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Live Birds: Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds

Book cover: Mouthful of Birds by Samantha Schweblin
Mouthful of Birds
by Samanta Schweblin
Bloomsbury
240pp
Published April, 2019
ISBN 9781786074560

Uncanny encounters accrue at a frenetic pace in the twenty short stories compiled in Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, nimbly translated into English by Megan McDowell. A woman flirts with a merman on a pier. A father waits for his daughter to exit her classroom, but is instead met with a flurry of butterflies. Eerie, violent meetings take place at truck stops, in toy stores, in shadowy living rooms. Rather than resolving or smoothing over these encounters, Schweblin twists them, leaving the reader with a visceral feeling of unease.

The present volume of short stories greets English-language readers at a particularly buoyant moment in the Argentinian writer’s impressive career. Mouthful of Birds follows the highly-acclaimed eco-terror novella Fever Dream, published in Spanish in 2014 and translated into English in 2017. Both books were nominated for the International Booker Prize. Fever Dream is being adapted for Netflix by the celebrated director Claudia Llosa, and is set to hit laptops worldwide later this year.

This recent success shouldn’t obscure the fact that Schweblin has been one of the world’s best short story writers for some time now. Her first book of stories (El núcleo del disturbio) was published in 2002, and since then she has gone on to publish two more story collections, Pájaros en la boca (2009) – now translated as Mouthful of Birds and Siete casas vacías (2015), as well as Fever Dream and an untranslated novel, Kentukis (2018). She’s won every prize there is for stories in the Americas, as well as being recognised by Granta in 2010 as one of the most promising writers under 35.

Ten years separate the publication of Mouthful of Birds in Spanish from its recent appearance in English. In conjunction with her editor, Schweblin took the opportunity to make some changes – some newer stories have been included, some titles have been changed, and the order in which they appear has also shifted, offering a slightly sleeker compilation.

Depending on who you ask, short story collections in 2019 are either a fanciful relic, or the answer to the crisis of the novel in the kingdom of Twitter. A publisher’s nightmare, they sell very poorly unless they sell incredibly well, and they’re sometimes regarded as little more than juvenilia, evidence of an author’s apprenticeship towards the nobler novel. Some collections can feel cobbled together, as if the author has turned their My Documents folder into a sort of Whitman’s Sampler of literary genres. In the case of deceased authors, there can be more than a whiff of dining out on the last scraps. But when a short story collection succeeds, the total effect feels somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

In a recent interview with Heather Cleary, Schweblin gave some insight into the reasoning behind the re-edition and translation of Mouthful of Birds. What could possibly unite twenty stories of differing lengths, written variously in first and third person, featuring real and invented animals, dreamt and remembered settings? The answer, it seems, is both structural and aesthetic:

The stories in this collection have something in common, which is by the time you get to the end of each one, the world constructed in it ends. Some revelation completely negates that world as you had come to know it.

Schweblin’s remark gestures to an aesthetic that operates contrary to conventional narrative, which creates dramatic tension through the existence of a problem to be solved. In Schweblin’s stories, some of which unfold over fewer than two pages, order is not restored in the kingdom, nor do supporting characters achieve stability through matrimony, per Shakespeare. Instead, the author takes an already strange world, gives it a final shake, and effectively collapses it in on itself. A few of the stories do not conclude so much as abruptly end, leaving the reader with a greater sense of mood rather than plot, in the style of Silvina Ocampo. On the whole though, endings are important to Schweblin and many of the stories in this collection harken back to an oft-quoted boxing analogy from Julio Cortázar: if the novel wins by points, the short story wins by knockout.

A commonplace of colonial literature is that nothing of interest could possibly ever occur in a colonial backwater, and that culture, insofar as it exists, is made in and imported from the seat of colonial power. Great literature and trendy waistcoats arrive in a sea chest on the slow boat from Europe. In Argentina this notion is enshrined in a concept known as civilización y barbarie (Civilisation and Barbarity). Taken from the title of a novel-treatise written in 1845 by eventual president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the idea is that there is a dialectic between Civilisation (European culture, Buenos Aires, the city) and Barbarity (Indigenous peoples, the pampa, lawlessness) that divides the nation in two. Over the years, both sides of the coin have been put into play by plucky demagogues. In the nineteenth century, the concept of civilization was used as a justification for a ‘conquest’ of the Indigenous peoples of Argentina, while in the early twentieth century, the criollo political class (those descended from colonial Spaniards) used the figure of the wild pampa and the gaucho to galvanise support against Italian immigrants.

Historically, the more cosmopolitan notion of ‘civilization’ has loomed larger in the literary imaginary: Borges and his libraries, Cortázar and his jazz, Pizarnik and her Parisian angoisse Digging a little deeper, though, there is a strong literary tradition of decentred depictions of Argentine identity. Gaucho epics like Martín Fierro exist alongside the sprawling, provincial narrative worlds constructed by Juan José Saer, and the remarkable Selva Almada has written a number of novels in a mode being described as ‘Southern Cone Gothic’. Dialectics, though, are only really interesting when considering the fertile, hybrid ground created between the two poles.

In the case of Schweblin’s work, there is an abiding interest in the tension between the place where characters find themselves (let’s call it the countryside) and a distant, more sophisticated capital: ‘The Digger’ features a protagonist who needs to escape the capital and find solace in the countryside (he doesn’t); ‘Olingiris’ tells the story of a young woman who moves from the stability of her farm to take an almost preposterous job in the city, where she painfully extracts hairs one by one; ‘Rage of Pestilence’ sees a government agent auditing a rural community at the very edges of survival; and in ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’ the protagonist is routinely stymied in his efforts to take a train to the capital – the seat of the titular happy civilisation – because the station master doesn’t have enough change to break a large bill.

A common theme of these stories is that rural, decentred spaces can be inherently threatening. Cut off from outside influence, they create a closed-loop of almost hysterical absurdity. The protagonists of many stories find themselves trapped inside cycles they cannot change (‘Headlights’, ‘The Digger’, ‘Underground’). Work, when described, is menial or arcane, and several stories take place at rest stops along highways or adjacent to holes – and in the case of ‘Underground’, both.

In the best of these stories, Schweblin creates landscapes that are both concrete and ethereal: in ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, characters have little more than phonemes for names (for example, Fi and Pe) rendering them untraceable in a sociological sense. ‘Headlights,’ a remarkable story in which spurned women are left stranded on an unnamed highway, forever waiting for their men to return, ends with a moment of patriarchal solidarity, where the men do return, but only to retrieve a fallen brother.

It’s been said that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Even so, it’s rare for that unhappiness to take the form of a daughter eating live birds, or of an expectant mother who shrinks her foetus to the size of an almond, then spits it out. Throughout this collection, and across the rest of her oeuvre, Schweblin explores the gamut of family discord. There are stories on unrest between spouses (‘Headlights’ and ‘Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House’) and siblings (‘The Merman’, and ‘My Brother Walter’), but Schweblin’s true specialty is a kind of domestic horror concerning relationships between parents and children. Parents are often overbearing (‘The Size of Things’), reckless (‘Butterflies’) or overwhelmed (‘Mouthful of Birds’), but the kids aren’t alright either. Stories like ‘Preserves’ and ‘On the Steppe’ tap into the primal fear newborns can produce in parents. Some of the children skulking through these pages possess an alarming degree of sangfroid. Take, for example, the following exchange between father and daughter in the title story ‘Mouthful of Birds’:

I fixed two cups of coffee. Sara pushed hers to the side and said she didn’t drink anything brewed.

“You eat birds, Sara.”

“Yes, Dad.”

She bit her lips, ashamed, and said:

“You do, too.”

“You eat live birds, Sara.”

“Yes, Dad.”

Traces of autobiography are hard to detect in Schweblin’s work. At events and in interviews, Schweblin does not delve too deeply into her family history, but there a couple of well-honed anecdotes that speak to her approach to writing fiction.

The first concerns the influence of her grandfather, the engraver Alfredo de Vincenzo, had on her childhood. De Vincenzo, an artist of note and a teacher who influenced several generations of Argentine engravers, seems to have been a rather genial ‘Gene-Hackman-as-Royal-Tenenbaum’ type of figure. He would leave Schweblin to her own devices for hours in his workshop among artists and artworks. There were adventures: the young Schweblin was taught how to steal old watches from the antiques market in Plaza Dorrego, and how to ride the subway without buying a ticket. And De Vincenzo kept a diary with his young granddaughter, recounting the day’s events and finishing each entry with a favourite verse from poets like Alfonsina Storni or Gabriela Mistral. Schweblin has a knack for quickly folding an other-worldly premise into a mundane setting, and this early practice of journaling perhaps forged a link between the act of writing, observation, and later, invention.

The second anecdote almost reads as the premise of one of author’s own stories. Around the age of twelve, Schweblin had a huge falling out with her friends. She says that she felt so dismayed at being misunderstood, felt such a distance between words and how she truly experienced the world, that she decided she would no longer speak. This situation continued for over a year, until in the most Argentine of fashions, her teachers gave her parents an ultimatum: either Samanta would start speaking again, or she would need a note from her psychoanalyst. (That’s right: not a doctor, or a psychologist, but a psychoanalyst). There is something deeply interior about the traumas that set Schweblin’s stories in motion, something that seems to correspond more to atmosphere and mood than plot. As with the films of Lucrecia Martel, family scenes are thick with an air of neurotic tension. More often than not, home is not a haven from the outside, but the nucleus of the disturbance.

One of the strongest stories in Mouthful of Birds, ‘The Test’, is something of an outlier. The protagonist is taken by a shadowy figure known as ‘The Mole’ to a plaza in Buenos Aires where he is told to kill a dog. The test of the story’s title is part of a recruitment process: The Mole wants to see if the protagonist has what it takes to kill in cold blood. This story sets itself apart from the others in the collection in a number of ways. It is one of few stories to take place in Buenos Aires, on streets that are specifically named, and it is the only story with explicit connections to life under the most recent military dictatorship in Argentina, between 1976 and 1983, when some 30,000 people were disappeared and tortured in clandestine detention centres.

Born in 1978, Schweblin is part of a generation of Argentine writers who were born or spent their early childhood years during the dictatorship, and who inherited its traumas, rather than experiencing them directly. One critic who has worked extensively on literature from the post-dictatorship period, Elsa Drucaroff, sees this generational demarcation as an unequivocal rupture, rather than a gradual aesthetic evolution, or a distancing over time. With particular reference to Schweblin’s first collection of short stories, Drucaroff wrote that ‘the settings and characters appear suddenly, pure present tense, as if they hadn’t come from any past and weren’t heading towards any future… In these stories one can read a sense of social incomprehension of a present that cannot be linked with what came before it, and therefore feels adrift’. The implication that Schweblin has an a priori responsibility to reckon with Argentina’s recent history seems altogether too prescriptive, and leads to the easy conclusion that the nineteen stories in Mouthful of Birds that do not deal with the dictatorship must necessarily ‘feel adrift’. Nonetheless, the ‘pure present tense’ of Schweblin’s stories, as identified by Drucaroff, is a useful tool to consider provisionality of her characters and settings, which circles back to Schweblin’s own statement about writing towards a revelation that negates the world of her story.

In ‘The Merman,’ for example, the action of the story takes place in a single continuous moment, narrated in the present. While waiting for her brother, a woman meets a merman on a pier, flirts and considers going off with him, before her domineering brother’s untimely return puts an end to that narrative arc and the story itself. Had the story been narrated in the past tense, we might read it as a woman recounting the one moment that could have changed her life; it would perhaps be tinged with regret, and gesture to an unfulfilled life beyond the page. The pure present tense of ‘The Merman’ however, negates these characters’ pasts and futures, along with the world they exist in, leaving us with only an uncanny encounter and a menacing family dynamic, two key features that recur throughout Mouthful of Birds.

Schweblin’s recent, longer works, Fever Dream and Kentukis, are less anchored in a provisional present than the stories collected in Mouthful of Birds. Formally inventive, Fever Dream is a genre-bending tale of a woman communing with the disembodied presence of a child while she dies in the countryside from water contaminated with pesticides. Monoculture farming, foreign ownership of land and chemical pollution are hot-button issues in rural Argentina, and in that sense Schweblin’s novella engages with a socio-political context beyond the confines of her narrative. Historically, the tension between civilisation and barbarity was used to extoll either the virtues of the city or the country, as the case may be. In Fever Dream, Schweblin conjures an entropic third space, where the natural world is more menacing than bucolic, and the civilised world is visible mostly through its toxic by-products. The rapacious advance of capitalism and technology means the water is poisoned and the animals are sick, while the protagonist’s medical treatment is fused with a local belief in the transmigration of souls. Family complications drive the story forward too: the novel’s title in Spanish, Distancia de rescate (‘rescue distance’) describes the physical distance a mother allows her child to stray from her. Husbands are absent, brooding or violent; children are prone to uncanny and spooky behaviour. The novella’s title in English is perhaps a little too leading, orienting the reader rather directly towards an understanding of the out-of-body experiences of the main character as death-bed hallucinations. In any case, it remains a chilling and experimental paradigm of the burgeoning body of work that has come to be known as cli-fi, and represents an expansion of the territory explored in Schweblin’s fiction.

Where Fever Dream takes on ecological disaster, Kentukis looks at the fraught nature of human relations and technology. Much more than a simple pet or toy, a ‘kentuki’ is like a furby with a webcam and an internet connection. They come in a number of varieties (owl, crow, dragon, and so on) and are sold all over the world. The twist? The kentukis are digitally encrypted with a master/slave pairing, where one person experiences a kentuki as a pet that rolls about in their apartment, chirping, and responding as it can to its environment. The other person, from behind a keyboard, is the pet. With a setup like this, it doesn’t take long for people’s baser instincts to emerge. This novel is far larger in scope than anything Schweblin has previously written, with characters in settings as diverse as Antigua, China, Germany, Argentina, and Croatia. In the digital world formerly rigid dichotomies like city/country, civilisation/barbarity collapse. Kentukis wades straight into the encounter between hyperreality and our emotional cores: the place where shame, fear, longing and lust commingle. And because this a novel by Samanta Schweblin, the problems start, inevitably, at home.

In a collection of stories where children turn into butterflies, spurned women are exiled to highways, and relationships with mermen are presented as an enticing lifestyle choice, homes and the volatile relationships that unspool inside them remain the wellspring of Samanta Schweblin’s fiction. Rather than functioning as a haven from an unpredictable, barbaric exterior, they are the scene of violent and eerie interactions where cycles are only broken when the world ends. Mouthful of Birds is a darkly inventive collection that displays the talents developed over nearly two decades by one of Argentina’s best contemporary authors.