Nuestra parte de noche: Reading Mariana Enriquez and the Problems of the Political
Horror is the trademark of the literature of Mariana Enriquez. Not of all of her writings, of course, but at least of her three most recent books. She is read as a genre writer, and both the writer and her work have received various labels and classifications. Perhaps, as with all truly original artists, audiences try to understand Mariana Enriquez more through her proximity to the Argentine literary tradition and less through the true originality of her literary project: a project which, with the publication in February of this year of Nuestra parte de noche [Our share of night] (Anagrama, 2020), has just begun to be unveiled in its full scale.
How, then, to read the literature of Mariana Enriquez?
First, by recognizing the minefield surrounding her literary project.
Two inevitable examples. First, academics read, analyze, and accept Enriquez through their own political prism. She might be seen as a feminist writer whose horror literature could be read as a metaphor for the horrors of the Argentine dictatorship or as an author who does not shy away from denouncing the anomalies of the neoliberal model. It is true that Enriquez writes with her country’s history at her back (who doesn’t?), but this reading also ends up being reductive, as the thesis it puts forward is something like “genre literature is another way of saying what social realist literature has been saying all along.” I don’t mean to condemn this reading, just to point out a fact: the political dimension of a literary work written in Latin America is always an advantage in the reception of works that play on a board as thoroughly set as that of genre literature. And this is even truer amongst ourselves: ours is a literature that suffers a deep-seated fear of appearing frivolous or being accused of being commercial.
The other reading of Mariana’s work is more closely linked to journalistic criticism, which reads along the lines of prizes, literary careers, sales; this criticism still believes, happily, that some books are good and others are not so good. The risk here seems to me even greater, still—but this is not quite the case for Enriquez. The danger here is being stuck with the label of the “genre writer,” as if this were a literature limited in its subject matter (or defined by it), a successful form of entertainment, or both. Where is Mariana Enriquez within this puzzle? Tentatively, she is somewhere between the two extremes. One question her work asks us is the following: is it possible to write a genre literature that explores the social and political problems of a given society and, at the same time, accepts in advance certain literary conventions that are also the conventions of the market?
The answer is not easy. Latin American literature cannot skirt around reality at the risk of ending up depoliticized. On the other hand, working from reality implies narrating a certain dimension of the political, of the national, of a certain idea of a “we” that shares a common space.
Politics is like a minefield for genre literature.
Politics can also be the “Adela’s house” of genre literature. An example: in Enriquez’s novel Nuestra parte de noche, the political horror presented as historical background (the Argentine military dictatorship and the disappeared) “competes,” at times, with the supernatural horror of the Order and the chilling threat of the Darkness. The risk is evident: the horrors of history can end up cancelling out the metaphysical dimension of a literary project like this one. Absent politics, on the other hand, we are confronted with the naked horror of an equally naked everyday reality. This was the brilliance and modernity of the genre in the hands of writers like Stephen King, for whom horror rises when the reality from which it emerges is quotidian, even anodyne, as if there existed a world apart, ready to cut our throats at the slightest drop of guard. It is a complex subject, but it is worthwhile at least to think of politics as a problem for the imagination within the literatures of the Third World, which seem irredeemably condemned to the social and, consequently, to the construction of a social subject.
Mariana Enriquez has been able to navigate her way around these problems with remarkable intelligence. Her fiction has a political dimension that is carefully controlled. The question I asked earlier strikes me as important because this is not realist literature, but genre literature, and—whatever that genre may be—this fact places it at a disadvantage. A prefigured set of prejudices work against it, as does the favorable reception it receives in the book market.
The usual suspects?
Perhaps, but it seems to me that not all of Mariana Enriquez’s work is genre writing. It is rather a literature that moves toward a genre, and on this journey, the common denominator has been horror. This idea is not my own; it was suggested by Nayeli García in an article in the Revista de la Universidad de México earlier this year: “One gets the impression that since Bajar es lo peor [Coming down is the worst] (her first novel, 1995) Mariana Enriquez has been rehearsing in order to reach the book we finally see published today. Nuestra parte de noche [...] is a sort of consecration.” In my opinion, this reading reveals a drawn-out exercise of writing, of literary pursuits and, consequently, of solving problems and developing a vocation. Novels don’t write themselves: they are written by those who learn to write a fiction text over the years, with all the failures and all the hundreds of discarded and rewritten pages this implies. Of course, this exercise does not take place in a vacuum. It is not a purely formal, aesthetic matter. On the contrary, this is a pursuit with the end goal of shaping that particular language through which the same old obsessions as always will take on literary form. Wasn’t it Flaubert who said that when he wrote badly it felt like he was lying?
The pursuit of a form is an incessant one, and perhaps every book published is at least a partial triumph along this course.
In the case of Mariana Enriquez, all signs seem to suggest that Nuestra parte de noche is a novel that caused horror to run its course into Argentine gothic literature. The most interesting part of this suggestion is that when Mariana came to this genre, there was no one there: she planted the flag perhaps without even meaning to, simply by being faithful to her own obsessions as a writer. This is not uncommon. We know our literature suffers an incurable obsession with realism and that the genres of imagination are scarce throughout the continent. Glancing through any anthology of Latin American fantastic literature, one immediately realizes that none of the writers included is really a genre writer. Fantastic literature is an exception to an unfortunate rule. At least until now.
What happens, then, when a writer inaugurates a genre that didn’t exist before, and lays as the first brick a monstrous book, almost seven hundred pages long? She makes the genre, simple as that. Enriquez’s case is paradoxical in that she is not an experimental author; rather, on the contrary, she is a conventional writer, careful with forms, respectful of conventions. Hers is not a literature that subverts or deconstructs the horror genre; Enriquez knows there is nothing to knock down, since the house has not yet been built. The difference lies in Mariana Enriquez’s imagination, and even her bravery (in the sense of the word used by Roberto Bolaño) in taking the chance on a genre with almost no serious tradition in Latin America. There is something avant-garde in this choice, but without the adamistic or nihilistic convictions of our historical avant-garde movements. In this sense, after her two short story collections, Nuestra parte de noche inaugurates a new genre in Latin America. This is not a question of before-and-after, nor of cataloguing this novel as a foundational text, both labels that give off a worrying scent of funerary consecrations. The question is simply that this novel is here now, where it wasn’t before. Anyone who wishes to make the same wager will have to take up the baton, unless someone discovers another way to construct the literary tradition of a given country.
This is a happy occasion. It doesn’t happen every day.
Does it mean so much? One might well ask.
For now, it’s impossible to know. The prudent option is to wait. For the moment, one fact can be confirmed: Nuestra parte de noche is a novel of total ambitions and, as such, it contains both triumphs and failures. But total novels are not evaluated on their details, but rather on the very thing that characterizes them: on their totality. In this sense, Nuestra parte de noche is a novel that has something in common with Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Both novels wager on establishing something for themselves.
And so, in this case, do we have a gothic novel on our hands?
Let’s see. The claim that Nuestra parte de noche is a gothic novel, cut and dry, is a little hasty, since there isn’t any Latin American novel with which it can be compared. Strictly speaking, the concept of the gothic is specifically applied to a type of novel of the same name that reached its greatest popularity around the year 1810 in England, and whose process of perfection and sophistication—as Nick Groom points out in The Gothic (2012)—took almost the entire nineteenth century. Enriquez works within the gothic, there can be no doubt of that, but she does not automatically imitate a tradition; rather, she transfers its elements to Argentine reality, with its consequent local peculiarities. I believe it would be more correct to speak of “the new Argentine gothic.” Or something along those lines. The clarification is not useless; it allows us to suppose that in this novel there are variations, originality, and detachment from the texts that served as the original models. And, above all, it points to an element of this novel that is more than unique: it’s being (if it’s possible to formulate it in such a way) Argentine.
Definitions sometimes work. And what are genres if not literary definitions?
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to develop the concept of “gothic” a little further in the context of what Groom calls the “gothic imagination,” which is, I believe, the creative impulse that drives Enriquez’s novel. The gothic imagination is able to produce the effects of terror through the creation of the sublime, in the terms laid out by Edmund Burke in his famous essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757): the belief that ideas about pain are more powerful than ideas about pleasure, and that the strongest pain is fear of dying (the whole novel hangs off the imminent death of Juan Peterson and the dangers his son Gaspar will face as a result). In other words, the sublime, according to Burke, is the strongest passion that can be associated with terror. Not only that: the sublime can overwhelm and cloud reason, and its optimal form of communication with the reader is darkness (a central element and theme of Enriquez’s novel).
To understand the English gothic novel, Groom proposes “seven types of obscurity.” These are, succintly: 1) meteorological (the presence of mist, fog, storms, darkness, shadows, etc.), 2) topographical (impenetrable forests, inaccessible mountains, limitless oceans), 3) architectural (towers, prisons, castles, tombs, crypts, secret passageways, locked doors), 4) material (masks, disguises, veils), 5) textual (rumors, folklore, indecipherable manuscripts, obscure dialects, stories within stories), 6) spiritual (religious mysteries, magic, occultism, satanism, rituals), and 7) psychological (dreams, visions, hallucinations, madness, split personalities, ghostly presences, death, hauntings). We need not go far to see how the houses (even the one that buzzes) and country manors present in Enriquez’s novel—along with the presence of a secret Order, bloody rituals, mediums who are worn away by their contact with the Darkness, doors that lead to other realities, myths of popular origin, dungeons, visions—coincide with the taxonomy proposed by Groom. This coincidence demonstrates a simple fact: in Latin America, we have finally found a writer who knows the elements that make up the genre in which she works (something that neither Bolaño nor Piglia ever learned with regard to the detective novel). It’s not much to ask, then, that knowledge of the previous points be the “minimum standard” in order to construct a “neogothic” novel. And, also, in order to read it with a certain competence.
Only then can we start to talk seriously, to understand Enriquez’s achievement and her originality, which lies not in what I see as a starting point (the conventions of her chosen genre) nor in her wager on a nonlinear structure (six sections told in alternating order across time by different narrators). Here there is an undeniable achievement, not in terms of genre but in terms of the novel itself, in the construction of a solid fiction, plausible in its conventions. Her originality—which I wish to emphasize, as well as her creative bravery—lies in having dared to write in a genre that is both nonexistent in Argentina (at least in its purest form) and catalogued as unserious (in spite of containing, in other languages, various masterpieces of world literature). In other words, the door to a new literature in Spanish has been thrown open by the strange and risk-taking imagination of Mariana Enriquez: an imagination that seems to be beginning to defeat reality in Latin America, once again.
Translated by Arthur Dixon
Marcelo Rioseco is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Editor in Chief of Latin American Literature Today. Since August of 2009, Marcelo has worked as a professor of Latin American literature in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics of the University of Oklahoma.
Arthur Dixon works as a translator and as Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. His translation of Andrés Felipe Solano’s “The Nameless Saints” (WLT, Sept. 2014) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize, and his most recent project is a book-length translation of Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza’s Cuidados intensivos (see WLT, Sept. 2016).
The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.