The collection of short stories, Things We lost in the Fire, by Argentinian author, Mariana Enriquez, are exceptional. Enriquez graduated from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata with a degree in Journalism and currently writes for Radar. She has written two novels and a collection of other short stories before publishing Things We Lost in the Fire in 2017 (Caparrós et al. 10). The collection was able to stand out because Enriquez explored issues in Argentina without addressing them out rightly as criticism but to show the realities of life in the country. Consequently, Enriquez reveals the theme of social class by depicting characters living in deplorable conditions, striving to make the best out of life. Such a theme is particularly prevalent in the stories The Dirty Kid and Under the Black Water. The stories show the gruesome realities of many people living in Argentina, especially those from low-income communities. Through the lenses of the characters in these stories, other social ills such as drug abuse, gang-related murders, and traditional rituals are realized. Although criticized for portraying too much gothic horror rituals in her stories, Enriquez does manage to show how rituals played an important part in poor communities because living in looming terror was no easy task – they needed something to give them hope to live another day.
In Argentina, superstitions and folk tales have for long been used by authors to tell stories of actual violence and horror in the country. Accordingly, Enriquez employs modern gothic diction that is concerned with bringing out a real imagination of violence. The presence of violence in Argentina had been historically told in the gothic form to offer an understanding of the politics of barbarism in the nation. The style became more prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries in some notable texts such as those of Manuel Mujica’s “El hambre (The Hunger), Germán Rozenmacher’s “Cabecita negra” (Little Black Head), and Covaldo’s “It’s Was Raining Naked Bodies” (Ordiz 18). Through the literal monster characters in these stories, the reality of violence was captured and became the form of narration in Argentinean literature (Ordiz 19). For example, in Rozenmacher’s story, the main character, a conservative middle-class man, narrates about the invasion of his home to represent the homegrown terror characterized by the then Argentinean society.
The stories of Enriquez, therefore, are told in the same fashion –that of chilling ghost forms and shadowy presences. For instance, in the story, “The Dirty Boy,” disappearances are common and, in one case, a girl is seen to be stepping off a bus but vanishes into a wide park while another child enters a haunted house and never comes out while an elderly woman’s mobile home is stolen when inside. Depicting the disappearances in such a ghost-like manner instills fear but serves to show the realities of life in Buenos Aires, especially among the low-income communities. In an exchange with David Leo Rice, a writer and animator from Northampton, Enriquez does confirm that her stories are realistic and serve to show the horror emanating from the urban and suburban settings of Latin American cities (Rice par.3). She makes a real reference to the river, el Riachuelo, south of Buenos Aires, which is polluted and marks the border of the city’s suburbs. The place had been branded with symbols of corruption and greed, and all this is due to the contamination of the river made by industries (Rice par.4). All these details of the class divide between the urban and suburban are realized in the stories The Dirty Kid and Under the Black Water.
The Dirty Kid unveils the story of rough city life on the streets for a young boy and his addict mother. The story is narrated by a female protagonist, a woman who prides herself because she chooses to stay in her family’s old manor house whereas nobody else wants to live in that neighborhood. The neighborhood is marked with “flight and abandonment” because of gang-related violence, homeless people on the streets, drug traffickers, and cults (Enriquez 5). The violence in the area is so severe that the police themselves participate in it. The narrator talks of how she was mugged a few times and, after filling a police report for the second time, she saw it pointless. This was because the same law enforcement lets teenage muggers rob people in exchange for other favors, probably sexual or drug-related. Hence, the narrator learned to live in the neighborhood not in fear but by being in good terms with her neighbors (even though they may be criminals) and showing braveness even when it lacks (Enriquez 6). Therefore, although she does not belong in the neighborhood, the narrator continues to live there because she enjoys the daring feeling it brings. However, when she encounters a homeless boy and his drug-addict mother sleeping on a cardboard box across the street, the narrator’s perceptive about the neighborhood starts to change. In this instance, the class relations in the story are brought out.
Whereas the narrator describes the houses in her part of the neighborhood (the Constitución) as old but spacious, beautiful, and comfortable, the homeless families like the dilapidated boy live in abject poverty on the streets. The narrator’s house had been her grandparents and her grandfather, a rich businessman, had been able to purchase the stone house because it had bronze door knockers. Thus, they were considered safe for upper-class families because the other part of the neighborhood was characterized by violence. As for the homeless people in the area, life was deplorable because the government neglected them. Across the narrator’s house is a shuttered convenience store where on the sidewalk a boy and his drug-addict mother live. The woman is pregnant, but the narrator says she cannot tell because all the ‘junkie’ mothers are unusually thin. The child does not go to school although he is about five years old and has to beg for money on the subway, probably so that he can eat. The narrator posits that in disgust because of the way he smells, some of the passengers are usually obliged to give him some money (Enriquez 6). It is already evident from the narrator’s description of the mother and son that class shapes the characters’ perception of each other. The protagonist points out, after describing how the dirty boy’s mother sits on the corner and begs for money, that she does not like her. She continues to say that the dislike is “not just because she’s irresponsible, or because she smokes crack and the ash burns her pregnant belly, or because I never once saw her treat her son with kindness” (Enriquez 7). The dislike she reveals is because her friend Lala, a hairdresser, told her that the woman goes to witches’ Sabbaths. Surprisingly enough, Lala herself worships a personal spirit, Pompa Gira, which looks like a demonic woman, but she condemns the boy’s mother for visiting witches. The narrator does not believe it, but Lala tells her she does not come from the neighborhood and would not understand the things that go on in muted places. At this, the narrator inwardly agrees that she is of the middle class and only rebel because she chose to live in the most dangerous part of Buenos Aires. Hence, the negative attitude towards the ‘junkie’ woman all stems from the class difference.
The realities of Buenos Aires’ slums come into focus in the story Under the Black Water. The story tells of a female district attorney, Marina Pinat, who ventures into the city’s most dangerous neighborhood to pursue a witness. The taxi driver carrying the attorney would not even dare to enter into the neighborhood, and leaves her there. As Pinat is forced to make her way into the neighborhood on foot, she realizes the dilapidated conditions that are different from where she comes from. When the story starts, Pinat had told the officer she was questioning that he had no idea of the conditions and the struggles people in the slums undergo. On the other hand, Pinat had an idea because in her eight years as an attorney, she had visited the Villa Moreno slum and witnessed how families lived near a polluted river. They drank the water from this river but boiling it did not prevent children from getting sick from cancer, dreadful skin diseases, and some were even born with deformities like extra arms (Enriquez 89). From her description of the place, it is clear that the protagonist sympathizes with low-income families from the slums. However, the perception like in The Dirty Kid changes when she learns of their cultic practices. The families as explained to Pinat by a Catholic priest had lost their faith in God, and most were devoted to Afro-Brazilian cults. Such practices are not understood by many, especially by Pinat who comes from the other side of the city – the middle-class one. Consequently, when a pregnant teenage ‘junkie’ comes into Pinat’s office telling her that Emanuel (a teenager killed by a police officer and dumped in the river) had risen from the water, Pinat is in disbelief (Enriquez 90). At first, Pinat thinks the girl is suggesting that Emanuel had not died and was in hiding, but what she means is that he had come back to life from the river. This sets Pinat on a journey to Moreno in search of Emanuel, and while there, she experiences firsthand the cultic practices. Pinat comes to learn that the belief in the practices becomes confused with the damaging psychological effects of the industrial pollution in the river. Here, the social divide awareness shows that the two worlds, the middle-class and poor communities, can bridge if certain misconceptions like those of dark magic practices are broken down.
In conclusion, despite exploring the contentious topic of black magic and disturbing disappearances, Enriquez manages to tell stories setting the realities of the social gap in Argentina. The protagonist characters in Enriquez’s stories as seen in “The Dirty Boy” and “Under the Black Water” are aware of their middle-class privileges. They are grateful for having a house, food, and the other basic needs, and their proximity with others who have none of these basic needs offers insights into the class divide. Therefore, Enriquez is not aiming at showing that her protagonists are afraid of falling into poverty, but how their perceptions have been based on dark magic misconceptions.
Caparrós, Martín, et al. “Spanish and Latin American Authors.” Casanovas & Lynch, 2016. Accessed from http://www.casanovaslynch.com/uploads/7/2/0/9/72091993/london_2016.pdf
Enriquez, Mariana. Things We Lost in the Fire. Granta Publication, 2017.
Ordiz, Inés. “1 Civilization and Barbarism and Zombies.” Latin American Gothic in Literature and Culture (2017): 15.
Rice, David L. Mariana Enriquez on Political Violence and Writing Horror. Literary Hub. Accessed on 20th April 2019 from https://lithub.com/mariana-enriquez-on-political-violence-and-writing-horror/