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The title story in Samanta Schweblin’s new collection, Mouthful of Birds, features a man finding out that his teenage daughter has taken to eating pet birds. He is revolted, as are we, when she skips over to the cage and opens her mouth wide. After a small struggle, the bird shrieks and vanishes, and then she smiles, sheepish, her ‘red teeth’ sickening her father. ‘You eat birds,’ he interrogates her – ‘You do, too,’ she replies, forcing him to name her aberration, ‘You eat live birds.’ But rather than shun his child, he tries to understand, wondering what it would be like to have a mouth full of ‘feathers and feet’, and when her supplies run low and she grows ever paler, he satisfies her appetite: he buys her a bird.
What does it all mean? It’s a question that hovers over this mysterious collection. Although written in crystal clear prose and conceived with a sharp penetrating eye, these stories are enigmatically left open. Ends are loose, holes empty, fields abandoned, journeys interrupted, wanderers lost in the darkness. Does a father’s sacrifice to feed his hungry child show the limitless nature of parental love? Or simply a biological urge: the obligation to ensure the survival of his genes? Or perhaps he’s facing a rite of passage that every parent goes through, and in allowing his daughter to explore appetites beyond his comprehension, he sets her free.
Although only just published in English, the twenty stories comprising Mouthful of Birds were written before Samanta Schweblin’s acclaimed debut Fever Dream (also translated impeccably by Megan McDowell). Framed as a conversation between a woman who has been poisoned and a young boy who knows something about what is killing her, it’s dark and intensely eerie – a nightmarish novel about the dangers of folk superstition and GM crops, and the inadequacy of maternal love to overcome disaster. I read it in one sitting, a prickle of dread at the back of my neck. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017, it established Argentinian Schweblin as one of the most exciting Spanish-language writers of her generation.
These stories, while not all as polished as Fever Dream, show Schweblin’s gloriously unsettlingly, sinister imagination at play. In her early experiments with form and style, there are twists and shocks, humour mingled with horror – and, underlying it all, a desire to disrupt our perception of reality, to create tension between what can be known and the inexplicably strange.
In ‘Headlights’, a new bride is abandoned at the roadside by her husband, seemingly for taking too long in the bathroom. There, in the dark fields, she finds herself among a swarm of jilted women, all wailing for their men to return – they do, but it’s not for the reason we expect. Questions of gender and power are also explored in ‘Preserves’, a story about a pregnant woman who realises she isn’t ready and embarks on a radical shrinking treatment. At the end, she spits her daughter – ‘the size of an almond’ – into a jar for when ‘the time is right’. In ‘Underground’ many children disappear after digging a big hole. Their parents search for them, but discover the hole has been filled in, and when they dig it up, it’s empty. As ever, meanings are withheld from us, feelings prioritised over plot, gaps left for our interpretation.
The collection is impressive not only for stories like ‘Headlights’ and ‘Mouthful of Birds’, which are masterful examples of the form, but for the urgency and cohesion of the whole. A few stories feel more like preliminary sketches, arresting but underdeveloped with loose ends that confuse rather than tantalise. But these integrate seamlessly into a feverishly intense alternate reality, creating an experience of reading that feels a bit like going down the rabbit hole, slipping through the cracks into a world without limits or borders.
J.M. Coetzee has likened Schweblin’s work to that of the Grimm brothers and Kafka, and to these I’d add Edgar Allan Poe for his dark symbolism and interest in guilt and sin, madness and the inexplicable. In the final story in the collection, ‘The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides’, a man murders his wife, stuffs her body into a suitcase and takes it to his doctor, who – in a perverse twist – decides to exhibit the ‘Violence’ as a piece of art. While the crowd at the grand unveiling is euphoric to see such a carnal display of emotion, Benavides cannot understand the ‘horror and beauty’ of what he has done. A chasm opens between creator and creation, intention and perception. Schweblin’s lens is – at times – uncomfortably close. Are we dumb consumers, she seems to be asking, switched off to the cruelties inflicted upon the vulnerable? Or can we orientate our moral compass to find our way through the darkness?
Mouthful of Birds is out now from Oneworld