One of digital pages of Los campos magnéticos (Buenos Aires: CHINA editora, 2013) contains a statement that perfectly captures the corrosive process reality is subject to, in the name of what is real, described over the course of the preceding pages. Almost unaware, in his short novel Lamberti sheds light on the infamous intention behind a project to deconstruct reality that has left a profound mark on his generation, and which undoubtedly peaks in Distancia de rescate (Buenos Aires: Literatura Random House, 2014) by Samanta Schweblin (translated into English by Megan MacDowell as Fever Dream). What the disingenuous Lambertian narrator is suggesting here is that there are “invisible forces” that govern our experience of the visible.
These are not natural (or naturalized) forces that can easily be mistaken for the indelible footprint of destiny. On the contrary, they are unnatural forces. Strange, subtle, and silent, but nonetheless intuited in the vacillations of a common sense stabilized as “reality.” Perhaps for this reason, these forces never manifest directly or visibly in Schweblin’s fiction; they are not summoned to the surface by the novel’s regimen of description, rather they appear under the ambiguous zeal of the allusions that evoke them, with the delicate materiality of the symptom itself. That is to say, they come from a biased, subtle insinuation, and it is almost always their partial effects or contingent notes that we perceive or sense. They are forces that emerge through sheer persistence and that succeed in disrupting the direction of a piece of fiction in which the characters and narrators tend to succumb to such forces, like addicts surrendering to what for them is both a source of peace and poison.
This unrelenting ambiguity in Schweblin’s narrative forms the foundations of an ethics: to pursue the unknown, to allow it to emerge gradually and subtly, to water the suspicion that sprouts, germinates, and grows until appearance and meaning overflow. The ritual is far from arbitrary; it is written from the conviction that the rescue distance (the “distancia de rescate” that gives the novel its name in Spanish) is always conventional and always illusory. However, recognition of the fissure that exists between being and appearance, between what can be seen and what can be stated in words, gives way in the majority of Schweblin’s fiction to a form of ethical determination notable above all for its bravery. Faced with uncertainty, Schweblin does not respond with a reflex action of rejection, nor does she turn to the suture or ideological simplification.
This ethical determination is apparent in the textual space of Fever Dream from the very start. The dialogue that displaces and dislodges the subjects of the enunciation is consequently articulated in a tale of passageways and crossroads, which makes dramatic tension of the chaos, omission, and ambiguity. What underpins the novel is the imminence of an untold event, a tragedy eternally kept within the realms of the unsaid and the forever insinuated. This hidden story does not conceal a secret (Schweblin is not a writer of detective fiction or roman à clef novels) but, strictly speaking, a mystery. The originality of the story is upheld by its narrative economy, which seeks to evoke an atmosphere of uncanniness. This art of the passage displaces the enunciation and causes a hallucinatory effect. The confusing dialogue between the character of Amanda, a woman (Carla), and a boy (David), in the elusive setting of a neighborhood health clinic, unleashes a web of intertwined stories of poisoning, congenital disorders, and malformations that ail the citizens of a town surrounded by soy fields treated with agrochemicals. In a climate of uncanny realism, the account of a transmigration of consciousness is related at a considerable, deliberate distance from the registers of fantasy fiction.
The fable nonetheless has a subtle, surreptitious link with one of Lamberti’s best-known short stories, “La canción que cantábamos todos los días,” in which the Córdoba-born narrator also recounts a suspected switching of consciousness, an unexplainable mutation. The difference is that here the symptom is perceived with distrust and as a threat. Something is broken through change, repetition, consensus, and identification. In Lamberti’s short story, the transformation comes from the heartwood of a tree, whereas in Schweblin’s novella the mortal threat that precedes and justifies the transformation can be traced to a water source contaminated with agrochemicals. The facts differ and, while in Lamberti’s piece the strange forces (which lead the transformed subjects toward a silence mottled with a sobriety that translates as indifference) are responsible for the fatal nature of the loss, in Schweblin’s narrative they give way to a strange continuity, a sort of displacement in the transmigration. In both cases, just like in Freud’s diaphanous dreams, the truth emerges as mother’s intuition.
In fact, Fever Dream is the story of a loss and a return. It is the setting for the fears and ghosts that ravage the experience of maternity and terrorize the mother upon becoming aware of the dangers that lie in wait for her child. In this way, the “rescue distance” is the maximum acceptable distance between a mother’s body and that of her child. An illusory safety radius with the maternal body at the center, around the circumference of which the child can safely move under the watch and protection of their mother, to whom they are connected by a fragile imaginary cord. Outside of this chalk circle, it is believed that the child’s destiny is left to the merciless, cruel whims of chance.
That is why, when the illusion of safety is shattered and Amanda and her daughter, Nina, become names on a growing list of contaminated people upon accidently coming into contact with the chemicals used to enhance the “natural production” of crops, the rationalized rescue distance comes into conflict with the reality of Amanda’s own powerlessness. Out of this abrupt collision comes the desperate possibility of trusting in (and entrusting oneself to) other forces: those of low-ranking knowledges. When the symbol breaks down and stereotyped meaning is lost, this deluge of meaning makes a strange form of survival possible: return. Moving forward is not an option, and so one must keep going. Like that of the poet in classical tradition, the mystic figure of the healer is there to mediate the migration of meaning across material forms. An acute explanation of this can be found in the “double-bottomed” nature of the story itself. If the medium is able to facilitate passage, i.e. to transmigrate the consciousness of the two contaminated boys into other bodies, it is because matter can support multiple, diverse types of life forms—none of which are completely necessary or completely natural. The sensation of otherness, strangeness, and dread that follows the return of content in different material forms (i.e. the unfamiliar occupying a familiar body) can only be felt in the wake of an act of mediation performed to extend life in a context overshadowed by death.
The allegory is subtle but certainly evident. Schweblin’s novella, which was awarded the Tigre Juan Award in 2014, in addition to the Shirley Jackson Award in 2018 for its translation into English, is a deliberate and conscious reflection on language and representation. To read it as a work of ecocriticism or as simply another fantasy novel is to fail to recognise its crux: what emerges here in the form of fable and fiction is a reflection on literature itself. In play at all times is the power and impotence of language within a genre of poetics (literary realism), which Schweblin’s novel takes beyond the register of its conventions, that is to say, beyond the rescue distance where appearance and social identification indeed crystallize.
La respiración cavernaria stretches and extends the self-reflexive, ethical determination we see in Fever Dream. Although it was originally included in the short story collection Siete casas vacías (Madrid, Páginas de Espuma, 2015), which won the sixth Ribera del Duero prize for short narrative that very year and was released independently in 2017 in an edition illustrated by Duna Rolando, rather than as a long short story, the text should be read as a short novel. The reason is simple: it recounts not one fact or a series of facts, but a process. In this case, it is a process of decomposition of that which is experienced as reality under the yoke of convention.
Schweblin’s polished, well-balanced prose reappears here and gives way to a story in which, similar to the literature of Aurora Venturini, the narrative voice folds in on the point of view of the senile protagonist, who first senses and later recognizes a growing number of traits associated with a gradual decline and disidentification of references. The starting point proposes a postponement. Lola wants to die, or rather, she wants death to catch up with her once and for all. The years seem to have consumed all her strength. Or almost all of it. She is exhausted: she struggles to stand, she has overwhelming back pain, her brain is foggy, and her breathing turbid and unfamiliar, as though it were emerging from a strange, malevolent place deep inside of her. Every morning the realization that she is not dead—that she has yet to die—disappoints her. For this reason, she carries with her a list that is both her plan and her talisman. A piece of paper that helps her get through each day. It makes sure she stays organized and on track and “keeps her head in check.” Everything important to her is on it. She must:
Give away everything dispensable.
Box up everything important.
Concentrate on dying.
If he [her husband] interferes, ignore him.
In the opening pages of the novel, the narrative voice—which explains it is Lola’s objective to “diminish her own existence, reduce her space until eliminating it entirely”—irrefutably describes the sense of alienation of an imaginary perspective that identifies being with possession.
Clinging on to her “plan” like a piece of driftwood in the open sea, Lola organizes her possessions into cardboard boxes that she diligently labels. This short story by Schweblin highlights this habit of Lola’s with great care and, in doing so, reinforces the nucleus around which this piece of fiction operates: the gradual corrosion of conventions that “naturally” connect matter to forms and words to things. Lola desperately clutches at the logic of references. Yet even then she is unable to avoid experiencing the increasing materiality of the change, the imbalance between the two. Reality begins to blur right before her eyes. It changes and is distorted in a context governed by monotony and the everyday rituals of an elderly married couple, worn down and consumed by the burden of a dark past (the tragic death of their only son) and a present defined by decline and resignation.
It is the suffocating nature of this recursive life upon which the fable operates. Lola lives a completely secluded life. She does not leave her home or enter into conversations with “people outside.” She spends her days packing things in boxes, looking out of the window or watching the television. The moment that triggers her break from reality can be traced (for others) to an “incident” in a supermarket where Lola experiences disidentification for the first time; this is the breaking point from which she begins to perceive everything initially as peculiar, then threatening, and eventually ominous. The events that drive the plot (the arrival of their neighbors, her husband’s conversations with the boy in the courtyard, the account of the robbery at the delicatessen, the death of her husband, the presence of the boy that haunts her home, the vague memory of what others refer to as “the incident” and her time in hospital, meeting her neighbor in secret, etc.) take place against the oppressive backdrop created by Schweblin’s fiction, with an effervescent materiality of hallucination. Paranoia fuelled by her media habits, fear fostered by physical deterioration, grudges and misgivings that have accumulated over the years, senility, and loss of memory accompany the destruction of one reality to make way for another (in which it seems her neighbors are hostile squatters, the boy is a delinquent, and her own husband is a stranger of whom she must be wary). Distrust morphs into suspicion, and suspicion into the constituent element of this other reality. An alternate reality with the structure of a nightmare: that of an open space and the rupture of familiarity, of an experience of language that fails to overcome the radical and irreconcilable distance between words and objects.
What returns, if anything returns, is always different: when the regimen of conventional representation is broken down and naturalized, meaning is lost. The allusive forces of literature open a new dimension and, with it, the possibility of encountering new meanings and new forms of life.
Translated by Rachael Pennington
Rachael Pennington is a Barcelona-based translator, writer, and poet from the north of England. She holds an MA in Biomedical Translation and has been translating professionally from Spanish to English since 2013, more recently with a focus on creative and literary texts. She has also volunteered as an assistant managing editor for Asymptote. Her poems and short stories have appeared in a handful of online and print journals.