Finding the Enemy: Plaza Requiem, by Martha Batíz

Few happy endings take place in Plaza Requiem, the aptly titled short story collection by Mexican-Canadian author Martha Bátiz, recently published by Exile Editions, but a lucidity exists in Bátiz’s writing that buoys the reader through her most gruesome tales.

Bátiz, a Mexican writer now living in Canada, is the author of several books in Spanish, both fiction and non-fiction. She now teaches at Glendon College in Toronto, and Plaza Requiem marks her English-language debut. She most often writes about women “at the edge of ordinary lives,” as the book’s subtitle says—confined, abused or betrayed, domestically or politically. In many cases they take provocative, explosive action to triumph over betrayal, history, and darkness. Stylistically, Batiz’s stories are masterful, often macabre, new chapters in magic realism. At a time of walls, fear and incomprehension, they bring North America and Latin America together, combining a dark imagination with precision and momentum.

In “Ants,” a vile mother casts a spell, hoping it will bring her daughter home, and if you think “anti-Disney” you’ll have a sense of the results.  “The First Cup of Coffee” tells of an abusive husband who holds his wife prisoner in their home. Her pet bunny becomes breakfast.  Like “Polar Bears are Bullshit,” “Maria Times Seven” takes a lighter, fun approach: the Marias are septuplets who share a name and have the ability to share feelings and sensations. Death is the solution here, as in most of the stories.

The characters in Plaza Requiem are burdened by history, whether the history is political trauma or family drama. Batiz often returns to the theme of fathers’ abandonment of their daughters, but hers are not ordinary fathers.  In “Paternity, Revisited,” the opening piece, a daughter returns to bring justice upon a regime doctor who adopted her. The story had me scrambling to figure out where the atrocities took place. There are clues such as “white and blue flag”; Rio de la Plata; medias lunas and mate. Yes, South America. Uruguay?  I wanted in on the action, but felt I had to work at it. In the title story, a former despot and his daughter live in a rural Canadian town. She returns to their homeland on the anniversary of a massacre; as an adored child, she was untouched by the event. She visits the plaza as a tourist, wearing dark glasses and an old baseball cap, relieved she’s unrecognizable and no one pays her any attention. However, the anonymous treatment of these events does them no justice and minimizes our sympathy for the characters. There’s hand-wrenching, and falling on knees, and a sensationalized retelling of a pregnant woman eviscerated, and the newborn nailed to a plaza wall. In Bátiz’s political stories along this bent, I believe her talent needs a bigger canvas.

A poem by José Emilio Pacheco provides the apt epigraph for this collection: “I always find the enemy.”  Batíz describes a character’s anguish as “a stiletto in the ribs,” and that is how I felt in experiencing such compressed atrocities without the reward of transcendence. Yet, in her story “Still Watching; Watching Still,” transcendence is achieved with a beautiful simplicity that reveals another aspect of her talent: “I realize my son’s little hands are an extension of the ocean: my entire world fits into them. And I need nothing more.”

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