The Writing Life in Argentina in the 1990s
Mariana Enriquez recalls a world of dive bars, cheap wine, rockers, writers, misfits and ‘el uno a uno’: Buenos Aires before the collapse
The Writing Life Around the World is an ongoing series from Electric Literature. Translated from the Spanish by Philip K. Zimmerman
The host had blue eyes, very pale and inexpressive. He was famous, one of the influential and ludicrous financial journalists who dominated Argentine television in the 1990s, when the most extravagant and orthodox neoliberalism was economic dogma despite all the signs of imminent debacle. He had invited me on his program as an example of a successful and enterprising young woman. I was his propaganda. I wasn’t what he expected, and there I sat, before his amphibian eyes, disheveled and hungover. There was no Google back then; he had no way of knowing my appearance or my attitude. Let’s just say that at age twenty-one, I was not a young version of the elegant Isabel Allende. I was a disaster in jackboots, a checked shirt and a spray-painted T-shirt, a brunette Courtney Love who wanted to be Joe Strummer.
He hated me, and I hated him.
The audience was made up of teenagers from private schools, with their uniforms, silent, still and bored. My mission, I believe, was to show them that with education and individual effort one could go far. I knew it after he introduced me, when his first question was:
“What did you study in order to write a novel?”
“Nothing,” I said.
I remember his pale-eyed tadpole look. He had the slack, slightly feminine kind of neck that on some pale men begins to dangle with age. My answer was the truth. I had studied, of course, but not to write. To write I had only read literature with voracity ever since I could remember and paid special attention to my friends, my nights, our drugs, our sadness, our hysteria, our dissipation and disenchantment.
He couldn’t stand it and asked me brutally:
“Do you take drugs?”
I said no. It was a lie, of course, but I was afraid I’d be arrested. I was on television. He still wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t wearing makeup, I had bags under my eyes and my fingernails were unkempt.
“Do your friends take drugs?”
“I don’t know,” I said, even more afraid. What if they were arrested?
Here he cut to commercial. Maybe I should mention at this point that my novel — the reason he had invited me on his program (I don’t remember the host’s name, I could look it up but it doesn’t matter, it’s better this way, he deserves to be forgotten) — was called Bajar es lo peor (The Worst Part is Coming Down) and was a gay love story peppered with drugs, wanderlust, romanticism and hallucinations, one part Interview with the Vampire and one part Less Than Zero and a third part On Heroes and Tombs, the Argentine gothic novel by the writer Ernesto Sábato. The host didn’t even say goodbye. The producers came to get me: they were very happy.
“It all went wrong,” I said.
“No, no. You threw him off. This show needs to be shaken up a bit.”
They didn’t make me feel better. Some of the kids in the audience smiled at me. Before leaving I asked for coffee. I was sleepy.
It was 1995 and I was famous. I even had my own publicity spot on the radio, announcing the release of my novel with the words “by Mariana Enriquez, Argentina’s youngest author.” Every day they interviewed me for one magazine or another; my editor took me to dinners with writers who left me speechless, not out of respect — I didn’t respect anybody because I didn’t know who anybody was and I was terribly arrogant — but out of boredom and because they were very arrogant too and all the more so with a young woman with tousled hair and military boots. I went on talk shows of all kinds. With a red-haired hostess who had assembled a panel on youth violence. With a veteran journalist morbidly interested in how much I knew about gay sex. With a despicable journalist, another cheerleader of the privatization of public enterprises and crazy neoliberalism, who asked me to sign a copy of my book. I had fans who wrote me long letters describing their sorrows, loves and excesses; they wanted to know me; they wanted me to tell them where to find Facundo and Narval, where these two lived and how to meet them, although Facundo and Narval, the protagonists of my novel, existed only in my imagination and were inspired by Iggy Pop and David Bowie, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho, Lestat and Louis of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and the rock musicians I loved at the time, above all Ian Astbury and Charlie Sexton. It was fan fiction avant la lettre, with influences from Emily Brontë and Dennis Cooper.
I wrote it on a typewriter. When I started I was seventeen. I didn’t know anyone in the Argentine literary world and wasn’t friends with any writers, and none of my friends wanted to be writers — most of them didn’t even read. I lived in La Plata, the university town 35 miles from the Argentine capital. I wrote the novel by night, drinking cheap wine and smoking marijuana on the sly. I lived with my parents because I had no alternative — I couldn’t pay rent, I couldn’t pay anything. There were two types of middle-class people in Argentina in the 1990s: those who were drowning and those who were keeping afloat on a precarious raft. My family belonged to the latter species. My father was a mechanical engineer, but since there was little industry in the country, he survived on a government job that put him in charge of the few public works projects, mostly schools being constructed from scant materials. My mother was a doctor but was forever being fired from clinics and hospitals due to staff cutbacks. I attended university, which in Argentina was and still is free, and some nights I worked as a waitress in a bar called Tinto a Go Go (a play on Whisky a Go Go: in Argentina tinto, or red wine, is very cheap).
There, at a table covered in peanut shells, I told my best friend’s sister, Gabriela, a journalist, that I’d written a novel. She seemed surprised, I remember; between sips of lukewarm beer she asked to read it. Who knows what disaster she expected. A few days later I gave her the manuscript, more than two hundred typed pages marked up by hand. She took it with her. A week later she called me. She said she was going to show it to the publisher that had issued her last book, a biography of President Carlos Menem. The editors were looking for a novel on “youth” themes, written by a “youth,” and to her my book seemed ideal. I said of course, go right ahead, but I don’t remember being very excited. Nothing touched me emotionally: I was depressed, but also alert. I had to be. If you had hope in the future, it might be crushed at any moment. Better to just glide along in the vague boredom of subsistence, making sure the money held out for rent and drugs. Nothing else mattered. The government said the peso was worth the same as the dollar. This was the Law on Convertibility, also known as el uno a uno, “the one to one.” Meaning for every peso in circulation there had to be one dollar in the Central Bank. There’s no need to point out how complicated it was to maintain that equilibrium without cutting public spending to the point of asphyxiation. We lived in that fantasy. Every night we bought cocaine from a dealer who made people call him El Super, and our beer we got from a kiosk belonging to He-Man, a giant with long blond hair. Some weekends we’d go to the capital: we’d pick hangouts called Cemento (“Cement”) or Viejo Correo (“Old Post Office”). Once, in a bathroom, I saw three guys raping a girl who had either passed out or was very drunk: she had a Rolling Stones tongue tattooed on her thigh. I didn’t interfere. They might rape me too. I was terrified of getting pregnant or infected with HIV. One of my former classmates, a girl named Bernie, had bled to death in the street after they threw her out of an underground abortion clinic as soon as they realized they had perforated her uterus. Abortion was and still is illegal in Argentina. Boys weren’t any better off. Miguel, a lover of street- and nightlife who often went out with us, had an argument with the police at the precinct down the street from his house. One night they stopped him, just to scare him. They lost control and beat him to death. They ditched the body. Even now as I write this, in 2016, the body is missing. The cops, though, are in jail: there was enough evidence to convict them of murder.
“If you had hope in the future, it might be crushed at any moment. Better to just glide along in the vague boredom of subsistence, making sure the money held out for rent and drugs.”
That was how you lived in the Nineties if you were under twenty. And there were those who had it much worse than we did — we children of the impoverished middle class, public school kids with one parent still holding down a job. There were also those who had it much better. These people, the ones who appeared in glossy magazines and on television, we hated with a resentment so deep you’d think it was atavistic. We, despite our abandonment and desperation — and when I say “we” I mean my friends and I, undifferentiated at that time, a mob of sad, intoxicated kids laughing like crazy — we were privileged nonetheless.
The editor liked my novel. More or less. He told me a bunch of things about what my generation wanted “to do with literature,” things I didn’t understand because I knew no one my age who had any connection to literature. It cost him some effort to understand me, but he realized pretty quickly that he was dealing with a different kind of young writer. At that time — to generalize brutally — young writers were either rebellious literature students, young rock critics somewhere between bohemia and Greil Marcus, or ultra-cool urban girls who oscillated between the counterculture magazines and the hip newspaper columns. (There were also the poets of the Nineties, but that’s another world.) To visit my editor I’d take the Roca Line train, which was a catastrophe: it had no windows and was always stopping along the way because the engines would overheat, and at night it became the hunting grounds of drunk policemen and all kinds of degenerates. When I told my editor that I didn’t have a computer, that I’d never been able afford one (he had asked me to turn in the novel “on floppy disk”), he took swift action, calling down to accounting and negotiating an advance so that I could convert my novel to digital form. I did. The novel was released after moderate but rigorous editing. That correction process was and still is the only creative writing class I’ve taken in my life, and I believe it was extraordinary and sufficient.
The cover was striking: it showed a syringe. On the back cover one character leaned over a table, snorting cocaine. The calls from radio stations began, the advertising spots, the letters, above all the letters. Girls telling me about their first acid trip. Gay guys who’d been thrown out of their houses. Girls in love with gay guys. Girls in love with my characters. Some I answered, others I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say to them. The reviews were what today we would call “mixed,” using the English word. My publisher’s head of PR would tell me that I ought to make thank you calls even to reviewers who had torn the novel apart, and I’d tell him to fuck off. People would ask me about my next novel. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a writer. They’d say, “But you’re the spokeswoman of a generation,” and I’d want to cry. My mother drove me to some of the interviews. She was proud of me but didn’t comment on the contents of the book. I don’t know whether Bajar es lo peor is a good novel, but it is a sad novel: the boys shoot up with wine, have nightmares, prostitute themselves, talk to dead people, and love is no good for anything. There are no adults in the book.
The months of fame — there must have been six, maybe eight — were exhausting. I’d dress for television in a faux-leather miniskirt and an AC/DC T-shirt: I thought I looked like a rocker, daring, pretty. Seeing myself seated there in the talk show chair, I couldn’t help being horrified by my white, rather chubby legs and my obvious need for better makeup and hairstyling — not to mention my stammering in response to any question whatsoever. I was a terrible interviewee. With cultural journalists I was even worse. The humiliations piled up. They’d ask me about writers I had never heard of, and I’d pretend to know who they were talking about. My answers were muddled and left me looking like a fraud.
The most enjoyable interview was with two girls my age, fans who showed up at my house in La Plata one summer afternoon. We spent six hours talking in my room, whose walls were purple, my favorite color. I remember posters of the Sandman, the Rolling Stones and Suede and a sweat-stained T-shirt exhibited as a trophy — I’d worn it to Keith Richards’ first concert in Argentina. I’m not sure of everything I said in the interview, but I do remember confessing that I wanted to have sex with Rimbaud.
That interview appeared in the newspaper Página/12. A short time later I was asked to write for the same paper. Some of the journalists there were also fiction writers: many congratulated me, others asked whether it was true that I had written the novel myself, or had Juan Forn written it for me? (Forn was my editor.) The question, accompanied by sarcastic smiles, surprised me so much that I was hardly offended, although I do remember every one of those people who insinuated my inability, their gestures, how they stood with their hands in their pockets as they did it, the incredulity in their eyes when I insisted that I had written the novel myself, by myself.
My first important story coincided with the sudden disappearance of my fame: the fans, the interviews, the invitations to television and radio programs. There remained only the negotiations to make a movie, which was made in the end and screened at festivals; it never entered the commercial circuit. I saw half of it: I couldn’t stand to watch my characters played by faces that I hadn’t dreamed. The director was a beautiful and resolute woman, but she and I fell out of contact.
It was very hot on the day when the editor-in-chief called and asked me to confirm a rumor that he thought might make for a great story. Every night on Calle Florida, the grand pedestrian shopping street in Buenos Aires, people were eating out of the garbage, generally what had been thrown away by McDonald’s and Burger King. This was 1996: the economic model was collapsing bit by bit, but things didn’t seem so bleak yet that people in the center of the city should have to eat scraps. In the barrios on the outskirts, eating out of the garbage is not something that happens constantly, but it’s not a rarity either. And in 1989, when I was a girl, the country suffered such brutal hyperinflation that in some barrios in the city of Rosario people ate cats; the television spent hours and hours showing a miniscule and badly burned cadaver. Later it was said that the only cat to be killed and eaten was that one, the one on television, and that the eaters of the cat had perhaps received money from TV producers to stage the pet ingestion. In any case, being hungry and looking for a way to satisfy one’s hunger was not all that uncommon in Argentina. It was uncommon on Calle Florida, however. The editor-in-chief told me that the important thing was the garbage-eaters’ social extraction: the middle class. Some white-collar professionals. “Get a statement from them,” he demanded.
“This was 1996: the economic model was collapsing bit by bit, but things didn’t seem so bleak yet that people in the center of the city should have to eat scraps.”
I went accompanied by a photographer. The shopping street was the same as always until the fast food places started closing, then men and women began to appear furtively, not talking to each other, silent but determined. They rooted in the garbage, looking for scarcely bitten Big Macs. How to approach them? What to do with the photographer? For a while I watched them and took covert notes: some shot me poisonous looks. I decided to approach a woman with long black hair, dark pants, cute sandals and a fresh shirt made from lightweight fabric. A well-dressed woman, pretty, with traces of makeup. Once close enough to see better, I noticed her rictus of bitterness, already degenerating into that form of paranoia you see in people who have lost everything and aren’t prepared for the catastrophe. She found it hard to talk, but finally she confessed that she was a radiology technician and hadn’t worked in a year. That she was going to lose her house. Some other things. I felt like a cop pumping information out of a woman who didn’t want to talk. I told her it was for a newspaper, I didn’t lie to her, but the interrogation still seemed to me violent, unjust, beneath this woman’s dignity. Meanwhile the photographer was taking some shots of a group searching for leftover bits of pizza. One got offended and flung something at him. Nothing too hefty, perhaps a cardboard box. That unleashed the fury, as a first gesture of resistance often does. We didn’t have to take off running, but we did walk away quickly, without looking back.
I wrote the article that night. My boss loved it. It’s been a long time since I reread it, but I know it’s well written. Yet as I wrote it I realized that this was not the journalism I wanted to do. That I couldn’t buy into the business about shedding light on the unseen or being the voice of those who can’t speak for themselves. To me it seemed that by writing about those vulnerable people I had taken advantage of them in order to draw attention to myself. And although I talked to journalist friends who thought differently, who explained the importance of the profession, its respect for others’ dignity, its social function, they failed to convince me. I didn’t have that grade of optimism. I didn’t want to be the chronicler of a lesser world.
A short while later I transferred to the culture and entertainment section, where I still work today. I asked that section’s editor to please remove me from reality and send me to cover anything else. I believe my first show was one by the Ramones — an intensely popular band in Argentina, drawing crowds of 60,000 — but it might have been Page & Plant or the Black Crowes. I don’t remember it, and my articles from that time don’t exist in digital form: they survived until recently as clippings in manila envelopes that have now been thrown away. I saw every musician who played in Argentina over a period of ten years. I discovered that the most loving and respectful fans are the heavy metal community — I was never treated better than at shows by Sepultura or Slayer. And it was ten years before I wrote and published another novel. That book is called Cómo desaparecer completamente (How to Disappear Completely), it’s realist, and the main character is an underprivileged teenager longing to escape his impoverished barrio. It sold very few copies: nobody remembered me. But I’m very fond of that book because when I finished it I knew that yes, I did want to write.
About the Author
Mariana Enriquez is a writer and editor based in Buenos Aires, where she contributes to a number of newspapers and literary journals. Her new story collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, is available in the US from Hogarth. Her story, “Spiderweb,” was recently published in The New Yorker. Issue №114 of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading featured her story, “The Dirty Kid.”
About the Translator
Philip K. Zimmerman is a writer and a translator from Spanish and German. Born in Madrid, he was raised in Upstate New York. His work has been included in the Berlin International Literature Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival, and he recently completed a translation of Helene and Wolfgang Beltracchi’s autobiography, Selbstporträt (Self-Portrait). He lives in Munich, Germany.