Sleepless in Buenos Aires

One hallmark of Latin-American literature is the way its authors incorporate elements of the supernatural, and this is especially true with the advent of what became known as “magic realism.” In this literary genre, life as it appears to us on a daily basis is blended in with supernatural elements and unexplained events. Authors blur the distinction between reality and fantasy, and this combination drives both the plot and leads readers into the interior life of characters in startling ways. Although the genre itself is not limited to Spanish speaking writers, its most distinctive and intriguing characterizations are found in Latin-American literary outputs. Writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Laura Esquivel have developed and perfected the technique.

In a newly translated collection of short stories, The Dangers of Smoking in Bed (Los peligros de fumar de la cama), Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez employs the tradition of magic realism with a unique and original combination of religion, social commentary, and horror stories. Most of the stories in the collection take place in Buenos Aires. We peer into the lives of teenage girls; women who can’t seem to get a grip on life; men that are either missing or are existentially separated from a distinctly female experience of reality; political unrests; prostitution; and human trafficking. All of these are realities for many who live in Buenos Aires, a city where it is impossible to hide from such troubles. It is a city that devours its people, and remains indifferent to the plight of the poor and neglected; a city whose inhabitants remain perpetually vigilant and cognizant of never-ending troubles that afflict them.

Every story is written from a female perspective, and Enriquez submerges her own voice into the lives of her characters. Her storytelling abilities are superb, and more often than not, one feels as if one is sitting at the kitchen table with Enriquez, listening to her tell fantastical, mystical, and mythical tales of Argentina. The reader is on the edge of the seat, hoping the mysteries will solve themselves by the end.

Religion, Superstition, and Horror

In magical realism, the distinctions we conventionally draw between religion and superstition don’t necessarily apply in Enriquez’s stories. Religion has the capacity to lapse into pure superstition, at which point, it loses its main component—faith. But for Enriquez, superstition tends to be the result of obsession with faith. It is precisely the complete veneration of God and more importantly, the saints that leads to an attachment to superstition.  

In addition, the characters find themselves in a universe seemingly inhabited only by themselves, and they gradually lose a sense of time and space. In “The Well,” we witness a young woman, Josefina, going through strange changes in her life. Fear and darkness have followed her all her life, and every dark moment seemed to be contained in an episode from her childhood, during which she visits “The Woman,” a kind of a witch doctor.

Enriquez’s descriptions of religious artifacts mix beauty and ugliness. They convey the aesthetic creepiness of macabre figures we may even see every day but rarely give it a second thought. On the altar in The Woman’s home, Josefina

found baby booties, fresh and dried bouquets of flowers, photographs in color and black-and-white, crosses adorned with red cords, a lot of rosaries—plastic, wood, silver-plated metal. There was also the ugly figure of the saint her grandmother prayed to, San La Muerte, Saint Death—a skeleton with its scythe. The figure was repeated in different sizes and materials, sometimes in rough approximations, others carved in detail, with deep black eye sockets and a broad grin.

The Woman was supposed to cure Josefina’s family member of a case of spiritual possession but the reality turns out to be duller than the fantasy. Enriquez implies that this may be the case of problems that come from inherited mental illness, but this is what makes the story unique. We are always on the edge of our seat wondering whether we have crossed the line into the supernatural world or if are in a world based on reason and senses.

Whatever the essence of this possession may be, the same darkness ends up following Josefina, who is an outcast from her family with a tense if not abusive relationship with her mother. As her life unravels, so does her mental state. She becomes more afraid to go out, and her psychological condition has worsened. She becomes housebound, and grows obsessive about meaningless details of her surroundings. Enriquez writes, “Once again she was paralyzed at the slightest change in the placement of objects in her room; once again she had to turn on the bedside light before she could sleep, and now also the TV and the ceiling lamp, because she couldn’t bear single shadow… she couldn’t resort to suicide—she was so afraid of dying!”

This turn to inwardness is one of themes in Enriquez’s stories. The characters are compelled to examine their lives but the anxiety over what the reflection might bring pushes them into torpor. To be sure, there are external factors that hamper one’s existence (political unrest, poverty, corruption by the powerful people) and oneness with the world, but one is never sure whether it is the protagonist herself that is the cause of existential disappearance or if she is forced by practical limitations of culture and politics.

Josefina, like many other characters in the story collection, feels separated from tradition or religion. The Woman in the story speaks of “Old evil… evil that can’t be spoken… Not even Christ of the Two Lights could defeat it.” The question then turns into wonder about what constitutes a tradition. Is it something rigid and dogmatic like the formal Catholicism or are characters rejecting the formal religion in favor of ahistorical worship? Paradoxically, however, this doubt in Christ makes the faith stronger because the seeking of salvation is unending.

Enriquez doesn’t portray religion negatively or positively. Rather, it is a reality enmeshed with folklore tales of good and evil. It’s not entirely pagan since the characters are seeking spiritual and physical resolution to their problems that involve both the body and the mind. The extreme physicality of existence is continuously and overwhelmingly present in these stories. Whether it’s the griminess of the streets, roughness of caves, or bodily excretions, Enriquez doesn’t mince words. Homeless people defecate but also bring bad luck; religious objects are broken and distorted, but possess spiritual qualities; heartbeats are measured and felt, yet they lead to ghostly ecstasy. However, the strongest and most obvious example is in Enriquez’s exploration of female sexuality, embodiment, and desire.

The Feminine Alienation

It is clear that Enriquez is fascinated by what animates young women. In “Our Lady of the Quarry,” teenage desire takes a wrong turn from playfulness to darkness. A group of teenage girls obsess over the object of their erotic desire—Diego—who ignores them in favor of their older rival, Silvia. The girls turn Diego into a sex object, ignoring his personhood.  This is a moment in the story where we get an insight into the youthful female mind, which goes against the imposed moralism of society. After all, it is men that turn women into sex objects, not the other way around. But this story is not about women but explicitly about girls

This is not a story about whether the culture misunderstands female desire. Rather, the very fact of female desire is fully accepted and perhaps even, taken for granted. Enriquez writes, “Diego looked better every day. The first time he took off his shirt, we discovered that his shoulders were strong and hunched, and his back was narrow and had a sandy color, just above his pants, that was simply beautiful.” She completely stays away from social or ideological—in other words, feminist—commentary. She offers purer observations, and her primary interest remains focused on telling a story. In today’s climate of pure ideology, Enriquez’s voice rings with authenticity and excellence.

The girls develop a visceral hatred for Silvia. Diego showers her with attention and barely notices other girls, who are obsessed with sex and want to give their bodies away to Diego. This is especially true of Natalia who, as we find out, is still a virgin. Enriquez juxtaposes this virginity with the alleged statue of the Virgin Mary that is to be found in a quarry, a place that is shrouded with folkloric tales of evil and transgression. Much like in other stories, the statue has gained a supernatural status, mainly because nobody has dared to see it. It is mythical but also magical.

This myth is linked more with some form of black magic despite the fact that the statue in question is primarily a Christian symbol. The hope that the covered statue is the Virgin Mary proves false once the girls come face to face with evil. Upon seeing it, Natalia the virgin says, “It’s not a Virgin… It has a white sheet to hide it, cover it, but it’s not a Virgin. It’s a red woman made of plaster, and she’s naked. She has black nipples.” Despite the feminine bravado that girls exhibited earlier in the story, and despite the teenage obsession with transgressive sex, they are disappointed and scared.

Enriquez’s characters are always waiting for some kind of resolution to their human condition, but more than anything, they are seeking salvation. Whether this salvation will ever arrive remains to be seen.

Although the erotic embodiment is what makes these stories palpable, the female protagonists are alienated from their bodies. They feel no pleasure, men in their lives are either literally disappeared or are not present mentally, they masturbate in an effort to feel alive, but all of this leads to more alienation. There is no distinctly female power, only human frailty and indifference. It could very easily be that the characters are deeply entrenched in superstitions that the culture in some way imposes, and this very demand leads to spiritual depletion. Yet, Enriquez’s focus on the deplorable living conditions that many characters face seems like a true reason for spiritual depression and loss of self.

In “The Lookout,” a woman is in full throes of this alienation, most likely brought on by rape she experienced when she was younger. Enriquez writes, “She recognized the shakiness in her hands, the shortness of breath, the need to get out of her body, that thinking of always the same thing. She lit a cigarette in the hallway and went back to the room smoking, to wait for the night and the next day lying face up on the bed, the TV on though she couldn’t understand the meaning of any of the programs, terrified because she couldn’t cry.” Yet, even here, there is an ever-present questioning of reality. Was she really raped? Is that just an imagined event? Or is the event itself so traumatic, rendering it impossible to discern? Is our memory so fragile that we are incapable of healing? Enriquez implicitly asks whether the alienated, the forgotten, the poor, the neglected can be healed?

City of Lost Souls

This healing and a need to be found (both physically and metaphysically) is most poignantly visible in “Kids Who Come Back.” The story focuses on a character named Mechi, a woman whose “task was to maintain and update the archive of lost and disappeared children in the city of Buenos Aires, kept in the largest file cabinet in the office, which was part of the Council on the Rights of Children and Teens.” As it could be imagined, the bureaucracy involved in such matters is astounding and Mechi finds herself in the midst of lost paper trails and mysteriously supernatural events.

Almost every child that was missing looked “ugly” and “deformed” in their “Missing” pictures. But one missing girl, strangely named Vanadis (“a variation on the name of the Norse goddess Freya, deity of youth, love, and beauty, and also the goddess of death”) was astonishingly beautiful. She worked as a prostitute in an awful area of Buenos Aires—Constitución—“the transvestites’ turf… where no women usually worked, especially not young girls.”

Once again, Enriquez’ flowing prose reads at once like a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, mystery, horror, and deeply symbolic reflection on the human condition. The events unfold in a fairly simple manner (her prose has a touch of Hemingway’s literary athleticism) but Enriquez’s writing does not allow for a superficial reading. By exploring simple and seemingly mundane events, she shows the suffering of these lost souls. This is especially seen when Mechi explores Vanadis’ MySpace page. Mechi’s reflection is perhaps our own too: “…it was remarkable how many of the disappeared kids left Facebook and MySpace profiles behind. They sat immobile, like headstones, visited only by a handful of the kids’ hundreds of friends and a few family members who went on leaving messages with the hope of one day receiving an answer.”

Yet again, the alienation and a constant vigilance of characters and incidental spectators run through Enriquez’s stories. The existential nihilism is certainly part of today’s culture but it’s mostly seen in our relationship to technology. In Enriquez’s stories, this is taken to another level. Both the city of Buenos Aires and its inhabitants are embodied and enfleshed beings that feel the grittiness of the city. There is nothing technological, sterile, or anti-septic about this. The technology is an afterthought, despite the fact that it plays a large role even in the society that Enriquez is describing.

What makes these stories unique is the fact that the bodily darkness, religion, and even superstition are antidotes to the global feeling of alienation. These stories are specific in their formal expression. In American literature of the 20th century, this is called regionalism (Willa Cather’s work being one of the best examples), and, in some way, we can apply the same label to Enriquez’s work. But even that remains an inadequate description of the uniqueness of her words. She is firmly rooted in the Argentine identity, and it is refreshing to see a literary work grounded in specificity as opposed to being-less globalism. Enriquez’s characters are always waiting for some kind of resolution to their human condition, but more than anything, they are seeking salvation. Whether this salvation will ever arrive remains to be seen.