This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Spiderweb”, Mariana Enriquez, trans. Megan McDowell, 2016.
Enriquez is an Argentinian writer, and this story is interesting mostly for its details of life in Argentina and Paraguay (where the characters go for a trip). At the time of the story, Argentina is no longer under a dictatorship and Paraguay still has their dictator in Stroessner. That would place the story sometime from 1983 to 1989.
Our narrator, whose name we seem never to learn, has one big problem: her husband Juan Martín. She impetuously married him out of loneliness when she was a teenager after her mother died. Juan has his good points. He doesn’t cheat on the narrator. He doesn’t beat her. He has a job that supports them fairly well. He even wants kids. But we’ll learn plenty of his faults as the story progresses.
The narrator, on the other hand, admits she’s a passive woman, and she admits she doesn’t want her favorite aunt and uncle and cousin Natalia to meet Juan. Eventually, though, Juan gets taken off to meet the relatives in Corrientes, Argentina.
Juan does not impress them. His constant comparison – unfavorable – of life in the provinces compared to big-time Buenos Aires does not sit well with them particularly Natalia.
Natalia is a fortune teller as well as a dealer in a Paraguayan cloth known as ñandutí or spiderweb cloth, and she invites Juan and the narrator to accompany her on her next trip to Asunción, Paraguay to buy some more..
Juan proves himself not only boorish, knowing less than he thinks he does, a whiner, and he’s also foolish if heroic minded. He tries to stop some local soldiers from probably raping a waitress. However, it’s misplaced bravery. Natalia tells him there’s nothing they can do If they interfere, she and the narrator will be imprisoned, raped, and killed. Juan will be shot.
On the way back from Asunción, their car breaks down at night on a very deserted road. Typical of Juan, he blames Natalia for not maintaining the car or putting enough water in the radiator. He claims – unsuccessfully – that he can fix it, but he’s startled by what he says is a snake moving across his left in the dark.
By this point, Natalia is not even bothering to disguise her contempt for the know-nothing Juan.. She manages to flag down some truckers to go to the next stop and get a tow truck to come out. No, nothing comes out of the night when Juan and the narrator are all alone. The truckers aren’t killers either.
But something happens to the narrator internally. She resolves never to have sex with Juan again. She also starts fantasizing about just how easy it would be to kill him when they were all alone.
The tow truck shows up with and takes them to Clorinda. There, in the hotel, the truckers are also staying, and Natalia plans to spend the night with one, a Swede from Oberá.
Things get even uglier between Juan and his wife. He accuses Natalia of being a whore for wanting to spend the night with the Swede. For that matter, so is the narrator for making eyes at a trucker. Juan tells her that, while she may want to leave him now, she won’t when they get back to Buenos Aires. He isn’t going to make it easy for her to leave, and then he apologizes for being “impossible”.
The two go to dinner with the truckers and Natalia, and some odd stories get told.
They are not the first odd stories we’ve been told. We heard earlier about Natalia seeing a house fire from her boyfriend’s plane and how quickly it consumed the building, improbably quick. We also hear of Natalia spotting her grandmother’s ghost.
The truckers tell a version of the old folktale about seeming to hit someone with a car and finding no body. They explain that it and the ghostly people and cars seen in this particular stretch of road may be hauntings of the dead people disappeared by the Argentine government, their bodies put in the cement of a bridge while it was constructed. Juan tells the trucker not to “fuck around” with that kind of story implying he either thinks it’s a joke that could get him in trouble or knows it’s true and doesn’t want to contemplate it. (Given his reaction to the Paraguayan troops, the former seems more plausible.) We also get a story from the truckers about an old woman who disappeared from a mobile home when it was stolen.
Juan leaves the others to go to bed.
And, the next morning, Juan is gone. No trace of him can be found. It’s as if he was never there.
For me, this ending doesn’t work very well. There’s not really any indication that Natalie saw this coming though the narrator says she has accurately predicted the future and detected spirits. We’re left with just an ending where the narrator’s marital problems are magically solved by either some feature of the area, brought into being by the brutality of the dictatorship, or the narrator’s wishes. Perhaps the narrator has absorbed the spirit of the area and the recent dictatorship. Juan is an annoyance. Therefore, Juan must disappear – however that is done. Juan becomes, like the dictator’s victims, not a corpse to bury and a grave to visit, but just a death marked only be memories of the man.
Juan throughout the story seems to always be wrong even when acting from noble impulse. He seems clueless. He doesn’t even recognize Natalie’s beauty even though the narrator and other men do. He is the opposite of the insightful and helpful Natalie, but we don’t get the idea she is responsible for his disappearance.