Since her celebrated book El núcleo del disturbio, published in 2001, Samanta Schweblin has displayed a clear insistence on one of the most traditional and protean formats in literature: the book of short stories. Her stories are marked by dense plots and are situated in violent, referential universes that perforate the real through a heterodox use of the modes of the fantastic and horror, and that also include elements of science fiction, the weird, and even fantasy. Her second book, Mouthful of Birds (originally published as Pájaros en la boca in Buenos Aires in 2009 by Emecé, republished in 2012 by the same press, and republished again in 2018 by Penguin Random House), was awarded the Casa de las Américas prize; and some of the stories it includes have been included in anthologies and translated to several languages. In this way, Schweblin, who has preferred to define herself as a cultivator of short-form writing, secures a place, through formal and ideological operations of rupture, continuities, and detours, in a long Argentine literary tradition of woman storytellers, from Silvina Ocampo and Sara Gallardo to Ana María Shua, Hebe Uhart, Liliana Heker, Gabriela Bejerman, and Angélica Gorodischer, to lay out a possible roster for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even her first novel, Fever Dream (Buenos Aires, Penguin Random House, 2014), which has no more than one hundred twenty-five pages, is generally referred to as a novella, and she has revealed that it began as a short story that the author was encouraged to extend. And so, Fever Dream functions as a work of literary experimentation, a brief pause on the way home implied by the short story collection Siete casas vacías [Seven empty houses] (Madrid, Páginas de Espuma, 2015), leading powerfully into Kentukis, (Buenos Aires, Penguin Random House, 2018), her latest novel.
Perhaps a possible path to address Mouthful of Birds would be, in the first place, by drawing connecting lines between common denominators: the recurring topics (motherhood, connecting agencies, physical and mental illness, gradations of violence and cruelty, pseudoscientific interventions in human anatomy, the crisis of the human and the animal), the strange settings that, save for a few exceptions, are not locatable in any topography with familiar references (from lost roads, coastal ghost towns, and unidentifiable cities to plains, valleys, gardens embedded in urban houses, borderlands, and atypical biomes of Argentine territory like the steppes), and modes of narration, which often place the temporalities and the levels of signification of the story in question.
But, without a doubt, these connections are not exclusive to Mouthful of Birds, and they transcend its pages. In this way, her second book of short stories takes up a position as the privileged nucleus from which Schweblin’s poetics can be grouped in two directions: reaching backwards, it gathers up up the orders shattered by the disturbances of her first book, rewrites them, and underlines them, cementing a style and a recognizable literary cosmos; and reaching forwards, with Fever Dream as the paradigmatic example, it empowers all of those vicissitudes and pushes them to the limit, at the level of the plot—the deterioration of the most primal connections, such as those between mother and child, and the impact of unscientific knowledge on the body refer back to previous stories—and at the level of the narrative—the Russian doll structure that encloses each story’s present within revisited history, such as in “Underground,” which lays the ground for the radicality of Fever Dream, whose narrative thread is intercepted by remembrances and reflections from the present of the story’s speech, and whose plot operates through two voices at the same time that evoke and intersect different temporalities.
How, them, to put together a system here, with stories that do not entirely break the orthodoxy of the “perfect story” conceived in the theorizations and fictions of Edgar Allan Poe, the decalogue of the perfect storyteller proposed by Horacio Quiroga, or the legacy of Cortázar? There, we learned that there ought be no loose elements, that the beginning must lead the reader by the hand toward the end, that intensity cannot be allowed to slip away. These premises, which can be traced throughout this volume, are complexified by these stories, in which this customary act of storytelling is wound back and the author opts for a new narrative economy.
Beyond the resolutions—effective, happy, affecting, open—that might wrap up the disorders of the stories of Mouthful of Birds, here we might refer to that point at which “the important,” following the internal referential logic of the tales, acts (as in Fever Dream) as a principle of selection and configuration of new schemes of meaning. Such a scheme is the one imposed by the overwhelmed character of Enrique Duvel in the toy store of “The Size of Things” a story that unfolds basically as a theory of order. Here, the dimension of color takes a primary place before any other criterion of the ordering of things (by article, by use, by age), such that the start of the disaster that might play out at the expense of the disruption of the typical order is transformed into “something marvelous,” something similar to a banishment from everyday habits: “The color arrangement drew attention to items that had never stood out before.” From this point on, sales increase and Duvel puts his existential angst on hold. In the same tune, Walter’s long and intense illness in “My Brother Walter” dislocates the routines of his relatives, who lay out new family geometries that bring each of its members the “immense happiness” of living alongside the rural dream: the fresh air, far from the city—a habitual site of these fictions—eating barbecued meat and working together, even the government, every one in a determined role according to the logic of the cast and their perfect performance to multiply the earnings of their grain business. These very businesses are those that, together with the rise of soy and feedlots, forever changed the archive of the codified landscape of the Argentine pampa and called for systems of exploitation of plants, animals, and earth with irreparable effects on ecology, populations, and human beings. I should note here that, although it is not referenced directly, this could have been the cause of the pause in time and the end of humanity in “Rage of Pestilence.” On the border between the happy-ending movie and parody, siblings, aunts and uncles, friends, in-laws, and even a rural doctor put together, in the story of Walter, new ways of life in widened communities of apparent concord, friendliness, and life knowledge of wellbeing.
In a similar direction, the haptic and affective link to a bodily surface that oscillates between the human, the animal, and the unhuman, like that of the merman of the homonymous story who is configured from a re-sexualization and a shift in the focus of passion toward the legendary creature, is postulated as the trigger of the reorganization of a familial scheme governed by sickness and the norms of the bourgeois domestic ideal for women. The young woman who eroticizes, like never before, the subtle feel of the merman’s body on the dock longs not for the typical consolatory tale, but rather the option of making herself the agent of sexualization. The supposed ineptitude and impossibility of untangling oneself correctly from the empire of what a woman ought to be, imposed by the men of the family in the earthly world (“the world seems like a terrible place for someone like me”), transform into the pure potency of desire, inclined to materialize at the bottom of the sea.
These new orders also inhabit those stories in which ever-dystopian semi-rural or semi-urban spaces intertwine—infertile steppe (“On the Steppe”), gardens replicating the joy of fresh air (“Preserves”), interiors full of cages (“Mouthful of Birds”), unwelcoming dens in which the celebration of Christmas is replaced by the image of a depressed mother in front of the TV (“Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House”)—with the fabrication of maternal tales that question hegemonic models, regulated as much by the economy of affects, encoded in abnegation and absolute submission, as by the trust placed on the biological nucleus of the formula of what is human: fertilization, reproduction, birth.
Schweblin constructs displaced fictions of motherhood in which the mothers narrate themselves, in first person, to give rise to other modes of encounter, other means of bodily linkage, and other forms of the circulation of emotion between mothers and children. These are postponed motherhoods, like that of the woman who, after rewinding her pregnancy through knowledge gained from outside, from the scientific and legal circuit, conserved an embryo in a sterile flask, waiting to give birth to it when she sees fit in “Preserves.” Or frustrated motherhoods, in which there is a communion between space and living being, like the infertility of the steppe that results in the infertility of the humans, or in the promise of a child hunted through the countryside who ends up being less the adorable baby that was expected and more a strange danger that must be fled at all costs, as in “On the Steppe.” Or motherhoods that privilege their extramarital relationships above the ideal that machista culture imposes over the wellbeing of the children as in “Santa Claus Sleeps at Our House,” where Schweblin writes: “we hadn’t been able to count on Mom for almost two months […] there were no more clean clothes, no more cereal and milk in the mornings.” And, also, motherhoods whose children become as indecipherable as they are revulsive, to the point that they are eradicated from their daily circuits: a daughter who only eats live birds grows so sick that she teeters on the edge of death in “Mouthful of Birds,” and, to establish a bridge towards other books by Schweblin, a son who is contaminated by glyphosate or ingests bleach because the “rescue distance” with his mother is cut in Fever Dream and in “Un hombre sin suerte” [A man without luck] from El núcleo del disturbio [The nucleus of the disturbance], respectively.
The story “Underground” could, at first sight, be read as the exception to these familial relations in the sense that it is based on the desperate search for the children. After a childish group game that consists of digging a pit in a place where the earth was “sort of swollen,” in an undetermined place in the countryside, all the children disappear. Like a prospective version of the series Stranger Things, the mothers, unable to find their children, move all the furniture in their houses aside, they hear noises, they lift the carpets, they destroy walls and floors with hands and hammers, and they start leaving food, coats, and toys in that other dimension in which their children must be. This story is told by a miner (of course!) who has lived longer underground than on the surface and whose fingernails look like those of a “prehistoric being.” He tells his story, in his own way and at his own pace, to a stranger at a ghostly stopping place on a lonely road; this is one story sunken into another. What’s more, the miner’s version is a story-for-pay, meaning its rhythm starts and stops, goes on, and comes to a halt following the beer money that the listener drops on the bar. The more intensity and mystery the tale achieves, the more beers the storyteller earns. Nothing in his tale (the version of versions, the drunkenness, the eventuality of being a man of another age, his profession) lets us be sure that it is not some extraordinary deformation of the real events. For this reason, “Underground” works as a coded version of these new maternal tales inasmuch as it changes the narrative perspective, introduces uncertainty, and enables the emergence of other possible stories. Who can corroborate that the parents themselves, “swollen” like the earth, did not bury their children underground, in a remake of Diary of the War of the Pig by Adolfo Bioy Casares, or like the recent American horror film Mom and Dad (2018), in which the parents murder their own children, mercilessly and in classic gore style? Not only does the ghostly atmosphere of cruelty and suspicion around the existence or nonexistence of the nucleus of the disturbance that triggers the action (“But where exactly was the pit?”) collaborate with the installation of a subterranean system of significations—the sense of the underground—but also, we read a framed tale that opens two temporalities for this story, which is all the more contaminated by the apparent atemporality of the storyteller.
In this way, like all of Schweblin’s previous and later production, the texts of Mouthful of Birds can be interpreted, often at the same time, as innovative tales of motherhood and family, as new fables on rural space that dislocated traditional, deep-rooted national and nationalist feelings, as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fictions, and even as approaches toward and detours from fantasy and horror, which have long been working toward their deserved place in contemporary Argentine literature.
Lucía de Leone
Universidad de Buenos Aires, CONICET, and Universidad Nacional de las Artes
Translated by Arthur Dixon