In Raymond Carver’s first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, from 1976, there is a story called “Neighbors.” In it, a couple, Bill and Arlene, are left to look after a cat, Kitty, while their neighbors travel out of town for a few days. There is an imperceptible slippage in the story—in its movements, in its dialogues—that indicates that the couple has settled, although they don’t want to, they mustn’t, and they would never admit to it, into someone else’s house. At one point, Arlene thinks aloud that, perhaps, their neighbors won’t return to their home. “It could happen,” Bill responds. “Anything could happen.”
Much of the snooping, the searching, and the non sequitur dialogues present in Carver’s story also hover over the third book of short stories by Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin, Siete casas vacías [Seven empty houses] (Madrid, Páginas de Espuma, 2015). One might lay down a bridge between their apparently antithetical literary stances: the father of “dirty realism” on one side and the writer linked to literatura fantástica, horror, and mystery on the other. Beyond the proof of this connection (or lack thereof), I would say these lines from Carver’s “Neighbors” condense, if not the totality of Schweblin’s poetics, at least the thematic and structural proposal of this third book. In its stories, within their tense and slightly melancholic atmospheres, the characters who wander through the spaces (suburbs, cities; houses and houses’ back gardens, apartments, stores, subways, hospitals, elevators), and the twists and turns of their plots, there is a constant narrative that slowly configures what was once described as a cosmovision and what today, perhaps, we ought to identify more timidly as a feeling, or maybe an impulse: in Schweblin’s stories, anything could happen.
The author of Siete casas vacías has a classical conception of storytelling; she has said in several interviews that hers is the soul of a storyteller, and that she thinks of the genre from a starting point of intensity, or even one of anxiety and impatience. There is a sort of magic trick in the short story, she has declared. This vision, somewhat surprising in these times of post-everything, enters into dialogue not only with the canonical traditions of the genre’s masters, but also with theories on its literary form, from Edgar Allan Poe’s judgments on the short story as an almost mathematical operation to its Latin American proponents from Horacio Quiroga (his textual, thematic mania for the ending and the idea that one must take the characters by the hand and lead them without looking back) to Julio Cortázar (his conception of a secret, almost incommunicable order in every memorable story) and to Ricardo Piglia (his theory of the two stories, one superficial and visible and the other subterranean). At any rate, Schweblin has pointed out her influences: Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Cortázar. She adopts the narrative voice of Kafka, which recounts with complete naturalness something that might be sordid, terrible, or simply sad; she admires the imagination and irrepressible optimism of Bradbury; and, like Cortázar, she emphasizes the ceaseless search for new ways to narrate.
The crowning example of this take on the short story in Siete casas vacías is “Un hombre sin suerte” [A man without luck], awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize by Radio France International in 2012. It is a crystal clear model of its species: it has tension and mystery; ludic spirit and structural rigor; verisimilitude, strangeness, and a full-throttle ending, with a little girl swallowing the bit of paper on which her companion had written the secret name that she repeats in silence, “many times, so I would never forget it.” Within the story of this little girl and a man who, by happy circumstance, meet in a hospital waiting room and end up going to buy her a new pair of underpants because it’s her birthday—and for many other reasons—everything that interests Schweblin as a writer is encoded here: misunderstandings, diverse solitudes reconcentrated in their alienation, family histories and hysterias, minor acts of transgression, somewhat eccentric characters (he calls her “darling,” but when she does the same to him, the adult scolds her, half joking and half serious, “Don’t say ‘okay darling’… it gives me the creeps”), the attention to detail in the black underpants they take but don’t buy, an intimate garment that must be for girls “because it had white hearts, so little they looked like polka dots, and Hello Kitty’s face on the front, where they often put that bow that I don’t like and my mom doesn’t like either.” The story is almost too perfect in its circularity: in her use of the underpants (a feminine standard) as Chekhov’s rifle (a masculine insignia) there is a predictable but satisfactory inevitability. It is no coincidence, I imagine, that this text was not included in the original version of the book: note clarifies, the author was requested to incorporate it after it had won both its prizes. It’s the only story in the book without a house.
Two epigraphs frame this volume, both by visual artists. The lines by Juan Luis Martínez of Chile, also a poet, come from the poem “La desaparición de una familia” [The disappearance of a family] and speak of a little girl and of getting lost in a house. The lines by Andy Warhol reproduce a dialogue that offers a glimpse of the impossibility of truly getting close to someone. That is to say, both paratexts work as protocols of reading and offer us some geographical features by which to guide ourselves through the empty houses mentioned in the title. Spaces and relationships—of blood families and of the strange families that give us life—go on to form the beams that hold up these houses.
The second story, “Mis padres y mis hijos” [My parents and my children], the most hilarious in the book without a doubt, is an odd one out: its narrator and protagonist is a man. Javier tells the story as if he didn’t fully understand it, and this perspective puts the dichotomy between children and adults to work, with Javier’s parents drawn to the former pole as, somewhat senile, they take their clothes off like playful kids in his ex-wife’s house. Marga introduces Charly, her new boyfriend; the tension grows. And something happens: the children disappear. The trio searches for the quartet, and Javier thinks, while he checks the closets of this rented summer house, “it was always like that with this family, everything was small and orderly, there was never any point in moving aside the hangers to find something else.” Marga loses control and attacks Javier; Charly pulls them apart, and we readers know we are being distracted from the main mystery: is this a game or a terrible accident? The police arrive and, just as they are leaving to search for the missing persons along the road by car, Javier discovers the truth. The third story is also marked by strange rituals, this time assumed as if by nature by the narrator of “Pasa siempre en esta casa” [It always happens in this house], who feels Mr. Weimer’s knocks on her door as if they were hammer blows against her head. The ingredients are: couple next door, dead child; he sad and resigned, she, apparently violent, throwing her son’s clothes toward the house of the narrator, who debates whether the woman or the man is behind this act, vandalous and playful all at once. The other couple is the mother-narrator and her son, the rational one, the one who says “this is for crazy people,” the one who threatens to burn the clothes every time he sees them thrown at his house. In this book by Schweblin, violence is always present as a vague glimmer, a feint that sometimes gives rise to a deeper connection. Like in “Un hombre sin suerte,” here we see an “unusual synchronization” between the narrator and old man Weimer that leaves latent the threat of a breakdown in the final eruption of the son, who sees them sitting together and is outraged “at everything that happens in this house in the same sequence.”
About halfway through the book, the protagonist is once again a member of an elderly couple. “La respiración cavernaria” [The cavernous breathing] proves, like the novel Fever Dream (2014), that the Argentine writer’s breadth presents difficulties that she herself tries to resolve with varying luck. Here we find all the ingredients of her literary system: ghosts (a dead boy who appears to the sick protagonist, Lola, metaphorically replaces her own son, dead like in “Pasa siempre en esta casa”), spaces that seem to contain other dimensions (the house next door where the poor new neighbors move in, Lola’s garden and orchard where the neighbor boy used to meet with her husband, the ditch where they find the young man’s body), enigmatic and meaningful details (the chocolate milk powder that becomes the old woman’s obsession, her continuous assembly of boxes, Lola’s lists: “concentrate on death. He is dead. The woman next door is dangerous. If you don’t remember it, wait”). The agonizing intensity of the protagonist’s situation does not exclude her social context: “she didn’t like those boys,” Lola thinks, and when a neighborhood delicatessen is robbed, she thinks her neighbor had something to do with it. In this sense, the story could be an in extenso rewriting of “House Taken Over” by Cortázar, but this time with children: we have the invasion and the “marriage of sister and brother.” We see everything through the eyes of the old woman, who draws out her malaise to make her husband feel guilty until he dies before her: “he had left her alone with the house and the boxes. He had left her forever, after all she had done for him.” This is where the heart of the story resides, sustained by her cavernous breathing, that “great prehistoric monster bashing against her painfully from the center of her body.” This is why the final confrontation with the dead boy’s mother weakens, just a little, the power that the story transmits. The stories of this and other books of Schweblin’s often seem to materialize nightmares in text, and this is the case in the text I have just commented upon and in the one that closes out the book, “Salir” [Going out]. Narrated almost like a short film, in first person, we see a couple and a feminine protagonist who leaves her apartment behind, with wet hair and slippers. “I don’t have keys, I tell myself, and I’m not sure if that worries me. I’m naked under my robe.” Anyone who has lived in an apartment block knows the elevator is an inevitable meeting point. The woman goes up and meets a man who seems to be a part of the building, someone who does something there. What follows is a relationship marked by the man’s enigmatic sentence—“my wife is going to kill me”—and a journey down Calle Corrientes in Buenos Aires in the individual’s car, at slow speed. As in the cases of “Pasa siempre en esta casa” and “Un hombre sin suerte,” the connection between two beings that are strange but not estranged to one other is subtly outlined in conspiratorial dialogues only to disappear. It is no coincidence—nothing ever is in Schweblin—that the man claims to be an “escapist” in a story whose protagonist does not achieve the goal she has been pursuing from the title itself.
I left for the end the stories that are, in my opinion, those that raise the stakes of Siete casas vacías. Both include a relationship between two women—mother and daughter; daughter-in-law and mother-in-law—as their central nuclei. The opening of “Nada de todo esto” [None of all that], the book’s first story, is rich in meaning: “‘We’re lost,’ says my mother.” This loss is literal and metaphorical, because the directionless mother belongs to no place, and therefore drags her daughter into the invasion (this leitmotif again) of foreign spaces, first in a car, drawing “a double-lined semicircle of mud,” and then outside of it, on foot, entering those expensive houses that are not like hers, that are surrounded by trees, that have white marble and luxurious rooms. Like in “La respiración cavernaria,” the difference in social class is tangible: “Where to people get all these things? . . . It makes me so sad I want to die.” But in this case, the contrast is varnished with the humor of the mix-up and the absurd, crowned by the image of the mother lying face down on the rug of the master bedroom. The daughter-narrator, her exasperated accomplice, takes the place of the responsible and rational adult: “What the hell are we doing in other people’s houses?” she asks, and then a little later, “what the fuck did you lose in these houses?” The ending is reminiscent of that of “La respiración cavernaria” in its confrontation, but what remains imprinted on the memory is the image of the mother burying the sugar bowl she has stolen in the garden of her own house. In turn, “Cuarenta centímetros cuadrados” [Forty square centimeters] stages a complex scheme of stories that barely catch glimpses of each other: the story of the mother-in-law of the protagonist, Mariano’s wife, and the sale of her wedding ring; the story of the departure to Spain and the return to Buenos Aires of the youngest, the story of the relationship between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law—“And in the end she said she loved chatting with me like this, like two friends”—the story of the encounter with the mysterious beggar in the subway station, and the story of the happy aspirins. The story is a journey and an adventure of someone who, like all the book’s characters, is lost and clinging on to something: in this case, like Lola, to a set of boxes that contain an identity that is already outdated. The revelation comes not through the anecdote, but through reflection: the mother-in-law declares that, after selling her ring, she sat on a bench at a bus stop and did nothing. She understood that she was sitting on forty square centimeters “and that that was all the space her body took up in the world.” And so, on the map she shows to the beggar, the protagonist cannot find her own address.
At first sight, the houses of this book are not empty. Rather, they are full of objects. The emptiness of Siete casas vacías is of another kind: the house that collapses, slowly and inevitably, is the interior dwelling. It is the adult world (Samanta turned forty this year) that conditions us and pushes us, and faced with this world we put up some sort of resistance so as not to fall into resigned domesticity. This is Samanta Schweblin’s most “realist” book, but we must find ways to escape from easy categories in order to describe her work and speak instead of a syntax all its own, inhabited by the effect of exile and, perhaps, a certain wonder before existence; in which, as she states in an interview, her writing tries to reach “where it wants from the abyss of not knowing how, from astonishment, curiosity, and disarmed desire.” In which, as she says in “Pasa siempre en esta casa,” things happen “when something doesn’t find its place.”
University of South Florida
Translated by Arthur Dixon