For readers of Spanish language literature in translation Samanta Schweblin’s name is slowly getting a little more notice. She has appeared in Words Without Borders, the Granta 22 best Young Writers in Spanish, and will appear in the forth coming The Future is Not Ours from Open Letter. However, with such spotty coverage it is hard to get a good sense of this writer’s work, a writer who has earned the respect of many of contemporary Spanish Language short story writers.It is a shame because her reputation as a short story writer to watch is deserved.
La furia de las pestes is Schweblin’s second book and won the Casa del las Americas short story prize in 2008. A couple of the stories have been translated into English: Conservas, which appeared in Words Without Borders (where I first encountered her work), and En la estepa, which is in The Future is Not Ours. Both of these stories are marked by the fantastic and show her at her best. Conservas is the story of a woman who reverses her pregnancy over the course of months, slowly shrinking it down until there is nothing left of it. Ultimately, it is a bitter sweet moment when she realizes that what she wanted so badly is perhaps not quite for the best. It nicely turns what easily could have turned into a didactic story on women’s rights, and gets at a more emotionally wrenching truth that there is no answer to such dilemmas. En la estepa (On the Stepe) is a fantastic story, yet one where the fantastic is only alluded to and like here best work, plays on customs most people would know, but are just a little strange and call into question those very customs. Throughout the story the characters keep mentioning some sort of creature that all want and that the lucky ones have found on the stepe. The first time I read it I thought it was just a story about a beast (and uninteresting at that), but when you look at the language everything the characters says are the words one uses when expecting a child. Used in a different context they sound abusive, selfish and it makes one question exactly what one is talking about when talking about children.
Those stories are available in English. But what about the rest of the stories? One thing that is obvious is that she is not tied to the fantastic. In two stories Papa Noel duerme en casa (Santa Claus Slept at My House) and Mi hermano Walter (My Brother Walter), she uses depression as a form of the fantastical. In each the characters loose contact with an accessible reality and their actions, naturally, seem strange. Interspersed with in stories of the fantastic, it underscores the strange nature of depression. The depression is not treated lightly and Papa Noel duereme en casa has a troubling vision of a marriage coming to an end and narrated by a young girl. Or in a story called Cosas que se tiran (The Things That Are Thrown), where a the narrator’s partner throws all their possessions into the shower before leaving, there is just a glimpse of something dying (the story is only 2 pages long). It forms a recurring theme of loss that leaves a dull ache for the unobtainable and at the same time a mater of fact sense of attachment to those losses, as if the narrators are so accustomed to them there is nothing one can do. That sense is most evident in El hombre sirena (The Merman), about a woman who meets a merman who is sitting on a dock. He offers her something different, but she doesn’t take him up on it. Or at least that is the suggestion, because she drives away with her brother to the waiting doctor. Is this another depressed person? She is obliviously anxious when she gets in the car to drive away. And like so many of her stories, the narrator says, perhaps tomorrow there will be another one waiting for me. The unspoken future is mostly likely not too much better.
The title story is a nice nod to Juan Rulfo about a man who goes to a forgotten village and tries to get the people to say something. It is one of those lost villages out of The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas) where everyone stays in their stone homes when a stranger comes to town. The twist her is when he tries get the people to talk and offers them something he thinks will help, it only reminds them of what they don’t have.
Finally,Cabezas contra el asfalto (Heads Against the Asphalt) is dark story about art. It opens with the shocking lines
Si golpeás much la cabeza de alguien contra al asfalto–aunque sea para hacerlo entrar en razón–, es probable que termines lastimándolo.
If you hit someone’s head a bunch of times against the asphalt–even though you are doing it for their own good–you’ll probably end up hurting it.
From there it follows a narrator who from time to time gets angry and beats people’s heads against the asphalt. As a child it gave him power because bullies would leave him alone. At other times it terrified people. However, he is able to channel the anger into painting. He becomes famous painting pictures of heads beat against the asphalt. His paintings sell for millions of dollars. All that matters is the frame of reference and beating someone’s head against the asphalt is perfectly acceptable. The narrator is completely detached from what is acceptable and it throws into relief which beatings are acceptable and which are not. The story ends with the ultimate taboo, but as far as the narrator is concerned it was just another beating. It didn’t matter who the person was, he just made him angry and he had to beat him. Unfortunately, for him reality is not self constructed.
Samanta Schweblin’s stories can be deceptively simple, but when she is at her best the stories open up new realities from ones that surround us every day. He ability to turn the language of child rearing into something dark, or reimagine a fairytale like the Little Mermaid as a series of indecisive acts, make one of the more interesting writers coming from Latin America.