Little Eyes

Little Eyes is the third of Samanta Schweblin’s three books (translated as usual by Megan McDowell) to be long-listed for the International Booker Prize. It’s yet another unsettling glimpse of life as it is in a present that doesn’t quite exist. Whereas the intense uneasiness of Fever Dream was created by an uncertain dialogue in which one of the voices may not even be real, Little Eyes is a much calmer book, presenting us, in third person, a variety of viewpoints from across the globe to demonstrate the interconnectedness of our wi-fi world while at the same time providing us with the disturbing psychological insights which we associate with her work.

In the novel, Schwebiln takes recognisable element of modern technology and joins them up to create the ‘kentuki’. In particular she recognises that social media is both performative and voyeuristic, and so the kentuki allows one user to be watched and the other to do the watching, the twist being that they are randomly connected. The kentukis are designed to look cute and cuddly, like soft toys:

“The animal looked like a simple and artless plush panda bear, though really it was more similar to a football with one end sliced off so it could stand upright.”

Like soft toys, they come in a variety of animal forms, but they can move around and have a camera behind their eyes; this movement is controlled by another person who sees through the kentuki’s eyes. In this sense they are ‘alive’ but they are unable to communicate with their owner (making only noises from purring to high-pitched screaming) unless that owner arranges for a method of communication (for example, a simple yes / no system or using an alphabet available as happens in the first chapter where a Ouija board is used). On the other hand, the kentuki can see their owner but the owner has no idea who is at the other end of the camera.

The novel is divided into chapters headed by place names – the place where the kentuki owner or the pilot is. The first chapter, ‘South Bend’, feels a little like a prologue, or even short story. Schweblin tackles the voyeuristic and performative nature of the system immediately in the opening sentence: “The first thing they did was show their tits.” A group of adolescent girls are taking turns to be daring in front of the camera. Schweblin not only captures the pressure of belonging in the trio (“If you want to survive in South Bend… you have to make friends with the strong”) but also the feeling that they have the power in the relationship with their ‘toy’, even to the point that they ask it to blackmail a classmate. This quickly turns around when they give it access to a Ouija board and it attempts to blackmail it owner using its access to family secrets, as well as revealing that she has been talking in an uncomplimentary fashion about the other girls, thus ending the friendship. Though our other destination will reappear, we never return to South Bend, as Schweblin uses this chapter to deal with some of the more obvious repercussions of her invention as if to clear the decks for the more nuanced exploration to come.

The novel goes on to describe the experience of a number of kentuki pairs. In Lima, Emilia observes the life of a young woman in Germany. In Oaxaca, Alina buys one to pass the time while her boyfriend, Sven, an artist, is in his studio. In Antigua, Marvin is initially disappointed as his kentuki seems destined to dress a shop window. In Umbertide, Enzo finds the kentuki bought for his son, Luca, in the aftermath of a divorce, irritating:

“…at first they’d had trouble getting used to each other, and the kentuki’s mere presence had been enough to make Enzo uncomfortable. It was a cruel invention: the boy never paid any attention to it, and Enzo had to spend the whole day dodging a stuffed animal rolling around the house.”

Enzo’s journey is typical of many of the characters, if more extreme – however distant they are from the kentuki at first, it becomes an important part of their life. In Enzo’s case this reaches the point where it feels like the kentuki is someone he can share his worries with, and he offers the pilot a phone number, asking them to contact him. Alina, too grows fond her kentuki despite her initial scepticism, but takes a different approach:

“It was such a good thing she’d never communicated with her kentuki – the more she learned the more certain she was she’d made the right decision.”

Emilia, on other hand, becomes worried for her owner when a man moves in, and attempts to destroy her (they can’t be switched off). Meanwhile in Zagreb, Grigor is buying up kentukis and tablets and setting them up so that users can know in advance who they will be observing for an extra cost.

What Schweblin does brilliantly is use these stories (and others) to explore how the virtual and real worlds interact, and the complexity of understanding the relationship between the two (which is what so many of the characters fail to do). Focusing on these individual stories actually gives the novel a wider perspective, and she skilfully brings each one to a conclusion which raises a question of its own. While Little Eyes may not quite conjure the nightmarish horror of Fever Dream, once again Schweblin has produced a novel which is prescient and frightening in equal measure.

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15 Responses to “Little Eyes”

  1. naomifrisby Says:

    I thought the ending was brilliant. Can’t say much because spoilers, but I thought it was really really clever and unexpected.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    As someone who used to find tamagotchis alarming enough, this is probably going to completely unnerve me!!!

  3. Radz Pandit Says:

    Fever Dream was one my favourites when it was published, so I am very keen to read this. Schweblin is such an interesting writer. Good to know that you liked it.

  4. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    Great review, I’ve yet to read her but enjoy ‘watching’ those who do. 😊

    • 1streading Says:

      I never though of that, but it can be interesting watching others read even if you are not joining in – I’ve often done it when someone else embarks on a reading project!

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    I much prefer the sound of this to Fever Dream, I have to admit. It’s a great subject for fiction, the relationship between reality and the virtual realm. Reminds me a little of the Spike Jonze film, Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls into a relationship with his virtual companion voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Have you seen it?

  6. Tony Says:

    Glad you liked this, Grant, as many seem to have been underwhelmed. Reading it in Spanish may have helped me as it took a lot longer than it otherwise would have, and allowed me to reflect on the themes more. Definitely a shortlister, even if the judges didn’t agree 😉

    • 1streading Says:

      I think when your first novel is such a hit there’s a tendency from some readers to expect that same feeling from reading the second, which is unlikely to happen. I still prefer Fever Dream, but that doesn’t make this a bad, or even an average, novel.

  7. Cathy746books Says:

    I loved Fever Dream but was disappointed by Mouthful of Birds. I think I’ll give this a go though.

    • 1streading Says:

      Although Mouthful of Birds was a little uneven, there were some stories there I loved. This is a kind of hybrid – a novel made up of different stories!

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