My Sad Dead by Mariana Enriquez

An older woman lives in a declining neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Squatters to the north, crime-ridden public housing in the south (these sectors meet in a kind of fatal embrace in the east) and a desolating avenue, difficult to cross, in the west. It’s a suburb that has become an urban island.

The housing stock, originally from the 1920’s, is not without interest. Neat stone houses with large windows and lovely small gardens. But over many decades, the poverty and “bad taste” of the residents has degraded the housing. I was struck that Enriquez had said this. It’s as if the moral decline of the community has led to its physical decay, i.e., “they just don’t know how to keep up their property.” And I think that’s exactly what the writer means. It made me think of the dichotomy that I think exists in North American literature between Henry James and Edith Wharton…with James tending to think more often that moral failure leads to tragedy, while I seem to notice Wharton more often blaming the unfairness of society for the tragedy in her narratives.

The older woman who’s the first-person narrator of this story has been invited by her ex-husband to move farther south to be closer to him and his new wife. This invitation certainly adds interest to the story…but it just makes it seem more real. It turns out that her ex-husband’s new wife is a delightful woman, and the two women get along. This may seem odd to you but it’s not. People tend to normalize life, to make it seem safe and saccharine…when actually it’s weird. Life seeming weird is an expression of realism. Maybe I should add that this is Latin American Literature (that’s an expression of praise) so as far as weird is concerned, we’ve barely begun.

I wanted to add that the old woman’s daughter, also living in the city, doesn’t need her anymore, having a successful career in the fashion world. If you don’t think not being needed is rough, then you must be a young person.

So there’s nothing keeping our narrator in Buenos Aires…except the felt presence of her mother, who died in agony from cancer, perhaps in the house. Her mother died screaming. And she can still see her mother sitting on the kitchen floor, where she would try to seek some comfort from her suffering. She can see her mother because mother has come back as a ghost. And even the neighbors can hear the screams.

Mariana Enriquez has done something remarkable in this story, totally in line with the fabulist tradition in Latin American literature. She has created a second-order community of ghosts for this poor, benighted region. The social despair of the place manifests itself in ectoplasm.

There are the three fifteen-year-old girls, crossing the neighborhood to get home to the projects after a night of partying, shot down from a car while hovering over a cell phone. A young man who falls off a roof while attempting a robbery comes back from the dead to walk the same roof of the homeowner who refused to call an ambulance for him. Or the teenage boy, murdered for the ATM card that he didn’t have, his ghost knocking on every neighborhood door to plead for the help the passive community refused to give him when he was alive. Enriquez’s ghosts are mere slivers of the persons they were in life. And in the rare cases where they can talk, they speak in a continuous loop of their despair and confusion…bearing on their bodies the wounds that killed them.

In some neighborhoods, solitary old people take care of stray cats or feed the pigeons…because the worst thing of all is not to be needed. Our narrator is a ghost whisperer, perhaps for similar, but more profound reasons, since My Sad Dead is a subtler and more profound story. Note the leading possessive pronoun.

It’s such a sad community, so sad that it engenders ghosts to mourn for it. But I found beauty in its sadness. In a vision of the community’s happiness that its pathos has masked. In the Feb13/20 2023 issue of The New Yorker.