Strange Ways the World Might Be

Emmanuel Ordóñez Angulo on Samanta Schweblin

It is a bit strange to see appear in English a book whose distinctiveness at home, in the Spanish-speaking world, owes so much to the sleek style of prose of its Anglophone mentors. There is a good term in Spanish to describe Samanta Schweblin’s writing in Pájaros en la Boca: contundente. It translates as “blunt,” which you might say of an object or the blow it can produce, or “convincing,” which you might say of words that have a similar effect to that blow. But unlike “blunt,” “contundente” is compatible with subtlety, and unlike “convincing,” it needn’t apply to persuasion. Instead, contundencia has to do with a rare thing in Spanish, that language flexible to a fault: transparency, sharpness—and only derivatively from those, with force. The term applies similarly to the writing of the influences mentioned above: John Cheever and Raymond Carver, as acknowledged by Schweblin herself, and indeed to another influence from Schweblin’s homeland, Julio Cortázar. But where economical sentences like Cheever’s and Carver’s might be exemplars of a kind not uncommon in English, Cortázar’s and Schweblin’s are rare in a language prone to verbosity, one that lends itself to both imprecision and lush, excessive detail.

This goes some way towards explaining why reading Pájaros en la Boca in its original 2009 edition was such a breath of fresh air. It might also explain why the book can feel like less of a revelation to an English-speaking reader. Reviewing it for The New York Times in Megan McDowell’s translation (Mouthful of Birds, Riverhead Books, nominated for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize), Parul Sehgal makes no note of Schweblin’s scalpel-like pen. This is because as a visitor in the English-speaking world, Schweblin contrasts much less with the locals. It doesn’t help, in this sense, that Mouthful of Birds was preceded last year by Schweblin’s novel, Fever Dream, also in McDowell’s translation, but originally published in Spanish in 2014, after the short stories had appeared. “The new collection is impressive, but it lacks the finish of Fever Dream,” Sehgal thinks; “there’s a feeling of peeking into Schweblin’s notebook, of watching her early experiments with technique.” This feeling arises only from assuming the story collection and novel are subsequent stages in the development of Schweblin’s powers rather than, as I think is the case, altogether different beasts. But let me start from the beginning.

I first read Schweblin in Pájaros en la Boca several years ago. And what first struck me, as I said, was its sharp style. But style is just a vehicle. What the book delivered to me, its substance, was a collection of worlds; it was the knowledge that reality can take forms that, though unexpected, are not for that less real. Now what exactly this amounted to, what chord exactly Schweblin was striking, is hard to say, but it was a very fine chord. Here is an example. The title story starts with a fight between a divorced couple caused by a particular eccentricity of their daughter’s; the woman is hysterical and the man is a former henpecked husband infuriated by his own continued obedience to his ex-wife: a perfectly normal situation. The only oddity here is that the daughter’s eccentricity is to eat live birds. Is that a petty detail? Is Schweblin telling us: look, the world is richer than you thought and I’m just showing you a portion of it you hadn’t encountered before? In that case, the story’s man and his daughter could be your neighbours. Or should we think, instead, that this bird-eating quirk is the key to another world, effectively distinct from ours? In that case, Schweblin’s stories are populated by radically different beings, fantastical ones, who go back to infancy with time (“The Size of Things”), whose roles at work are reversed (“Olingiris”), and who develop wings and become insects at the end of a school day (“Butterflies”). Sometimes the answer seems to be the first option, as in Cheever or Carver, and sometimes the second, as in Cortázar or Juan Rulfo. But, really, it is not quite either. Hence the fineness of the chord.

It is important to the nature of Mouthful of Birds that not all of its contents are straightforwardly “stories,” by which I mean that they don’t all have what you might call a plot. “Mouthful of Birds” is a story, as are, say, “Towards Happy Civilization” (the story of a man stuck in a train station), and “The Test” (the story of a man forced to kill dogs for admission into some sort of club). But consider “The Digger,” where the narrator is simply confronted with the absurdity of an unannounced employee digging a hole for unspecified reasons in the back of the house that he (the non-digger) has rented by the beach to get some rest. There are hardly any turning points in this piece, that is, hardly any events following one after the other. Instead, “The Digger” is just a window to one event, or actually one state of affairs, an immersion into one strange environment. In this, Mouthful of Birds is sometimes closer to Jorge Luis Borges than to Cortázar or Rulfo, especially Borges’s aptly named Fictions, which are not short stories but instead just describe strange ways the world might be.

Recall, for instance, “Funes the Memorious.” The access to this piece’s world (the world of a man with a prodigious memory) is certainly through a story (the story of how the narrator met him), but the substance is the former, not the latter. What is important in “Funes the Memorious” is the portion of the world where a man incapable of abstraction is able to recall every single detail of every single moment of his waking life. The aspect of the piece involving not a snapshot of this world but a series of events (the narrator witnessing Funes’s computing feats, Funes falling off a horse and acquiring his prodigious memory) is only the window towards that. This doesn’t mean nothing happens throughout the fiction. As you explore Funes’s world, you go from vaguely interested (by the narrator’s claim that only “one man on earth had the right [to use the verb “remember”] and now he is dead,” for example), then mesmerised (by things like Funes’s effort to give a proper name to each natural number: Máximo Pérez, Olimar, The Flesh Blanket), to being finally hit by the dark realisation that what’s being shown to you is profoundly sad, not blatantly but in the way ruins at dusk are sad, that is, under the surface, that is, in a way that doesn’t make you want to cry but gives you the chills, or perhaps a stomachache. (The last sentence falls on you with the weight of an anvil: “Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of a pulmonary congestion.”) Similarly, one’s affective journey through Mouthful of Birds sometimes arises from the events it tells and sometimes, when there isn’t much by way of events, from the revelation of the true nature of the world it has introduced you to. In both cases, the journey starts being intriguing and progressively grows eerie. “The Digger” ends when the narrator makes the mistake of messing up the hole and, worse, trying to fix it. Then the digger looks at him for the first time with mistrust, the shovel in his hand, and the air thickens. “I’ll help you,” the narrator offers, breathing nervously. “You dig for a while and I’ll take over when you’re tired.”

“The hole is yours,” he said. “You can’t dig.” Then the digger lifted up his shovel and, looking me in the eyes, drove it into the ground again.

This is not so much a turning point in a plot as a way to dim the lights and reveal the atmosphere’s secret colours: something like dark blue, crimson, and perhaps grey.

I am not suggesting that through her fictions, Schweblin probes such universal themes as Borges did. Indeed, I do not think she does; where Borges was concerned with the nature of time and space and the universe itself (with metaphysics, one might say), Schweblin is primarily concerned with human nature (with psychology?). Her exploration of strange ways the world might be, then, does not include strange ways time and space might be but just ways we humans might. And that scope is strange and broad enough. The fact that the vehicle, again, is sometimes shared with Borgesian fictions and sometimes shared with plot-typical stories (the type Borges himself explored only once, in the collection El Informe de Brodie) makes Mouthful of Birds uneven, imperfect—fittingly, strange.

This variation and the employment of minimal plots (or their absence) are highly uncommon in Hispanic literature, or at least in what I had read at the point of reading Mouthful of Birds. The closest thing I could think of was Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star, a supple plotline floating on an ocean-deep meditation on evil. This is why Mouthful of Birds is such a different kind of thing from Fever Dream rather than just an earlier, less polished stage in their author’s career.

Schweblin has said she started Fever Dream not with an upgrade to novelist in mind but as a short piece, only later realising that what she had to say required more space. The extension certainly pays off. Where some pieces in Mouthful of Birds are timeless immersions and others are journeys with beginnings and ends, Fever Dream has room for both. Here too, there isn’t much by way of plot on the surface level—just a woman and a child, talking. It all happens in one room. The story the woman tells, of course, constitutes the length of the novel, and the way she tells it constitutes the immersion. So this altogether new kind of creature is not a lost child of Cortázar or Borges or Carver or Cheever now but perhaps of Mexican writer Salvador Elizondo, whose Farabeuf (1965) similarly tells a minimal story at the surface level (its subtitle is “The Chronicle of an Instant”) and a labyrinthine story at the deeper one, and which similarly constitutes an unsettling experience.

Fever Dream is the story of Amanda, the woman we find lying on a bed talking to her friend’s son. They met while Amanda and her daughter stayed at a house Amanda rented away from the city to get some rest, just like the guy from “The Digger.” Interestingly, the triggering event in the story is exactly what the conversation between Amanda and her friend’s son is about. It is no less than the key to the puzzle of why Amanda is dying. Narratively, though, things start to get weird when Amanda’s friend, Carla, accuses her son—or, rather, her son’s body—of having been recently occupied by a new soul. The uncanny nature of it all is enforced by visceral tropes: “worms, something very much like worms” are present all along. Here the parallels with Farabeuf are remarkable. A little gem of Mexican literature by a writer more fond of esoterism and the nouveau roman than of the magical realism of his own peers, Farabeuf tells the story of a man who crosses the street, enters a building, walks up the stairs and crosses from one side of a room to the other. That’s it. As the scene plays over and over again, we learn of the relationship between this man and a woman waiting in that room, and as we unlearn what we thought we knew and then learn it again, we start to realise, as in Fever Dream, that what’s important and terrible and crucial is being left off the page, and only—perversely, rather than helpfully—hinted at to us. Are this man and this woman lovers or mother and child? Or are they nurse and doctor? Perhaps they are all three but at different points in time? Some Chinese ritual allowing the same selves to inhabit distinct persons seems to be at the core of what’s happening here, just as a seemingly failed ritual in Fever Dream to save the soul of Carla’s son seems to be at the core of what we suspect, but don’t know, will be Amanda’s fate. The reader’s senses are the target: worms (or “something very much like worms”), poisoned livestock, and soy fields in the summer’s heat are to Fever Dream what bloodstained scalpels and open wounds are to Farabeuf. But the dizziness and the dread do not just result from such sensual imagery. In both novels, the writer is violent to the reader in having one character nag the other: “None of this is important,” says the child to Amanda in Fever Dream when she browses her memory for the key moment. “You’re confused, and that’s not good for this story.” And “you have to be patient.” And “we’re wasting time.” An unknown voice in Farabeuf: “you must concentrate. That is the only rule in this game. You must concentrate so that you will never forget.” In both, the repeated question: “Do you remember? Do you remember?” A critic in The New Yorker says no other novel had filled her with such unease as Fever Dream: “by the time I finished the book, I couldn’t bring myself to look out the windows.” The friend who introduced me to Farabeuf was forced to put it down various times. After the page with the book’s infamous photo, she never finished it.

I don’t intend this to be a list of influences on Schweblin’s writing, but by pointing out how different works stand in relation to her two (translated) books, I’m making the case that they do different things. The case is even stronger if one considers Schweblin’s latest collection of stories and novel not yet published in English, Siete Casas Vacías (2016) and Kentukis (2018), each dissimilar, yet again, from Mouthful of Birds and Fever Dream.

This is not the place to discuss those two later books (not least because they’re not available to the English-speaking reader), but on the subject of their heterogeneity, I’d like to end with two related points. One is a continuation of a point I’d hinted at earlier: that just as the style in Mouthful of Birds is rare in Spanish-speaking writing, so is the style of Fever Dream. It is pretty widely agreed amongst those who know Farabeuf that it too is an anomaly, and not just relative to its time. Just as Pájaros en la Boca thrilled me in a way Mouthful of Birds may or may not thrill an English speaker, Farabeuf blew my (impressionable young) mind in a way that it might not impress a French speaker accustomed to, say, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet or even just Charles Baudelaire. Each impressed me, incidentally, for quite opposite reasons: Farabeuf’s sentences are long and elaborate but elegant, passionate (unlike, say, José Lezama Lima’s long and elaborate but tawdry, unending monsters). To me it is transparent that the style of Mouthful of Birds is the style in which a window frame is built, with no frills, allowing only the landscape to speak. But to the reader of the English translation, this contrast might not be available; that very style, after all, is closer to the one the Anglophone reader is often exposed to already in fiction. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that McDowell has also translated Alejandro Zambra, the “new Bolaño,” both Zambra and Bolaño being rare transparent stylists in our tongue.)

The second point I want to make was also hinted at earlier: that this is not so much a comment on Mouthful of Birds as a peculiarity of the ways in which it can be perceived. In English, it is a work of astounding imagination; in Spanish it is that and unique in its prose. Because Fever Dream, by contrast, does not contain plot-flat snapshots of worlds, its powers don’t rely so much on this economical way of writing but on the calculated way it releases knowledge, a strategy with no particular connection to either English or Spanish but to a third language: that of sound and vision. We tend to hear characters speak before we see them; we’re aware of long shots (the soy fields) and close-ups (the worms, the child’s mouth against Amanda’s ear) much more than of medium shots, for dramatic contrast, and so on.

What both books as well as Schweblin’s untranslated work all manifest, however, which is where Sehgal and I do agree, is, as she puts it, “not [ . . . ] mere talent or ambition but [ . . . ] vision.” Schweblin’s gift for striking chords so fine they might be invisible comes from a less outward capacity, not one to affect the world with her writing but one to take its nuances in. Sehgal submits this as a hypothesis, but I am sure of it. Visiting London to present Fever Dream in 2017, Schweblin was asked what the experience of reading her work in translation was like: whether she recognised it in such disparate forms from the one in which she’d written it, and whether she related to it in the same way. She gave the following answer upon a moment’s reflection. My grandfather was a printmaker, she said. When I was in his workshop, I was fascinated not so much with the prints he made but with the blocks of wood he’d originally produced to make them. Later, I learned that what he sold, hence what was valuable, were the prints. I understood this (and the reasons); yet, I didn’t care for the woodcuts any less. Now, you tell me, reader, after you’ve gone and read Mouthful of Birds, if you don’t recognise in this answer the same extraordinary seeing capacity, a talent to spot the subtle threads that connect phenomena in the world, and fortunately for us, a matching talent to put them in writing. I saw it several years ago; it is what got me hooked. Now McDowell has put you in a position to see it too. Let us hope she and Schweblin continue to share with us what is strange and terrifying in this and other worlds, in whatever new ways Schweblin devises to do so.