JANUARY 31, 2019
“I WAS FIRST TRAINED as a plastic artist,” Samanta Schweblin says to writer Valeria Luiselli at the Louisiana Literature festival in Denmark. While she was growing up in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, her grandfather owned an engraving workshop in the city center. “Now when I think of a workshop, I think of words, texts, and literature,” Schweblin says, “but at the engraving workshop there was ink that you got stained with and very heavy zinc plates that hurt your hands, and acetone, and corroding acid — the smells were very strong.”
The sense of the tangible world is central in Schweblin’s work. From Argentina, living in Berlin, and writing in Spanish, Schweblin didn’t become available to English-language readers until the 2017 release of Fever Dream (Distancia de Rescate), translated by Megan McDowell, though Schweblin has been publishing books since 2002. Few novels in the United States in the past few years have developed momentum quite like Fever Dream. It is a short and propulsive book that can and does end up being read in a single sitting. Among its principal unusual qualities is an uncanny dialogue pattern that teases the nightmare at the center of the book without making it clear whether we are heading into or out of its way. Fever Dream was nominated for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It also won the 2018 Morning News Tournament of Books, a bracket-style, single-elimination book competition; one at a time, Fever Dream defeated lauded novels such as George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.
For a book that is in many ways hallucinogenic, Fever Dream has an electric commitment to the physical world. Details like a hot car seat, a screen door, a coffee cup in the grass, generate the sense that the larger metaphysical terror is real. One of the narrative lines in Fever Dream tows the reader by the gut with the visceral parental fear of losing a child. “I’m calculating how long it would take me to jump out of the car and reach Nina if she suddenly ran and leapt into the pool. I call it the ‘rescue distance’: that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it,” the protagonist says. “It’s as if it were tied to my stomach from outside. It pulls tight.” By charging certain tangible components of a nebulous catastrophe, Schweblin generates the feeling of a nightmare. She uses qualities of the textural immersion that she learned from her grandfather’s engraving workshop. Schweblin says to Luiselli, “I always kept that connection with the plastic and the visual — with that thing you can touch or smell, and as soon as I feel lost when I’m writing I put the computer aside and I grab a pencil and paper, and in that connection with objects, I get hold again of that passion.”
Two years after Fever Dream, we finally have access to a second Schweblin book in English, translated again by Megan McDowell. In Mouthful of Birds (Pájaros en la boca), we find how Schweblin’s commitment to materiality expands to conjure a vast range of uncanny nightmares. Schweblin is carrying out her own singular and radical method, while also writing stories that are in conversation with horror contemporaries such as Brian Evenson, Jesse Ball, and Roque Larraquy. As with her peers, one of the most powerful influences in Schweblin’s work is Franz Kafka. All of these writers know how to generate a paranoid effect in steering by a partially but obsessively observed environment.
In the Mouthful of Birds story “Toward Happy Civilization,” the main character Gruner is stuck at a provincial train station because he doesn’t have the correct change for a ticket home. Gruner imagines saying to the station agent, “Surely, sir, I could buy the ticket aboard the train, or, when I arrive, I could buy it at the terminal’s ticker office. Make me an IOU, give me a piece of paper that says I have to pay for the ticket later.” But the station agent refuses to engage with him on this matter and, day after day, signals to the oncoming train to keep going. In the sustained and paranoid spirit of a Kafka story, this goes on for an immense and indeterminate amount of time — perhaps months or years — with Gruner and his stuck compatriots suspecting they’d lost everything back home.
Kafka conveyed the manner in which the world grinds people up with its meaninglessness, with its churn toward death; Schweblin finds dark comedy in this same trap. After months, years, or maybe even longer, Gruner manages to stop the train. Unexpectedly, unhappy passengers, a muttering flood of them, disembark. The first person says, “I thought we’d never get off.” Another: “Years, years, I’ve been on this train, but today, at last…” A third: “I don’t even remember the town anymore, and now, suddenly, we’re here…” As the train pulls away from the station, Gruner realizes he is still headed nowhere.
In the spirit of Gruner, unable to catch a train, one of the primal charges running through a number of Schweblin’s stories is the fear of getting left behind. In the stunning opener, “Headlights,” Schweblin describes an abandoned bride at a desolate gas station at night. She has taken too long in the restroom: “When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her.” The protagonist sits on a rock, picking grains of rice from the embroidery on her wedding dress, and textures like these keep the storytelling on edge, keep the reader from dismissing the psychological horror as mere metaphor. The narrator realizes that she is not the only abandoned bride, that others actually fill the fields surrounding the gas station. They shout and scream at each other. To scare a reader in a new way is not easy; to make them laugh while doing it makes the reading experience something newly unexpected. The final note in “Headlights” is twisted and cynical, evoking the manner in which the patriarchy carelessly sabotages and dismisses women, going to any lengths to save itself.
Desolate locations — towns far from the city, distant train stations, and empty country restaurants — recur throughout the collection, amplifying the sense of claustrophobic isolation. In one of my favorite stories, “Irman,” a pair of lowlifes craving something to eat and drink pause at a remote truck stop. “The restaurant was big, like everything else out in the country,” the narrator says, “and the tables were littered with crumbs and bottles, as if a battalion had just eaten lunch and there hadn’t been time to clean up. We chose a spot by the window, near a whirring fan that didn’t move a hair on our heads.” The primary driving force in the story is the narrator’s desperate desire for something to drink, but it plays out as a very strange tragic comedy. A tiny man runs the truck stop, his wife has recently died in the kitchen, and his problem in terms of carrying out their order is that he cannot reach the countertops to cook. The story pursues minor absurdities, creating a surreal effect through entirely realist means. The men end up fighting with the tiny truck stop proprietor and, in indignation, try to steal his money. Later, rifling through his wooden box, they find a photo of the short guy when he was very young, sitting on some suitcases in a terminal. They find love letters addressed to him: “Dear Irman; Irman, my love,” as well as poems he had signed. They find a mint candy and a plastic medal for the best poet of the year from a social club. No money. They throw the wooden box and its contents out the car window.
“Irman” is one of a number of stories in Mouthful of Birds that are quite funny in a slightly horrifying way. Another example is “Heads Against Concrete,” a story about a boy who grows up with two loves: painting and beating the crap out of people. Miraculously, he combines his two passions to make a living. The narrator says, “I paint pictures of heads hitting the ground, and people pay me fortunes for them.” Largely a brute dummy however prized and monetized, he has a tooth problem so trades commissioned artwork to a dentist. They quickly misunderstand each other, and things go horribly, picking up momentum and debris as the story barrels forward. In a final reflective scene, the narrator says that when people ask him if cracking his dentist’s head on the back of his canvas hides an aesthetic intention, he looks up and pretends to think. He says to the reader, “That’s something I learned from watching other artists talk on TV.” Schweblin’s storytelling is so many things, among them cultural satire.
For English-speaking audiences, the match between Schweblin and her translator Megan McDowell is a thing of perfection. McDowell also translates other great writers, like Mariana Enríquez, Alejandro Zambra, and Lina Meruane. All of her authors find pleasure in exactness — the way a succinct detail can linger, the way a rich word can pivot a sentence. The way Schweblin writes is luxurious, and also incredibly direct. Take the perfectly paced opening of the title story of “Mouthful of Birds,” another story about parental fear: “I turned off the TV and looked out the window. Silvia’s car was parked in front of my house, its emergency lights blinking.” This opening is built of simple pieces but it’s urgent. In two quick sentences, Schweblin and McDowell send the story soaring down the chute. One of the routine pleasures of Schweblin’s storytelling, in both Fever Dream and in these stories, is getting swept up in her mad effects. While each story immerses and orients the reader, it also keeps them guessing.
There are two more Schweblin books, also translated by McDowell, coming in the next few years: a novel Kentukis (2020), and another story collection, Siete casas vacías (2021). The story “An Unlucky Man” from Siete casas vacías has already been translated and published, and charts yet another new point in Schweblin’s commanding range. She still uses the electricity of tangibility to evoke danger, the opening paragraph featuring a three-year-old and an accidentally swallowed cup of bleach, going from there to such unexpected places, always with that sense of immediacy and urgency.
While Schweblin executes each narrative move with propulsive confidence, as though of course it would not go any other way, it is also impossible to guess where a Schweblin story is going. One of the greatest effects of Schweblin’s writing is the sensation of having a trapdoor kicked open in your own mind — of not knowing this weird space even existed, but of course. There you are.
Nathan Scott McNamara also contributes at Literary Hub, Poetry Foundation, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, The Millions, Electric Literature, and more. Follow him at @nathansmcnamara, or read more at nathanscottmcnamara.com.