Throwing Bodies in Mariana Enríquez’s Our Share of Night

Author: | Posted in Book Reviews, Fiction No comments

the book cover for Our Share of Night

Our Share of Night
Mariana Enríquez, translated by Megan McDowell
Hogarth | February 7, 2023

A dark new wave crests in Latin American literary fiction. Authors like Mónica Ojeda, Samanta Schweblin, and Brenda Lozano are writing fantastical, imaginative, and downright terrifying books. Many will be tempted to compare this new “unusual” trend to the most famous Latin American literary export of yore: magical realism. In some respects, the shoe fits. Just like the authors of the Latin Boom (Cortazar, Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, etc.), the contemporary cohort blend chimeric phenomena into a real-life backdrop in order to posit some kind of social commentary. Rather than finding the commonalities, though, readers would be better off excavating the points of difference between the two literary movements. The two literary styles diverge essentially with a different feature: hope. Writers like Marquez wrote about the continent’s deeply entrenched issues but were still fairly utopian in their vision of the past and future. The new vanguard, on the other hand? Bleak, bleak, bleak. For them, horror isn’t just a cosmetic feature. It’s a thesis statement. As Argentine author Mariana Enríquez says, regarding the literary past: “We were young countries and despite decades of poverty and conflict, there was hope, the future seemed bright. I wonder if that optimism’s gone now.”

Enríquez seems to answer her own question in her new novel, OUR SHARE OF NIGHT, translated by Megan McDowell. Set in the years during and after Argentina’s military dictatorship, the novel follows Juan and Gaspar, a father and son enmeshed in the web of a clandestine cabal of child-torturing, demon-worshiping industrialists called the Order. To commune with their supernatural god, the Order must mercilessly exploit Juan’s unique clairvoyant abilities. With his health failing, though, Juan now fears that the Order will try to ensnare Gaspar. As such, he plans to do anything he can to ensure that Gaspar remains out of their grasp—even if it means hurting his own son.

At 736 pages delineated into six distinct sections, the novel sprawls across time and place, both within and beyond Argentina’s borders, to provide a progressively clearer picture of the history and function of the occultist Order, as well as Juan and Gaspar’s outer circle of friends and family. A few particularly extraordinary sections follow Gaspar’s mother’s licentious youth in swinging London, an intrepid journalist accidentally stumbling upon the cabal’s misdeeds, and Gaspar and his friends’ misadventures in a punk rock 1990’s Buenos Aires ravaged by AIDS.

The real focus of the novel, though, is Gaspar’s coming of age in post-dictatorship Argentina, as he quarrels with his gruff father and grapples with his fractured memory and dense, impenetrable lattice of psychological traumas. Juan took drastic measures to save Gaspar from a torturous life serving the Order. By keeping Gaspar sheltered from the unadulterated truth, though, Juan inadvertently gave his son a whole different set of problems. Gaspar’s a sweet kid. He builds a mirrored device to help ease his maimed friend’s phantom limb syndrome. He notices, during one of his many visits to the dying Juan in the hospital, that “the hard plastic oxygen tube was irritating the delicate skin of his [father’s] nose.” Gaspar is sensitive and observant. That’s what makes his plight through the darkness (literal and figurative) all the more painful.

The tension of the novel  isn’t in the Order’s barbarism. It’s in how the characters discover and process the consequences of that barbarism after the fact. In a novel that features some absolutely excruciating, exacting descriptions of heinous violence, somehow the most harrowing parts are those in which Gaspar fails to make sense of the rubble his antecedents left behind—as well as the parts in which his confusion leads him to hurt himself, and others, as he tries to sort through a tragic past that is impossible to understand.

Zooming out, OUR SHARE OF NIGHT, as a novel, does try to understand the tragic past. It reads like an elongated metaphor for Argentina’s infamous Dirty War, a critical takedown of global colonialism, and a treatise on the corruptive influence of power. The evidence is everywhere. Consider how the Order intentionally manipulates the military’s campaign of indiscriminate kidnapping and torturing as cover for their own ritualistic violence. Or how the Order’s mediums through history hail from colonized or marginalized communities. Or the fact that members of the Order are so mesmerized by their obscure deity that, during ceremonies, they accidentally walk directly into its obliterative maw and thereby earn horrific disfigurements. The social commentary here isn’t subtle. But maybe that’s also part of the ploy.

Readers unfamiliar with the history will indeed learn a lot about Argentina’s calamitous, self-destructive twentieth century. OUR SHARE OF NIGHT isn’t just a supernatural historical fiction side quest to the ignominy of the Dirty War, though. On a deeper level, Enríquez moves past that superficial top layer of social commentary as quickly as possible to embroil the reader in the true horror at the core of her epic: the responsibility foisted upon those who inherit the history to watch the horrible truth slowly come to light. She frontloads the most deplorable violence and then textures the subsequent chapters with a number of complimentary subplots about ignorance and negligence. The result is a squirming, cringing read, in which you follow a group of ill-fated kids stumble across a dark field strewn with mines. Amidst a novel full to the brim of visceral, blood-curdling terror, nothing evokes as bad a feeling as watching those kids push one another towards the places where we know mines lay.

At the very end of the novel, after Gaspar receives a gruesome, inscrutable message, Enríquez writes: “In Argentina, they toss bodies at you. Te tiran muertos. Now he understood what that phrase meant.” What Enríquez does not go on to explain in the text is that, in Argentine Spanish, Tirar un muerto—“to throw a dead body”—is a phrase used to describe a situation in which someone has imposed an unwelcomed burden on you. It’s a tellingly morose phrase. Maybe this explains the gulf between the rosy utopianism of Latin Boom authors and the cruel cynicism of the “unusual fiction” writers. Maybe the atrocities of the past have thrown too many bodies at the present to justify writing anything but cynical horror. You’ll be educated and thrilled and (surprisingly) titillated reading OUR SHARE OF NIGHT. Most of all, though, you’ll be left bereft. It’s not a fully pleasant experience. But it’s an immensely powerful one.