body in “Nada de carne sobre nosotras” [No Flesh over Our Bones]; the cat devoured by the boy, an apparition, in “El patio del vecino” [The Neighbor’s Courtyard]; the Riachuelo that hides an army of zombies in the playing around with the officer in “Bajo el agua negra” [Under the Black Water]; the gradual physical disappearance —towards virtuality— of the protagonist in “Verde, rojo, anaranjado” [Green Red Orange].
But the matrix of disappearance does not only function from the book’s thematic nuclei, but rather is articulated almost as a compositional principle. That is to say, these stories, successfully achieved, with oppressive atmospheres, unsettled characters, and extreme situations, do not close, as if they paid attention to Borges’s definition of the aesthetic fact as the imminence of a revelation that is not produced. Enríquez’s twist, her distancing from the canon, is that it does not work by suppressing areas of the story, but rather by overpopulating the stories with details that, in any way, never manage to explain a lot. Therefore, the body of writing, in the sense of closure, also disappears in some way. As an example, “Pablito clavó un clavito: una evocación del Petiso Orejudo” [An Invocation Big-Eared Runt], the only story told from the male point of view, ends with this image of the protagonist —that, coincidentally! is the narrator— “the nail still clutched in his hand” (92) and the tension is neither resolved nor dissolved; and the story that closes and provides the book’s title —which should be read in counterpoint to Schweblin’s “Mujeres deseperadas” [Desperate Women]— proposes female self-immolation as a type of antidote in the face of gender violence, and in its structure of a moral fable perpetuates the main action, the conversion into “una verdadera flor de juego” [a true flower of fire] (197), toward a “mundo ideal de hombres y monstruas” [an ideal world of men and female monsters] (196).
The final story in Los peligros de fumar en la cama [The dangers of smoking in bed] (2009), Enríquez’s first short-story collection, had a title that condenses what interests this author: “Cuando hablábamos con los muertos” [When we were talking to the dead]. It is nothing new that the short story as a genre and death go hand in hand, given their emphasis on the ending. But Enríquez does not use death as a closing device or even as a method of existential inquest. No. She talks to the dead and allows them to speak.
Along with Samanta Schweblin, Pola Olaixarax, Selva Almada, and Ariana Harwicz, Enríquez is a member of the new (female) Argentine literary armada. It is a promotion whose constituents lay out their aesthetics from different positions in the face of literary and sexual genders, time and space, and reality. However, one thing characterizes them: the distinct force of the most important thing a writer can have: their voice. In the case of Enríquez, and as León Gieco would say: it’s a big monster and it tramples.
University of South Florida
Translated by Auston Stiefer