There are writers for whom the dead refuse to stay buried, and it may be that some ghosts are especially insistent with authors from countries where, not all that long ago, tens of thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. In the short stories of Mariana Enriquez, a journalist and fiction writer from Argentina, the restless dead are all too eager to return as unwelcome reminders of the legacy of late-twentieth-century political violence—and of the horrors occurring now in South America’s former dictatorships.
In Enriquez’s new story collection, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed—and in her earlier collection, Things We Lost in the Fire (first published in English in 2017)—her gothic fantasies are unsparing and grotesque; there’s cannibalism, necrophilia, murder, madness, posthumous decay. Yet because the fiction is so alive, the experience of being in her world is enjoyable. Some credit must go to Megan McDowell, who has translated both of Enriquez’s collections into excellent English, nimbly switching from the lyrical to the idiomatic, the metaphysical to the obscene. So the slangy Spanish term “un garronazo” (which might be translated as “a screwup”) appears here as “a clusterfuck.”
What’s remarkable is the assurance of Enriquez’s voice, which makes her most outrageous inventions seem coherent and convincing. Details—an insect, a dog, a cigarette—that may at first seem randomly chosen reverberate through a story, reappearing in unexpected ways. These recurrences create a kind of substructure, giving her stories the “inner consistency” that, according to J.R.R. Tolkien, is necessary to persuade readers to suspend their disbelief long enough to accept the reality of an imagined world more fantastic than our own.
Like their author, many of Enriquez’s characters live in Buenos Aires: not the tourist fantasy of tango lessons, prime beef, and leafy boulevards, but a gritty, polluted metropolis with cavernous class divisions. Most of her characters are girls and women, and many of her stories are told in the first person. Camped on the shores of toxic rivers, they live among people who are starving, drug-addicted, brutalized by the police. Meanwhile, in dusty Argentine backwaters, the city girls’ country cousins—chain-smoking, boy-crazy risk-takers—have been driven nearly feral by unfocused lust and teenage ennui.
Enriquez has an uncanny ability to channel the manic hilarity and imagination of groups of teenage girls:
At that age there’s music playing in your head all the time, as if a radio were transmitting from the nape of your neck, inside your skull. Then one day that music starts to grow softer, or it just stops. When that happens, you’re no longer a teenager. But we weren’t there yet, not even close…. Back then, the music was at full blast and it sounded like Slayer, Reign in Blood.
“Our Lady of the Quarry” is narrated in the collective voice of the group, tracking the girls’ growing impatience with their “grown-up” friend Silvia, already an adult, who lets them smoke weed and meet boys at her apartment but annoys them with her greater wisdom and experience:
If one of us discovered Frida Kahlo, oh, Silvia had already visited Frida’s house with her cousin in Mexico, before he disappeared. If we tried a new drug, she had already overdosed on the same substance. If we discovered a band we liked, she had already gotten over being a fan of the same group.
We see, as the girls cannot, how lonely Silvia must be, so we’re hardly surprised when she commits what is, for them, an unforgivable sin. She begins a romance with a mutual friend, Diego, whom the younger girls also desire. What rankles them most is that Diego hasn’t chosen them, with their perfect bodies so obviously superior to Silvia’s chunky legs, flat ass, and broad hips.
The wildest of the girls asks a plaster statue of a naked red woman with black nipples to curse Silvia and Diego, and her prayer conjures up a pack of snarling, ferocious dogs. None of the characters in these stories take curses lightly, especially when malevolent magic borrows its power from the combined forces of Spanish colonial Catholicism, Afro-Brazilian religion, and savvy local witches. Especially feared is the popular cult of San La Muerte,
Saint Death—a skeleton with its scythe. The figure was repeated in different sizes and materials, sometimes in rough approximations, others carved in detail, with deep black eye sockets and a broad grin.
Sneaking into haunted houses, swimming in abandoned, perilous quarries, Enriquez’s teenage girls long for an encounter with the supernatural, if only to test their magical powers—and to break up the tedium of their days. But the five Ouija board fanatics in “Back When We Talked to the Dead” have a more urgent and, in their opinion, practical reason for their obsession with the letter board and the whizzing planchette spelling out messages from the beyond:
Everyone knew Julita’s parents hadn’t died in any accident: Julita’s folks had disappeared. They were disappeared. They’d been disappeared. We didn’t really know the right way to say it. Julita said they’d been taken away, because that’s how her grandparents talked….
Julita wanted to find them with the board, or ask some other spirit if they’d seen them. She wanted to talk to them, and she also wanted to know where their bodies were. Because that question drove her grandparents crazy, she said; her grandma cried every day because she had nowhere to bring flowers to. Plus, Julita was really something else: she said that if we found the bodies, if the dead told us where they were and it turned out to be really real, we’d have to go on TV or to the newspapers, and we’d be famous and everyone in the world would love us.
It’s a joke, the hope that locating, via the Ouija board, two of the tens of thousands of people kidnapped by the Argentine military might prove to be an instant ticket to celebrity stardom. The narrator thinks the plan is a little cold-blooded, but the girls give it a try. Nearly all of them know someone, or know of someone, who disappeared, and they meditate on the vanished to encourage Julita’s parents to get in touch.
In “The Inn,” from Things We Lost in the Fire, two friends, Florencia and Rocío, take revenge on the owner of a small hotel by stuffing its mattresses with chorizo sausages and hoping that when they start to stink the business will be ruined. Ultimately, their escapade shines a light on the mysteries of friendship and sex, but meanwhile we learn that, under the dictatorship, the inn was a police academy. Presumably the odor of putrefaction was symbolically if not actually present before the girls’ attempt to punish the innkeeper for firing Rocío’s father—a tour guide whose sole offense was mentioning the hotel’s former incarnation, thus prompting some tourists to ask about “disappearances, torture, whatever.”
In a 2018 interview on Lit Hub, Enriquez noted that “political violence leaves scars, like a national PTSD. The military here launched the stuff of nightmares: they disappeared people, common graves, bones unidentified.” In her fiction, the bodies are never buried very deep. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed begins with “Angelita Unearthed,” a story narrated by a young woman who is visited by a dead infant. The narrator, as a child, had dug up some bones in her family’s garden and brought them to her father:
He said they were chicken bones, or maybe even beef bones, or else they were from some dead pet someone must have buried a long time ago. Dogs or cats. He circled back around to the chicken story because before, when he was little, my grandma used to have a coop back there.
The remains turn out to have belonged to the grandmother’s baby sister, “sibling number ten or eleven,” who—ten years after her grave was disturbed—materializes in the narrator’s apartment:
I walked around behind her and I saw, hanging from the yellowed remains of what I now know was her pink shroud, two rudimentary little cardboard wings that had chicken feathers glued to them. Those should have disintegrated after all these years, I thought, and then I laughed a little hysterically and told myself that I had a dead baby in my kitchen, that it was my great-aunt and she could walk, even though judging by her size she hadn’t lived more than three months. I had to definitively stop thinking in terms of what was possible and what wasn’t.
The narrator muses that she has finally (sort of) satisfied her father’s desire for a grandchild, but it isn’t until the mute ghost hands her “a photo of my childhood home, the house where I had found her little bones in the backyard” that she understands what the baby wants: to be taken back to her burial spot. When she tries to fulfill that request, she realizes that leaving a dead child is not necessarily easier than abandoning a live one.
Many of the stories involve a fraught relationship between a woman and a child. Sometimes the child is living, sometimes dead, sometimes a hallucination; the borders between these states can be porous. Real or not, the children are poor and are likely to arrive on the doorsteps of the middle-class urban romantics who occupy beautiful, half-ruined homes in dangerous neighborhoods. In Things We Lost in the Fire, the narrator of “The Dirty Kid” forms a tentative alliance with a boy who lives on the sidewalk outside her house—a fragile friendship ended when the boy’s ill, drug-addled mother rages at her for buying ice cream for her son.
In The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, “Kids Who Come Back” begins in a naturalistic vein, with a woman who works in an archive listing the missing children of Buenos Aires, a pointless and “constantly expanding report without the capacity to inspire action.” Her friend is a journalist who has made a career of reporting on trafficked kids, and whose high-minded crusade is, Enriquez suggests, a subtler form of exploitation:
There was something in the terrible journeys of these girls—mostly girls, though he also investigated cases of missing boys—that led him to write special-feature essays, long and detailed, that were much commented on and brought congratulations from his bosses, and even salary raises.
Gradually, the narrative shifts into another mode and becomes a love story about one of the missing kids, some of whom have large social media followings, though it’s not clear who updates the posts. The MySpace page of the vanished girl is thorough and specific:
She’d completed the information requested with a strange mixture of truth and macabre fantasy: she was a fan of heavy metal and horror movies. She called herself “Vagabond of the Night,” described herself as “the worm that lives in every death,” and claimed to be 103 years old. She’d left the space for “About me” blank, and for “Who I want to meet,” she’d put “Everyone.”
The children begin returning at the ages they were—wearing the same clothes they wore—on the day they went missing:
Lorena Lopez, a girl from Villa Soldati who had run away from home with a taxi driver, and had been five months pregnant when she left. She appeared in the rose garden at Chacabuco Park, five months pregnant. She’d been missing for a year and a half. The gynecologists confirmed that it was her first pregnancy.
Reading this, I vaguely remembered streaming at least two TV series—the French and American versions of The Returned—that involved children and teenagers returning from the dead. But those families were middle-class, living in pleasant towns; the series focused on the families’ happiness, confusion, and delicate readjustments. The ghosts in Enriquez’s stories are the spirits of poor kids: abandoned, hungry, potentially unruly.
In “The Cart,” urban class warfare weaponizes the occult. When an elderly vagrant is bullied by the neighborhood drunk, he leaves behind his grocery cart, which casts an evil spell on the neighborhood: jobs are lost, bank accounts empty themselves, burglaries and murders multiply. Everyone goes broke. The only family immune to the plague of misfortune is the narrator’s. Her mother, a physical therapist whom everyone thinks of as a doctor, was the one person to defend the vagrant. But eventually the escalating violence turns even them into prisoners in their own home, and they experience the harsh truth of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
All the stories in Things We Lost in the Fire are set in South America. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed ventures further afield. “The Lookout” takes place in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, where a hungry, aggressively territorial ghost proves that malevolent spirits aren’t restricted to Argentina. The point of view switches between that of the ghost—“The Lady Upstairs”—and a lovelorn young woman who comes to stay at the hotel that the phantom has claimed as her domain.
“Rambla Triste” transports the reader to Barcelona, where, after watching a girl collapse in the street, a visiting Argentine woman named Sofia can’t shake the city’s putrid smell, “like a dead dog rotting beside the road.” Her friend Julieta, with whom she’s staying, claims that the mentally ill talking to themselves on the streets “aren’t people, they’re not real. They’re like incarnations of the city’s madness, like escape valves. If they weren’t here, we’d all kill each other or die of stress.” A Catalan acquaintance explains that a neighborhood bar is named after the madam of a brothel who had a child with an anarchist, killed by Franco; after her son was beheaded by a cart on Las Ramblas, the city’s main shopping street, the madam carried a headless doll with a neck made from the dead boy’s skin when she did her weekly marketing.
Later, during a girls’ night out, Julieta makes a series of confessions to Sofia, spiraling from horror to horror. While trying to get pregnant the previous year, she had become convinced that she was being watched by helicopters dispatched by a commando unit in charge of kidnapping children. Now she believes that Barcelona is overrun and controlled by an army of trafficked or murdered kids who won’t let anyone leave the city:
Kids who fell off balconies after their junkie mothers left them there. Kids who had keys hung round their necks at three, four years old. Kids who murdered taxi drivers and died of overdoses, who whored themselves out, went looking for crack….
The kids were unhappy, they don’t want anyone to go, they want to make people suffer. They suck you in. When you try to leave, they make you lose your passport. Or miss your plane. Or the taxi crashes on the way to the airport.
It’s another sort of dictatorship, in which the power of evil is unleashed not by a right-wing military but by the insatiable, inhumane greed of the tourist industry and neighborhood gentrification. The problem is no longer just South America’s past; it’s the global present—a suggestion that compels us to acknowledge that these horrors and injustices aren’t limited to a remote country during a distant era.
The women who witness these revelations and visions are so damaged by the harsh realities around them—and the malevolence of the supernatural—that no amount of medication can make them eat, get out of bed, or stop seeing apparitions. In “The Well,” an adventurous child named Josefina turns paranoid, paralyzed by anxiety, mistaking the braying of a nearby donkey for the voice of “the Mule Spirit, the ghost of a dead woman who’d been turned into a mule and couldn’t rest, and who went out to gallop at night.” She hears a dead child crying and can’t go near the river because she’s afraid dead bodies will float to the surface.
As it turns out, Josefina’s illness is the result of a curse that caused her—the only reasonably healthy member of a pathologically phobic family—to liberate her frightened loved ones by taking on their fears. The onset of her condition is sudden and extreme:
There was the time she’d been in a bathroom stall and seen bare feet walking over the tiles, and a classmate told her it must be the suicidal nun who’d hung herself from the flagpole years before. It was useless for her mother and the principal and the school counselor to tell her that no nun had ever killed herself in the schoolyard; Josefina was already having nightmares about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Christ’s open chest that bled and drenched her face in blood, about Lazarus, pale and rotting as he rose from a tomb among the rocks, and about angels that tried to rape her.
Only rarely do we meet an adult who reminds us of Enriquez’s high-spirited adolescents, experimenting with necromancy and dying of boredom in the provinces. One of these is Natalia, in “Spiderweb” (from Things We Lost in the Fire), a recognizable older version of the teenagers daring one another to do something entertaining. The story’s title offers fair warning to readers who fear the various insects swarming its pages. Shrieking chicharras—“horrible creatures, spectacular flies with pulsating green wings, and smooth, black eyes that seem to look right at you”—have descended on Corrientes, the Argentine town where the narrator is visiting her aunt and uncle. She has come to introduce them to her husband, Juan Martín, a spoiled rich guy she married in haste and already despises. Juan Martín’s cranky, privileged bossiness and whiny complaints seem especially repellent under the pitiless gaze of Natalia, the narrator’s free-spirited, chain-smoking cousin:
My husband didn’t like Natalia. He didn’t find her physically attractive, which was practically insane on his part—I had never seen a woman as beautiful as her. But on top of that, he looked down on her because Natalia read cards, knew home remedies, and worst of all, communicated with spirits. “Your cousin is ignorant,” Juan Martín told me, and I hated him. I even thought about calling Natalia and asking her to give me a recipe for one of her potions, even a poison. But I let it go, like I let every petty little thing pass while a white stone grew in my stomach that left very little room for air or food.
The narrator, her husband, and her cousin take a road trip to neighboring Paraguay, to purchase the traditional handwoven “spiderweb” lace that Natalia buys and sells for a living. We know that the trip won’t go well. Two scenes expand the ill-starred adventure beyond the confines of a moribund marriage dying in Natalia’s cramped, sweltering Renault.
In the first of these scenes, Juan Martín and the women watch some Paraguayan soldiers harass a waitress. Fearing they will assault her,
Juan Martín got up and I could just imagine what was going to happen. He was going to yell at them to leave her alone; he was going to play the hero and then they would arrest all three of us. They would rape Natalia and me in the dictator’s dungeons day and night, and they would torture me with electric shocks…and maybe they would kill Natalia quickly, for being dark, for being a witch, for being insolent. And all because he needed to be a hero and prove who knows what.
Natalia dissuades Juan Martín from taking a stand that is morally correct but naive, and the women detest him for his ignorance and his compliance.
Later, some truckers discuss a haunted stretch of the highway. One describes running down an old woman and stopping to help, only to find that her body had vanished; when he reports the accident to the police, no one seems surprised. “They told me that the military had built that bridge, and they’d put dead people in the cement, people they’d murdered, to hide their bodies.” “Spiderweb” ends with yet another disappearance, a mystery that Enriquez declines to solve for us or for her characters, though the story hints at solutions, so that we may find ourselves repeatedly returning to it, each time hoping that one more reading will provide a conclusive explanation.
In the past few years, I’ve taught “Spiderweb” to my Bard College undergraduates, together with Roberto Bolaño’s “Sensini.” Both stories feature disappearances and are haunted by the specter of late-twentieth-century Latin American history; they complement each other in ways that enable us to see the stories in a clearer light.
Translated by Chris Andrews, “Sensini” is told in the voice of a young writer, a penniless exiled Chilean living in Spain. The narrator corresponds with an older exiled Chilean author, Sensini, whose son Gregor (named after the hero of Kafka’s Metamorphosis) has vanished into the “dim corridor in which the shadowy masses of Latin America’s terror were shifting imperceptibly.” “Sensini” is simply told, straightforward, almost spare, while in “Spiderweb” the rubble of the dictatorships is more lushly overgrown with tropical flora, like one of Martin Johnson Heade’s eerily luminous jungle landscapes.
Over time I’ve noticed that many of my students, however thoughtful and smart, are unfamiliar with the historical background against which these stories are set. Except for a few international students and human rights majors, these otherwise astute young people know nothing, or almost nothing, about the Chilean despot General Augusto Pinochet or about the Argentine junta dropping prisoners from helicopters into the ocean. It’s not that they’re incurious, but for some reason much of what happened during the 1970s and 1980s—especially internationally—was not part of their high school curriculum.
I’ve grown hesitant to combine a literature class with a history lesson, if only because I have come to value those moments when politics doesn’t hijack the conversation. But in this case it’s seemed useful to provide some background, since the problems of Latin America were at least partly engineered by the United States. If my students don’t know what happened in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Central America, they certainly don’t know about our part in it, and how can we know who we are as a nation unless we understand what we’ve done?
In the 2018 Lit Hub interview, Enriquez was asked if she thought that the US was in danger of becoming a violent regime:
Well I don’t think America is heading there, thankfully, even with an irresponsible president. The thing is that America contributed to or created certain horrors in countries where it launched its fucked up foreign policy. Like, say, Operation Condor in Latin America, where it gave help with intelligence and resources to dictatorships.
Last fall, twelve of my fourteen students had never heard of Henry Kissinger, let alone Operation Condor, or of how Kissinger helped shape US foreign policy during those destructive decades.
I’ve been grateful to Mariana Enriquez for using these stories about bugs, a miserable marriage, a provincial beauty, a spooky vision seen from an airplane, a hot blond truck driver, and many unexplained disappearances to illuminate dark historic truths. One can read these stories as pure, high literary gothic horror, Latin American surrealism in the age of Twitter. But surely ghost story means something else for a writer from a country where thousands of people vanished into thin air. And once you see the background, it’s difficult to unsee it.