In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death: On Marina Yuszczuk’s “Thirst”

By Zachary GillanApril 13, 2024

In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death: On Marina Yuszczuk’s “Thirst”

Thirst by Marina Yuszczuk

THE GREGORIAN CHANT “Media vita in morte sumus” (“In the midst of life, we are in death”) is a poignant reminder to the faithful that, despite God’s displeasure with our sins, he is the believers’ only source of succor, the only one able to “deliver us not unto bitter death.” Argentinian author Marina Yuszczuk’s Thirst—published in March 2024 in Heather Cleary’s translation, following its original publication in Spanish as La Sed in 2020—presents a similar view of the postlapsarian world. It portrays a cemetery, for example, as “a field sown with corpses,” noting that “the whole world is, though we rarely see it that way.” Thirst, however, finds succor not in divine deliverance but in quite different places.

The novel follows two women who are both living and dead: one is a vampire who emigrates from Europe to the fledgling Buenos Aires in the 1800s; the other is a modern denizen of the city facing her own spiritual death and the slow, degenerative physical death of her mother. Vampires, more than any other undead creature common in horror literature, occupy a liminal space between life and death, retaining more of their personhood—and especially their sexuality—than zombies, ghosts, and animate skeletons.

Yuszczuk’s vampire notes, for example, “I had conquered death, but never my thirst”; the urges of the body continue to motivate her beyond death. She and her mortal counterpart are both driven by the body’s thirst for intimacy, the purest form of succor available. The vampire and the mortal woman alike live in the knowledge of bitter death, but they find their isolation more crushing than death itself. Yuszczuk makes evocative use of this deathly liminality and echoes it by situating the two narratives in larger liminal circumstances: the colonial bloodthirst of the Old World expanding its outposts in the New—the historical threshold of the 18th century and the birth of modernism—and the sense of the modern world being at a turning point now.

The vampire, in its modern literary usage, first appeared in European literary history in 1819, with John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” but Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) lingers in modern memory, indelibly associating the monster with turn-of-the-century Europe. A century and a half later, Thirst continues to lean into the relationship of vampire and fin de siècle, both in its common usage to delineate the end of the 19th century and its more general sense of the end of an era, a liminal turning point. By the narrative’s open, Yuszczuk’s vampire, who was sold centuries ago by her mother to a Dracula-esque “Master,” has lived through his eventual overthrow and the murder of her sister wives. Realizing that the siècle of the vampire in Europe is drawing to a fin, she has set sail for Buenos Aires.

The vampire finds the new world awash in blood and death, stinking of bodies rotting under the sun, imperfectly masked by plants and perfumes, the city barely deserving of its name (“Good Airs”) in comparison to the metropolises of Europe. A central theme of the book is humanity’s attempt to cope with the ever-present miasma of death, both physical and psychic, and the vampire’s immortality allows Yuszczuk to trace the morbid history of Buenos Aires and, especially and emblematically, its famed cemetery La Recoleta. The vampire, closing her narrative halfway through the book, notes that the cemetery’s inscriptions, sculptures, and memorials exist to “translate death, the putrefaction of the flesh, into another language—elevated and aimed at eternity, at heaven. Bodies rest below; the most important thing about the cemetery, its entire reason for being, is that it directs the gaze upward.” Pages and decades later, the modern woman, having moved into the point-of-view role, delights in the stillness and quiet of the cemetery, where she feels more at peace than she does in her own home, and reminds herself that “all that beauty was only there to keep the corpses out of sight and out of mind.” In the midst of life, these characters are in death, surrounded by a built environment designed to distract them from it.

Even in a bar, surrounded by life, the modern woman wonders “whether anyone in there had a terminal disease or was coming from a funeral.” “I felt myself,” she confesses, “looking at them across a distance that kept growing, separating me from everyone else. Death was on the horizon, yes, but so was this adult life of mine that had disappointed me in nearly every possible way.” Unlike the vampire, who holds on to the trauma of her mother selling her to the Master and condemning her to a life of undeath, the modern woman lacks an exact threshold marking a before and after of her all-encompassing anomie, disconnection, ennui, and crushing loneliness, which predates her mother’s devastating diagnosis. Rather than undeath, we might say she exists in an unfinished liminal state of unlife. As a child, she flirted with the idea of believing in the supernatural, waiting for “something that would completely shatter the world we knew,” as her peers insisted that her house was haunted by the ghosts of former owners (how gothic, to have the past weighing so intrusively on the present) before she “got caught up in the dilemmas of everyday life” and lost that feeling (how uncanny, to wish for the gothic weight of the past to resolve into something supernatural but to be left with nothing but vague unsettlement instead).

Gothic fiction scholar Chris Baldick has argued that the genre relies on the combination of “a fearful sense of inheritance in time” and “a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space,” producing “an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.” Yuszczuk masterfully takes a large-scale approach to this sense of spatial enclosure, moving between the vampire’s tomb, the cemetery, Buenos Aires, and history at large. This gothic sensibility, the weight of the past upon the present, plays out in the structural divide between the two historical eras. The great strength of the novel lies in the binary between the two women, two eras, two approaches to life; the fiery id of the vampire burning through the New World, and the icy repression of the modern woman closed off to the world by disappointment after disappointment. Hers is the Buenos Aires of postausterity neoliberalism, a neighborhood written off by capital and descending into lawlessness, and seems to be winding down much like Europe was when the vampire fled—the metropolis less bloody, but just as suffused with death as the colony.

The book is excellent in its thesis (fiery gothic melodrama) and antithesis (icy modern ennui) but suffers a bit in the synthesis, when the two main characters meet and are immediately mutually obsessed. It doesn’t devote enough pages to their union, their mutual obsession a little too sudden and not fleshed out enough. What it does include occasionally dips into silliness, as when the modern woman has to stop the vampire from walking into traffic. The structure also means that the forward momentum of the vampire’s story dissipates between the two narratives. This makes sense thematically, given the modern woman’s life of stasis and ennui, but it still gives the narrative propulsion of the book a halting, interrupted feel.

This is compounded by the fact that the final movement of the vampire’s section is the novel’s most fascinating, set within Buenos Aires’s hellish yellow fever epidemic of 1871 (spread by the most common vampires of the real world: mosquitoes!). The association of the vampire with plague stretches back to Dracula, with his coterie of plague-carrying vermin, and Yuszczuk makes the most of it here, allowing her vampire to feed with abandon as the surrounding society cracks under the weight of mass death. In the tumult, she encounters two brothers, who represent the poles of science (a doctor) and religion (a priest), and seduces them both, even as both insist that their worldview has no allowance for the possibility of her existence.

The priest, like the cemetery, provides one of the clearest ways that death’s presence in the midst of life plays out in the text by tying together religious iconography and the erotic. When she sees him performing a funeral mass and begins to plan his obliteration, the vampire muses on the church’s foundation:

A gruesome murder committed in plain view, multiplied and repeated in thousands of images so many pretended not to see, or sought to look straight though: the body of Christ, twisted and bent with suffering, sweat beading on his forehead and drops of his blood mixing with other bodily fluids as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a body to bleed, to open itself and spill out like a public offering. The statues of Christ with a gash in his side, open, his flesh in full view and the dark red or purplish accents, the desire for that figure to be real and for the blood to be real, as well, a liquid imbibed as the faithful pressed their lips to a chalice … Christ’s upward gaze, a question with no answer, and the thorns buried in the skin of his forehead; his turbulent, tormented flesh, his carnality … Perhaps death was a relief. Perhaps murder was a way, the only way, to put an end to so much suffering.

It’s something of a précis of the novel’s argument: the association between life, death, sex, and blood. Remember Yuszczuk’s point about cemeteries existing as distractions from death, echoed both in the public’s pretending not to see and in Christ’s own upward gaze. Indeed, early in the novel when her sisters are assassinated by a priest-led mob, the vampire protests that the church was intimately involved in feeding victims to the Master for years. This is not a world where God can be bothered to deliver us not unto bitter death.

The blasphemous, not-so-subtly erotic language there (the bodily fluids, the open flesh, the carnality) exemplifies the book’s bloody relationship between la petite mort and regular mort. The fang-inflicted holes by which the vampire finds succor are several times referred to as orifices, rather than wounds, penetrated into what she describes as “bodies I had taken yet which did not belong to me.” This is still another liminal relationship: where, for a vampire both seductive and predatory by nature, does the threshold between feeding and sex lie, between one kind of thirst and the other? When the vampire and the modern woman symbolically consummate their relationship in a sexually charged feeding, the encounter is perhaps the former’s first experience of mutual, enthusiastic consent. This charged eroticism saturates Yuszczuk’s beloved cemetery as well, where suggestive statues abound, particularly pointed (or curved) reminders drawing the public’s eyes and thoughts away from decay. In the midst of death in the cemetery, sex reminds them of life—or at least distracts them from death.

The vampire’s cathartic seduction and destruction of the priest in an awful, orgiastic Black Mass as corpses pile up throughout the city is a truly horrific interlude that stacks up with the greatest of lurid gothic melodramas. In an act of revenge, the doctor, an instrument of modern public health and societal infrastructure, photographs her and sends the picture to the police, exemplifying her inability to cope with the developments of modernity. She has never seen herself before, her invisible reflection an eternal symbol of her loneliness and isolation, one of many vampire tropes Yuszczuk riffs on. Some, like the mirror, bear out in the text, while others are held up as objects of ridicule, as when villagers fruitlessly try to use garlic and crucifixes as wards in premodern Europe. She is threatened by the modern expansion of forensics, of morgues and autopsies and surveillance (“The science was developing slowly but sooner or later it would mean my ruin, shattering the mystery that shrouded my existence, the mystery that protected me”); her inability to deal with the photograph, proof of her existence, is what drives her into sleep for more than a century. It would have been fascinating to see Yuszczuk apply the same thoughtfulness to the vampire’s experience of postmodernity after she awakes, a brief mention of security cameras aside.

That said, the centrality of the photograph to the narrative underlies the vampire’s consistent rejection of her own story and truth. Like her mocking recitation of vampire tropes, this metatextual playfulness extends to the vampire’s gleeful insistence on masking her true self—fake names, fake biographies, false stories to blend into society or lower the guard of her victims and erstwhile companions. Unable to live in the open, she adopts a series of masks. As she tells the man of science, “I was dragged into this story; my only freedom is to create.” The modern woman also finds that she enjoys the autonomy of lying and creating a preferable story by helping the monster cover up her murders: “Everything was a story, in a sense, and it was better that way.” Certainly better than her disappointing life, comprised of a dying mother trapped in existence against her will; a distant father; an unfulfilling job; a marriage that ended with a whimper, not a bang; a son who provides the one bright spot in her life but not enough to anchor her. Merging her story with the vampire’s, in fact, allows her to direct her gaze upward and away from her disappointment.

Thirst is, despite its slight missteps in structure, a visceral, powerful novel about the all-encompassing presence of death. For all that our majestic Gothic cemeteries are designed to distract us, in the midst of life, we are in death; in the midst of death, we are in life. Alive or undead, Yuszczuk reminds us, to be is to thirst.

LARB Contributor

 Zachary Gillan (he/him) is a critic of weird fiction residing in Durham, North Carolina. He’s an editor at Ancillary Review of Books and the book reviewer for Seize the Press, and his criticism has appeared in Strange Horizons, Broken Antler, Interzone, and Nightmare Magazine, among others.


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