Every so often the publishing world is rocked by the emergence of a new name, seemingly arrived to transform it. That’s just the way the industry works, periodically building up the hype around a certain work or author who, like a wave, washes over the market, until it’s lapped by the next wave, and the next one, and the next one after that. Wary of the tidal dynamics of the business, I tend to stay away from the latest trends, but since Samanta Schweblin was shortlisted to the International Man Booker Prize in 2017 for her first novel Fever Dream I have come across her name so often I’ve been left with no option but to relent at last – that’s how I lay my hands on her collection of short stories Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell and published in January 2019 by Oneworld.
Although this is Schweblin’s second – and latest – book in English translation, the Spanish original, Pájaros en la boca, was first launched in 2009 by Emecé Editores, the Argentinean subsidiary of the Spanish publishing giant Editorial Planeta. By then Schweblin had already built a solid reputation in the Spanish-speaking world, after bagging the first prize of Argentina’s National Endowment for the Arts in 2001 for her debut collection, El núcleo del disturbio (‘The Core of the Disturbance’), and claiming the prestigious 2008 Casa de las Américas award for the collection La fiebre de las pestes (‘Rage of Pestillence’), which would later grow into Pájaros en la boca.
The English collection, Mouthful of Birds, features all but one of the 15 stories originally included in Pájaros en la boca, incorporating two new stories as well as a small selection from El núcleo del disturbio. In this regard, Mouthful of Birds is practically a selected anthology of the author’s short stories, more closely connected to the volume published by Random House Argentina in 2017 than any of her previous books. At first sight, this grouping from several different sources risks compromising the cohesion of the whole, but any such danger is totally dissipated by Schweblin’s recurrent – and highly effective – use of tension as a narrative device.
Yet, while the common thread running through the 20 stories contained in this collection is undoubtedly the sense of expectation – the anxiety, really – instilled in the reader by the pace and tone of the narrative, its most impressive aspect is that such tension never quite translates into frustration or dissatisfaction, even though the vast majority of the situations explored in the book remain vague and unresolved.
One of the most glaring concessions to English readers is found in the running order of this edition, ever so slightly altered to open the book with the allegorical ‘Headlights’, a story that cannot with a straight face be described as traditional but that English readers might find easier to relate to than some of the more esoteric tales. Taken from Schweblin’s first collection, El núcleo del disturbio, ‘Headlights’ places the reader in a gas station where newlyweds always stop for the bride to use the washroom. Invariably, once the groom loses sight of her he drives out of the station, leaving the bride stranded. This happens several times in the story, and the strident voices in the background suggest the stranded wives are legion, but when, for once, the one left behind is the groom, the order of this terrifying imaginary world shifts.
While understandable, the switching of ‘Headlights’ for the opening story in the Spanish collection, ‘Irman’, totally alters the mood with which the reader approaches the collection. In contrast to the otherworldly setting of ‘Headlights’, ‘Irman’ unfolds in a small-town diner where two friends engage in a surreal exchange with the owner, whose lifeless wife is sprawled on the floor, behind the counter. The man, acting as if everything were perfectly normal, offers his customers a job as his wife’s replacement; the friends, rather than calling for help, become highly aggressive, and the whole scene descends into a hilarious sketch, halfway between the opening frame of Pulp Fiction and that of the cult Argentinean film Wild Tales.
Nowhere else in the collection is Schewblin so manifestly funny, although a dose of dark, understated humour does inform many of her stories. That, perhaps, constitutes the most intriguing aspect of this book, precisely the fact that even though the author drops a hint here, a clue there, ultimately she keeps her cards pressed to her chest, forcing the reader to give up the quest for meaning.
This applies even to those instances where her metaphors are reasonably straightforward, such ‘Merman’ and ‘Preserves’. The first of these vividly recreates the inner world of a troubled woman with an overprotective brother. As she waits for him to meet him by the harbour, she engages in conversation with a merman, who insistently wants her to join him at the bottom of the sea. She quickly grows infatuated with the merman, but resists his advances until her brother arrives. The merman, resigned, lets her go, but not before asking her to come visit him again the following day.
‘Preserves’, on the other hand, deals with a pregnant woman who embarks on a mysterious ritual to reverse her unwanted pregnancy. The ritual involves living backwards every episode connected to her unborn child, including giving back her in-laws’ gifts and progressively speaking less and less about it to her parents. As the woman un-lives her life her pregnancy moves backwards until all that is left of it is but a tiny little seed she vomits one afternoon, according to plan.
It would be perfectly plausible to suggest that ‘Merman’ is about a depressed woman contemplating suicide, and ‘Preserves’ about the psychological complexities of abortion, but considering nothing else in the universe of Mouthful of Birds seems to be governed by the rules of traditional logic we are left with little option but to open the door for doubt to creep right back in.
If there is little room for certainty in this collection, though, it’s because Schweblin is utterly disinterested in it – almost as disinterested as she is in action. Some of the stories do contain some action, though when they do it’s often riddled with absurd elements, like in ‘Headlights’, or in the piece that gives the book its name, in which a concerned father is horrified to learn that his teenage daughter has an insatiable appetite for living birds. Most of the time, however, nothing happens in Schweblin’s stories – literary works more concerned with atmosphere than plot, which consequently aim not to deliver a message but a strong feeling of unease instead.
At that, Schweblin is remarkably successful, evoking in some of her stories the nervous expectation of Cortázar’s spookiest work (‘House Taken Over’, for instance) but building in the process a distinctive style of clipped sentences and cataclysmic realities that resonates strongly with a modern audience. Considering her recent success, there’s little doubt Mouthful of Birds will soon be followed by English translations of Schweblin’s other two novels, but make no mistake, this book is no market filler: there’s real quality in these stories.
Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday 6 February, 2019.