Among the questions that tend to emerge after reading El núcleo del disturbio [The nucleus of the disturbance] (Buenos Aires, Destino, 2002) by Samanta Schweblin are: Where is this nucleus? What is the disturbance? And if there is a nucleus, there is a periphery, just as if there is a disturbance there is an order to disturb.
The stories included in the author’s first book come together to form a delicate piece of clockwork in which every event is a gear and every ending catapults the reader toward doubt, wonder, unease, or the questioning of a state of things that, at its starting point, re-elaborates its own reality. Schweblin presents a fictional world in which the fantastic erupts into apparent calm and normality and the threshold of the irrational is grazed by the ominous. In this liminal world, the signs of things to come are not always evident to all: sometimes the event unfolds abruptly in the story.
As her inaugural fiction collection, El núcleo del disturbio puts forth a series of problems that Schweblin would go on to rewrite in her later work. In this respect, violence (toward women, by women, among men, toward animals) is central. Somewhere between the absurd, the fantastic, and horror, the stories’ plots are focused on the moment at which an event sweeps in to change everything: the inversion of situations in one universe that takes the place of another (“Toward Happy Civilization”), the moment at which the skill of a possible murderer is tested (“The Test”), abandonment or rescue along a path, the preferred setting for conflicts (“Headlights”, “La verdad acerca del futuro” [The truth about the future]). The verbal formula seems to be “but something happened,” the magical interruptor that brings on the event that promises to change everything and to save the protagonists’ lives. Nonetheless, like in a scene from the theatre of the absurd, this almost always represents a lost opportunity: the “joint decisions” that save the resentful women in “Headlights” those stranded in the village in “Toward Happy Civilization,” and the men in the bar in “La pegajosa baba de un sueño de revolución” [The sticky drool of a dream of revolution] simulate a momentaneous salvation, even if the tragedy is incessant and there is no way out, because the implication of the end of suffering only serves to perpetuate it: along these lines, Schweblin constructs an effect of anguish that comes close to terror.
And so, the collective, the cooperative, discerned as “a dream of revolution,” ends up dissolving into the horror of the stagnation that knits together the happy civilization of the capital. “The highway is shit,” says Nené to Felicidad, the woman who, like hundreds of others, ended up abandoned at the roadside by her husband on their wedding night. An undifferentiated group of “the abandoned” insults and mocks the newcomers in “Headlights” from the grassy verge, just as the female service worker in “Adaliana” reinforces the bonds of heteropatriarchy in the feudal castle, becoming a mute accomplice in the cruel abuse suffered by the protagonist, forced to carry the unwanted child of her master in her womb. This story might be the only one in which a distressing event is put to an end: the monstrous son of the monstress, “crazy Adaliana,” who tries to abort him by any means, might put a stop to the crimes of the abusive macho. Or, perhaps, the unwilling mother will have robbed her master of the possibility of gaining an “heir.”
Sisterhood—understood as empathy and solidarity between women who live in a patriarchal system—is practically absent. In “Headlights,” only four women are able to escape their situation of abandonment: they push a man out of his car as he is about to be abandoned by his wife but, when they do so, they catch sight of many car headlights coming to save them. So, the patriarchy remains undamaged. The hundreds of women who shout and throw insults like lost souls in the field will remain in this limbo because they cannot either save themselves together or accept aid. The maids in “Adaliana” hear the protagonist’s screams and groans, but they do not leave their rooms, secure in the knowledge that it will not be their turn that night, as they are also frequent victims. There is some cooperation among men, but just the same, they cannot escape the source of their luck, as in “La pegajosa baba de un sueño de revolución,” “El destinatario” [The addressee], “Agujeros negros” [Black holes] and “La verdad acerca del futuro,” among other stories. In the latter, the scene of abandonment is inverted in terms of gender.
In El núcleo del disturbio, narratives take shape that oscillate between dystopian spaces appropriate to science fiction (“Rage of Pestilence” or Fever Dream, among other texts published later) and the stripped-down scenography of the theatre of the absurd (“Toward Happy Civilization” “El momento” [The moment], a Beckettian rewriting of Vian’s Froth on the Daydream, and “Más ratas que gatos” [More rats than cats]) that can be found in another register in “Mouthful of Birds” or “Butterflies”). In “Agujeros negros,” which seems to seek a time interval of zero, or in “Mismo lugar” [Same place], another paradox of time and space, a nightmarish atmosphere is also present. A series of norms that must be upheld and whose breach unleashes disasters make up the perfect formula around which to design a fictional universe that is almost completely rigid and foreseeable. The “almost” strains out the absurd or fateful event; then, the fantastic is filtered through it.
We meet the protagonist of “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides” in the first paragraph moments after he has murdered a woman in the room’s bed, with no sign of remorse, working hard at the task of arranging her body, “unaffectionatliy,” in order to fit it into a hard suitcase with wheels after wrapping it in garbage bags. It is the body of “a woman dead after twenty-nine years of marriage.” A disposable, eliminable body, so much so that is has no name. He intuits that few will understand the reasons for his crime, so he doesn’t mention them. He immediately sets out for the home office of Dr. Corrales, of whom he is a patient. He confesses to him that he has killed his wife, and he mistakes the act for a dream, after which the psychiatrist puts him up in a room to find a solution. The next day, the story of the “incident,” of the “problem” that Benavides wants to reveal, is deflected by various excuses—even with a sarcastic comment that the psychiatrist’s wife has been “dead” since they got married—until Corrales requests that he open the suitcase. When he sees the dead body, he declares that it is “wonderful.” He then calls over Donorio, an art curator, with the goal of pressuring Benavides into displaying the case and its contents as if it were an installation, although the murderer refuses, constantly attempting to confess to his crime, for which he finally seems to demand, albeit uselessly, some punishment. It is worth mentioning the strangeness of the fact that La valija de Benavídez (Laura Casabé, 2016), the film based on Schweblin’s story, places focus on the surprise hidden in the luggage. By leaving the revelation for the end, the cinematographic tale builds up suspense and horror, but loses its revulsive power, that effect of reading that goes along with the desperation of the story’s protagonist, whose voice is unheard by those who apply the technologies of power (there is also a short film based on “The Test”: Matar a un perro [Killing a dog], 2013, written and directed by Alejo Santos).
In the tone of a black comedy, the story ties together various matters: the reification of the female body, the complicity of the patriarchal system, and the renewed aesthetic disputes on the definition of what is art and what isn’t. The femicide of Benavides’ wife is deprivatized and enters into the public realm from the moment at which it is converted into art, into installation, and exhibited as an object before a select group—including Dr. Corrales’ patients—which decodes it as such. The dead body, twisted and squashed into the case, suffers a double violence and masculine disciplining: murder followed by the performance of its concealment and transport. State appropriation—present in the coming and going of employees, the “men dressed in blue” of the Museum of Modern Art—ends up representing the complicity of the legal sphere in the denial of the crime. “Terribly irritated, the artist tries to free himself from the guards as he shouts, I killed her! I killed her! In the crowd, a couple of spectators study the artist’s strange attitude”: the femicide is ignored even when the murderer is screaming out his confession, his voice is muted and then recovered in an artistic economy that eats up violence (the curator himself thinks “Violence” would make an apt title for “the work”). The cynicism of state apparatuses of control are placed here in two institutions, the psychiatrist (Dr. Corrales, opposed to that literary namesake of his who personifies all the attributes of barbarism in Juvenilia by Miguel Cané) and the museum (Donorio). Framed by an alarming rise in crimes against women in Argentina, this story draws an early line toward the future, toward the visibilization of machista violence practiced in collective efforts like “Ni una menos” (2015).
The institutions of art criticism and psychiatry seem to join forces to pulverize the “I” of Benavides and to bury the crime for which he himself wants to be published. So, he goes from being the victimizer—the true victim has been converted into an art object, insulted in body and cadaver, disempowered in is post mortem silence and immobility—to the victimized: they knock him over the head on two separate occasions when he wants to escape. For Benavides, the experience of the installation opening is “unprecedented,” we are told. Just as it takes up that old idea that “art is what is called art,” from Marcel Duchamp, and puts forth semantic questions like those provoked by avant-garde ready-mades, the “installation” created by Corrales and Donorio comes up against Benavides’ confession: the materiality of the dead, foul-smelling flesh ought to qualify the testimonial quality of his words (“That’s my wife,” “I killed her . . . then I just wanted to hide her”). And the work is installed into these semantics precisely because the declaration of the murder is dispossessed of its illocutive force—the legal confession—by the language of institutions: it is not a femicide but a work of art.
The public and the private appear dramatically and simultaneously exhibited in the moment of the installation-corpus-delicti’s opening: the mobile is erased, or perhaps diluted, in Donorio’s critical comment (he says of artists, “Horror, hatred, death, all throb intensely in their persecuted minds . . .”), and the modus operandi is suggested by Benavides himself (“Me, I killed her, like this . . .” Benavides pounds his closed fists on the floor. “I killed her like this”). A body that moves forward through “euphoric bodies toward the nucleus of the disturbance,” toward the throng of curious spectators, the body of Benavides, sweating, fearful, and aghast at the absurdity of the situation—the absence, the reactions of the psychiatrist and the marchand, of repudiation or punishment for the crime he has committed—corroborates a perverse social order; the body of a woman has no value except in its status as merchandise, as anonymous recycled meat, as raw material for a work of art. So, transformed into a victim and then an object of contemplation, it secures the bonds that hold up patriarchy and violence:
in suspecting that its victimization complies with the function of stocking the feast in which power fraternizes and exhibits its sovereignty, discretionality, and arbitrariness, we understand that something very important must surely depend, support itself, on this constantly updated destruction of the female body, in the spectacle of its subjugation, in the subordination implied by its display. Something central, essential, the “system” must certainly depend on the woman’s not leaving that place, that role, that function (Rita Segato, “Patriarcado: Del borde al centro. Disciplinamiento, territorialidad y crueldad en la fase apocalíptica del capital” [Patriarchy: From the edge to the center. Discipline, territoriality, and cruelty in the apocalyptic phase of capital], in La guerra contra las mujeres [The war on women]. Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2018)
This first volume of short stories, now practically impossible to find and rearticulated in anthologies or augmented editions of other books by the author, formulates problems that extend into her later production and give rise to a fictional universe that reaffirms, estranging the real, the nonsense of postmodernity.
Universidad de Buenos Aires
Translated by Arthur Dixon