James Halford reviews 'Mouthful of Birds: Stories' by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

James Halford reviews 'Mouthful of Birds: Stories' by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of Birds: Stories

by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell

Oneworld, $29.99 pb, 240 pp, 9781786074560

Despite seven years of expatriate life in Germany, the Argentine Samanta Schweblin’s writerly gaze, like that of Australia’s Peter Carey or Janette Turner Hospital, remains trained upon her homeland: ‘I write from outside, literally and in a literary sense. But always looking toward Argentina.’ Schweblin acknowledges a debt to the fantastic, the genre that, in Tzvetan Todorov’s influential formulation, suspends the reader between belief and disbelief in the supernatural. In Latin America, lo fantástico refers, above all, to a style of literary short story produced in and around Buenos Aires since the 1940s. The influential Anthology of Fantastic Literature (1940), edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo, inaugurates the genre, and Julio Cortázar’s work during the 1960s Latin American Literary Boom represents its high-water mark. This ‘river plate’ tradition of the fantastic – a poetics of uncertainty and strangeness that emerged through the confluence of avant-garde aesthetics, psychoanalysis and modernity – nourishes contemporary Argentine writing.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1978, Schweblin studied film at the University of Buenos Aires because she considered literary studies too theoretical. The stories that make up her first two collections, in their attention to the intersection of the fantastic and feminine subjectivity, sometimes resemble those of Argentina’s most underappreciated twentieth-century master of the form, Silvina Ocampo (1903–93). In 1979, a male-dominated judging panel denied Ocampo the Argentine National Literary Prize on the grounds that her imposing oeuvre, spanning four decades, was ‘far too cruel’. Schweblin’s fiction, like Ocampo’s, contains its share of violence toward the vulnerable, but this usually occurs in the context of a clear-sighted critique of power.

During a 2012 fellowship in Berlin, Schweblin discovered that life abroad allowed more time for her writing. She never went home. With no German and basic English, she was thrown inward and began to produce the strongest work of her career. Her first novel, Fever Dream (2014), was published in English in 2017. A suspenseful, deathbed monologue in the voice of a woman trying to understand the illness that is killing her, the novel explores the intensity of maternal love and the impact of the agrochemical industry in the Argentine countryside. It won Schweblin critical acclaim, a cult following in the United States and the United Kingdom, and a nomination for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Mouthful of Birds (2009), her second book to be translated into English, is an uneven selection of twenty short stories written before the move to Germany. While the collection only intermittently approaches the technical command and emotional impact of Fever Dream, it is not difficult to imagine the best of these pieces being anthologised for decades to come. In the title story, the narrator’s troubled thirteen-year-old daughter Sara has developed a habit of eating live sparrows and his ex-wife Silvia threatens suicide unless he takes custody. The father is repulsed by his daughter’s diet: ‘I wondered what it would be like to have a mouth full of something all feathers and feet, to swallow something warm and moving.’ But when Sara refuses other food, he must overcome his disgust and locate a reliable source of birds. It’s a disturbing but recognisable study of a teenager gaining control over her parents through extreme attention-seeking behaviour.

The other outstanding story, ‘Olingiris’, first appeared in Granta in 2010 and is named for an imaginary species of ‘delicate fish’. It tells of an encounter between two emotionally withdrawn women who have separately moved to the city and found work in an unusual beauty institute. One of them receives a salary for allowing strangers to pluck her body hair; the other grades her ability to withstand the discomfort without flinching. Neither the reader nor the characters understands the purpose of this absurd labour, but the story holds our attention through its meticulous observation of female power relations within a total institution. Gradually, the two women’s inner lives are revealed – absent fathers, punishing mothers, and important connections with water and fish – as the story builds to a powerful moment of mutual recognition.

Realist setting disappears all together in a cluster of allegorical tales: ‘The Digger’, ‘Toward Happy Civilization’, and ‘Rage of Pestilence’. These Kafkaesque stories, with their skilful management of indeterminacy, linger longer in the mind than those of outright horror like ‘Heads Against Concrete’ and ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, where the violence sometimes feels gratuitous.

Megan McDowell’s English translation ably matches the lean precision of Schweblin’s Spanish. Indeed, Mouthful of Birds is shorter and more visceral than Pájaros en la boca (Birds in the Mouth). My main quibble as an Australian reader was that a number of Americanisms that have crept into the text without an aesthetic rationale. Kilometres are converted into miles, though Argentina uses the metric system. Colloquialisms and insults are sometimes rendered in an out-of-place, frat-boy drawl: ‘dumbass’ for ‘imbécil’; ‘sorry ass tramp’ for ‘¡infeliz!’ (miserable person). The English language possesses plenty of more geographically neutral alternatives.

None of these minor reservations will deter me from seeking out Schweblin’s second novel, Kentukis (published in 2018, in Spanish, forthcoming in English), or the upcoming Netflix adaption of her first. It is pleasing to see an Argentine woman writer enjoying a level of international success that was denied Silvina Ocampo by the sexism of her era. 

Published in August 2019, no. 413
James Halford

James Halford

James Halford is the author of Requiem with Yellow Butterflies (2019), a Latin America travel memoir. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

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