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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Reveling in the eerie and the spooky, but finding ‘true horror’ in real life

Mariana Enríquez at home in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jan. 27, 2023. The author deploys — and enjoys — horror conventions, but in “Our Share of Night,” she reminds readers that the violence we live with can be far more frightening.

By Benjamin P. Russell

Mariana Enriquez’s childhood was marked by the dark absurdity of authoritarianism. Under the military dictatorship that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, a latent fear permeated even the most mundane aspects of life.

Hosting a birthday party required permission from local authorities. Conversations were potentially dangerous: As a child, she knew that certain things that could be discussed at home were off limits in mixed company, but she didn’t fully understand why. The fear of letting the wrong thought slip out made her somber, she said, and pushed her toward “books and very solitary things.”

When the dictatorship fell in 1983, and its leaders were put on trial two years later, testimony from its victims became inescapable in Argentine society, Enriquez said. Surrounded by it, she had no choice but to close the gaps in her understanding. The reports of arrest, torture, disappearance and murder represented her first exposure to “true horror,” she said, and would later become a thread of her work, which is filled with ghosts, demons and tales of the occult.

“Instead of sending me to bed, my father would say ‘See how bad they were?’” Enriquez said, describing testimony from the trials that she heard on the radio alongside her father. In one instance, she said, a woman described being tortured with electric shocks while pregnant.

“He never thought it could disturb me, or worse, he thought it was something I needed to know.”

The terrors that engulfed Argentina in the 1970s and ’80s — the ones that had so unsettled Enriquez as a child — play heavily in the background of her latest novel, “Our Share of Night.” Out in the United States on Tuesday from Hogarth, it centers on a medium, Juan, and his son, Gaspar, as they try to outmaneuver an evil secret society bent on eternal life. Jump scares abound. But while Enriquez revels in horror conventions, her writing also urges readers to remember that it’s the real-life monstrosities that should truly frighten.

Violence in Latin America has been normalized to the point that people’s reaction to it has become subdued, she said. “Putting in the horror, including the jump scares, including the gore, including the parts that have to do with thoughts about evil, it’s like returning those things to the realm of the horrible, rather than the quotidian to which we grow accustomed,” Enriquez said.

The author of four novels, two short story collections, and a host of stories, biographies and journalism besides, Enriquez, 49, has cemented her standing as a leading figure of contemporary gothic fiction. The English translation of her collection “The Dangers of Smoking in Bed” was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and the Spanish version of “Our Share of Night” won Anagrama’s Herralde Prize for best book of the year in 2019.

Enriquez is a fan of things that go bump in the night, of scary movies and eerie tales in the tradition of fellow Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo, who was the subject of her nonfiction book “La Hermana Menor,” or “The Younger Sister.” But the roots of her awareness and fascination with life’s darker shades also reach back to that terrible Argentina of her youth.

Told from multiple perspectives and spanning time and place, from the occult-obsessed London of the 1960s and ’70s to the 1990s aftermath of Argentina’s “dirty war,” “Our Share of Night” renders scenes of cinematic horror as ably as it does depictions of psychological pain. Juan’s love for his son is tainted by a deep jealousy of the kind writer bell hooks explores in “The Will to Change,” only here it is taken to macabre extremes.

With his health giving out, Juan faces the temptation of literally inhabiting his son’s younger, healthier body. Enriquez uses their relationship to explore parenthood, which she said is often portrayed in a rosy or simplistic light.

“When you’re watching a child grow while your life is ending, there is something more complex than what you typically hear in the discussion about childhood, about only the good, only the beautiful,” Enriquez said.

However ambivalent, Juan endeavors to protect his son from the Order, a secret society of wealthy families who threaten to use Gaspar as their next medium. The echoes of the worst realities of Argentina’s dictatorship are clear. One of the regime’s most morally destitute practices involved stealing the children of dissidents and giving them to families with ties to the dictatorship. Many of those dissidents were among the thousands of Argentines who didn’t just disappear but were disappeared — taken by security officers and never seen by their families again.

In Argentine Spanish, Enriquez notes, a common word for ghost is “aparecido,” the antithesis of these “desaparecidos,” or disappeared, that still haunt the country’s memory. “Even the language itself leads to the phantasmagorical of it all,” she said.

Enriquez’s writing is “an exploration and expiation of trauma of all kinds,” said Megan McDowell, who translated “Our Share of Night” into English.

“While your typical Borges story will take place in a separate, invented, mythological world, Mariana is very concerned with place, as well as social issues,” McDowell wrote in an email. “Poverty, state violence, and sexism haunt her stories as much as any ghost or supernatural being.”

Indeed, in “Our Share of Night” Enriquez is working as much in the tradition of Borges and Ocampo as she is in that of film directors like Steven Spielberg or Gaspar Noé, or channeling the haunting pain of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and the raw vision of violence, youth and neglect in François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.”

“She draws on so many varied traditions and makes them her own,” said McDowell. “She spins her obsessions into narratives that are engaging and thoughtful and scary and surprising, and ultimately impossible to forget.”

As with much of her work, musical influences, too, are at play. It was Enriquez’s love of rock ’n’ roll that, in a sense, opened her to literature in the first place. Listening to Southern Gothic strains in music by artists such as Nick Cave, Enriquez said, she sought out William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Hearing Patti Smith refer on the album “Horses” to Arthur Rimbaud, she found and became enraptured by the French poet’s work — and the lore surrounding his life.

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