Mouthful of Birds

Samanta Schweblin’s debut novel, Fever Dream, burned with nightmarish intensity, and so it’s no surprise to discover that many of the short stories collected in Mouthful of Birds similarly exploit our darkest fears. More than one explores the same parental anxiety, a fear that encapsulates both the terror of a child’s death and the haunting doubt of their otherness. In ‘Butterflies’, one of the shortest stories, a father waiting for his daughter at the end of the school day catches a butterfly:

“A brownish butterfly lands on Calderon’s arm and he quickly traps it. The creature struggles to get away, but he presses its wings together and holds it by the ends.”

When the school doors open, instead of children, “hundreds of butterflies of every colour and size rush out towards the waiting parents.”

“Calderon…stands motionless. He can’t bring himself to life his foot from the one he has killed. He is, perhaps, afraid of recognising his girl’s colours in its dead wings.”

In one surreal moment Schweblin reveals the damage parents fear they might accidentally inflict. In ‘Underground’ Schweblin taps into the fear of disappearance, and in the title story she examines the lengths to which the parent-child bond will stretch. The father who narrates the story is quickly aware something is not right the moment his daughter, Sara, greets him, “Hi, Dad” –

“Although my little girl really was a sweetheart, two word were all it took for me to realise that something was really off about the kid…”

An empty bird cage provides the first clue. His ex-wife, Silvia, can no longer cope, and he is, understandably, appalled:

“She eats birds! Have you taken her to the doctor? What in the hell does she do with the bones?”

He takes Sara to live with him, her mother providing a daily supply of birds – but what will he do when Silvia fails to turn up and cannot be contacted? The story demonstrates the way in which parents adapt to their children (though we may think it’s the other way round), and, in the horror of Sara’s blood-stained mouth, highlights the fear of their children’s loss of innocence.

Though children only appear in a few of the stories, violence and death are common to many of them. In ‘The Test’ the narrator must beat a dog to death in order to prove himself to local criminal gang:

“Beating a dog to death in the Buenos Aires port is the test they use to see if you’re capable of doing something worse.”

Though he successfully carries out this task, he discovers the world is more dog eat dog than he originally suspected. In two of the stories violence is linked to art. ‘Heads Against Concrete’ features a painter who turns an act of childhood violence into an artistic obsession bringing him many commissions:

“They pay me whatever I ask. Later I see the painting hung in their enormous, empty living rooms, and I think that those guys deserve to see themselves good and smashed on the ground by my hand, and they seem very much to agree when they stand in front of the paintings.”

When he is asked by a Korean dentist to decorate his waiting room, the violence suddenly spills from the painting. In ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’ we see the same process in reverse as a murdered body is put on display as if it is a work of art. Schweblin seems to be suggesting care should be taken when we glorify harm as an art form.

Though these themes resurface, the collection as a whole demonstrates Schweblin’s versatility. She can work within the limits of a few pages, as in ‘The Digger’ (with its wonderfully unsettling conclusion, “You can’t dig…the hole is yours”), and she can develop character over the longer form. She is adept at the surreal, as a story like ‘The Merman’ makes clear, where the narrator falls for the titular sea creature:

“I kiss him, and I feel the cold of his mouth awaken every cell in my body, like a cool drink in the middle of summer.”

Despite its mythological premise, the story exemplifies the compulsion of lust. She can also write entirely naturalistically, as in ‘Santa Claus Sleeps at our House’, a story which contains the pathos one might expect from the title, though in an unexpected way. Her particular talent, though, is to transform the ordinary into something menacing, even terrifying, which is both explicable and incomprehensible at the same time. We see this to greatest effect in stories like ‘On the Steppe’ and ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’. The latter begins with a train station which will not sell tickets and where trains will, therefore, never stop, and heads full steam towards a conclusion of which Kafka would be proud, proving, as so many of these stories do, that Fever Dream was only the first sight of an extraordinary writer.

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9 Responses to “Mouthful of Birds”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Just ordered this from library I loved fever dreams nice see this in a similar vein to that work

  2. Cathy746books Says:

    I enjoyed this collection but felt that some stories were odd just for the sake of it. The good ones though, were fantastic.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ve not read either of her books, but they sound good, if dark. Very dark, in fact…

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    For some reason, Yoko Ogawa’s stories (The Revenge collection, for example) came to mind as I was reading your review. These stories sound even darker than Ogawa’s, more unnerving in certain respects.

  5. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld) […]

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