Bolaño’s Children: On the New Latin American Masters of Literary Horror

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Bolaño’s Children: On the New Latin American Masters of Literary Horror

Update 8/27/17: A prior version of this article failed to note that Megan McDowell translated all three of the mentioned books from Spanish into English. As if that weren’t remarkable enough, she’s also responsible for introducing Alejandro Zambra and Lina Meruane (two Paste favorites) to English readers. You can read more about her work here.

Halfway through Camanchaca, the Chilean writer Diego Zúñiga’s short, deeply affecting new novel, the book’s unnamed narrator recalls a memory from his childhood in the city of Iquique, on Chile’s extreme northern coast:

When I was little we were all waiting for the tidal wave to hit. Or a tsunami. In school we practiced Operation Deyse: Imagine the earth was starting to tremble, everyone under the benches, protecting our heads with our hands. Then evacuate the building and, without losing our calm, go running toward the hills. Over and over we practiced. The tidal wave never came, the tsunami never came. But for a long time, we went on practicing Operation Deyse.

1camanchacacover.jpgCamanchaca is full of evasions. The novel’s plot, such as it is, follows the narrator—a young, overweight journalism student who lives in Santiago with his mother—on a trip with his father through the Chilean desert into Peru, where his father has promised to pay for a dental procedure to fix his teeth. Over the course of the journey, the narrator begins to peel back the layers of his mother’s profound unhappiness, which revolves around his parents’ divorce. He also keeps returning to the thought of his father’s brother, who was killed in mysterious circumstances on the same desert highway. The narrator struggles to articulate his questions about these traumatic events even to himself—he isn’t sure whether to trust his memories, let alone ask the adults in his life for answers. His gregarious father bears down on him with an unburdened, easygoing manner; his mother is erratic and needy; the other adults barely seem to register his presence. Even when the narrator does seem to stumble upon an answer, he hides it from the reader, burying it under a new memory, a new vision of the vast desert he spies from the car window.

The result is breathtaking. Like Zúñiga’s narrator, we know that the tsunami—the revelation—exists somewhere out there in potential, beyond what is visible, and not knowing when or if it will arrive keeps us in a suspended state. Zúñiga, a master at exploring the murky ground of memory and trauma, is keenly aware of the truth’s ability to destroy everything laid out in its path. A straightforward answer might provide comfort to the reader desperate to know “what really happened,” but we all know it’s not so simple in daily life. The narrator gets his dental procedure and heads back to Chile with his father. The wave never arrives.

Zúñiga is part of an exciting cohort of young Latin American authors who are taking up the themes and motifs of horror and thriller novels and repurposing them to stunning new ends. Like Zúñiga, Samanta Schweblin, from Argentina, has written a short novel of extreme power. In Fever Dream, however, the story begins shortly after a catastrophic incident—the meat of the novel is taken up with assessing the damage. The narrator, a young mother named Amanda, lies in a hospital bed in enormous pain; her only interlocutor is David, a child who communicates with her in some eerie realm that is neither life nor death. They are on a country estate outside of Buenos Aires, a bucolic haven for city-dwellers escaping the oppressive summer heat. But as David prods Amanda to piece together her memories of the previous few weeks, it quickly becomes clear that dark forces had been lurking since well before her arrival. She recalls the ways in which her neighbor, Carla, is deeply shaken by the fate that has befallen her son, David, ever since he drank water from a polluted stream near her house. As she listens to Carla’s story, Amanda—who is on vacation with her toddler, Nina— stops to reflect on whether what happened to Carla could happen to her:

I always imagine the worst-case scenario. Right now, for instance, I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the “rescue distance”: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.

1feverdreamcover.jpgThe curious thing is that by the time Amanda experiences this thought, she doesn’t even know what has hap- pened to David, only that it is bad, bad, bad—worse even than a serious birth defect or losing the family house, Carla says. This is a sly move that Schweblin deploys repeatedly throughout the book: announcing that some- thing profoundly bad has happened— or is on the way—and then shading in the exact terrifying contours of what “bad” is over the course of a few pages. By the time Amanda tells us about the “rescue distance,” we know to recognize it for what it is: a deluded parental ideal that will shortly be transgressed—that has, in fact, already been transgressed: David, a child, holds enormous power over Amanda, while Nina is nowhere to be seen. This is no wave looming in the distance; this is sheer dread, swirling toward the drain pipe.

Zúñiga and Schweblin’s age and sensibilities mark them as the literary heirs to Roberto Bolaño, many of whose novels and stories often drew deep inspiration from the pulpy well of detective novels and thrillers. Indeed, Fever Dream shares a formal resemblance to By Night in Chile, Bolaño’s 2000 novel that recounted the final feverish night of Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a right-wing priest and literary critic, as he reckoned with his role in Chile’s military dictatorship.

But Bolaño’s affinity for suspense and horror is matched by a profoundly comic sensibility—an enormously difficult pairing to pull off in literature. Of Bolaño’s literary children, one stands out above the rest for her ability to use both comedy and horror to produce enormously compelling work. Mariana Enriquez, an Argentine writer and editor, has written a story collection called Things We Lost in the Fire that pushes commonplace fears and anxieties into absurdly horrifying conclusions. In “Adela,” a brother and sister venture into an abandoned house with their classmate, Adela, whose birth defect—a missing arm—inspires revulsion and jeers at school. The narrator and her brother, however, are fascinated by Adela’s missing arm, and by her response to her would-be bullies:

She didn’t care. She didn’t even want to use a prosthetic arm. She liked to be looked at and never hid her stump. If she saw repulsion in someone’s eyes, she was capable of rubbing it—her stump—in their face, or sitting very close to the person and caressing his arm with her useless appendage until he was humiliated, almost close to tears.

1thingswelostinthefirecover.pngEnriquez does something similar in her stories, which often take middle-class fears—of being a new parent, or of the sketchy neighborhood across the railroad tracks, or of the creepy new neighbors—and blow them up to enormous, overwhelming size. Perhaps it’s not such a surprise that the bully turns out to be terrified of Adela’s missing arm, but the process by which Enriquez unearths that connection is, well, funny as hell.

Jordan Peele—one half of sketch comedy duo Key and Peele and the acclaimed director of the 2017 horror hit Get Out—had this to say about the relationship between comedy and horror: “The reason they work, why they get primal, audible reactions from us is because they allow us to purge our own fears and discomforts in a safe environment. It’s like therapy. You deal with deep issues that are uncomfortable with the hope that there is a release.”

Of the three books, Fever Dream most resembles a horror film—though in the end it provides an additional set of chills for hewing closest to the horrors of the real world. (I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot.) Unlike in television or film, however, literature doesn’t have to provide that same sense of cathartic release. Enriquez’s stories offer more resolution than Camanchaca does, but they too rely on a certain “to be continued” feeling that unsettles long after the book is put down. Ultimately, however, all three provide a refreshingly disturbing angle with which to view the discomforts and fears of the outside world, offering neither the distance of a dystopian landscape or the drudging proximity of literary realism that plagues U.S. fiction. In a moment when the daily news offers equal helpings of horror and absurdity, one might ask what room there is for art. Thankfully, Schweblin, Enriquez and Zúñiga have an enormously satisfying answer.

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in Paste Quarterly #2, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl sampler.

Lucas Iberico Lozada is Paste’s Assistant Books Editor. You can follow him on Twitter.