The Political and the Macabre in ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’

'The Dangers of Smoking in Bed', 'Mouthful of Birds' and 'Things We Lost in The Fire' paperbacks on a table, with a notebook, laptop, candle and bookmark laid around

A few months ago, I was introduced to Mariana Enriquez’s writing in The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, a short-story collection; via which I was introduced to the world of nuanced horror. In short, I fell in love with it and I even wrote an article on the book.

I thought my liking this kind of stories pointed towards something else, and in that article, I wrote: What was it about this writing, these stories, and the characters’ unreliability that made this such a mind-blowing read for me? Was it because I was forced to face the basic and the basest of human desires and capabilities? Was it because I was forced to face my own humanity (or its lack thereof)?

What was it about this writing, these stories, and the characters’ unreliability that made this such a mind-blowing read for me? Was it because I was forced to face the basic and the basest of human desires and capabilities? Was it because I was forced to face my own humanity (or its lack thereof)?

And so, I knew even as I was reading these stories, that I would read any other collection that the author has published, and that has been translated. And so, came in Things We Lost in the Fire.

According to Goodreads:

Twelve stories of ghosts, demons, and wild women: of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls. In this sleep-stealing collection, Enríquez transports the reader to the crime-ridden street of post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.

The Translation

Since I completely forgot to address this aspect of the book in the above-mentioned post, I thought I should start it in this way.

I do believe that sometimes, the essence is lost in translation. Because sometimes there is no existence of particular native words in the English language. And then the onus is upon the translator to weave the English words in such a manner that does justice to the original emotion/thought conveyed.

Both The Dangers of Smoking in Bed and Things We Lost in the Fire, were originally written in Spanish by Enriquez. Megan McDowell is the translator who has played a vital role in making both these works accessible to the English-speaking world.

In my opinion, these translations were exceptional and truly relayed the emotions well — I was often horrified, mostly disgusted, and almost always uncomfortable. Making the reader feel so strongly, be what emotion it may be, is not an easy task. But McDowell has been a superlative translator in this aspect.

I, unfortunately, cannot read Spanish and am therefore handicapped from reading the original works. If you do know how to read Spanish, I would like to request you to read the works in the original and then also in English, and analyze the changes brought in, particularly because of the various political aspects present in Things We Lost in the Fire.

Twelve Stories of Politics, Disquiet and Existential Horror

In a blurb on the very first page, you come across after you tear your eyes from the somehow unsettling cover, it said of the stories, “… Born from the scars of a nation…”

When one researches and understands the political background of the post-dictatorship times in Buenos Aires, the stories are comparatively more accessible. Understanding the nuances of the speech, the things said, the policing expected, social normalities, etc., becomes more believable, and therefore as a reader, one finally comprehends how some of the things narrated do happen. Or rather, once happened.

The people being taken away, the people who disappear, the fear women have of being taken away to dungeons and being raped, all reveal political realities that the people of Buenos Aires once lived through. Even ghosts are political remnants of an erstwhile era.

Death, sacrifice, and obsession reign as the main themes in The Dirty Kid, where one kid’s disappearance marks a downward spiral in a woman, who is trying to redeem her own tragedy by obsessing over a kid apparently sacrificed to the skeleton saint of death.

Maybe I wasn’t the princess in her castle; maybe I was a madwoman locked in her tower.

Drugs, sex, adrenaline, and revenge form the political skeleton of the story that is The Intoxicated Years. In The Inn, ghosts are the remains of a turbulent political past of Buenos Aires, when hidden torture centers were a difficult reality.

She was afraid of the running men, of the car, the headlights. Who were they, where had they gone?

I found true horror in the thing that lived in the house, which eventually became Adela’s House. Serial killers with a history of torturing kids are scary. but what happens when your interest in them turns into obsession? What happens when you slowly, subconsciously turn into that very monster?

An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt is exactly an exploration of that. It ends before a conclusive resolution but the implication is out in the open. It leaves the reader fearful of what the obsessed man is truly going to do, what with a newborn in his own house.

Politics again enters the narrative in Spiderweb, a story of witch-sisters and disappearing husbands. It is disturbing and yet as a reader, you are compelled to read word after word, line after line, until you are flipping the pages, hungry for more gruesomeness.

They would rape Natalia and me in the dictator’s dungeons, day and night, and they would torture me with electric shocks on my pubic hair… and maybe they could kill Natalia quickly, for being dark, for ebigna witch, for being insolent.

In End of Term, we have contagious ghosts who compel the host to harm themself but protect them from the hurt. A skeleton skull dominates the narrative in No Flesh Over Our Bones, while slowly decaying the woman obsessed with it.

In The Neighbour’s Courtyard, we read of a woman healing from an enormous mistake, while at the same time, obsessing over the need to save a boy. It is a truly disturbing story that merges a child-like innocence with sexuality and therefore sheds light on the complex ways in which children and adults’ mistakes can be intertwined.

In Under the Black Water, an entity waits dreaming; hoping for revenge. it is as if nature is taking revenge for all the political injustices that are done and are disposed of in her waters. So much so, that

The water turned red… People were afraid of it.

I still do not know what to write about Green Red Orange. It is a strange story of the web and people and emotions and using the web as a support, of merging with the web, of becoming the web.

But what is the web? It is a complex tale and with all my analyzing skills, I am still undecided. The meaning is up in the ether, available for anyone who has the ability to access it. So if you know, will you let me know?

In the last story, Things We Lost in the Fire, women reclaim the narrative that was mostly patriarchal and served the patriarchy. I do not wish to reveal much because this tale is as much revealing about human nature as it serves as a mirror to our indecisiveness and often liminal positions.

Final Thoughts

While there were some pieces that I did not particularly enjoy, it was overall an informative read. And I use the word ‘informative’ in a nuanced manner. I learned about Argentina’s tumultuous history and how it affected the collective conscious — which is so very reflective in the stories in this collection. As is the case with this kind of story, I was also informed about my own self.

The real horror in this collection, and in general in Mariana Enriquez’s literature, is how we react to the social realism (which is of course, nuanced) in her work — and therefore, our realization of how inhumane we are or can be.

If you loved reading this post, as well as my thoughts on The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, you might also enjoy reading my post on Mouthful of Birds, by Samanta Schweblin.


Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.

Published by pretty_little_bibliophile

🌷(she/her) ENFJ-A I অ‌সমীয়া 🎁 @tbb_box BIBLIO10 🎟️ Join @readwithnika_bookclub 🏆Winner of #NECA2018 #BookBlogger #Booktuber #AssamBookstagrammers

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