Mariana Enríquez opens her debut collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, by recounting the story of Gauchito Gil, a popular saint in Argentina. After a stint in the army, Antonio Mamerto Gil Núñez (the saint’s full name) became a Robin Hood figure, beloved by the poor of the country. His death was horrific—tortured over a fire and hung by his feet, eventually his throat was slit. Before Gil died, he warned his murderer to pray for him, or else the man’s son would die of a mysterious illness. When the policeman did as directed and his son was healed, tales of Gauchito Gil’s supernatural powers flourished. Throughout the neighborhoods of sprawling Buenos Aires, where many of Enríquez’s stories are set, shrines and altars can be found in his honor, bearing plaster replicas of the saint, often decorated with bright red reminders of his bloody death. “But there was nothing macabre or sinister about it,” Enríquez tells us. This violent story is an everyday part of life in these neighborhoods.
In Enríquez’s Argentina, superstitions and folk tales live side-by-side with stories of actual violence and horror. “An Invocation” features a bus tour guide who is obsessed with the Big-Eared Runt, a serial killer who began killing at the young age of nine. In “The Inn,” another tour guide in the small town of Sanagasta tells the history of the town’s Inn and loses his job for it. A police academy during the country’s last dictatorship, the Inn was the site of unspeakable acts. Although he also takes guests to “the Salamanca cave, where he told them ghost stories about meetings between witches and devils, or about stinking goats with red eyes,” stories of actual barbarity are banned.
Violence and danger are constant, shadowy presences for Enríquez’s characters. In “The Dirty Kid,” when a child is found decapitated, a young woman wonders if it’s the same boy she spent an afternoon with when his drug-addicted mother disappeared. Other disappearances are commonplace in these stories: a girl steps off a bus and vanishes into a vast park, another child enters a haunted house and never comes out, a mobile home is stolen with an elderly woman inside.
The thieves got into the mobile home and they didn’t realize the old lady was inside and maybe she died on them from the fright, and then they tossed her. Around here you can just toss anyone, there’s no frickin’ way they’ll find you.
These stories are told in the same breath as actual ghost stories; often, Enríquez’s tales jolt from reality to magical realism with dizzying speed. In “Adela’s House,” a young girl is jealous of the friendship between her brother and Adela, a neighbor. They are slightly older and allowed to watch horror movies, while she is not. They become obsessed with an abandoned house and leave her out of their many games and imaginings until, finally, the three decide to venture inside. Here, the story spins from reality to nightmare. The house buzzes, glass shelves are lined with teeth and fingernails. Adela screams and is never seen again.
Enríquez paints a vivid portrait of Buenos Aires neighborhoods that have succumbed to poverty, crime and violence. “The Intoxicated Years” follows a group of reckless teenage girls. A new president has recently taken office, and circumstances at their homes are repressive.
Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or because inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls—their daughters—didn’t feel sorry for them.
The girls spend their days and nights acting out: cruising around in someone’s boyfriend’s van, being promiscuous, taking drugs. Eventually, their defiance builds to a singular act of unprovoked violence. Feminist resistance is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the title story, “Things We Lost in the Fire.” It’s a short fable about a girl who has been burned by her husband and rides around the subway telling her tale. Throughout the city, men start burning their wives and girlfriends. Soon after that, women start burning themselves: “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.” Self-mutilation as a method of resistance is a difficult thing to contemplate, and Enríquez keeps her focus steady in this disconcerting story.
Gender expectations and limitations are a controlling factor for many of Enríquez’s characters. “Spiderweb” is the story of a woman trapped in a bad marriage; “No Flesh Over Our Bones” follows the evolving relationship between a woman and the anthropomorphized skull she keeps, possibly as a way to break things off with her boyfriend. The line between sanity and insanity is often blurred in these stories. “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” is a perfect melding of all of Enríquez’s priorities. Paula has lost her job as a social worker because of a neglectful episode, and her mental state has suffered. When she moves into a new home with her husband, rifts in their marriage widen. She sees a child chained in the courtyard next door, but her husband thinks it’s a symptom of her imbalance, a hallucination. The story culminates when Paula ventures into the house and the boy, suddenly turned demon, sinks his saw-like teeth into her cat.
Other stories don’t feel as complete. Some are mere sketches of an idea or image, like a short ghost story told by campfire. Often it’s difficult to distinguish Enríquez’s female protagonists from one another. But the stories with more fully developed characters resonate, even as they delve into horror and the supernatural.
Things We Lost in the Fire is a searing, striking portrait of the social fabric of Argentina and the collective consciousness of a generation affected by a particular stew of history, religion and imagination. Mariana Enríquez has a truly unique voice and these original, provocative stories will leave a lasting imprint.