Book review: Argentina haunted history in Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire

Argentina’s violent past lurks ever-present in the shadows of the novelist's compelling short story collection of the grotesque, Things We Lost in the Fire.

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. Markus Matzel / ullstein bild via Getty Images.
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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-to-face 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-year-old boy, "hard like a war veteran – worse, because he lacked a veteran's pride," has turned to prostitution. There's a nine-year-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.