Monday, March 13, 2017

Living the Latin American Nightmare

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

A driftless young woman finds an abandoned skull in a Buenos Aires park, and becomes obsessed with reassembling the body. An apparently abandoned house turns out to be full of arcane artifacts and ethereal light, and an unhappy young girl wanders within, never to return. An angry urban husband mocks his wife, scorns the hickish truck driver who rescued them, and apparently packs his bags and wanders into an urban legend.

I can find precious little prior information on Mariana Enriquez. Though she’s apparently a well-respected journalist and novelist in her native Argentina, this is apparently her first book-length publication in English. She comes to Anglophonic readers a virtually blank slate provided we can avoid the temptation to make her resemble Jorge Luis Borges. Her short stories more resemble Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Ligotti anyway.

Like Poe or Ligotti, Enriquez’s fiction uses foundations in the real world, incidents of the massively commonplace, as entry points into moments of overarching dread. When a woman, a sort of Argentinian do-gooder hipster, reaches out to a starving street child, we recognize a social justice warrior in action. When that child mentions a gripping fear of the monsters living across the railroad tracks, we wonder what monstrosities this child has experienced. And when that child disappears, we start seeking the real monsters.

This sense of creeping dread dominates Enriquez’s storytelling. As we read, we adjust our mental rhythms to Enriquez’s slow, sometimes soporific pace, and enter a sort of dreamland. As in our own dreams, this guided tour of somebody else’s phantasmagoria dwells more on mood than content. We start conjuring images of what could be, and our anticipations drip with creeping dread. We wonder: am I worse than the pending monster?

Mariana Enriquez
Some stories include actual monsters. “An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt” features a local tour guide having visions of an historic Buenos Aires murderer (an actual person, though English speakers will need to Google this). In “The Neighbor’s Courtyard,” a disgraced social worker looking to redeem herself breaks into a house where she suspects abuse is happening, only to find a cave of horrors worse than her frequently vivid imagination.

But many stories involve no literal monster, or something glimpsed only in passing. Three young girls on self-destructive benders watch an anonymous woman get off a bus in the wilderness, in “The Intoxicated Years,” only to see her years later, untouched by time, luring them into the forest. Another girl, in “End of Term,” mutilates her own body to appease an invisible man behind the mirror. Is she merely schizophrenic, or is her illness somehow contagious?

Two themes emerge as the stories mount up. In some stories, young women on the cusp of adulthood do something vindictive and ruinous, to themselves or others, and suffer consequences they never anticipated. Or an unhappy wife’s inability to express her gloom leads herself or her husband into a death spiral. Either way, a woman’s inner turmoil manifests itself upon the outside world, often at great cost to human life.

At her best, Enriquez couples this inner violence with Argentina’s history of literal violence. In my favorite story, “The Inn,” two teenage girls, one a closeted lesbian, attempt to gaslight a local hotelier. But the hotel they target was a police academy—read, “torture chamber”—during the Peronist years. When the ghosts of Argentina’s bloody past chase the girls through the present hallways, it’s impossible to not wonder who’s passing judgment upon whom?

Parapsychologists like Joe Nickell and William G. Roll have long noted the apparent correlation between deep emotional turmoil and seemingly supernatural occurrences. This seems especially prevalent with poltergeists; seems the movies weren’t wrong associating this phenomenon with an emotionally high-strung adolescent girl. Enriquez simply assumes these correlations are real, and asks herself: how would they manifest in my homeland today?

As in the best horror fiction, Enriquez conjures the most powerful scares, the most lasting nightmare fuel, by withholding information. She creates rich mindscapes, certainly; her storytelling is resplendent with small but telling details that immerse us in her world. But she conceals the Big Evil. Stephen King this ain’t, and anybody expecting the big reveal moment American horror writers savor waits in vain.

But audiences willing to suspend their Anglophonic expectations will find Enriquez rife with crawling disquiet, the kind that gets under your skin. Like Borges, Enriquez creates an interstitial world on the borderline between reality and dreams. Unlike Borges, she reminds us that our dreams are something to fear.

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