Things We Lost in the Fire could be the most dark and thrilling short story collection you ever encounter, blending the sociopolitical horrors of dictatorship and domestic violence with supernatural terror. Mariana Enriquez explains her literary cocktail
“The poor men.” Mariana Enriquez’ words drip with glorious sarcasm, and I imagine her slowly shaking her head down the line from Buenos Aires. But, it must be said, the men get it tight in her modern gothic short story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire. While chatting with the Argentine author, I’m naïve enough to bring this point up. “The poor men,” she deadpans back. “But they’re not evil, I think?” No, I concede, impotent rather than evil. “It’s been pointed out to me a lot,” she replies.
“I remember having a conversation with a friend and saying, 'But you never complain when men are portrayed as corrupt politicians, violent cops, serial killers. Why is that a representation you’re comfortable with? But a representation of a husband that doesn’t make his wife happy – something that happens all the time – you’re so uncomfortable with.' And he says to me, ‘I think it’s because we don’t own the narrative. The voices of the women are so powerful that we’re left on the side, and that’s kind of disturbing. Why can’t we be the protagonists here?’”
Meet Mariana Enriquez, Argentine journalist and author, whose short stories are of decapitated street kids (heads skinned to the bone), ritual sacrifice and ghoulish children sporting sharpened teeth. Of murdered teens who return from beneath dark polluted waters. The setting – in the troubled wake of the Argentine dictatorship – makes their underlying influence seem obvious, but sometimes the origins of horror can surprise you.
“I mean, one of the places where I had the most fear in my life was a Backstreet Boys concert,” Enriquez says, with no hint of mockery. “I was reporting as a journalist, and I hated them. But I saw these 30,000 girls screaming all the time. It was something biblical. It was like, what’s the power that these girls are conjuring?”
We’re discussing her talent for forming fantastical horror from the twisted scar tissue of Argentina’s recent past: police torture, political persecution, the disappeared and the Dirty War – the latter a period of state terrorism where right-wing death squads tortured and killed left-wing guerrillas, and often anybody sympathetic to their cause.
Politics, horror and pop culture
These stories blend the real-life horrors of domestic and state violence, homelessness and economic uncertainty with the supernatural; ghosts, demons and witchcraft. They inhabit the same plane, stalk the same prey; both are offered equality in terror. But, of course, her inspirations occasionally arise from those more innocuous sources: “The girls, that kind of stayed with me. Not the only one… but that I can assure you; that was weird. They never stopped screaming. Never. It was like the Furies. And for those boys? [But] it wasn’t about the boys, it was about them, feeding off each other, their energy, and trying to release something. I just wrote a review of the concert, but on another level, I always have antenna for this weirdness.”
No matter how weighty her themes, Enriquez readily references genre fiction and popular culture in her work; films such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dread-soaked internet ghost story Pulse and the new flesh of Cronenberg’s Videodrome. This unpretentiousness translates well to our surprisingly laid-back conversation, considering the subject matter – black magic, torture and death – being discussed at this early hour. “A very good Sunday morning talk,” suggests Mariana, and sounds like she means it.
I had opened by complimenting this cocktail of politics and cult horror in her work. “OK, nice,” is her reply. “So we share interests then?” It’s refreshing to encounter somebody so political and ‘literary’ who, instead of turning from genre, adopts it to save her work falling into preaching or pamphleteering. Horror is the drop of blood that flowers in the clear water of her social commentary. Fear, as an emotion, the ultimate puppeteer. “I don’t have a problem about being called a horror writer,” she answers directly when I ask. “My favourite writers have written horror; Robert Aikman, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King… I don’t have a problem because I think I’m in good company.”
Considering her writing’s overlap between Borges and King, Ocampo and Jackson, an accurate term might be 'black magical realism', and it’s possible this strange genre brew is a result of Enriquez' historical vantage point; born just prior to the coup but too young to be complicit, or even fully aware. “I was born December '73, so was two years old when the dictatorship came, so I really don’t remember it rationally, I remember it emotionally… I can’t remember anything more than a climate of fear in my house.
“Then, when I was a bit older, 8 or 9, this was the time when the crimes of the dictatorship came [to public knowledge]. It was everywhere, it was on TV, it was in magazines. My parents let me read everything, and it really read like horror, especially if you were a child that didn’t know the distinction between fiction and reality so clearly. There were terms that you didn’t understand, like political prisoner, or detention camps.”
In one story, The Intoxicated Years, a trio of adolescent girls go feral during the vacuum, post dictatorship, when hyperinflation was accelerating and the country’s infrastructure failing. These rudderless, narcotically charged delinquents cast dark shadows in the nation’s flickering light: ‘I walked slowly over to him and tried to imitate the look of hatred in the eyes of the girl in Parque Pereyra. The electricity made my hair stand on end; I felt like it had turned into wires…’
“There’s something about the friendships of girls when they’re teenagers that to me is totally scary, is totally witchery, is totally mysterious,” Enriquez says. “Even for me and I’ve been there. But there’s something powerful and secretive about them. And when they are left to themselves, because there’s a crisis that is quite over their heads and nobody’s paying attention to them, god knows what they can do alone.”
The collection’s most darkly thrilling story is Under the Black Water, a Lovecraftian tale of two boys tortured by the police and made to cross a polluted river. “For some reason that river to me always hid something very ancient, very evil,” suggests Enriquez, “a cosmic evil. The evil of that police officer wanting to make the boy try to swim in a polluted river when he knows that he’s going to die. What makes you do something like that? What got into you? From where?”
The most disturbing element to this is its source material, like much of Enriquez’, drawn from news headlines. “Yeah, yeah. It was a crime that was pretty big. I distorted things of course, but mostly it was two boys, they lived around the slum near the river and they were caught by the police and tortured in the street – they simulated shooting them.”
And then they were told to swim the river. This is a police force tainted by recent history, an aftershock of a violent past. “The police brutality, I think yeah, if you have to choose something as an echo of that [the dictatorship]. Because even if it’s a long time ago, even if they are trained as a democratic force, there’s still a sediment there of that brutality and impunity – the power that they used to have over the people that somehow is still there.”
The collection's translator, Megan McDowell, states so perfectly in an excellent afterword: ‘The horror comes not only from turning our gaze on desperate populations; it comes from realizing the extent of our blindness.’ This feeds well into Enriquez’ reply to me when asked why she focusses on the darker side of her country. “I love the country, but I think that’s why I’m harsh with it… I’m harsh because I care about it and I want it to change.”
Fiction versus journalism
The stories mentioned and many others (women who see self immolation as a form of protest against femicide/the ghosts of a clandestine torture centre reverberating into the present) raise questions of where fiction sits next to journalism in confronting the nation’s dark secrets. Does it have a role to play?
“I think so, yeah,” Enriquez ponders, “but what fiction does is slower, let’s say… In journalism, it's more urgent. What you’re doing is basically reporting… I don’t think [journalism] can make you think in the long term or a very profound way, something you can go back to in 20 years and say, 'this is what was going on, this is the space people were living in.'”
I mention speaking with Argentine author César Aira just the week previous. He wouldn’t touch politics, or football. A fact that made him feel very un-Argentinian. “Yeah, I’m sure,” agrees Mariana matter of factly, “because we’re all about politics and football.” The fact that Mariana has no such qualms is in some ways thanks to Aira.
“What he separated from Argentinian literature was the obligation to be solemn, to talk about politics… to put imagination aside because these things were too serious to be contaminated by genre, let it be horror, fantasy, humour, whatever… I can cross it [the socio-political situation] with genre and not be scared and think, 'Ah, I’m going to talk about the disappeared in a horror story, this is totally disrespectful.' And I think that’s an effect of César Aira’s literature.”
Then, after some chit chat and pleasantries (a reference to Dawn of the Dead amongst them), she’s off to prepare for some sort of party later in the day, which it seems is being approached in the style of her writing: “It's a BBQ basically, but brutal.”
Things We Lost in the Fire is out now, published by Portobello Books, RRP £12.99