Mariana Enríquez: “Reality is starting to look more and more like horror”

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© Photographed for the FT by Anita Pouchard Serra

It’s no surprise that Mariana Enríquez appeared on our Zoom call wearing all black. The Buenos Aires-based author has been dubbed the “Princess of Terror” for the delightfully dark fiction she writes in addition to her day job as editor of the newspaper’s cultural supplement Página 12.

Our part of the night, winner of the prestigious Spanish Premio Herralde in 2019, is Enríquez’s fourth novel but the first to appear in English, in a superb translation by Megan McDowell. It follows the publication in English of two deeply chilling collections of short stories, also translated by McDowell: Things We Lost in the Fire (2017) and The dangers of smoking in bed, which was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. His stories invoke the supernatural to address the socio-political situation in Argentina: the legacy of its military rule; economic instability and poverty; and shocking rates of gender-based violence.

Alongside peers such as Samanta Schweblin, Enríquez continues the tradition of literary ancestors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Horacio Quiroga, Julio Cortázar and Silvina Ocampo. Fantasy has long been common in Argentina, she says, pointing to her well-laminated copy of Antología de la literatura fantastica. “They give you that at school,” she said. First published in 1940, the anthology offers a panoramic view of writers from across the Spanish-speaking world, as well as a diverse mix of international authors translated into a Latin American style of Spanish.

While some critics like to call his work “Argentinian Gothic”, Enríquez prefers “strange fiction” – speculative stories that take the ingredients of supernatural horror and reframe them in a modern way. “I really like to think of literature as a hybrid,” she tells me.

A woman wearing a black and white t-shirt and a black leather jacket faces the camera, holding a hand to her hair

Mariana Enríquez: “Sometimes realism is not enough to account for what is happening” © Anita Pouchard Serra

The local literary scene is vibrant and remarkably resilient. When major publishers left Argentina following the 2001 economic crisis, more than 100 independent presses sprang up in their place, and most survived Covid-19 and rising paper prices. Enríquez credits the support of these indies, as well as the prevalence of small songwriting workshops, to the “punk spirit” emerging in the country.

Disavowing the magical realism associated with the region – embodied in the 1967 novel by Gabriel García Márquez A hundred years of loneliness, in which fantasy leans towards enchantment – ​​as a product of a more optimistic age, Enríquez says contemporary Latin American literature is decidedly darker. His own work features cannibalism, necrophilia, self-immolation, murders and dismemberment. In addition to her short and long fiction, she has written a biography of Ocampo (a close friend of Borges whose work Enríquez describes as a “mixture of crazy Angela Carter with the originality of Clarice Lispector”) and (true to the form) a travelogue of cemeteries around the world.

After publishing his first novel, Bajar es lo peor (“The worst is the descent”), a love story between two young men, at 21, Enríquez wanted to continue with a long horror novel. His first attempt was unsuccessful. “I was too young and not really prepared technically,” she says, so she continued to write “dark but realistic” novels until she gained confidence in wielding the supernatural in her new.

Having taught herself to write from the anthologies in her parents’ library, which contained everything from Emily Brontë to Edgar Allan Poe, she set about adapting the English-speaking Gothic tradition to write “the horror that was relevant for my culture, my time, our fears”.

As Stephen King explains in Dance of Death, his 1981 treatise on gender, “we invent horrors to help us deal with the real ones”. Born in 1973, Enríquez was a child during the dictatorship that gripped Argentina from 1976 to 1983, and came of age during a period of collective awareness of the trauma surrounding the thousands of “disappeared” who have were kidnapped and killed by the regime. For a nation still dealing with its PTSD, literature is “a way to come to terms with a traumatic past,” says Enríquez.

Located mainly during the dictatorship, Our part of the night imagines an occult sect, “The Order”, that takes victims for torture and human sacrifice under the guise of state-sponsored kidnappings. “There is something about the magnitude of the cruelty of state political violence that always strikes me as the darkest magic,” Enríquez said. To evoke rites that felt native to the region, she drew inspiration from local folklore, while immersing herself in literature on the occult.

The book has multiple narrators, with the story centering on a father-son relationship. Juan, exploited as a medium by the Order since childhood, is determined to protect his son Gaspar from the same fate after his mother dies under suspicious circumstances. The Order is controlled by wealthy landowners who attempt to achieve immortality through consciousness transference. “One of the themes is property as an expression of power, the people who control the bodies, the land,” says Enríquez. This is the inspiration behind the carnivorous house at the heart of the novel. “The houses were a very strong metaphor.”

However, friendship and family love, represented in all their complexity, temper the terror. Another source of light in Our part of the night is sex. Several of the characters, including Juan, enjoy fluid bisexuality, embodying the ideal of what the novel calls “the magical androgyne”. Much has changed in Argentina since Enríquez debuted what we would now call a queer novel in 1995.

“Although there are still problems, it was then different 25 years ago,” she says. LGBTQ rights are now among the most progressive in the region: Argentina was the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2010.

Growing up during the AIDS pandemic and abortion not being legalized in Argentina until December 2020, sex “has always been fun and excitement mixed with danger and real fear,” says Enríquez. Whereas Bajar es lo peor was about a toxic relationship, Our part of the night sex is portrayed as a liberated pursuit of pleasure. “Those are the only times they’re happy, I guess,” she laughs of her characters. “There are so many other issues throughout the rest of the novel that I wanted to give them those moments of joy.”

Enríquez’s shortlisting to International Booker implies a growing respect from the global literary community for a genre long labeled “mildly unsavory,” as one scholar once described the work of Shirley Jackson, the doyen of the American horror. Neither Jackson nor famed science fiction author Ray Bradbury won any mainstream awards. Enríquez attributes the growing acceptance in part to the influence of pop culture. “There is a new generation that grew up with Spielberg, twin peaksStephen King,” she explains, and “a new generation with the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Slashers.

It may also reflect turbulent times. “Reality is starting to look more and more like horror,” Enríquez says — even “in the West, in countries that thought they had it figured out.” Indeed, some of its most chilling passages come from acknowledging everyday horrors, such as apathy in the face of misery, with no demons or vampires in sight.

The title of the book is taken from a first line by Emily Dickinson: “Our share of night to bear —”. Enríquez was drawn to the universality of the poem: we will all encounter darkness. While the ghosts of Argentina’s “missing” may be local, the unease is pervasive around the world, suggesting an appetite for horror will persist. “Sometimes realism or narrative journalism is not enough to convey what is happening,” says Enríquez.

It is her fiction, she adds, that leads to greater truth. “Because reality is not only the facts, but also what one feels.”

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