To call Schweblin’s novella eerie and hallucinatory is only to gesture at its compact power; the fantastical here simply dilates a reality we begin to accept as terrifying and true. A woman named Amanda lies on a hospital gurney, recounting her story to David, a boy who pushes her to relive the events that have brought her there, wrapped in the rough sheets of her deathbed, able to talk but unable to move. She describes traveling with her young daughter to a vacation rental outside the capital and meeting David’s mother, who immediately insinuates that something so monstrous has happened to David that she no longer considers him her son. “The first time they put him in my arms, I was so anxious. I was convinced he was missing a finger,” she says, remembering when she had a new mother’s ordinary fears. “What I wouldn’t give now for David to simply be missing a finger.”
The tale that follows is a swift descent into phantasmagoria, as the dialogue between Amanda and David — translated into lucid English by McDowell — turns into a cleareyed reminiscence of horror and a struggle for narrative control. “How different are you now from the David of six years ago?” Amanda asks. “What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?” Damaged children, a degraded earth, souls that move between bodies but never find rest: Schweblin’s book is suffused with haunting images and big questions, and in Amanda she places a mother’s all-consuming love and fear for her child. Amanda remembers how she would constantly measure the “rescue distance” that separated her from her daughter. As the distance tightens, as Amanda feels that her daughter is closer than ever, she will learn the grim and fateful lesson that maternal instincts count for little in an insidiously poisoned world.
Kamtchowsky — one of the main characters in Oloixarac’s exuberant blend of political satire and sexual picaresque — is a young, unsightly woman who meets a young, unsightly man. After their bizarro meet-cute, they embark on a relationship built around a shared repulsiveness they believe must confer on them a certain evolutionary advantage: “Ugly people are inevitably more intelligent than beautiful people, because they’ve had to develop more sophisticated means of obtaining things.” But then they meet another couple whose good looks and penchant for phrases like “the phenomena of synchrony and contagion” upend such assumptions. Besides, Argentina’s recent murderous history has a way of making pet theories of natural selection sound quaint. What starts out for the foursome as regular evenings of philosophical musings and group sex evolves into a joint online gaming venture called “Dirty War 1975.”
Oloixarac, like her characters, was born in the 1970s, during Argentina’s “Years of Lead,” and “Savage Theories” keeps returning to that national trauma even as its various plots spin off in different directions before coalescing at the end. The narrator, self-conscious and somewhat self-delusional, hounds her aging professor by pointing out errors in his Theory of Egoic Transmissions, which in turn is based on the work of a Dutch anthropologist from the early 20th century who posited that human consciousness was organized around our common ancestral experience as prey. Hence the vicarious thrill we feel for the victim who attacks her attacker, the nerd who triumphs over his jock-tormentors; Oloixarac offers these examples and more in her whirlwind of a book.
Kesey has done a remarkable job with his translation — or so I would wager, considering “Savage Theories” ranges gracefully from academic jargon to meticulous parsings of bodily functions and everything in between (a disquisition on the character of Alex P. Keaton from “Family Ties” turns out to be surprisingly pertinent). No doubt some readers looking for steadier footholds will find the narrative too restive and ruthless for their taste, but this book rewards total immersion: Come for the inevitable Borges allusions, stay for the wild ride.
By Mariana Enriquez
Translated by Megan McDowell
202 pp. Hogarth, $24.
The girls and women in Enriquez’s stories worry about their friendships, their figures, their spacious apartments in dangerous neighborhoods, their waning attraction to their boyfriends and husbands, only to confront the horror that courses underneath it all: noises only they can hear, children only they can see, neighbors with grisly secrets. Not all the terror is hidden: a skull found in a trash heap, with a name and date — “Tati, 1975” — etched into the bone; a child whose nose is wide “like a cat’s,” deformed by the polluted tributary that runs through the city’s slum; shelves covered with fingernails and teeth, and a pantry full of rotting meat. Enriquez’s stories are historically aware and class-conscious, but her characters never avail themselves of sentimentalism or comfort. She’s after a truth more profound, and more disturbing, than whatever the strict dictates of realism will allow.
There is something almost biblical about the evil that threads through this collection, only the evil here is more vicious and unyielding, without the consolations of God or rescue. This isn’t to say the stories are unreadable — far from it. They are propulsive and mesmerizing, laced with vivid descriptions of the grotesque (another skillful translation by McDowell) and the darkest humor. Two teenage girls decide to play a trick on an innkeeper by sneaking into the empty rooms after dark, cutting holes in mattresses and sticking chorizo sausages inside. But they fail to factor the inn’s past into their plans; it had been a police academy three decades before, during the military dictatorship whose deeds included murder and forced disappearances — what one of the girls obliquely refers to as “that stuff we studied in school.”
I will be haunted for some time by the indelible images in this book: a woman disfigured by burns, her neck “a maroon mask crisscrossed by spider webs”; bodies buried in cement. The most frightening atrocities are those that touch on Argentina’s actual present and past, as if to remind us that the true source of evil is not supernatural but man-made.
Jennifer Szalai is an editor at the Book Review.
De BOOK REVIEW, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 05/03/2017
Ilustración de John Gall