It’s not every day a British Prime Minister resigns after a dismal 44 days in office. And it’s not every day an acclaimed Argentinean writer arrives in Manchester. ‘This is a special day’, jokes Mariana Enriquez at the start of this Literature Festival event, ‘we can do what we want now, because you don’t have a government.’
The irony is all too apparent, given Enriquez comes from a country notorious for chaos and corruption. With her tousled grey hair, Alesteir Crowley t-shirt and leather jacket, Enriquez looks more like a musician than a writer of contemporary horror (it’s easy to imagine her propping up some dimly lit bar with Cat Power or PJ Harvey).
I discovered Enriquez’s stories fairly recently, with collection ‘The Dangers of Smoking in Bed.’ Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, the connecting tissue between these twelve stories appears to be collective trauma. ‘The Cart’, for example, focuses on a homeless man who wanders into a local neighbourhood. His cart, packed with junk, becomes a metaphorical curse, as various local characters assault him and tip over his belongings. Hunger and insanity quickly ensue, the slender threads of civilization beginning to fray. The one family who showed the man a degree of kindness are briefly spared but fearing for their safety, are forced to flee their home.
Yes, Enriquez’s stories are violent but violence is a huge part of Argentinean history. In the 53 years since the first military coup in 1930 – and until the last dictatorship fell in 1983 – the Argentine military ruled the country for 25 years, imposing an astonishing 14 dictators under the title of ‘president’; on average, a new leader every 1.7 years. The Junta was finally toppled by a combination of economic collapse, public discontent, and the disastrous handling of the Falklands crisis. But economic stability was a long time coming: in the 80’s, there was a period when inflation rocketed to 1000%. ‘Growing up in the 80’s, I didn’t see my parents that much. They weren’t around at home because they were working like 25 different jobs, just to survive.’
Abandoned children are a recurring theme in Enriquez’s world. ‘Kids Who Come Back’, the longest story in the ‘Smoking’ collection, centres around Mehti, a woman working as an administrator for a social work agency, who uncovers a connecting series of unsolved abduction cases. One day, these missing teenagers return to be reunited with their loved ones. But Mehti realises the returned are merely doppelgangers, a discovery which has the effect of traumatising the families all over again. In ‘Angelita Unearthed’, a young girl finds the buried bones of a child who died as a baby – the eponymous Angelita, a lost child who again becomes human, returning as a rotting zombie. It’s heartbreaking that this wretched soul is denied something close to peace but Enriquez knows redemption is usually only a fixture of mainstream Hollywood – real life is sometimes more like a terrified dash along a corridor dotted with razor blades.
After two collections – the second being ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ – Enriquez confesses to having become slightly bored with the genre which made her name. Now she’s produced her first full length novel, ‘Our Share of Night’, a 736 page tome published by Granta. Partly the story of a relationship between a father and a son, ‘Night’ is also a novel about a secret society indulging in dark magic and occult sacrifice.
A metaphor for decades of fascism, perhaps: it’s easy to draw a line between the novel, and the so-called Dirty War. Between 1976 and 1983, the Argentine government set up a series of detention centres; many left wing protesters were kidnapped, detained, and tortured. Human rights were repeatedly violated. These were the los desaparecidos – the disappeared. It’s estimated that 30,000 people were murdered in this way.
Enriquez: ‘I enjoy watching the odd slasher movie, but violence should be shocking. Political violence in Argentina was addressed in a strange way. It was grey but terrifying.’ Pictures of the disappeared regularly appeared in the media without names or context; statistics whose lives counted for nothing. ‘This was the zeitgeist. Death and violence was in the air … so horror as a genre is a way to give suffering back its true nature. You shine a light on it, and restore its original, horrifying soul.’
It’s hard to disagree when she talks about reclaiming suffering from those who have chosen to Photoshop Argentina’s past. In contemporary Latin America, the elite and powerful control not only wealth and property but also political discourse. Fellow novelist Max Porter, host for this event, observed that truth and reconciliation isn’t happening in history books right now but in the realm of contemporary fiction.
Enriquez’s ability to write convincing young characters means she already has a loyal audience with teenage readers, eager to embrace more challenging fiction than ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Hunger Games.’ ‘Teenagers are like monsters’, she says, ‘their bodies change quickly, and I think a lot of us don’t remember how brutal it is. Teenage gangs are like secret societies. I see them in the street and wonder ‘what are they into?’ I don’t think you ever feel as deeply at any other time in your life, than your years as a teenager.’ Modern adolescence in this world is a tough gig, at best. ‘The planet is dying, fascism is rising … I wouldn’t want to be young again. It’s awful.’
Enriquez is smart and passionate, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up. In a wide ranging, hour long discussion she whizzes through some of the artists who have influenced her, from Charles Dickens to Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud to Suede and the Manic Street Preachers (at the signing desk, she tells me ‘The Holy Bible’ is one of her favourite albums). The fiction she writes – raw, ambiguous, disturbing – might not be for everyone.
But this event was sold out, so clearly there’s an audience hungry for this type of work. Porter observed that sections of ‘Our Share of Night’ shocked and disturbed him but his enthusiasm for the novel was undimmed. ‘Thankyou for giving me these nightmares’, he quipped.
Like all the best horror, the fiction of Mariana Enriquez has a higher purpose. She recognises that confronting trauma is the only way to truly own it.
The Manchester Literature Festival runs from 7-22 October 2022.