Reviewed by Rebecca DeWald
At the Edinburgh International Book Festival last summer, I heard Mariana Enriquez read from her short story collection Things We Lost in the Fire, the first English translation of her work, by Megan McDowell. Twice, in fact: At the official reading, and at a more informal evening event with readings and music in a cabaret-style circus tent. Enriquez’s voice captivated me: She read McDowell’s translation of her short story “No Flesh Over Our Bones” as if it were her own text. When I reread the story in the collection, I was surprised that it should only be barely 6 pages long, considering the eerie narrative with its uncertain ending had me gripped for days afterwards: a woman finds a skull in the street and becomes fixated on it, to the extent that she chooses “Vera,” the skull, over her live-in-boyfriend and lies to her mother about her obsession. I am certain that my captivation results from the fact that there is more to Enriquez’s stories than the “mere” gothic, often cruel horror they express: Her setting is Argentina, predominantly the various neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, and while the time period remains unspecified, the ghosts of multiple dictatorships haunt the collection. As McDowell writes in her Translator’s Note:
A shadow hangs over Argentina and its literature. Like many of the adolescent democracies of the Southern Cone, the country is haunted by the spectre of recent dictatorships, and the memory of violence there is still raw. (Enriquez, 199)
On the surface, the reader encounters a reality that mixes realism with magical events, though concluding from this that Enriquez writes magical realism is a hasty and erroneous comparison. Just below the surface lurks the harsh reality of life in the deprived neighborhoods of a major Latin American city, marked by inequalities – all of Enriquez’s protagonists are women and many are children or young adults –, poverty, drug abuse, and a clinging onto folk beliefs. The uncanny derives from this parallelism between a cozy world and surrealist events, whereby one can turn into the other without warning. McDowell notes, “Mariana Enriquez’s particular genius catches us off guard by how quickly we can slip from the familiar into a new and unknown horror” (Enriquez, 202).
In line with this observation, McDowell’s translation is often almost mundane in tone, which increases the shock effect when it comes. In “Adela’s House,” a more classical horror story featuring a haunted house, terror arises between the spaced-out descriptions and short sentences:
I hugged Pablo, but I didn’t stop looking. On the next shelf, higher up, were teeth. Molars with black lead in the center, like my father’s, who’d had them fixed; incisors, like the ones that bothered me when I started wearing a retainer; or sharp canines that reminded me of Roxana, the loudmouthed girl who sat in front of me in school. When I looked up to see what was on the third shelf, the light went out. (Enriquez, 78)
McDowell, replicating a young girl’s voice here, uses contractions, though doesn’t slip into slang. She describes the girl’s thought process, the fear of being in a dark, haunted house with her brother Pablo and their friend Adela – the two of them sharing an affinity for horror films –, and her attempt at making sense of her experience. The reader is initially reassured, following her train of thought to the father’s teeth and the classmate, which increases the shock when the light suddenly goes out and the story returns to the horror of the haunted house.
McDowell situates other stories more clearly in Latin America by leaving some terms in their original Spanish, though these are also testament to the fact that readers can generally access the internet to look up very specific terms whose explanation would otherwise fill entire footnotes. The narrator in “Spiderweb” explains the similarities between words for dragonfly and damselfly:
Some people call them aguaciles – from the word agua – because bands of them tend to show up before it rains, when it’s really hot. That word makes me think of alguacil – sheriff – and I think a lot of people call the insect that, as if it were the police of the air. (Enriquez, 99)
The word aguaciles, as McDowell explains, derives from agua, meaning “water” – without explanation in the text, where “rain” suffices as reference. The similarity with the Spanish word for sheriff (alguacil), which enables the metonymy by which dragonflies are called ‘police of the air’ is a pun certainly difficult to render without reference to Spanish. Similarly, guayabera (a lightweight shirt) and ñandutí (fine Paraguayan lace, or “spiderweb cloth”) are partly explained, but mainly serve to situate the story in Paraguay (Enriquez, 103).
This reference to the original language is especially interesting with respect to Enriquez’s inspirations. After all, she sees daily life in Argentina as an influence on her style, making the geographic and linguistic setting a key element of the stories, as she affirmed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival:
I think it’s very free because it’s a country of contrast. If you go to some places in the city [Buenos Aires] it feels like Madrid or Paris, and you walk a little and it’s a slum. And the literature reflects that, a strange vitality.
This Janus-like duality, a mixture of reality and fictional events, is a common feature in the work of Argentina’s best-known writer. Jorge Luis Borges is widely known as the master of a unique kind of metaphysical fiction with fantastical elements. Translator and Hispanist Daniel Balderston explains the common confusion between magical realism and fantastic literature with regards to Argentina:
The fantastic, particularly the form cultivated in Argentina, is sometimes confused with so-called magical realism […], but at least in general terms the Argentine version was more controlled and cerebral, while García Márquez and his successors preferred flashier effects. (Balderston, 202)
Similarly, Julio Cortázar’s lecture on fantastic literature, “El sentimiento de lo fantástico,” given at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas in 1982, reflects this somewhat logical approach to fantastic literature in Argentina. Cortázar defines the fantastical as that which escapes rules and thereby creates an estrangement (extrañamiento) in certain moments, which makes it seem as if reality is only a fraction of the world, “this feeling of being immersed in a constant mystery, of which the world, in which we currently live, is but a part” (my translation).
One of the great female writers of Argentine literature – prose and poetry –, little known in the English-speaking world, is Silvina Ocampo, who deserves to be remembered for much more than being the wife of writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges’s best friend. The similarities between Ocampo and Enriquez are certainly no coincidence, given that Enriquez wrote a biography of Ocampo, La hermana menor (‘the little sister’, in reference to her much better known older sister Victoria Ocampo, editor of the literary journal Sur), published in 2014. Both writers share a vibrant narrative style: I often found myself struggling to remember whether I’d seen a certain scene in a film, or had imagined a passage in Enriquez’s short stories so vividly that it had become part of my visual memory. Similarly, Ocampo’s writing conjures up memorable images, a feature which Borges, in his preface to the collection Thus Were Their Faces, connects with her background in visual arts (she had trained as a painter under Fernand Léger and Giorgio de Chirico in Paris): “the immediacy and certainty of the visual image persist in her written pages” (Ocampo, xvii). Another parallel cited by Borges between both writers is a “strange taste for a certain kind of innocent and oblique cruelty,” particularly with regards to the everyday and domestic life: cruelty and horror lurk in the most familiar of places (Ocampo, xviii).
One of the key differences between both titles, however, lies in their reception: Things We Lost in the Fire is the first English translation of Enriquez’s work, thus offering a glimpse into her writing as if it were a debut. The collection is structured around recurrent themes, which can all be read in front of the backdrop of post-dictatorship Argentina, and therefore form a certain unity. Thus Were Their Faces, on the other hand, constitutes Ocampo’s selected short stories in Daniel Balderston’s translation – “Ocampo insisted that we choose her cruelest stories,” Balderston writes in his Translator’s Note – taken from seven separate collections, spanning over more than fifty years, from 1937 to 1988 (Ocampo, 353). While there are recurring themes in the collected stories as well – supernatural occurrences, domestic settings, lovers’ relationships –, what is more striking is the development of Ocampo’s tone and voice. Some of the early stories resemble Borges’s short stories more closely: in “The Objects” (1959), she addresses “you, the reader” directly; “The Impostor” (1948) centers around Borgesian themes much like “The Improbable Imposter Tom Castro” or other stories set in the Argentine pampa; “Autobiography of Irene” (1948) is the reverse of Borges’s “Funes, the Memorious,” since the protagonist Irene cannot remember the past because she knows the future, while Funes cannot think beyond the past, since he is cursed with remembering everything. Ocampo’s style becomes more idiosyncratic through the decades, with the stories taking on more and more peculiar twists, featuring stylistic experiments with flashbacks in italics, or multiple changes of voice and perspective within one paragraph, resulting in ephemeral, intangible prose musings.
“The Punishment” (1959) and “The Expiation” (1961) are particular examples of the way in which Ocampo uses a two-voiced structure to simultaneously tell the same story from two different perspectives – even their titles form a thematic bond. “The Punishment” is a sad love story. The narrator Sergio listens to the account as told by his partner, struggling with madness and dying in his arms. She tells their love story as if Sergio, simultaneously the co-protagonist of the story and its audience, were an unaffected third person. At the same time, her reminiscences of the past, which start in the present and run backwards, make him age: “twenty years less for her had meant twenty more for me” (Ocampo, 170). “The Expiation” tells of parallel stories and dualities: The narrator’s husband Antonio is obsessed with canaries, and bears a secret involving both his heritage and his friend Ruperto, who “was not blind but crazy”, and makes the female narrator uncomfortable because he spends too much time at their house and she thinks he secretly stares at her (Ocampo, 220). An odd story indeed, given that Ocampo’s husband Bioy invited Borges – by then blind himself – over for dinner almost every night, and kept an obsessively detailed diary about their encounters.
The stylistic change over five decades is also reflected in Balderston’s translation. As he explains in his Translator’s Note, the initial idea for the collected short stories was born from his many meetings with Ocampo from 1978 onward, and an initial selection was eventually published by Penguin Canada in 1988. The current NYRB edition, however, has been extended and the translations revised. Balderston explains:
Revisiting my old translations I have tried to preserve the oddness of the language, even as I have revised to pull the English syntax a bit farther from the Spanish. Argentina is more familiar to English readers now than it was a quarter century ago, so I have restored some place-names in Spanish, keeping the original accents and spellings. (Ocampo, 354)
The ‘oddness of the language’ is mainly expressed in quick changes of tense and switches between speakers. In terms of voice, Balderston employs a slightly anachronistic style throughout, lending the stories a coherent feeling of being placed in a non-descript time and reality. While this creates a strange effect, his English never sounds odd, that is, the syntax never gives the impression of following the Spanish original a tad too closely. Balderston’s own ‘oddness’ is a deliberate, chosen stylistic feature – one that he has honed since his first drafts, as the quote suggests –, not an accident of translation. (In comparison, the selection of poems Silvina Ocampo, translated by Jason Weiss and simultaneously published by NYRB – on the whole less accessible than the short stories – read altogether more modern, yet include peculiar syntax and sometimes convey the feeling of sticking too closely to the Spanish line-breaks.)
Both Enriquez and Ocampo share a rich Argentine imagination, defined by Borges in his preface: “In other parts of South America, the short story is usually no more than a simple sketch of daily life or a simple social protest, or often an unhappy mixture of the two; among us, in Argentina, it tends to be the product of an imagination granted the fullest freedom” (Ocampo, xviii). That this imagination can often be cruel, fierce, and piercing is, arguably, the prerogative of these two female writers.
Enriquez, Mariana. Things We Lost in the Fire. Tr. Megan McDowell. London: Portobello Books, 2017.*
*Citations refer to the UK edition.
Enriquez, Mariana. Things We Lost in the Fire. Tr. Megan McDowell. New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.
Ocampo, Silvina. Thus Were Their Faces. Tr. Daniel Balderston. Preface by Jorge Luis Borges. New York: New York Review Books, 2015.
Balderston, Daniel. “Fantastic Literature.” Encyclopedia of Latin American and Caribbean Literature: 1990-2003, edited by Daniel Balderston et al., Routledge, 2004, pp. 201–02.