The late Roger Ebert once wrote that “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Great fiction comes off a similar production line—its many parts and widgets are often designed to engender identification and empathy from the reader, to get them deep inside the head of a stranger. The short stories of Argentine author and journalist Mariana Enriquez are seeing machines—lenses that throw the uglier side of the human condition into uncomfortably sharp focus. She shows us horrors (both historical and otherworldly) that the naked eye doesn’t want to see.
While she is a prolific author in Argentina, Enriquez’s novels have yet to be translated into English. A collection of her short stories, Things We Lost In The Fire, came out in English in 2017. The stories shifted gracefully from naturalistic narratives about fractured relationships and urban living to darker, supernatural stories. One of the book’s best, “Under The Black Water,” does the nearly impossible feat of making Lovecraftian-inspired fiction feel fresh and new again. Now 12 more of her stories have been translated (thanks to the work of Fire translator Megan McDowell) in The Dangers Of Smoking In Bed.
The collection’s third story, “The Cart,” showcases Enriquez’s ability to seamlessly weave together strong character work, social issues, and the uncanny. As in Things We Lost In The Fire, poverty is a persistent element. The suffering of others on the streets of Buenos Aires and other cities is almost always present in the peripheral vision of her characters, who tend to be either middle class or on their way up from the bottom. Characters in Enriquez’s stories aren’t poor; they’re witnesses to poverty. How they respond can lead to their salvation (like the protagonist in “The Cart”) or their doom (the well-meaning social worker in Fire’s “The Neighbor’s Courtyard”).
Otherworldly elements crop up throughout Smoking In Bed: divine figures like the skeleton-faced Santa Muerte; scarlet-red statues looming over quarry pools; mysterious revenants who inexplicably return from the dead; ghosts of dead babies and brothers who trail after the stories’ narrators. What makes Enriquez’s fiction so affecting is how grounded the world that these phantoms pass through feels. “A girl can’t be desperate and reasonable at the same time,” the narrator in “Angelita’s Unearthed” muses as she tries to grapple with her unnatural situation. This tension runs through so many of Enriquez’s stories: These characters are just trying to maintain and cope with an existence that’s precarious enough without having to deal with dead things and spirits, too.
The people in Enriquez’s fiction are exhausted, horny, resentful, ambitious. Most often they’re women just trying to take charge of their own lives and break free from the chauvinistic society that often poses a greater threat to them than the specters do. There’s the trio of teenage girls in “Our Lady Of The Quarry,” resentful of their older friend’s worldliness; the fetishist of “Where Are You, Dear Heart?” who takes her erotic obsession with heartbeats to an extreme; the Argentine tourist in “Rambla Triste,” who sees a dark spiritual component to the gentrification of a Barcelona neighborhood. Enriquez shows no mercy when she writes how these people see the world—some are kind, some are vicious, but none of them are boring.
Another running theme that Smoking In Bed shares with Enriquez’s previous collection is how her characters’ inner and outer lives are shaped by historical traumas. The disappearances of the Argentine junta crop up across many of these stories (especially in the Ouija-centered “Back When We Talked To The Dead”). Authority figures can’t be trusted: The cops are violent and lazy, the social workers are overburdened and unsupported, and the soldiers are just looking for an excuse to ruin lives. And sometimes the historical horrors merge with the otherworldly ones, as the ghosts of the disappeared and their killers literally manifest from the walls and bridges in her cityscapes.
If this all sounds unbearably heavy, it should be noted that Enriquez’s prose is full of enough wit, lyricism, and goosebump-inducing creepiness to make these stories page-turners. Like her Chilean neighbor, the late Roberto Bolaño, Mariana Enriquez crafts fiction about the darkest recesses of the human heart that makes you feel light after reading it—uplifted by the precision and poetry of her characters’ voices.
Author photo: Nora Lezano