Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a mutant blend of lit fic and fantasy — inexplicably morbid and unnerving, otherworldly and compelling. As a collection of short fiction, it initiates the reader into a kind of socio-political Día de los muertos death cult from the off: understand, accept, give in.
But it is not hero-worship for the serial-killer-obsessed, nor for the conjuror of the demonic.
In ‘Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, for instance, Enríquez does not demonstrate reverence for violence, criminality and distress. She celebrates our every-day relation to the macabre, the unthinkable, the revolting. As an examination of human consciousness, it destabilises our ability to know right from wrong by questioning what defines them. Right and wrong is learned during childhood, but The Runt in question, a real adult male murderer with a mental health disorder and the intellectual capacity of a child, has no notion of conscience.
It is Enríquez’s preoccupation with the relationship between people and land, both physically and in terms of national identity, which draws me in and truly links her stories. Born at the end of the 1800s, The Runt ‘was a foretaste of evils to come, a warning that there was much more to… [Argentina] than palaces and estates.’ Pablo, the tour guide protagonist in this particular story, dismisses his estranged wife’s concern that he has become obsessed with The Runt, murderer of children. He attributes his interest to ‘the city [of Buenos Aires not having] any great murderers if you [don’t] count the dictators.’ His wife was once fearless and adventurous, but since becoming a mother has been paralysed by the fear of losing her baby, and cries ‘over a death that had not come.’
Pablo’s wife is cautious of raising her child in a society that would glorify his murder at the hands of a man. The male characters aren’t just unstable, they’re inherently broken. They’re absent fathers or abandoned sons, abusive husbands or suicidal brothers — unwilling to talk out of fear, unable to change out of ignorance. Enríquez writes men with an exasperated banality. That is, she is not unoriginal in her representation of masculinity, she is exactly on point. These are real, unoriginal men who ‘ooze impunity and contempt.’
In the collection’s namesake, ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, women begin burning themselves in response to increasingly violent attacks by allegedly jilted husbands. They burn themselves to reclaim the act, in search of a ‘new kind of beauty’; to beat men to the punch, because ‘burnings are the work of men. They have always burned [women]. Now [they] are burning themselves. But [they are] not going to die. [They are] going to flaunt [their] scars.’
Enríquez’s women are more reactive and progressive, though these traits aren’t necessarily divided equally between the old and young. In ‘The Inn’, teenage Florencia travels to Sanagasta from La Rioja with her mother, who is resentful of being sent there by her estranged husband, and her sister, who resents being taken there by her mother. The family’s house in Sanagasta has a large garden, with space for flowers rather than a pool, because Florencia’s ‘father loved flowers, much more than her mother, who preferred cacti.’ Enríquez’s use of the past tense is essential, since Florencia’s friendship with Rocío is more immediate, the ambiguity of their sexuality and attraction to one another highlighting the progressive nature of younger people stuck in a world that is almost as nostalgic as rural Britain. It seems that older women represent a prickly, stoic tolerance of the men who govern them, whilst themes of legacy and inherited trauma torment the younger characters as they try to break away, in the form of ghosts of old regime policemen, which haunt Florencia and Rocío when they break into an inn. As the first line of the translator’s note says, ‘A shadow hangs over Argentina and its literature.’
As a portrait of growing up female in Argentina, emphasis falls on the divide between young and old, rich and poor. It is Enríquez’s commitment to displaying those divides that stand out more than her writing style itself, which at times reads like non-fiction, almost Wikipedia-esque in its linearity, or a tourist guidebook, in both the straightforwardness of its description and [occasional] tendency to tell, rather than show. And yet Enríquez uses this detail very well to characterise place in relation to social structure. She gives a megaphone to the lower classes, and their forgotten neighbourhoods, and allows them to shout for representation in an industry that otherwise ignores them.
In ‘The Dirty Kid’, the narrator describes the neighbourhood she lives in, Constitución, an impoverished part of Buenos Aires, as though she is delivering a sermon. Once home to the aristocracy, the social class of Constitución’s inhabitants has gradually declined, as has the area’s infrastructure. The narrator, a ‘middle class woman who thinks she is a rebel because she chose to live in the most dangerous neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, identifies as a legitimate resident of the neighbourhood, and delights in its past more than its present. Her large, inherited house fulfils her outdated vision of Constitución and Argentina, and provides her with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind sanctuary from the muggers, the pimps, the prostitutes and the homeless. That is, until one of them — a homeless boy who lives on the street opposite her — gets decapitated, and she no longer has the capacity to ignore what her neighbours go through in order to [nearly] survive.
Class and gender inequality are never more prevalent, or mixed, themes, than in ‘Under the Black Water’, in which District Attorney Marina Pinat tries to convict a male police officer for the murder of two teenage Constitución boys. The officer denies it, of course, but the DA is used to the obscene entitlement of this type of man, and ‘the impossible combination of brutality and stupidity’ that defines them. What follows is deliciously reminiscent of the first season of HBO’s True Detective, in its portrayal of the occult, Christianity, and the fear of key witnesses to give up information that may threaten their safety, as Marina tries to locate one of the boys, purportedly returned from the dead and walking round the slums.
Mariana Enríquez’s work has been described as ‘unsettling’, and as having ‘the force of a freight train.’ It is powerful, eloquent and brutal, yes, but I felt entirely comfortable throughout. That is not a criticism of her ability to disgust. Her imagery is distending. And whilst her word economy leaves room for less, her real commendation lies in her evocation of our real life potential to actually commit terrible acts, which Enríquez’s ease of voice makes more terrifying than her description of the acts themselves. And it is a strong voice throughout: one which adapts to different protagonists, but which maintains a sense of grim continuity that is both comforting and scary. This could be real.
Her first collection of stories, and first work translated to English, Things We Lost in the Fire is an up-tempo and vast exploration of human experience, and strikes a confusingly satisfying balance between utter despair and complacency.
Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink Books), was first runner up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2016. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in July. He lives in London. @hcagallon
Mariana Enriquez is a writer and editor based in Buenos Aires, where she contributes to a number of newspapers and literary journals, both fiction and nonfiction.
Megan McDowell has translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, and Vice, among others.