As interesting as it was to learn of tigers, unicorns and men on the moon, it’s time to stop building castles in the air and get our feet back on the ground, and the next stage of our International Booker Prize longlist journey is nothing if not earthy. We’re heading to Argentina for a series of encounters with people making their way through life and often hitting a few speed bumps along the way. If you’re a sensitive soul, you might want to sit this one out, but if blood, sex, ghosts, big dogs and a smelly shopping trolley or two aren’t enough to put you off, please step this way – it’s time to see the world a little differently…
The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez
– Granta Books, translated by Megan McDowell
(review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
Things We Lost in the Fire, a collection of short stories by Argentinean writer Mariana Enríquez, was very well received on its appearance in the Anglosphere a few years back, but it was actually her second set of stories. Seven years earlier saw the appearance of The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, a collection with a slightly different slant, but very much the work of the same writer. This first collection consists of twelve stories featuring more slightly grotesque and discomforting action, both in Buenos Aires and further afield, and for those with a strong stomach, it’s a book that will provide more reading pleasure.
As was the case in Things We Lost in the Fire, Enríquez is partial here to dabbling in the supernatural. The closing piece, ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead’, has a group of friends playing with a Ouija board, with a surprising outcome, while in ‘Rambla Triste’ a woman’s visit to Barcelona takes an unexpected turn:
She didn’t remember Barcelona being so dirty. At least, she hadn’t noticed it on her first visit, five years ago. But it had to be a cold, maybe the stench of stagnant mucus, because for blocks at a time she smelled absolutely nothing, and then suddenly the odor attacked her and made her stomach heave violently. It smelled like a dead dog rotting beside the road, like rancid meat forgotten in the fridge and turned wine-purple.
‘Rambla Triste’, p.55 (Granta Books, 2021)
Yes, there are physical smells, of course, but she soon learns that there’s far more to the phenomenon than dirty streets – this is the stench of those long dead…
Several of the stories are sketches hanging on one pivotal event, and then describing its aftermath. ‘The Well’, for example, begins with a childhood visit to an old woman’s house, one that is obviously connected somehow to a young woman’s crippling anxiety. Then there’s ‘The Cart’, in which an eventful encounter involving a homeless person sparks the downfall of an entire area, with a curse afflicting all who looked on as the old man was humiliated in the street.
Where The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is slightly different from the writer’s first book in English is in its focus on younger protagonists, often teens. In addition to the thrill-seeking gang from ‘Back When We Talked to the Dead’, there are the heroines of ‘Our Lady of the Quarry’, a group of friends lusting after an older boy and seething at an older girl who’s stealing him away. Yes, there’s teen angst, but in a brutal, chilling ending, we see that even when swimming on a sunny day, there’s always the chance of a tale taking a dark, eerie turn.
One feature of the collection that might not appeal to all readers, though, is its fixation on, shall we say, the messier side of life. Quite apart from the stories that involve public defecation, there’s no shortage of filth and bodily fluids here, so please consider yourselves warned. Stories to be wary of include ‘Where Are You, Dear Heart?’, where a woman’s obsession with illness leads to her masturbating to the sound of beating hearts (and that’s just the start), as well as ‘No Birthdays or Baptisms’, in which a man is asked to record a disturbed teen in the midst of her self-abuse. However, the high (or low…) point of this frenzy surely comes in ‘Meat’, a short piece describing how two teenage fans of a rock idol get a little too close to their hero – after his death…
To be fair, it’s not all disgusting and raw, though, and there’s even some humour in places. I enjoyed the antics of the family in ‘The Cart’, in particular the image of the mother scrambling over roofs on her way to work to avoid being seen by her neighbours, and the opening piece, ‘Angelita Unearthed’, is also a comparatively light-hearted affair. Yes, it’s another ghost story, but a much more amusing take on the genre, with the laconic narrator eventually coming to terms with her spectral shadow and even getting her own back.
As my review copy took a while to arrive down under, my first read was actually of the Anagrama Spanish-language edition, Los peligros de fumar en la cama, so I was able to compare the versions (even if my Spanish isn’t all it might be!). A few shifts in punctuation aside, there were no huge changes between the original and McDowell’s usual excellent work in terms of the language, but there were a couple of interesting differences I’d like to share. The one story I really struggled with in the original was ‘El Mirador’ (‘The Lookout’), and it was only when I compared it with the English that I realised why. The original tells the two-strand story without identifying the second, ghostly participant, meaning that it can be a little tricky to know exactly who is meant at times by ‘she’. Interestingly, McDowell must have felt the same, as the English-language version identifies this character as ‘the Lady Upstairs’ in the first paragraph, and repeats the term several times, making for a much smoother read.
The other major difference between the two versions concerns the longest piece, ‘Kids Who Come Back’ (‘Chicos que faltan’). It’s the heart of the collection, a fifty-page novella – which I only found out when I opened the English-language copy. You see, in the Spanish-language collection, it’s only twenty-three pages long… Luckily, I was able to contact McDowell for clarification, and no, she didn’t make the rest up herself. Enriquez rewrote the story for a solo release to celebrate the Argentinean Bicentennial in 2010, and it’s this updated version that is included in the English-language collection.
It’s a great story, too, probably the stand-out here, a tale focusing on children who ‘disappeared’ from the Argentinean capital, and the euphoria felt when all of a sudden they start to be found:
When she was going up the steps of Chacabuco Park’s main fountain, which wasn’t turned on that day, Mechi saw Vanadis sitting on one of the steps. No doubt about it. It was her, dressed the same as in one of the photos on her MySpace page, the only one that showed her whole body. That was precisely why Mechi recognized her, because of her clothes: it was like seeing the photo brought to life.
‘Kids Who Come Back’, p.142
As it turns out, that joy is short-lived. The kids may be back, but they’re definitely not alright, and the startled parents soon start to wonder if these really are their children. The expanded version of the story adds depth to the piece, slowing the action right down by adding to the main character’s background and providing more details of the eerie aftermath of the children’s reappearance, making for a thought-provoking, gut-wrenching climax.
All in all, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed is an entertaining assortment of stories, but it certainly won’t be for everyone. I wouldn’t say all the stories are successful (ironically, the short title piece ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed’ is one that left me cold), and they’re certainly not always in good taste. However, I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Enríquez’s work in English in the future, especially as she’s already written several novels…
…I do hope McDowell’s got some free time coming up soon 😉
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Look, I don’t think so. I know we’re not supposed to judge these titles against the writers’ other books, but virtually everyone I’ve talked to about The Dangers of Smoking in Bed has said it’s not as good as Things We Lost in the Fire – and given that’s an opinion I share, it’s hard to make a case for the shortlisting. At times, it’s a little too immature, trying to shock for the sake of it, whereas the later collection (published first in English) was darker and scarier without needing to try so hard. There are some high points here, but overall it’s a good, not great, bunch of stories, and that’s not quite enough for me.
Why did it make the shortlist?
A good question. Judged on its own merits, without the shadow of its younger sibling hanging over it, there’s every chance the judges would have looked upon it favourably, and the fact that it offered something a little different to the non-fiction-heavy longlisters may have helped, too. Still, I can’t help but think it’s a little lucky to be there, and I don’t think it’ll be in contention for the big prize next week. Possibly 😉
Well, we’re almost at the end of our IBP travels, but we’ve run out of time, and (more importantly) I don’t have a ticket for our final destination – which means our journey to Africa may have to wait a while. Still, there are a few things to sort out before the journey’s finally done. For one thing, there’s the small matter of crowning this year’s IBP Shadow Laureate – oh, and if you’re interested, the official judges will be making their choice, too. It’s been a fairly open year, with some unusual decisions, so whatever gets the nod, I’m sure someone will be unhappy. Come back soon to find out how it all goes down 😉