I frequently thought of “True Blood” as I read Mariana Enriquez’s masterpiece of genre mash-up, “Our Share of Night,” the Argentine writer’s first novel published in English. Lauded for her short fiction, Enriquez here slathers on supernatural conceits: How better to respond to that country’s violent history than with a shadowy sect teeming with wraiths and demons, a haunted house, a dynastic family that would sacrifice its own to maintain power? Make no mistake, though: “Our Share of Night” is a literary achievement, gorgeous and exacting in its execution.
Tall, blond and 30-something, Juan Peterson resides with his only child, Gaspar, in a spooky Buenos Aires mansion. “Our Share of Night” opens in January 1981, as the persecution of citizens has ebbed. Both man and boy are grieving the accidental death of Rosario, wife, mother and daughter of Mercedes, the stone-cold matriarch who shepherds a mystical, murderous cult known as the Order.
Born with a severe heart defect, Juan’s living on borrowed time. He’s volatile and sexually omnivorous, seducing everyone in his path, from Rosario’s empathic half sister, Tali, to his best friend, Stephen, to casual hookups. He’s also the sole medium between the Order and its deity, a ravenous Darkness that feeds on Argentines much as the fascistic government did in the 1970s. The cult has amassed a fortune, and Juan is a pawn in its game.
At the height of summer, he drives Gaspar to Puerto Reyes, near the Paraguay border, for the annual Ceremonial, a grisly ritual that mirrors the recent reign of terror. In a dazzling array of scenes, Enriquez dabbles in occult motifs, as when Tali, who reads tarot cards, is approached by a woman inquiring about her missing daughter: “Tali had seen her dead, drowned, and she’d said so. One of the many girls the military had murdered and thrown into rivers, their eyes eaten by fish, their feet tangled in vegetation: dead mermaids with bellies full of lead. Tali didn’t lie, she wouldn’t give false hope. The fathers and mothers of young people who had been disappeared by the dictatorship sought her out; they wanted, at least, to know how their children died, if their bodies were in a pit of bones or underwater or in a secret cemetery.”
Juan recognizes that Gaspar has inherited his gift, and he’s desperate to turn the boy over to the safekeeping of his brother, Luis, who’d fled Argentina to escape the crackdowns. He cobbles together a network to protect Gaspar while occasionally surrendering to his inner sadist, beating and berating his son (and others) to salve the torment of the monster within. Scarred torsos, amputated limbs, wrists cut to the bone: These are the signatures of a man caught between genocide and the burdens of his fate. Juan’s a morally treacherous triumph of Enriquez’s towering imagination.
Gaspar thinks his father’s crazy. “I hope Dad dies once and for all and puts an end to all this and I can live with my uncle,” he notes, “and I don’t ever have to think again about locked rooms, voices in my head, dreams of hallways and dead people, ghost families, boxes full of eyelids … I wish I could stop loving him, forget him.” Enriquez toggles back and forth between decades, between South America and Europe, filling in lacunae amid her characters’ biographies — Rosario narrates a lavish sequence from beyond the grave — while blurring lines that divide our world from adjacent realms. Her cinematic technique spans the globe: There’s a go-go, Carnaby Street vibe to her London flashbacks, for example.
The novel’s translator, Megan McDowell, won the National Book Award in translated literature last year for “Seven Empty Houses,” by Samanta Schweblin, a fellow Argentine whose themes dovetail with those of Enriquez. An American based in Santiago, Chile, McDowell has grasped the torch passed by luminaries such as Edith Grossman; translation, to invoke Grossman’s famous metaphor, isn’t merely copying one language over another, like tracing paper, but rather an act of creation unto itself. “Our Share of Night” teases out the nuances of Enriquez’s spirited, in-your-face style, political epic masquerading as satanic farce.
As Gaspar navigates adolescence, he feels the stir of attraction, his father’s son. “The girl let him light her cigarette,” Enriquez writes. “Gaspar looked at her legs. She had visible muscles. The lighter had illuminated her very dark eyes, lined in blue like a punk Cleopatra … she said she thought Gaspar was a great name. One of the Magi.”
By novel’s end, Gaspar’s a Wise Man, weaving gingerly toward selfhood, fending off forces hellbent on his destruction. As the millennium approaches, he confronts his country’s brutal legacy and his affluent family’s role, the havoc colonialism has wrought in the Americas. “Our Share of Night” is not only a bloody valentine to the bonds between parent and child, but also an inspired evisceration of how the powerful prey on the powerless, often beneath the guise of democracy and freedom. As Mercedes opines, “money … is a nation in itself.”
A former finalist for a National Magazine Award, Hamilton Cain is a book critic and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.
By Mariana Enriquez; translated by Megan McDowell
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