Archive for the ‘Samanta Schweblin’ Category

Seven Empty Houses

May 14, 2023

Seven Empty Houses is Samanta Schweblin’s third, and most recent, collection of short stories, following her debut (still untranslated) El núcleo del disturbio in 2002 and Mouthful of Birds in 2009. As with all her previous work, it is translated into English by Megan McDowell. Schweblin’s great skill as a writer is to infect the ordinary with unease, and this is even more evident here where, as the title indicates, the setting is domestic: all seven stories have houses at their centre and use the most mundane objects and events to create a growing sense of horror without ever tipping over into that genre.

In the longest story, ‘Breath from the Depths’, a box of cocoa becomes an essential part of the story’s atmosphere. Although in the third person, the story is told from the point of view of Lola, a woman who no longer leaves the house and thinks only of dying.  The nature of her illness is vague, and her refusal to leave her home seems to be related to the shame associated with an incident in a supermarket when she fainted as much as it is with her problems with mobility. Her husband, who remains unnamed, is sent with a list for groceries but regularly returns with a box of cocoa which is not on the list:

“She never saw him use the powdered cocoa, really, she didn’t know how it ever ran out, but it was a subject she preferred not to ask about.”

The cocoa is a sign of her husband’s independence which she resents, an independence that increases when a family moves in next door:

“That night, Lola tried to talk to him, to make him understand the new problem that this move meant. They fought.”

Her husband befriends the family’s teenage son, who is a particular focus of Lola’s dislike. The story immerses the reader in Lola’s prejudice and paranoia while slowly revealing her back story and suggesting her unreliability as a ‘narrator’. Lola spends her time boxing up her belongings in preparation for her death; in ‘Two Square Feet’, the narrator and her husband have “boxed up the things we weren’t taking with us” before leaving Argentina for Spain where they are staying with her mother-in-law. Again, an ordinary object is prominent in the in the story as the narrator is sent out for aspirin by her husband’s mother despite being new to the area. She ends up in a subway station, remembering a her mother-in-law telling her about the time when she left her husband and:

“…she was sitting on two square feet, and that was all the space she took up in the world.”

She has a longing for the boxes in storage as she feels alienated from the new world around her in what is a powerful story about dislocation. In ‘An Unlucky Man’ a pair of child’s underpants play a key role in the story as the eight-year-old narrator finds herself without them, her father having used them as a ‘white flag’ to signal to other traffic that their journey is an emergency – her younger sister has drunk bleach, and they are on their way to hospital. While her parents are with her sister, a man in the waiting room starts talking to her and soon she tells him about her predicament:

“I don’t know why I said it. It’s just that it was my birthday and I wasn’t wearing underpants, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those circumstances.”

He takes her to a nearby supermarket to buy her new underpants, Schweblin masterfully building suspicion and unease in the reader through the innocence of the child narrator’s viewpoint. A similar juxtaposition of innocence and sexual fear is evident in ‘My Parents and My Children’. The story opens with the following question from the narrator’s ex-wife, and mother of his two children, Marga:

“Where are your parents’ clothes?”

When the children and grandparents go missing, Marga’s worry for the children is intensified by the strange behaviour of the grandparents:

“This is really bad. I mean, they could be doing anything.”

Eventually the police are called. Once again, the story benefits from the narration as the husband’s attempts to stay calm are overwhelmed by his ex-wife’s anxiety and anger. Of the other stories, ‘None of That’ tells of a mother and daughter who view the houses of the wealthy, correcting landscaping details. In the story the mother falls ill and they end up inside one of the homes – again, an ordinary object (a sugar bowl) is central. In ‘It Happens All the Time in This House’, the narrator tells us that the clothes of her neighbour’s dead son are regularly thrown into her yard by the wife and then collected by the husband. Death, and different generations, are also common to the stories – Lola, for example, also has a dead son. The final story, ‘Out’, is perhaps the most ambiguous, where the narrator, a young woman, leaves her flat wearing only a dressing gown and towel, her hair still wet – at no point in the story do we find out why.

Schweblin is a wonderful writer with such exquisite control of both voice and narrative. In all her stories there is a shadowy depth beneath the surface which may or may not hold horrors. Her ability to convey the anxiety of modern life is unsurpassed.

Little Eyes

August 15, 2020

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.

Mouthful of Birds

February 12, 2019

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.

Fever Dream

February 6, 2017


Samanta Schweblin’s astonishing first novel Fever Dream (translated by Megan McDowell) is a tour de force of tension, its brief pages flicking frantically before the reader’s eyes in desperate pursuit of a conclusion. The novel takes the form of a conversation, part police interrogation, part Platonic dialogue, between Amanda and David, the child of a woman she has only recently befriended while on holiday. The conversation takes place in a hospital room where Amanda is convinced she is dying:

“But I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself.”

“None of this is important,” replies David, “We’re wasting time.” Earlier he insisted, “…we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.” And so we also have a battle for narrative supremacy: who will tell the story, and whose story will it be?

Amanda begins with David’s mother, Carla, in her car, crying. Carla tells her the story of her son and the sickness which affected him six year earlier when he was very young. Her husband, Omar, had borrowed a stallion for breeding; Carla notices that the horse has escaped from its paddock and goes in search of it carrying David. They find the horse drinking from a stream and Carla puts David down to collect it. A moment later she turns to find:

“David had knelt down in the stream, his shoes were soaked. He’d put his hands in the water and was sucking on his fingers. Then I saw the dead bird.”

By the next morning the horse is dying and so Carla, desperate to save her son, takes him to a local healer:

“She can tell if someone is sick, and where in the body the negative energy is coming from.”

The woman tells Carla that David has been poisoned and that he will die unless they try a “migration”, that is move David’s spirit to anther body:

“…then part of the poison would with him. Split into two bodies, there was the chance he could pull through.”

While this supernatural strand runs through the novel it is only one reading – initially Carla’s and increasingly Amanda’s – of events. Its importance is in emphasising the lengths mothers will go to in order to protect their children, also seen in Amanda’s obsession with the ‘rescue distance’, that is the maximum distance she can be from her daughter Nina and still be able to rescue her:

“It changes depending on the situation. For example, in the first hours we spent in the vacation house, I wanted Nina close by at all times. I needed to know how many exits the house had, find the areas of the floor with the most splinters, see if the creaky stairs posed any kind of danger.”

Unfortunately for Amanda and Carla they live in a poisoned world full of invisible danger. Where will the threat come from? Will it come from David, alone in the house with Nina?

“This is insane, I think. David is just a little boy. But I can’t help it now. I’m running. I dig in my pocket for the keys and I’m so nervous that even though I have them between my fingers, I can’t get them out.”

Or will it come unexpectedly, unnoticed though your child is standing next to you:

“With the colour of her clothes I can’t tell how wet she is, but I touch her and, yes, she’s wet.
‘It’s dew,’ I tell her, ‘It’ll dry while we’re walking.’
This is it. This is the moment.

Fever Dream can, of course, be interpreted in many ways. This title itself implies that we should take nothing for granted, that the David Amanda converses with may not be real. It is, however, profoundly disturbing, a novel which seems to threaten the reader with a voice as quietly menacing as David’s. You may find yourself looking up from its pages for your children. You may never feel comfortable again.