A city of men­ace where chil­dren can kill

Ar­gentina’s vi­o­lent past lurks ever-present in the shad­ows of Mar­i­ana En­riquez’s com­pelling short story col­lec­tion of the grotesque, writes Lucy Sc­holes

The National - News - The Review - - Books -

Hav­ing re­cently been im­pressed by Sa­manta Sch­we­blin’s night­mar­ish novella, Fever Dream, I was ex­cited to dis­cover an­other mes­mer­iz­ing con­tem­po­rary Ar­gen­tine voice in the form of Mar­i­ana En­riquez’s beau­ti­ful but sav­age short story col­lec­tion, Things We Lost in the Fire.

As Me­gan McDowell – the for­mi­da­bly tal­ented trans­la­tor re­spon­si­ble for trans­lat­ing both books from the orig­i­nal Span­ish – ex­plains in her note at the end of En­riquez’s col­lec­tion, “A shadow hangs over Ar­gentina and its lit­er­a­ture […] the coun­try is haunted by the spec­tre of re­cent dic­ta­tor­ships, and the mem­ory of vi­o­lence there is still raw.”

Her word­ing here is most apt; En­riquez doesn’t ad­dress this his­tory di­rectly, but a strong sense of this bru­tal and vi­o­lent past lingers in the mar­gins. For ex­am­ple, cen­tral to the way in which the col­lec­tion works as a whole is En­riquez’s use of the grotesque and the su­per­nat­u­ral; this more neb­u­lous but no less dan­ger­ous essence of evil, dan­ger and the ac­com­pa­ny­ing fear of­ten re­plac­ing clear-cut bar­barism.

Not that the sto­ries shy away from de­tail­ing the grue­some re­al­i­ties of life for many in Buenos Aires. In the story with which the col­lec­tion opens, The Dirty Kid,a woman who reads about the dis­cov­ery of the dis­mem­bered body of a child – pos­si­bly a gang-re­lated killing, pos­si­bly the re­sult of a sa­tanic rit­ual – be­comes con­vinced it’s the little boy who used to live on her street with his drug-ad­dict mother.

Dis­turbingly though, it’s not so much the gory de­scrip­tion of this re­pul­sive crime that’s the most shock­ing el­e­ment of the story, but in­stead an al­most throw­away com­ment the nar­ra­tor makes when she ad­mits that she’s all but im­mune to the poverty and ne­glect around her: “how little I cared about peo­ple, how nat­u­ral these desperate lives seemed to me”.

To read En­riquez’s sto­ries is to be con­fronted by just how or­di­nary such vi­o­lence and ne­glect is – it is to be brought up face-to­face with the reg­u­lar­ity by which hor­ri­ble things hap­pen. A sim­i­larly telling line nes­tles in the story Green Red Orange: “I don’t know why you all think that kids are cared for and loved,” one char­ac­ter en­light­ens an­other.

Chil­dren are ob­jects of horror through­out En­riquez’s work, both in terms of what they’re forced to suf­fer and the vi­o­lence they in­flict on oth­ers.

In the bone-chilling story The Neigh­bor’s Court­yard , the cen­tral char­ac­ter used to be a so­cial worker who ran a refuge for aban­doned street chil­dren: this is a world in which a six-yearold boy, “hard like a war vet­eran – worse, be­cause he lacked a vet­eran’s pride,” has turned to pros­ti­tu­tion. There’s a nineyear-old child killer in one story, as shock­ing as that might seem.

Mean­while, to re­turn to The Neigh­bor’s Court­yard, the ex-so­cial worker be­comes con­vinced that her neigh­bour is keep­ing a child chained up in his flat, but when the mys­te­ri­ous child fi­nally ap­pears, he’s a con­fus­ing image: both a piti­ful fig­ure of ne­glect, cov­ered in in­fected, sup­pu­rat­ing sores and wob­bling on “legs of pure bone”, but also a hideously feral crea­ture who uses his sharp­ened saw-like teeth to feast on a live cat. “He buried his face, nose and all, in her guts, he in­haled in­side the cat, who died quickly, look­ing at her owner with anger and sur­prised eyes.”

The story ends with the woman trapped in her apart­ment at the mercy of this gore-cov­ered, psy­chotic thing, more beast than child.

It’s a de­noue­ment that gives the best horror sto­ries a run for their money, but re­minded me most strongly of Daphne du Mau­rier’s ter­ri­fy­ing Don’t Look Now, with its pixie-hooded, knife-wield­ing dwarf stalk­ing the dark, wind­ing streets and bridges of Venice.

So too, the slums of Ar­gentina’s cap­i­tal are evoked here as a labyrinth of ter­rors. In Un­der the Black Wa­ter, a fe­male district at­tor­ney pur­sues a lead into the city’s most dan­ger­ous neigh­bour­hood, where she be­comes trapped in a “liv­ing night­mare”. It is a story that shares echoes with Sch­we­blin’s Fever Dream, in that be­lief in the oc­cult be­comes con­fused with the dam­ag­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects of cer­tain poi­sons. In Sch­we­blin’s story it is agri­cul­tural pes­ti­cides; here it is the in­dus­trial pol­lu­tion of a river.

From strug­gling teenagers to am­bi­tious ca­reer women, En­riquez’s pro­tag­o­nists are com­pli­cated and com­plex, trou­bled and troubling, but she also makes it clear how their gen­der begets a cer­tain pre­car­ity, clos­ing the col­lec­tion with an un­for­get­table story about a craze for self-im­mo­la­tion that sweeps through the women of the city, a dis­turb­ing re­sponse to the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence per­pe­trated against so many of them.

This is the best short story col­lec­tion I have read this year.

Lucy Sc­holes is a free­lance re­viewer based in London. Vivek Shanbhag Faber & Faber, April 27

A close-knit fam­ily in In­dia is res­cued from near des­ti­tu­tion af­ter an un­cle founds a suc­cess­ful spice com­pany. But this new-found wealth cre­ates conflict and their world be­comes “ghachar ghochar” – a non­sen­si­cal phrase that comes to mean some­thing en­tan­gled be­yond re­pair.

Markus Matzel / ull­stein bild via Getty Images

Slums in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina – the set­ting for Mar­i­ana En­riquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire. These dark sto­ries ex­plore the desperate lives of some cit­i­zens.

Mar­i­ana En­riquez Por­to­bello, Dh55

Things We Lost in the Fire

Ghachar Ghochar

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.