Mouthful of Birds
The 20 short stories in this collection by Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin ooze with menace, seethe with anxiety and bristle with humour. The children of a mining town in “Underground” excavate a mysterious mound of dirt and then themselves disappear into the hole, only for a fresh mound to form. In “Headlights”, newly married brides emerge from a women’s loo on an empty rural highway to discover their husbands have driven off without them. The title story, meanwhile, tells of a teenage girl who refuses to eat anything but live birds, feathers and all. The art world and bureaucracy, preloaded with innate elements of surreality, are natural subjects for Schweblin’s mordant wit as well: in “The Heavy Suitcase of Benavides”, a curator decides that a suitcase stuffed with the freshly murdered body of a woman is art. It’s “my wife”, protests the husband/murderer. “No, Benavides, believe me,” replies the curator, “I know marketing and that won’t work. The title is Violence.” Schweblin’s cool, matter-of-fact prose acts as the perfect foil for her febrile, destabilising narratives.
Schweblin’s original voice in Spanish-language fiction has invited comparisons with the likes of Kafka and the Grimm Brothers. In interviews, she has also cited Vonnegut among her inspirations. Her Gothic imagination and slippery allegories call to mind too the cult Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb. Mouthful of Birds, translated into tense and compelling, if slightly Americanised, prose by Megan McDowell, made this year’s Man Booker International Prize longlist; Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream was a contender in 2017.
It’s not hard to identify with her characters’ quest to impose logic on an illogical and violent world, brimming with disappearances and disappointments. An older bride in “Headlights” offers this explanation of their plight to an inconsolable younger one: “They get tired of waiting and they leave you. It seems waiting wears them out.” In another story, a woman falls in love with a merman and plots the course of their relationship: “First he comes to the movies, then I go to the bottom of the sea.” In the title story, the teenage girl’s distressed father rationalises that eating birds is at least healthier than taking drugs. It is part of the human condition to try to make sense of experience – and integral to the dark joke in these stories is the fact that we can never truly do so.
Oneworld, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 6, 2019 as "Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.