MARCH 5, 2021
GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ’S Macondo was wondrously haunted by the whimsical phantoms of authoritarianism and imperialism, conjuring up magical visions of lemon and silver that enchanted US readers. Mariana Enríquez’s Buenos Aires, meanwhile, is scarred by decades of austerity, squalor and inequality, deadly misogyny, and the disappearance of around 30,000 people during the dictatorship. Gone is the wonder and inventive positivity, replaced with the misery of putrefaction and pain, unrelenting pain. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, published originally in 2009, was Mariana Enríquez’s first major collection of short stories, laying the groundwork for a transformation of Latin American literature’s relationship with the horror genre. Megan McDowell also translated Enríquez’s previous collection, Things We Lost in the Fire (originally published in 2016), and has done a similarly outstanding job here; she is currently translating Enríquez’s best work yet, the Herralde Prize–winning Nuestra parte de noche (Our Part of the Night).
Enríquez’s prose is always subtle in its suggestiveness, distilling poetic flashes and vernacular dialect into an ideal web that sublimates unadulterated, awesome fear with language of everyday life. Translating Enríquez’s lyrical vernacular — heavy with the slang and cadences of the Río de la Plata and Northeastern reaches of Argentina — is no simple feat. Horror in Enríquez’s fiction often hinges upon brief phrases that endow banal observation with disgust’s cloying sheen. McDowell recasts the horrific use of such idiolectical subtleties via the repetition of banal, unsettling adjectives and a deft use of caesura: “I made her run after me on her bare little feet that, rotten as they were, left her little white bones in view.” Enríquez’s imaginative project has an unassuming but potent social transversality, through which she has reimagined the post-dictatorial urban middle class’s spiritual life and disentangled its ideological components. She achieves this through a mundane poetics that is not lost to the English reader but captured brilliantly in the surgical brevity and rhythmic persistence of McDowell’s text.
While Latin American literature has a particularly intimate relationship with the crime narrative and the detective story, horror in the style and at the level of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, or Bram Stoker has remained marginal at best. Although manifest in the work of some of Argentina’s great writers — Julio Cortázar, most prominently — there was no tradition, no legacy of tropes, figures, archetypes, and mythologies from which to pull. In this book, Enríquez’s most remarkable achievement is the translation and synthesis of the Anglophone horror tradition, recasting it in response to uniquely Argentine concerns: the traces of the military dictatorship, migration, inequality and poverty, and gendered violence. While Enríquez is often called a horror writer, her characters’ enduring subjective vividness and the aura of historical fact that envelops her stories develop into something greater than either politics or genre: a fundamental rearrangement of sociohistorical affect and emotion that demands a new understanding of the national and revises the genre’s tired masculinism. Enríquez rereads Argentina’s middle-class life in the wake of still-present histories of acute genocidal state terrorism and the everyday “slow violence” of environmental degradation, urban marginalization through racialization and abjection, femicides, and police brutality that are particularly evident in Buenos Aires.
Writing from the points of view of teenagers and young women, Enríquez charts their development and finds in their sexual, physical, and affective injuries an impossibly darkened core. The grim obscurity becomes inescapable, enwrapping every character uniquely and completely. Witnessing an old man’s death from lung disease at a young age distorts one character’s erotic inclinations, and she develops a vicious attraction to irregular, pathological heartbeats, which she handles through hours-long masturbation sessions that finish in blood. In a different story, a character meets a man who uses his talents with a film camera to record disturbing footage of children in bathing suits and eventually a woman who claims that a vision commands her to touch herself furiously, pull her hair out, cut herself, and whose parents hire him to use his video of her doing these things to evidence the delusion to their unbelieving daughter.
Sexual perversion and mental illness constantly linger nearby and threaten to derail each person’s individual life, fracturing already precarious connections to an utterly, crushingly indifferent outside world. This is especially pronounced in “The Lookout,” where a profoundly depressed woman, Elina, travels to the beach town of Ostende following the explosive breakup of an interdependent and toxic relationship that has left her unable or unwilling to continue her work as a professor. The hotel where she stays is haunted, and Enríquez deftly mixes the perspectives of ghost and guest as we see the phantom enchant the young woman, luring her slowly but surely toward self-destruction of both body and mind. Deep loneliness mingles with self-hatred and sexual deprivation or inability, rendering Elina vulnerable to this ghost-woman’s ravages.
Femininity’s liminal position and the affiliated indifference of state and social structures to the psychic and material damages of patriarchal violence run like a thread through the collection. The rage of her characters and narrators at their unexplained, unflinching agony is mostly subterranean, mushrooming beneath the inexorably enforced passivity of such harm’s pervasion: from whence the devastation of women’s bodies and souls? Enríquez answers: everywhere and nowhere. A Freudian melancholia pervades her women, who cannot find that thing that crushes them with unhappiness and are caught in the rabid circles of their own agony and abjection.
In Enríquez’s Argentina, the past bleeds and suppurates into the present, filling every crevice of life with fury and unholy resentment. Sofía’s trip to visit a friend living in a gentrified Barcelona neighborhood, in “Rambla Triste,” turns sour as the poor and mentally ill patrol the streets and stop anyone from leaving, revenging the ravages of the area’s middle-class takeover. The city’s poor are victims, escape valves for Barcelona’s excesses that permit the unbothered, leisurely lives of its comfortable middle class. The piece that most directly engages the histories of violence still manifesting daily nationwide is “Back When We Talked to the Dead,” where a group of teenagers use a Ouija board to call up the spirits of their disappeared family members and neighbors. Here, the morbid fascination with traumatic history of uncertainty and absence reflects an unanswered social lack distorting quotidian experience, even of those (like Enríquez herself) too young to have experienced the trauma directly. The most extensive story in the collection, “Kids Who Come Back,” deals with an archivist who is tasked by the Buenos Aires government with keeping a log of every child who goes missing. She does her job zealously and develops a fascination — if not a slight fetish — for these (mostly female) children and their tortured lives, likely kidnapped to nourish human trafficking and prostitution networks, and never to be seen again. One day, however, every missing child returns unchanged: no age difference, wearing the same clothes as when they were taken, yet utterly other, voided of their previous personality. Enríquez masterfully synthesizes Argentina’s history of state-sponsored disappearances with the ever-growing crime rings based on sex trafficking of poor women. History mixes with speculation, and the narrator’s frightened linguistic spasms reveal a culture riven by terror and unaddressed complicity with genocide at every level of government.
When Enríquez’s previous short story collection was translated, global acclaim was instantaneous. Things We Lost in the Fire was a terrifying compendium of horrors in which rationality bleeds, exposing pus-filled cracks in its habitual patina of urban functionality from which come the terrors of Enríquez’s stories, at times violently but more often eerily and quietly sawing at the floor underneath our feet. In The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, Enríquez is beginning to experiment with one of her most effective and unsettling tools: a collective adolescent voice, a female “we” either made into the narrator (as in “Our Lady of the Quarry”) or discussed with slight distance (as in “Meat”). Characterizing women’s collective desire and action is combined with the vile behaviors of Enríquez’s characters, affirming their role as political (and, thus, narrative) actors. The horror in the stories where this collective voice appears comes from the radical negation of undeniably unjust current social conditions: in “Things We Lost in the Fire,” women burn themselves alive in order to void men’s power to destroy their bodies. The horror is not in the action itself, but in its straightforward justifiability politically and personally — in the appallingly violent patriarchal regime that compels women to such action. In the story “Meat,” where adolescent fans of an eccentric and mercurial recently deceased musician eat the rotting flesh off his bones. In “Our Lady of the Quarry,” where an obsessive collective “us” goes to whatever extent necessary to make a young man notice them, including sorcery.
In the latter story, as well as in “Angelita Unearthed,” Enríquez starts on a quest to enter into literature the vast mythologies that populate the Argentine Northwest, which are usually derived from Guaraní and Afro-Brazilian syncretic faiths like Candomblé. Slightly before the ascent of Argentina’s most violent civic and military dictatorship (which lasted from 1976 to 1983), and up to the present, extensive internal migrations have transported pagan, hybrid faiths previously residing only in the Northeastern provinces throughout the country. Fear comes as their premodern, rural, popular status haunts the urbanized, secularized, often wealthier offspring of migrants; in “The Well,” the main character is utterly debilitated by pathological fear after staring down a well during a family trip to the North, while in “Angelita” a death from far away and long ago refuses to leave a woman’s side. Enríquez explores figures like San La Muerte, a pagan skeleton saint that carries a scythe, the Gauchito Gil, a folk saint based on an executed army deserter from the 19th century, and a plethora of pagan witches.
Much has been said in recent years of the upsurge in female writers from Latin America, particularly of their proclivity for narratives that use horror to reread the spaces of traditional literary concern. Samanta Schweblin (author of Fever Dream and Little Eyes), Lina Meruane (author of Seeing Red), and a previous incarnation of Valeria Luiselli (in The Story of My Teeth and Faces in the Crowd), among others, have all used different registers to refuse romanticized and ahistorical accounts of Latin American experience. These horrifying narratives are charting anew the geographies of city and country and embodied experiences of terror and grief, and they challenge the misogyny through which Latin American literature has been historically produced. They do so not in service of escapist fantasies, but rather to highlight the real conditions of gender-based violence, femicides, and intimate partner violence that pervade the region at every level of life; taking patriarchal violence as a ground, both ripe for critique and nearly inescapable, these writers rewrite the recent history of the region. Enríquez’s explicitly vernacular literature synthesizes these concerns in often historicist narrations that examine closely the construction of Buenos Aires’s middle class in the post-dictatorship period, with austerity policies and successive economic crises heightening inequality in a country already marked by profound wealth disparities, and a city in which such injustices are laid barest. In her new bestiary of nightmares and curses, Enríquez offers a key to Argentina’s recent history and a literary project of breathtaking amplitude and ambition. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is, above all, the beginning of an imaginative sequence whose promise only grows.