The quote on the back of Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, from JM Coetzee no less, compares her style to ‘the Grimm brothers and Franz Kafka,’ which is an awful lot to put onto twenty short stories. But Coetzee has a point. Schweblin’s stories are a creepily unusual mix of the banal everyday and the heightened extraordinary. They are like a clock striking thirteen. However, coming to Schweblin’s stories with any preconceptions at all is dangerous, because they are much weirder and wilder than that. In these brief tales, Schweblin manages to subvert every expectation, dance around every cliché, and disturb every casual fantasy that we hold about the surface of everyday life.
The title story is told from the point of view of a man who has a teenage daughter, Sara, who lives with his ex, Silvia. It becomes horribly clear to both parents that their daughter has stopped eating normal food, and instead is only eating birds.
[Silvia] went to the birdcage and opened it, then took from the shoe box a very small sparrow, the size of a golf ball; she put the bird into the cage and closed it. She dropped the box to the floor and kicked it to one side, where it lay with another nine or ten similar boxes under the desk. Then Sara got up, her ponytail shining and bouncing, and skipped over to the cage like a little girl five years younger. With her back to us, standing on her tiptoes, she opened the cage and took out the bird. I couldn’t see what she did. The bird screeched and she struggled a moment, maybe because it was trying to escape. Silvia covered her mouth with her hand. When Sara turned back to us, the bird wasn’t there anymore. Her mouth, nose, chin and both hands were smeared with blood. She smiled sheepishly.
This is a fantastic trick – taking a horror story and making it mundane, and making the reader feel the mundanity is the horror. The story itself is quite something; the daughter’s inability to eat anything but birds is never explained. Silvia and the narrator have different methods of coping, but they are united in their horror at the situation, and what they must do not only to cope, but also to keep their daughter alive.
It’s strange how what appears to be low stakes suddenly, with a twist of a sentence, become the difference between a life of entrapment or not. The opening story “Headlights,” which should be reread once you’ve gotten into the rhythm of Schweblin’s style, is about a woman on her wedding night, who learns in a gas station bathroom what the price of her marriage will be – and please rest assured that even the most cynical of you will not guess what the other brides have to teach her. The freedom is an illusion, the rescue is a deeper trap, and yet the tools of everyday life – wedding dresses, cigarettes, your neighbour’s screams – are to hand no matter what you do.
The stories are built on a kind of dream logic, except more malicious than that. The will to survive is the uniting thread between the stories, with varying levels of success. The family in “My Brother Walter” comes to the slow realization that their financial stability and emotional success is only due to Walter’s ongoing depression: ‘And the people talk as though my brother fed off stupidity. If I ask him who it is or what they want, he’s incapable of answering. He’s not interested in the slightest. He is so depressed that it doesn’t even bother him that we’re there, because it’s the same as if he were alone.’
“Olingiris” is about the women who work at or attend a mysterious institute built around the need to tweeze all the body hair off a woman lying motionless on a table, whose salary is docked if she speaks or cries out. “Slowing Down” is what happens when a human cannonball loses his ability to do ‘the thing you know best how to do.’
The logic of the stories is as easy to follow as a trail of gingerbread crumbs in a forest, and the decisions the characters are forced into making are as cutting as the teeth to eat you with.
But explaining the stories feels watered down as compared to reading them. Schweblin is able, sometimes with only four pages, to create a mood of unsettling insecurity, where something as normal as digging in the garden or eating breakfast becomes endowed with life-or-death significance. The logic of the stories is as easy to follow as a trail of gingerbread crumbs in a forest, and the decisions the characters are forced into making are as cutting as the teeth to eat you with. Most remarkably, the tone of each story is slightly different in how it disturbs. Most, but not all, of her narrators are men; most, but not all, understand eventually the unusual predicament they find themselves in; most, but not all, are able to adapt accordingly; most, but not all, are not happy about it.
Of course, the way they adapt is never as you’d expect. Every single character choice, even in the less successful stories, is both completely unbelievable but perfectly logical. The painter in ‘Heads Against Concrete’ turns his rage into his art, making profoundly distressing paintings of visceral physical assault that somehow get even more upsetting than that. And in the barnstorming final story, ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides,’ Schweblin’s metaphors of violence as art take disturbingly literal form. Work this consistently successful on multiple levels is rare.
But what is most disturbing about these stories is that they are not really disturbing at all. The matter-of-fact tone (which may or may not have been gained through Megan McDowell’s careful translation) used in most of the stories is the same as walking past a fistfight in which you don’t want to get involved. The metaphors – eating disorders, dysfunctional families, pointless jobs, abusive relationships, and the inability of escape – are somehow both literal and figurative. The second story, ‘Preserves,’ is, after a fashion, about unwanted pregnancy, and the efforts an entire family must go to in order to stop it: One morning, during a session of conscious breathing, I make it to the final level: I breathe slowly, my body feels the earth’s dampness and the energy that surrounds it. I breathe once, then again, and again, and then everything stops. The energy seems to materialize around me and I can specify the exact moment when, little by little, it starts to turn in the opposite direction. With language this eerily precise, and somehow both cold-blooded and sensational, the book is a masterclass in imagery and mood. Another blurb quote calls the stories ‘surreal,’ which is not quite correct, since surrealism implies a lack of logic. There’s logic here, taken to extremes. Of course a family could wish a pregnancy out of existence; of course a murder scene could be mistaken for an art exhibit; of course an artist could see his act of creation as assault; of course a couple desperate for a child could hunt one in the wild; of course a village could lose all its children, and of course the village would become a city in its search for them. It’s shocking how easily Schweblin lures us into the quicksand of her plot twists, and it’s surprising how difficult it is for the characters – and by extension, us – to escape them.
The emotional intensity of these stories is such that they must be read separately, with a pause for deep breaths in between. Mouthful of Birds is a disturbing and very unusual achievement. There is indeed a great deal of skill here; these stories are deceptively easy to read. Like fairy tales, they are memorable for a reason. Schweblin here holds up a dark looking glass which shows us an altered, yet still recognizable, reflection.
Samanta Schweblin is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into twenty languages. Her debut novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Originally from Buenos Aires, she lives in Berlin.
Megan McDowell has translated many modern and contemporary South American authors, including Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, Álvaro Bisama, and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and VICE, among others.
Sarah Manvel lives in London and is looking for an agent for her own novel. She reviews films for criticsnotebook.com and can be found on twitter as @typewritersarah.