It’s rare that I become aware of my books because of the translator, rather than the writer, but that’s the case with today’s choice. Megan McDowell has been responsible for the English version of many books I’ve read (a quick look at her website shows I’d tried nine of the thirteen titles listed – and one that hasn’t made it there yet!), so when I heard of her bringing a new Argentinean voice into English, I was immediately interested. Luckily, it seems that it’s not just the translator who’s done a good job as there’s been a lot of positive coverage of the book – and now that I’ve finally got around to trying it, I can only agree. This is well worth reading.
Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (review copy courtesy of Portobello Books) is a collection of twelve excellent stories set in the writer’s home country. While Enriquez occasionally takes us outside Buenos Aires, with one piece set in the humid north and another in a holiday town on the coast, most unfold in the capital. In Enriquez’s hands, Buenos Aires becomes a pulsating, living entity, a place where people can be chewed up and spat out after any false step, with danger lurking around every corner.
Several pieces show us just how hazardous life in the capital can be. In ‘The Dirty Kid’, a middle-class woman slumming it in a dangerous part of town encounters a boy living on the streets. When she comes home one day to find the police investigating a murder, she can’t help but wonder if he’s the victim, particularly as there’s no sign of him – or his drug-addict mother.
There’s murder of a different kind on offer in ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’. Here we follow a tour guide as he shows people around scenes of crime in the capital, and while there are a fair few to choose from, there’s one particular criminal who captures his interest more than most. Understandable, perhaps, but is it normal to see the murderer on his bus, getting closer to the front day by day? As the story progresses, we sense that an innocent obsession is on the verge of becoming something far more sinister.
There’s a dark eerie thread running throughout the collection, and while it’s usually bubbling under the surface, it occasionally bursts out into plain view. One of the clearest examples of the horror genre is ‘Adela’s House’, which sees three kids fascinated by a spooky old house pluck up the courage to go inside. Even more brutal is ‘Under the Black Water’, a story that blends an investigation into police brutality with the reality of pollution and fear of the unknown. Here Enriquez creates a terrifying scenario where reality is suspended and the crimes the Argentinean authorities have committed rise up to take revenge.
There’s a nice link here between the dark nature of the stories and the country’s turbulent past, and in her short translator’s note, McDowell confirms the connection:
What there is of gothic horror in the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire mingles with and is intensified by their sharp social criticism. Haunted houses and deformed children exist on the same plane as extreme poverty, drugs and criminal pollution. Her characters occupy an Argentina scarred by the Dirty Wars of the 1970s and ’80s…
p.200 (Portobello Books, 2018)
While the actual events of the dictatorship are usually implicit rather than explicit, one story that does refer to these years is ‘The Inn’. This one sees two teenage girls playing a midnight prank in a hotel that used to be a police academy. Talk about the ghosts of the past is usually metaphorical, but when you start to hear banging on doors and the deafening sound of marching feet, it’s another matter entirely.
A more oblique look at the terrors of the past is to be found in ‘The Neighbor’s Courtyard’, in which a young couple move into a lovely new house. The reader suspects that it’s too good to be true, and so it proves:
The pounding that woke her up was so loud she doubted it was real; it had to be a nightmare. It was making the house shake. The banging on the front door sounded like punches thrown by enormous hands, the hands of a beast, a giant’s fists.
‘The Neighbor’s Courtyard’, p.134
It’s all a little more complex than first appears, though, and Enriquez delights in concealing the true nature of events from the reader until the very end. We’re never quite sure whether the demons the woman pursues are actually there…
This is far from the only story that has the problems of life in the big city manifesting themselves as mental issues. ‘End of Term’ is an account of a student’s violent self-harming, with an inevitable twist. ‘No Flesh over Our Bones’ has a woman finding a skull in the street and deciding to treat it as her new best friend (and something to aspire to). However, there are other ways to react to a messed-up world, and in ‘The Intoxicated Years’ a trio of teenage girls rage through their teenage years defiantly rather than giving in to the horrors happening outside.
Another feature McDowell comments on is the prevalence of women in the collection, with most of the stories following female protagonists. Some are victims, but many fight back, sending a warning to a macho society. A good example is ‘Spiderweb’, where a woman visits some relatives, with a boorish husband in tow. As he struts around criticising everything he sees, you sense that the trip is unlikely to end well – for him, at least – and as night falls over the tropical north, it’s only a matter of the form in which his fate will appear.
However, it’s the title story where the writer’s anger finally spills over. ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, a scary #MeToo story on steroids, holds a mirror up to society and then smashes it to pieces. Based on true stories of men savagely disfiguring ‘their women’, the story describes how the women turn the tables on men, attacking them in a surprising manner:
The woman entered the fire as if it were a swimming pool; she dove in, ready to sink. There was no doubt she did it of her own will. A superstitious or provoked will, but her own. She burned in barely twenty seconds. Then two women in asbestos suits dragged her out of the flames and carried her at a run to the hospital. Silvana stopped filming before the building came into view.
That night she put the video online. By the next day, millions of people had seen it.
‘Things We Lost in the Fire’, p.195
Rather than going after individual men, the burning women take on society as a whole. As it turns out, what we lose in the fire is our humanity…
Things We Lost in the Fire is one of the best short-story collections I’ve read, and several of the pieces will stay with me for quite a while yet. It goes without saying that McDowell has produced another excellent work in English, and while I’m a little late to the party (the reactions on Twitter when I said I was reading this suggest that most of you got there first), hopefully I’ve piqued the interest of the few people who haven’t heard of this. Social critique, horror and women striking back against a patriarchal society – I suspect that will appeal to many readers out there. Please give it a go 🙂