Mariana Enriquez – Things we lost in the fire (2017)

Setting: Post-dictatorship, contemporary Argentina – mostly Buenos Aires

What’s it about? Argentina’s tradition of surreal, mind-bending short stories takes a dark twist. These stories start with rough-and-ready social realism – run-down neighbourhoods, sleepy suburbs, working poor struggling to make ends meet – only to take macabre, gothic twists that symbolise the traumas of a society that has papered over the legacy of past repressive regimes.

These are not horror stories: the supernatural aspects of the stories serve to magnify the very real ills of society: corruption, violence, social justice in which a boarded-up haunted house is actually a former torture chamber. Really they are about the horror of real life, the slums, the addicts with eyes “completely black, like a carrion insect’s” and the cops wearing the ironic smiles that “oozed impunity and contempt”.

One story starts with a DA investigating police corruption, but ends with a carnival procession of dead, deformed bodies, people thrown into the black, polluted the river down the years – mostly by the police, where they awakened a dark spirit.

The title story begins with that social discomfort of a burned girl begging on the subway, kissing passengers on the cheek with her burnt, deformed lips. But as in many of the stories, the victim turns into a supernatural force, starting a wave of self-immolations across the country in answer to domestic violence.

These are stories that get under your skin, as the downtrodden of the earth rise up in ways that are uncomfortable for the reader. As the organiser of the Burned Women movement says,

Burnings are the work of men. They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die; we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

Read it if you….: Found Julio Cortazar, Silvina Ocampo and Jose Luis Borges too magical and fantastical. The same spirit in those writers is here taken to rough neighbourhoods and broken families.

What it the best novel from Argentina? I am still undecided! I am still reading The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón by Carlos Gamerro and want to dip into more of Silvina Ocampo’s short stories. Matias Nespolo creates great characters and tense thrills in his crime/mafia stories.

gamerro-adeventureofthebustsmatias nespolo

My original selection for Argentina was  Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by Ricardo Guiraldes – but it’s one of those mandatory curriculum books that everyone in Argentina reads in school! It’s an idealised pastoral coming-of-age cowboy tale set in the Argentine Pampa. While it gives a very sanitised, idealised vision of life as a cow-herd, it is built on a touching relationship between a troubled orphan and a mysterious drifter. However, it is bereft of any politics and race that must be present in a ranchers society built on generations of oppression of indigenous peoples.

It’s a simple, charming coming-of-age novel, rather let down by its ending and the lack of ambiguity of any of its characters.


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