Inspiring a dread that we cannot unknow
Dread is the underside of curiosity. If we wish to know the world, we must ask it questions — listen to its stories. Observe it. Sometimes, though, the answers we get are haunting. It can make us wish we’d never asked the questions.
Over and again, Samanta Schweblin’s characters suffer through this cycle, and it tells you what an astonishing writer the Berlin-based Argentine is that this evolution from intrigue to regret and disquiet never becomes boring, predictable, or pat in her work.
Quite the opposite. It creates an effect that can only be called Schweblinesque.
For two decades, Latin American writers have talked about Schweblin’s stories as if they were a magical sixth element. “Fever Dream,” her 2018 novella, a finalist for the International Man Booker Prize, explained their wonder. Bit by bit, a book that appears to be about a terrible night of sickness turns out to be a glimpse into the void.
“Mouthful of Birds,” though, is the book that will explain why her name has become an adjective. These 20 stories display the full range of Schweblin’s tone and effects.
These are funny stories and terribly sad ones; there are some that feel gleaned from outtakes to “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,’’ while others would make Stephen King tip his hat in appreciation. In every single one of them something odd occurs.
In one, a man spending time alone by the sea discovers another man digging an endless hole outside his cottage. The digger won’t be deterred, even when it’s explained to him he doesn’t have to dig.
In the title story, two fathers waiting outside a school are greeted by an explosion of butterflies — something worrying to one of them, who has accidentally just killed one by trying to capture it in his hands.
A third story revolves around a father who worries over his daughter’s new diet of small birds.
Taken in isolation, Schweblin’s scenarios can seem like a familiar dart into the unknown or the strange. She’s not like Kafka, though, to whom she’s so often compared, because her stories are not about a destination. No one turns into a bug. No one is arrested and tried by a remote authority for a crime we never learn about.
Kafka was interested in the grotesque things we become by adapting to such scenarios. Schweblin is interested in how we adapt, to the tiny jumps of logic a person makes by trying to understand a situation. Her stories reflect light on assumptions we make about our own world.
In several cases, the stories hold up that mirror to a world the patriarchy built to entrap women. In “Headlights,” the book’s powerful opener, a recently married woman is abandoned at a rest stop by her husband. The heroine encounters an older woman outside the restroom, who berates her for weeping.
“They’re crying, they cry all the damned night!” the older woman complains.
Gradually, it becomes clear this woman isn’t the first one left roadside. The dark fields around her are full of jilted women, and they’re muttering slurs and vile insults at the new girls. It’s only when an even older woman turns up and the three band together that they can begin to try to escape.
In “Preserves,” a student becomes pregnant far earlier than she wished, and in response she seeks out a solution. Rather than visit an abortion clinic — words which are never named — she is given a series of exercises and finally a jar. The process by which these are applied to her are described in hideous fashion.
While the way that story refracts its subject is masterful it’s how closely Schweblin monitors the shifting loyalties of the family that make it moving. As the heroine pursues her course of action, zigzagging from conviction to second guessing, mothers, aunts, grandmothers try to evoke shame. In the end, when a seed the size of an almond is expelled from the narrator’s mouth, the intimacy of what’s compressed there needs no explanation.
This is an extraordinarily well-
ordered collection. Most of the early stories are abstract and symbolic. In the middle, we begin, at last, to read of some recognizable places. Buenos Aires. We watch characters try to wrap their heads around familiar things, like a criminal state, or, in one case, a relative’s depression.
Visible symptoms of trauma appear and reappear throughout this book like ghosts of a disorder pushed down onto the bodies of Schweblin’s characters. Several other characters suffer from mood disorders. A marriage implodes around this.
In “Heads Against Concrete,” a painter in Buenos Aires turns his acts of violence into a calling card — suddenly people are paying him to create paintings of their heads being smashed against cement. As the man narrates, he tries — and nearly is able — to explain why this artistic obsession met its match in a person who didn’t want his painting.
Here at last is why Schweblin’s tales are so piercing and make such a lasting mark. Throughout the book people question their actions. They wonder about whether what they’re doing is right. If the order in which they tell their story is accurate. It’s hard to think of a story collection this strange that feels so much like life. If doubt is consciousness, Schweblin’s characters are among the most sentient beings every to walk across the page.
By Samanta Schweblin
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Riverhead, 228 pp., $26
John Freeman is editor of Freeman’s and author of “Maps,’’ a collection of poems, and “How To Read a Novelist.’’