Samanta Schweblin is a writer of impatient stories. Mere seconds into “Headlights”, the first story in her new collection, we meet a woman in her wedding dress, learn that she has just been abandoned by her groom at a restroom by the side of the highway because she took too long, and while we are still processing that, we meet a second abandoned woman who demands to know whether the bride will wait for her man to return. “Look,” this second woman says, when the first woman, still reeling, doesn’t answer, “I’ll make this short because there’s really not much to it. They get tired of waiting and they leave you.”
I imagine Schweblin might have muttered that line to herself while writing—an admonition to keep the reader’s attention. But it is also something of a thematic signpost for everything that is to come. Hurry up, Schweblin commands in story after story. Look where I’m pointing before it’s too late. Schweblin creates many worlds in Mouthful of Birds. Some are dark, all are strange, and by the time any of the characters see what’s really happening to them, they’ve already been left behind.
Mouthful of Birds is Schweblin’s first collection published in English, elegantly translated from the original Spanish by Megan McDowell (translator, also, of Fever Dream, as well as the work of Mariana Enriquez and Alejandro Zambra). It is Schweblin’s second book to be translated into English, following 2017’s terrifying novel, Fever Dream. In the original Spanish, though, this collection was published first—in 2009, with the novel following in 2014. I mention this not only because it is fun to have insight into the strange histories forced on books when they enter translation, but also because for those who devoured Fever Dream, it is useful to know that Mouthful of Birds is the work of a younger author. Schweblin, who is from Argentina and currently lives in Berlin, is already very well-known and much-lauded in Spanish. She has written five books to date, and Mouthful of Birds was only her second.
Impatience can be a great virtue in the domain of the short story. Readers, after all, don’t have much patience themselves. In a few of the twenty stories here, the feeling that things are moving too quickly works very well—“Headlights”, certainly, also “Toward Happy Civilization,” and “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides”. In others, the result is more skeleton than story. This can be its own aesthetic—Borges frequently uses this tactic, for instance, but Borges is ultimately an academic who takes pride in sitting a little above the messy world which built his labyrinths. Schweblin has no such pride, or distance. You get the sense that she feels deeply involved with her characters, even as she tortures them.
These are sad stories—about women who know that their lot is to be abandoned, men who know their lot is to abandon, and children who are powerless to change anything. There is frequently humor, but these are not, as one blurb on the back of my copy claims, “darkly humorous tales.” These are dark tales, full stop. Sometimes someone happens to do something funny. Schweblin’s work with parental fear and obligation is inspired, especially when she blends it seamlessly into environmental anxiety (“Mouthful of Birds”, “Butterflies”, “On the Steppe”, as well as Fever Dream). In this focus, I’m reminded of the strangely damaged worlds and people of Silvina Ocampo’s tales. Other themes feel incompletely approached. The absurdity of class differentiation, for example, doesn’t really hit its mark in “The Digger”, though I felt it more powerfully in “Olingiris”.
The one thematic vein that runs through all these stories is that of slow entrapment, be it within a particular situation or a greater societal system. Reading them can feel, at the best of times, like being tipped forward on a great slide that ends in complicity. There is a resonance, in this way, with the queasy helplessness of Kafka or of Camus. I loved Schweblin’s Fever Dream, and while the sheer terror of that short novel was never in any of the stories of Mouthful of Birds, the feeling of being trapped in a fate not entirely of your making definitely is. It was fascinating to see the work of an early Schweblin as she discovered her themes. If Fever Dream was any indication, things only get more exquisitely frightening from here. I, for one, am not getting off the slide.
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: January 8, 2019
Reviewed by Amelia Brown